Out of the darkness of North Korea, a stealth projectile hit Washington early D.C. last year. It didn’t make much news because it did no damage, but its creators are still hoping it will have a meteoric effect.
It came in the form of small packages delivered to the offices of Senator Ted Cruz and Congressmen Ed Royce and Chris Smith. Inside, each man found an elaborate silk portrait of himself which was somehow smuggled to America. This anonymous note of thanks was attached:
Instead of reactions to 8.15 [Korean Liberation Day] messages, here are a few arts and craft items for the American politicians who delivered the messages. My (redacted for safety) and I spent three months making them late into the night. Please send them to the politicians. Please tell them that there are some people in a dark place who still have hope because of South Korea and the U.S.
Royce, Cruz, and Smith are among a group of American leaders who have continuously lobbied for the freedom of the Korean people. They are assisted by Suzanne Scholte (chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition) who has organized massive international efforts at promoting freedom and assistance for North Koreans.
Effort spent on the embroidered portraits was extensive, and smuggling them out of North Korea (NK) was like an act of God. If caught, the creators would face a starvation camp and likely be executed. Yet they risked it in a place rife with spies, but with little food, supplies, or much of anything else. As the artists described their mission: “We’ve spent three months making these portraits for these American politicians, but somehow managed to get them out of the black hole and into Suzanne Scholte’s hands.”
Images I was sent are small and don’t do the pieces justice. For the artists even to find photographs of the American politicians must have been difficult, with the internet so rigidly controlled. Considering the entire nation shuts off its lights very early, it seems almost impossible these were hand-embroidered over many evenings. Did they use candles?
Embroidery is highly valued in Korea and dates back to the beginning of their Three Kingdom period, over 2000 years ago. It has both political and cultural associations. Queen Jindeok, a 7th-century ruler of Korea, was an accomplished needle-worker. She composed a poem of peace in memory of her enthronement, embroidered it herself, and sent the finished work off to Emperor Gaozong of Tang (China). Even then Koreans were very concerned with their larger neighbor.
In the 1960s, South Korean artist Young Yang Chung was commissioned to embroider a ten-panel screen for the presidential mansion. The “Rose of Sharon” (Korea’s national flower) was formed into the shape of the Korean Peninsula. White flowers on the left symbolize South Korea, and red flowers on the right stand for the North.
According to the Korean Cultural Center, “This blossoming branch … expresses the hope for reunification as well the strength and fortitude of Korea’s national spirit.” They add that a square inch of this type of fine embroidery takes “several hours of labor.”
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How did these North Korean textile artists even hear about Americans working on their behalf? Radio from the South has been the only form of consistent communication there from the light side of the world. One broadcaster is “Free North Korea Radio” (FNKR), a Seoul-based station run by North Korean refugees.
Our portrait artists were responding to comments sent from Smith, Cruz, and Royce via FNKR, on a Korean holiday. National Liberation Day honors the wresting of Korea from Japanese hands on Aug. 15, 1945. Ironically, American and Allied forces freed all of Korea, yet Kim re-spins this to make the U.S. a fiendish enemy.
In a special FNKR broadcast during the 2016 holidays, North Koreans learned that the U.S. (aka “Yankee Imperialist wolves”) had sponsored legislation since 2004 on their behalf. Messages sent from Cruz included this: “My heart breaks … for the Koreans who saw their precious liberty snatched from their grasp so quickly after winning it.”
Suzanne Scholte pointed out that China (in whom we seem to trust) is still a communist government sworn to defend the Kim Empire. President Trump and other lawmakers are beginning to lean heavily on China and Russia in connection to this after decades of appeasement. Some of Kim’s subjects resent it, but a growing number do not.
Below are a few snippets from North Koreans responding to FNKR radio programs:
- “When I heard … that Americans and people from around the world have been praying for North Koreans, I felt that we are no longer alone.”
- “We never dare to say Kim Jung Un’s government should be collapsed so that people can live peacefully. However, I am extremely happy that someone else could say this for us.”
Lee O-young was a past Korean Minister of Culture, as well as a critic and novelist. He made these observations about the power of art made with a needle and thread:
Human beings have made two things of the hardest steel. One is the knife, and the other is the needle. The knife cuts, severs, rips, and tears.
Made of the same steel, a needle does the opposite. The needle puts together what has been taken apart, mends what has been worn. It does not separate, but combines; it is not a cessation, but a succession.
Embroidery may seem no match for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Yet the sacrificial gifts from these North Koreans display a courage and hope that can stand up to them, and perhaps even end a régime that exists only to make war.
- Suzanne Scholte: President of Defense Forum Foundation and the North Korea Freedom Coalition
- Korean Embroidery: The Life and Artworks of Young Yang Chung