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SEOUL, South Korea — Song Byeok spent a half-dozen years painting propaganda art for Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s now-deceased Dear Leader. It was fine work during the Arduous March, the Orwellian term the regime uses to describe the great famine of the 1990s, until his conscience — and circumstances — dictated he could no longer perform the soulless task.
First, his sister and mother died of starvation. Then, when he and his father tried crossing a river to illegally pick up supplies in China, his father drowned and North Korean soldiers hauled him off to a prison camp. Beatings and slave-labor led to injuries, including one so severe that his finger had to be amputated — with no anesthesia, of course.
Song defected in 2002. Now living in South Korea, he is making a name for himself with his dissident art — pictures that denigrate the brutal Kim regime to the north.
“I have nothing to lose now,” he says.
When this reporter embedded himself with defectors for a story about smuggling The Interview movie into North Korea, he accompanied a group of human-rights activists on a trip to Song’s studio, a cramped space that the artist refers to as “Red Painter” located in a rundown area of Seoul.
Song did well that day, selling several paintings to the activists, who raved about his work.
The high-ticket item that day went for $1,500 and was actually a repainting that he made from his memory of a piece of propaganda art he created while working in North Korea. That painting is pictured above, with Song leaning on it with his damaged right hand. The text reads: “Will you live as free people or slaves? Let’s lift up the red banner of revolution until the end.”
He looks at the painting and remarks: “The irony is, they are slaves.”
A couple of smaller paintings he sold to the activists that day went for $800 apiece. They poke fun at the regime’s ridiculous slogan, “Nothing to envy,” a favorite among propagandists whose job is to peddle the notion that the standard of living in North Korea is among the best in the world due to the wise leadership of the Kims.
Song’s most famous painting features the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe holding down her dress, but her head has been replaced with Kim Jong Il’s. At his feet are fish that appear to be nipping at Kim’s heels, which Song says represent deprived North Koreans who are vying for Dear Leader’s attention.
The 46-year-old artist will bring his paintings to the U.S. for a solo exhibition in New York that runs May 7-30.
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