Interview: Artist Song Byeok’s journey out of North Korea
Artist Song Byeok was born in 1969 in North Korea. After working as a propaganda poster artist at a steel factory in Hwanghae province, he attempted to cross the Tumen River to find food in China with his father. In this interview, New Focus International introduces Song Byeok’s journey out of North Korea, and his struggles in South Korea to become a North Korean artist.
When did you defect from North Korea?
I tried to cross the Tumen River twice. The first attempt was in the summer of 2000. Out of unbearable hunger, my father and I planned to cross the river and come back with food from China. When we arrived at the riverbank, we realized how much the water level had risen due to the recent rainfall. But we didn’t have any money and could not go back home, so we just decided to go ahead and cross the river.
My father and I jumped in together. As I flailed about in the river, I saw my father’s body being hoisted upwards twice by the water. He was swept up by the current. When I screamed, he gestured with his hand that I should keep going. This is how I let my father go in the Tumen River. I was younger and had the strength to withstand the current, but at the time he had not eaten the last six meals.
You mentioned that you were planning to return to North Korea with food. How did you end up in South Korea?
There are not many North Korean defectors who plan to escape to South Korea from the very beginning. Most of them, including myself, could not stand the hunger and fled to China in the hopes of finding food.
After I lost my father, I approached the border guards on my own two feet. I wept, “Please save my father. He was swept away by the water.” But instead of helping me, they beat me senseless and took me to the Ministry of State Security agents in Hoeryeong.
My fantasies about the North Korean regime was shattered when I met the State Security officers. Before my attempt to cross the Tumen River, I had had no idea about the truth of the regime. I was simply looking for food. But the security agents questioned and tortured me. “Why did you attempt to go to China?” “Have you ever met up with a priest?” After fifteen days of interrogation, I was eventually sent off to a labor training camp.
(Editor’s note: Labor training camps propose “rehabilitation through labor” for criminals with minor offenses, who must work without wages for 15 days to six months, depending on the level of offense)
I wanted to die in the labor camp. The world didn’t feel human. I shuddered at the thought of how many people must have died here. I thought to myself, I would be better off dead. I wanted to die and be born again in a world without hunger. Even my hair turned white because I didn’t have enough nutrients.
After a few months, I was released from the labor training camp. I vowed to escape from this country even if dying in the process.
What happened to your right index finger?
I had been imprisoned in the labor camp in summer, so when winter came I didn’t have any winter clothes. Luckily, I eventually managed to obtain clothing from people released before me. But my fingers became frostbitten because there were no gloves. To make matters worse, a thorn got stuck in my index finger while I was cutting trees in the forest. The wound could have been cured easily with an antiseptic and bandage, but the camp did not provide any of that. So the wound in my finger festered and started to rot.
When I returned home from the camp, my younger sister made a fuss that I was going to die. But what made me more desperate than the pain in my finger was hunger. In a great rush, I ate the food that my sister gave me and passed out, making up for all the lost sleep. I was out cold; even when the doctor came and cut off two joints from my index finger, I didn’t wake up. This may sound unbelievable, but I wasn’t even anesthetized. Two joints were just gone when I woke up. I disinfected the wound with salt water, which was very painful. But the swelling went down pretty soon.
Who have helped you in the process of defecting?
I went to Tumen River one more time. There was no turning back. When I arrived at the riverbank around noon, there were a lot of people fishing and walking around freely, unlike at nighttime. I took off all my clothes save my underwear, and went to a group of people who were fishing in the water. I pretended to help them out and dove underwater. I couldn’t hold my breath for long, so I came up for air, went down underwater, came up again — after repeating this several times, I was in China.
I ran into the mountains in my underwear. After hiding out in the woods, I walked into a Chinese village. Everybody kicked me out. But a deacon of a church beckoned me over and gave me clothes to wear. He told me to hide in the attic because the rest of his house would be dangerous. Somebody had called the police and Chinese border guards were beginning to search the village.
I thought I was going to die when the guards arrived at the deacon’s house. His attic was full of rice gunnysacks; I found an empty sack and hid myself inside. I was shivering in between other full gunnysacks when the guards came up to the attic. I thought, now I am really dead. But they flashed their lights once around the room and stomped back downstairs. Had they looked more carefully, or felt the sacks individually, I would not have been alive today.
After the guards left, the deacon ran up to the attic. In between hugging and weeping, he asked me how I had hid myself. He then gave me boiled eggs and treated me very kindly. After I settled down in South Korea, I visited him again to give him my deepest thanks.
What drives you to make the most out of your new life in South Korea?
