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N. Korean artist swaps propaganda for satire

Reuters

Song Byeok is seen with one of his pictures at an exhibition of his work in London on Tuesday.

ReutersLONDON (Reuters) — For seven years, North Korean artist Song Byeok painted propaganda posters glorifying the world’s most secretive regime. Today, having defected to South Korea, he uses his talents to satirize his repressive homeland.

Growing up, Song says he revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung as a god, and was “100 percent” loyal to his son and successor Kim Jong Il.

“I really believed we were the happiest people [in the world] because we had been brainwashed since childhood,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London where he is showing his paintings.

The turning point came when Song was sent to a labor camp, which he likened to the concentration camps of World War II.

In the mid to late 1990s, North Korea was hit by a devastating famine which killed hundreds of thousands of people.

As his family grew weak from hunger, Song and his father decided to cross the Tumen river to China to find food to bring back.

When his father was swept away Song asked two border guards to help look for his body. He was immediately arrested and tortured.

His six months in labor camp nearly killed him, but also opened his eyes.

“They treated prisoners like animals, not as human beings. I saw many of my friends die,” Song said through an interpreter.

“In the morning I didn’t even want to open my eyes, I wanted to die,” he added. “When I heard birds singing I envied them their freedom.”

‘Walking skeleton’

Months of hard labor and minimal food left him so ill that the guards believed he was about to die and let him go.

He was a “walking skeleton” when he turned up at his uncle’s home. His family did not even recognize him.

His right index finger had to be amputated because of an injury sustained during hard labor, and he since had to relearn how to paint.

In 2001, having recovered his health, Song decided to escape North Korea. This time he carried poison with him so he could commit suicide if caught.

“My heart was breaking, thinking about when I could come back home and see my family again,” he said. “I couldn’t stop crying, and was thinking, ‘Who made me leave home like this?’”

His mother died of hunger after he left.

In China, Song met a businessman who managed to get him to South Korea.

It was a massive culture shock. He still vividly recalls his astonishment on his first day at seeing an electric rice-cooker full of rice. But Song couldn’t bring himself to eat it, remembering how his countrymen were starving.

After putting himself through art school, Song began creating satirical art to raise awareness of the suffering of his people.

During his years as a propaganda artist, Song said he painted images of happy soldiers, farm laborers and factory workers with slogans like “Let’s walk forever with Kim Il Sung.”

One slogan he remembers painting is “Will you live as free people or slaves?” The irony, he says, is that North Koreans really do live as slaves.Speech

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