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Interview with Artist and North Korean Defector, Song Byeok.

Aired March 23, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: (voiceover): This is North Korea through the eyes of one of its former citizens. This is the painting's creator, Song Byeok.

SONG BYEOK, ARTIST (text translation): ... and in the far background you can see a sign that says, "General Kim Jong-il's 21st century."

VAUSE (voiceover): While Song Byeok is not his real name, his art tells a very real story.

VAUSE: This is the Tumen River.


VAUSE: This is where your father died?


VAUSE: When you look at this, do you think of him?

BYEOK (text translation): I think of all the souls of people who tried to defect.

VAUSE (voiceover): A former patriot and propaganda artist for the North Korean State, imprisonment, hunger, and fear drove Song to escape Kim Jong-il's rule in 2001. And, while embracing his newfound freedom with art in South Korea, he looked back to what he'd known for inspiration.

Now, he's using his talent to show a very different North Korea. In place of patriotism, he's striking back at Kim Jong-il's reign with satire and a message of freedom.

This week on "Talk Asia", we're with Song Byeok at his first ever international exhibition in the U.S. to find out about life under Kim Jong- il and how even freedom never heals some wounds.


VAUSE: Well, Song Byeok, we're here in Atlanta for your first ever American exhibition. Painting is something you used to do for propaganda purposes for the North Korean regime. Now, you're using your talent, really, to expose the brutality of that regime.

BYEOK (through translator): Not so much to expose their brutality, but I want to tell the world the struggles - the hardships - that the North Korean people experience through my artwork.

VAUSE: One of the hardships for everybody in North Korea is no freedom. And this exhibit is called "Forever Freedom". So, what is the freedom that you now have that you never had before?

BYEOK (through translator): Freedom is precious. To people, the most important and basic form of freedom is the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the freedom of art. These are the basic forms of freedom that people should have.

But North Koreans do not have any of these. So, in this exhibition, my theme is freedom. Through that freedom, I want to send a message that you can gain peace and within that peace, you feel happiness.

VAUSE: It seems to me, the main focus of a lot of your art is Kim Jong-il. And a very famous piece of work, now, is "Take Off Your Clothes". What were you trying to say with that piece of art?

BYEOK (through translator): Through that art, my intention was to show how North Korea tries to conceal and fabricate a certain image of its closed society, rather than heading towards globalization with citizens of the world. As for the fish in my work, they represent fish locked in a fishbowl and they jump out of the water to call out for freedom.

VAUSE: If I'm right, did I read that the critics were not that impressed at first with that particular piece of art?

BYEOK (through translator): Yes. There were many people who were opposed to my exhibition and there were also many people who worry for my safety. But this is not something that only involves me. The images are of the hopes and desires of the North Korean people. And I realized that I needed to show my work for them. So, I had an exhibition in Seoul last year.

VAUSE: So, we're way beyond critics saying they didn't like it. They were saying that you could actually be put in danger because of this?

BYEOK (through translator): Yes, I had some concerns. But when people tell me not to do something, I tend to push forward more.

VAUSE: Brilliant. Is that the freedom that you're talking about now? You have this freedom to go out, ridicule Kim Jong-il - this revered figure in North Korea - something that - what would have happened to you in North Korea if you had done this painting?

BYEOK (through translator): It would be unimaginable. You wouldn't be able to do it and you wouldn't even be able to think about doing it.

VAUSE: When you think now, and you consider the aging generals in North Korea - the members of the Politburo, the Communist officials - if they looked around and they saw this, what would they say? What would they think?

BYEOK (through translator): I'm not sure how they would take it. People who take it offensively will be offended and people who see it as a good work will look on it favorably. I also think there will be people who will realize the errors of that society through my work.

VAUSE: Would they be horrified? Would some be horrified to see Kim Jong-il looking like this?

BYEOK (through translator): There will be people who will be shocked. Mainly because they have never imagined ever seeing such a thing.



VAUSE: So, this is "Fall Into My Arms". So, what's the message here?

BYEOK (through translator): Kim Jong-il did not really talk with other nations nor open up the country's economy. He closed its doors. As if from another planet, he completely shut off the country. This painting has a message that North Korea should not do that anymore. And it should take steps towards globalization.

VAUSE: This is all so different to your time when you were doing propaganda paintings. What was the process when you would draw or paint a propaganda picture?

BYEOK (through translator): In North Korea, the process doesn't involve any individual creativity. The government hands down a design. Then we copy it exactly. We would never dream to create our own pieces of art.

VAUSE: And if you did something which was different to what they wanted, what would happen?




BYEOK (through translator): No, if you drew any differently, then you would be taken away. You cannot do such a thing.

VAUSE: You could never do this?

BYEOK (through translator): That's right.


VAUSE: Explain this to me.

BYEOK (through translator): The primitive tribes are very free. They're not exposed to starvation, politics, or wealth. They live innocently within nature. By putting these tribes together with Kim Jong- il, I wanted to tell him to bring up that soft spot, because I believe he does have one.

VAUSE: You use doves a lot. Why is that?

BYEOK (through translator): Doves represent peace and hope and freedom. Birds - doves - have no boundaries. The fly to where they want to live, sleep, and eat. But humans have made too many borders and are blocked off.


VAUSE: You have a legacy of your time in the labor camp.

BYEOK: Oh, yes.




BYEOK (text translation): I sketched a lot since I was a kid and members of the communist party liked my work. They offered me work as a propaganda artist and I created posters which helped boost loyalty to the Kim's regime. I painted posters with slogans such as "Let's become the bullet for General Kim Jong-il".


VAUSE: What sort of pictures and what sort of paintings did you produce for the regime?

BYEOK (through translator): I painted posters. The message on the posters would be, "Let's follow our leader to the end". And, "Let's do our best to be loyal to the party". So I painted and wrote about loyalty for those posters.

VAUSE: And from what I've read, you are truly a struggling artist in the real sense of the word. You don't make a lot of money from what you do. I understand you - you don't even sell your work.

BYEOK (through translator): That's right.


VAUSE: I read you move furniture, you wash dishes.

BYEOK (through translator): Yes. In the beginning, through my professor, I was able to rent an exhibition space for free. But it costs a lot to install things and to buy materials. So, because I didn't have money and had nowhere to borrow money from, I went to work for a moving company for a week - slept there, and earned a bit of money.

But, after buying some materials with that money, I had nothing to buy rice. So, during the exhibition, I lived on cup noodles.

VAUSE: The question, then, is why not sell some pieces? Cash in. You know, use your talent as your livelihood.

BYEOK (through translator): I think like this. When looking at artists and writers, they can make something fancy and beautiful and be able to sell it. However, despite looking hideous, I realized my responsibility was to deliver an exact message to people's hearts. So, it did not matter to me whether I sold or not. What matters to me is to deliver my own message.

VAUSE: I want to go back to North Korea. This is a country which has struggled with famine and so many hardships. Do you think people in the United States, in Europe - in rich countries like South Korea - really understand what famine is like? How would you describe it to them?

BYEOK (through translator): In one word, it's just despair. It is despair in its entirety. Such hunger and sorrow should not exist for human beings. Not being able to sleep because you're starving - one needs to experience it to really know how it feels.

First of all, you can't fall asleep at night. When people are hungry, they can't fall asleep, and the only thing they can think about is eating. In a situation like that, there were many instances where I filled up a large bowl with water, put some salt in it, and drank it in order to fall asleep.

VAUSE: And your father died 12 years ago. Tell me what happened.

BYEOK (through translator): There was nothing to eat. There were so many dying of hunger around us. And we thought, if we stayed like this, we would also be dead. So, in order to save my family, my father and I crossed the border to China to get some food. But I didn't know it was a monsoon season around the Tumin River. We stepped into the river with determination to cross, along with the thought of our hunger-stricken family. But, because of the monsoon season, the current was very fast.

We were crossing the river with a string tied between us, while holding each other's hands. I was in front of my father. And then he lost grip of the string and he was pulled back three to four meters. The day was dark and it happened in the blink of an eye. And there was practically no time to pull him back to my side. He flailed out of the water a few times, waiving for me to go on. But then he was pulled back into the water.

VAUSE: And you went to the North Korean guards to try and get help for your father.

BYEOK (through translator): Yes. Looking towards the China side of the river, there was no one. Looking at the North Korea side, I saw some guards coming down with a flashlight. I told them that my father had been swept away and asked them to help me recover at least his body. But they would not help.

VAUSE: What did they do?

BYEOK (through translator): They said, "Why did you come back alive? You should have died with him".

VAUSE: This was a real turning point for you and the way you saw North Korea, the North Korean regime, and even Kim Jong-il.

BYEOK (through translator): My thoughts started to change after I was beaten and interrogated during my imprisonment.

VAUSE: You have a legacy of your time in the labor camp. It's your index finger, if I'm not mistaken.

BYEOK (through translator): In the labor camp, they don't let you sit around idly. They make you work from early dawn until late night. They beat you up, and they give you only a handful of corn snacks. One winter I went up on a mountain to cut trees for some firewood, and my finger was cut by a thorn. It became infected and then it rotted.

If they had at least given me some disinfectant, my finger would not have had to have been cut off. But, because we were perceived as non- human and something less than animals, we weren't given any medicine.

VAUSE: Up until your father's death and your time in the labor camp, were you like every other North Korean? Were you essentially brainwashed into believing that Kim Jong-il was truly the "dear leader" - was almost godlike?

BYEOK (through translator): Of course. You can't possibly think of anything else. We all believed that, even though it was a hard time, because of the General's presence, our country would be saved from hunger.

VAUSE: And you thought this whilst painting propaganda images for the regime?