Guilt. There was no choice but to make the most out of life, in order to pay my debts to the people I have wronged.
I had a friend in North Korea called Lee Myung-hun (alias), who had emigrated to North Korea as a former member of the Association of Chosun People in Japan. When I was planning my escape, Myung-hun showed me a photograph of his grandmother and told me to contact his grandmother or uncle in China. I memorized all the names of his relatives and their birth dates.
Upon arrival in China, I thought, “The only way to make it alive to South Korea is by becoming Lee Myung-hun.” I contacted Myung-hun’s grandmother in China, and convinced his relatives when they tried to verify my identity. With their help, I arrived in South Korea more easily than other North Korean defectors usually do.
In January 2002, I arrived in Incheon Airport in South Korea. Journalists and employees from the National Intelligence Service greeted me. Myung-hun’s relatives hugged me and asked me, weeping, how I had stayed alive. I could not look at them in the eyes. I could not fool them any longer. So I told them the truth, apologizing and apologizing.
The only way to repay Myung-hun’s family for their kindness is by living a successful life in South Korea. I must live as genuinely as I can. If I lead a miserable and meaningless existence, what was the point of bringing me here?
You have had numerous exhibitions in the United States. How do you feel about your success?
My masters thesis at Hongik Art University was on Juche art in North Korea. During exhibition preparations, I could feel other people’s cold stares. Refusing to be discouraged, I approached my professor with the sole intention of opening a private exhibition. When I got the opportunity to showcase my art privately for a week in Insadong, Seoul, I decided to market myself and called a press outlet, informing them that I was a North Korean defector holding an art exhibition in Seoul.
After the coverage, people began to get more interested. My work was introduced in the Unification Observatory in Goseong; a group of cultural attachés from the U.S. came to the Insadong exhibition; and universities began to request lectures. I was happy to talk about the reality of North Korea through my own lips and artwork.
My success in the U.S. provided an opportunity for me to think more about raising awareness among South Koreans. When I showed my work in Atlanta in 2012, U.S., I was interviewed by CNN. After the CNN coverage, interest in my artwork grew. Lecture requests came from places like American University and Johns Hopkins. After my first positive experience in the U.S., I asked myself on the plane ride back to South Korea: “Why is South Korea less interested in North Korea than the U.S.? Aren’t the South and North supposed to be family?”
Did you study art in North Korea?
No. I couldn’t afford to go to university, and painted as a hobby. After I was assigned a job at a steel factory, I worked as a poster artist in its propaganda division, painting posters, slogans, bulletins, and other propaganda materials. I remember painting posters with the slogans, “Follow the Party A Thousand Miles” and “Protect Our Party Till Death.”
I could not paint as I wished and intended. I only made what the regime ordered. Back in North Korea, I thought this was how things were supposed to be.
What made you study art in South Korea?
I got a bachelors degree from a teacher’s college, but didn’t have the confidence to take the teaching examination. What do I really enjoy, and what am I really good at? The answer to my questions was painting, because nothing made my heart beat like the process of imagining what I would create on a white piece of paper.
Even after I started to paint, I continued to question what my subjects would be. Eventually I decided that the lives of North Koreans should be incorporated into my art. Art has its own philosophy. What is art? What is the freedom of art? What is freedom? When I encountered these questions, I began to search for the freedoms necessary to a human being. I wanted to paint the freedoms that North Koreans must have. I wanted to show the world that North Koreans are living a war every day, fighting for a single meal of food.
Any words of advice to the young North Korean defectors who give up on art due to financial reasons?
I remind myself to never forget the feeling of desperation that I felt in North Korea. In South Korea, I didn’t have much money left for food after paying the housing fees. So I ate mostly ramen, because it felt like a waste to spend the money on rice. I worked at a moving company and did other manual labor. I reminded myself, “I didn’t even have ramen back in North Korea.” Nothing is impossible if you remember the feeling of desperation back in North Korea.
What are your plans for the future?
My experience of defecting through China showed me how important it was to have the “freedom to be full.” I imagine it would be hard for North Koreans to return to North Korea after tasting the slice of freedom in China. Who can forget the experience of eating freely and fully? Someday, I want to show this freedom to the North Koreans who had to endure the heart-wrenching experience of losing their own children to hunger. My ultimate dream is to open an exhibition inside North Korea.
Paintings should provoke questions inside the viewer. But in North Korea, we must always paint for the Sun, and he must always be smiling brightly. Even if the artist is not happy he must express happiness. This is not real art.
Reporting by Choi Dami.
Read in Korean.
Translated and edited by Haeryun Kang.
Featured image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan