Portrait of a North Korean propagandist turned protest artist
Before fleeing North Korea, Song Byeok was a propaganda artist, creating portraits of 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il. Now he uses his art to criticize the regime from South Korea.
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The northern émigré community in South Korea has since swelled to more than 21,000, and activists estimate as many as 40,000 North Koreans live as refugees in China, procuring food for their relatives or awaiting their chance to escape to the South. Using underground networks of people smugglers and missionary organizations, refugees continue to trickle into the South, most via Southeast Asia, but many are now falling short at the first hurdle – the heavily guarded border between North Korea and China.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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Tim Peters, the founder of refugee aid group Helping Hands Korea, says that the recent series of uprisings in the Middle East has led North Korea and China to tighten border controls, fearing any sort of ripple effect on their own societies.
The Tumen River border, once an easy crossing point for defectors and smugglers, has today been rigged with cameras and heat and motion sensors in a bid to detect any large movement of people, Peters says. At the same time, continuing food shortages and economic mismanagement are pushing increasing numbers to flee.
“The so-called push factors for them to risk everything and leave North Korea are growing, just as the barriers to their exit are being strengthened,” Peters says. “This causes enormous tension.”
Life in limbo
For the tens of thousands of refugees in northeast China – seen by Chinese authorities as “illegal economic migrants” – life remains in a state of limbo. Those caught by Chinese police are routinely arrested and sent back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment and torture. Women are also vulnerable to sex trafficking and abuse, according to experts.
“Whatever happens to them in China … they can’t complain or resist,” says Chun Ki-won, the head of Durihana, a Seoul-based missionary organization that aids refugees. “Basically, they live like beasts.”
Disembarking at Seoul’s futuristic Incheon airport in early 2002, Song marveled at the height of the well-fed South Korean people and the number of cars on the roads. Like many defectors from the North, he says that it was only once he was jailed that he realized just how oppressive his own government was. “In prison, I thought that if I get out, I’m going to South Korea,” he says. “I may die, I may live, but I can’t stay here any longer.”
It’s a sentiment Song is trying to communicate with a new art series, turning the regime’s ubiquitous propaganda imagery back onto itself. One depicts Kim Jong-il in the iconic pose of Marilyn Monroe, holding down his skirt as he steps over an updraft. Like the Hollywood starlet, Song says, the “Dear Leader” is clearly trying to hide something.
“When a person’s born, their first human right is freedom and every individual has their own freedom,” he says. “The only country that doesn’t have any of these things in the whole world is North Korea.”