In 1953 North Koreans were buried alive under a totality of almost impenetrable darkness. Since then the outside world has only begun to imagine their pain and terror through the tales of exiles and smuggled documentation. Common threads are starvation, lack of education, destruction of families, murder, endless propaganda and cruelty. Additionally the lunatic dwarf-who-would-be-God, or Kim Jong-Il, has enforced true idolatry.
In the midst of the expected fruits of such madness live some things the “Dear Leader” could not utterly wipe out: hope, compassion and, sometimes, art.
Not just propaganda by the official state-controlled schools, but personal expressions of yearning and true experience have surfaced. There hasn’t been much, but in outposts here and there, art from North Korean survivors is showing up in conferences, exhibits, churches – even the United Nations.
Prisoners in North Korea are not generally well educated, and the arts are neither tolerated nor encouraged in camps. A diabolical effort goes into assuring inmates have virtually no enjoyment of the finer things in life, yet an amazing thing happens. Unbidden and untaught, art, poetry and music manifests in these isolated prisoners even if they have rarely encountered or lived with it.
One of these artists, Kim Hye Sook, has been making the rounds of the Western world recently with her personal memoirs in the form of drawings and notes on the prison camps she unfortunately knows too well. Her book, “A Concentration Camp Retold in Tears” (The Zeitgeist, 2011) describes her life there.
Imprisoned at 13 along with her entire family in retaliation for grandfather’s crime of escaping the country, Kim Hye Sook lived 27 years in No. 18 (Bukchang), a large concentration camp. After losing her children, husband and other family, she escaped North Korea and eventually found her way to South Korea.
Her works are childlike and simple and she shows few technical skills such as perspective and anatomy, yet they are very powerful tools of exposition and emotion. The scenes she and other victims witnessed are so horrific, they transcend belief. Expression by word and image will always fall short, and if filmed or realistically rendered in paintings, it would be too graphic to show in public places.
“Execution Camp 18” by Kim Hye Sook
Mrs. Kim’s drawing of a camp execution by firing squad shows the prisoners in seated in passive rows like school children. They are much smaller in stature than the soldiers, a physical fact, as most North Koreans are stunted through malnutrition. The gloating officers generally present in these drawings loom in podiums and towers over their human toys. Only a small number will survive, and fewer still will escape.
Kim Hye Sook has traveled a long, tortuous road in her quest to tell the world what is really happening in North Korea, if they will hear. She must be encouraged, because in the last few months alone she has faced the British and Canadian Parliaments and spoke to U.N. dignitaries. The Geneva Summit on Humans Rights and Democracy featured North Korean stories. British MPs Fiona Brice and Lord Alton sponsored her presentation. In Canada, MP Mario Silva described her testimony as possibly the most tragic and incredible story ever heard in Parliament.
Kim never forgets the deaths of her family, especially her children: “There has never been a single moment that I have forgotten you,” she said.
She is driven to reveal and relive the horrors she experienced as a way of honoring them, with hope these stories will soon end.
This has been in the midst of a flurry of activities globally on the subject of human rights and North Korea. Organizations such as Christian Solidarity and Amnesty International have long rallied against North Korean human-rights abuse, and new groups are forming on campuses, churches and online.
A student-led exhibit from Handong University produced striking images and information on the numbers, populations and conditions in the camps. “Where Love Does Not Exist” was presented as both physical exhibit and available as a PDF file organized by student, Im-Suk-Ha.
They quote refugee Dong-Hyuk, Shin: “In the camps, words likes love, happiness, joy, unhappiness, resentment and resistance do not exist.”
The art in this exhibit effectively conveys that reality.
“Pigeon-torture,” from SAGE exhibit
“Pigeon torture” portrays some of the diabolical punishments North Korean prisoners may endure. It’s hard to see, but some are actually living this. It is also portrayed in a childlike, simple, hand drawn style. Measurements in English and Korean denote times of torture, weights of emaciated bodies and document technical details of work and life in the camps.
“Handicapped’s Log-Dragging,” from SAGE exhibit
Another piece, “Handicapped’s Log-Dragging,” describes itself. An amputee with a cane drags a huge log without the help of machinery. An Asian flavor is evident in the style of this piece, a simple ink and brush drawing. The prisoner’s face in this piece is emaciated, sorrowful, close to death. In some of the other pieces, they are represented as walking death’s heads, the flesh mostly missing in their faces.
The scenes portrayed are gruesome, not the sort of thing most would hang in a home, yet art has never been merely about decoration. When the reality of life is horrific, art that utterly ignores it is not true to the artist or culture. Society is cheated of an honest reflection and missing the transformative power of the arts, which is exactly what Kim Jong-Il wants to preclude.
As long as the enemies of Kim Jong-Il are legion, the will be camps full, up to 200,000 estimated. These include anti-Communists, Christians, defectors, the curious, breakers of arcane rules and virtually anyone who questions the authority and wisdom of their Leader.
Those who practice as “artists” in North Korea must specialize in being sycophants. They are sent to art schools where they are trained in a garish, end-oriented, political realism all for the purpose of bolstering Kin Jong-Il’s ego. Self-expression, individuality and creativity are effectively wiped out in these “art” schools, where no deviation is allowed and all the dreams are Kim’s.
One talented artist elevated to honor Kim was Song Byeok, who defected to the South in 2002. Trained to create the brightly colored portraits of a beneficent Kim Jong-Il ruling over his happy minions, he was monitored and forced to follow strict templates and guidelines at all times.
Kim allows no deviation from his vision and views individual expression as a sign of disloyalty. Oh the joys of Socialist realism!
When Song Byeok and his father made the mistake of trying to leave, his father died and Song was sent to prison camp for seven months.
Although sometimes criticized for continuing to work in the propaganda-cartoon style of his homeland, Song has utilized this form against the Communist regime. He exhibits in Seoul and has attracted some international attention with his parodies of the regime.
“Take Off Your Clothes!” by Song Byeok
Song’s piece “Take Off Your Clothes!” was shown in Seoul in “Forever Freedom,” his debut exhibition. He places Kim’s head on the iconic Monroe image in reference to the falseness of his persona. Song even uses the shrill official slogans such as “Are you going to live as a free man or as a slave?” as an indictment and challenge.
Song had been warned not to paint the unpopular North Korean themes but feels compelled.
He says, “I want to send a clear message to the world and to the South Korean people through these works,” which he describes as a “nightmare” that repeats nightly. The artist hopes to bring his work to the U.S. and Europe if possible.
“I’ve staked my life on it,” he explains.
The NK Freedom Coalition is sponsoring an action that anyone can join if interested. On Sep. 22, 2011, at noon, they are holding simultaneous demonstrations at Chinese embassies throughout the world. This is to pressure China to stop returning North Korean refugees to almost certain harm and to observe basic human rights while they are in China. Those who cannot physically participate may consider phoning, faxing or writing the nearest Chinese embassy. This alone will help refugees greatly.
When this regime finally falls, and it must – it will undoubtedly reveal many hidden artists, poets and musicians of North Korea who quietly created and dreamt, regardless of threat.