Song Byeok was selected by the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il to be an official state propaganda artist at age 24. He was employed to maintain the idolatry of North Korea’s authoritarian leaders, Kim Jong-Il, and his father Kim Il-Sung. Byeok had to promote the belief in the god like abilities of the Kim dynasty and the inherent perfection of their communist project. However, the famine which struck the North following the death of Kim Il-Sung in the early 1990s forced Byeok and his father to flee in search of food. They attempted to cross the Tumen River to enter China, but were detained and tortured by the North Korean military. Near death, Byeok was released and eventually made his way into China, and from there into South Korea in 2002.
Once he had settled in South Korea Byeok started to produce satirical artworks which subverted the propaganda he once produced for the North Korean regime. Much of his work focuses on the humiliation and emasculation of the North Korean leaders, such as his most famous work which features Kim Jong-Il’s head transplanted onto the body of Marilyn Monroe. Another painting utilizes the familiar image of Andy Warhol’s famous Heinz soup can, which in Byeok’s work is clutched by a North Korean soldier. His use of the imagery of the white dove, with its obvious connotations of freedom and peace, contrasted with images of the regimentation of the North, brings a level of pathos to his otherwise satirical work.
Byeok hopes that his work will change attitudes within North Korea. ‘A lot of high official leaders are watching this and they are shocked, but they will be thinking about my work, my message. They’re not dumb.’
Watch Forever Freedom: Song Byeok’s Story below:
By Thomas Storey