BYEOK (through translator): Of course, yes.

VAUSE: And then you decided it's time to defect. How did you do it? How did you get out?

BYEOK (through translator): At that time, 90 percent of the prisoners would die. In short, I was in exactly the same shape as those people in the Auschwitz camp during World War II. It was nothing more and nothing less. I came out of the camp in that exact shape.

Once I escaped from the camp, it took me two and a half months to gain some energy. Only after then, I attempted to get out of North Korea. But, because I was sure I would be executed if I got caught again, I hid some rat poison behind my collar to kill myself in case I got caught.

VAUSE: It must have been terrifying to escape, but was it more terrifying - the thought of staying?

BYEOK (through translator): It would have been more terrifying to stay.


VAUSE (voiceover): Coming up, Song Byeok meets his first international audience.





VAUSE: So, when you look around at all of your works here, do you have one which is your favorite? The one which tells your story the best?

BYEOK (through translator): This is my favorite. This piece contains my past as well as my present. This is the Tumin River and we're standing on the China side, looking at the Korea side. When you look, you can see the daily lives of North Koreans, like washing laundry, plowing a field, and in the far background, you can see a sign that says, "General Kim Jong- il's 21st Century". In short, this symbolizes people living under the son.

VAUSE: This is the Tumin River. This is where your father died? When you look at this, do you think of him?

BYEOK (through translator): I not only think about my father, I think of all the souls of the people who tried to defect. Here they are fishing. If you look over there, you see some people plucking grass. In reality, we really didn't have anything to eat. So we would go up a mountain, pluck grass, and eat it.

This work contains all aspects of North Korea's daily life. So, I personally like this piece the best.

VAUSE: So now, this is your first time in the United States. How does it compare to what they taught you at school in North Korea about America?


BYEOK (through translator): Since we were very young, we were taught that Americans were blood-sucking vampires who had big noses. We were educated in that way. But, thinking back, I think they had no other choice than to say those kinds of things.

VAUSE: Well, let's talk about the time when you reached Seoul - when you finally got to South Korea - because that must have been your first true taste of freedom. Can you remember what your first impressions were like when you finally reached South Korea and maybe even Seoul?

BYEOK (through translator): I was overwhelmed because, although we share the same language and the same country, I have to question why we've been separated for some 60 years and still point guns at each other.

VAUSE: A few years ago, your mother died and you were in Seoul and she was in North Korea. That separation must have been incredibly difficult.

BYEOK (through translator): I predicted it would happen. When it actually did, it hurt me a lot. The most painful moment was when I came over to South Korea after I received my education and was put into accommodation. I bought an electric rice cooker and tried to eat the rice. But it was the hardest thing to do, because I was thinking about what state my mom was in.

VAUSE: But you still have family - you still have relatives and friends in North Korea. And you still worry about them, because Song Byeok isn't even your real name. What would happen if you used your real name?

BYEOK (through translator): We will be pressured. We will be watched. They would be limited to the places they can go. They wouldn't really be able to go anywhere of their own choosing.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (text translation): I am announcing in the most woeful mind that our great leader Kim Jung il passed away due to sudden illness on his way to a field guidance.


VAUSE: Are North Koreans better off now that Kim Jong-il is dead?

BYEOK (through translator): I wouldn't know for sure, but even if they are better, it wouldn't be much better from their condition now. All human beings return to nature unless they're gods. Although we worshipped him like a god, we realized he was human after all.

VAUSE: Did you feel happy?

BYEOK (through translator): I was not happy at all. I felt bad for him because, as the leader of a country, he couldn't fulfill the responsibility of a leader and left a burden of hunger in the arms of his people.

VAUSE: I just find that surprising that you felt bad for him.

BYEOK (through translator): I wish he provided a little bit more freedom and solved the problem of hunger. That would have been nice. I don't want to say anything bad about someone who has already passed away.

VAUSE: OK. The propaganda machine inside North Korea that you were once part of really now is in overdrive building up his son, Kim Jong-un. Do North Koreans really and truly believe everything they see on state-run television and on the billboards and on the radio - do they really believe everything?

BYEOK (through translator): There are some who do, and there are some who don't. But I think passing on power over three generations is only possible in North Korea. From when we were young, we were brought up and educated like that. In establishing Kim Jong-un's reign, half the people would accept it, whereas the other half would not be so sure.

VAUSE: Do you ever see a day when North Koreans will all be free?

BYEOK (through translator): Yes, I do.

VAUSE: When?

BYEOK (through translator): I don't know when, but just like there's a big movement in the Middle East, I think something similar could happen, when one moment changes things in North Korea as well.

VAUSE: And now that you're free, what is your future?

BYEOK (through translator): I'll continue working on my art, but I don't want to just concentrate on North Korea in the future, but concentrate on the persecution of people around the world. I want to kind of go into the theme of persecution itself, in general.

VAUSE: Song Byeok, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.