Escape Art and Propaganda: Part I

In all of the novels that I have read about dystopias, art and literature always suffer a blow in some way. So, having grown up in a post-Cold War society that has taught me to associate its remnants with the dystopias of the literature required for a trimester of high school English, I wondered in what ways art and literature may be restrained in North Korea. Looking for signs of self-expression, I came across the artist Song Byeok, a former propaganda artist who defected from North Korea and continues to produce art in South Korea. In Paul Ferguson’s CNN article on the success of Song’s exhibition this past winter, I learned that, despite being a full member of the communist party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Song Byeok also suffered from the food shortages and famines of the late twentieth century, which forced him to cross the Tumen River in search of food in China. In need of food, he and his father attempted to cross the river together. Unfortunately, his father drowned in the act. Though a devoted party member who openly praised the North Korean people and culture as superior, Song still faced confinement in a North Korean detention center after authorities caught him searching the river for his father’s body. Not receiving understanding from those who had captured him after the death of his father, Song decided to defect.

After defection and setting up a new life in South Korea, Song became disillusioned with the homeland he had admired for so long because living in a new environment and society gave him an appreciation for the diversity of life that had been unknown to him while he lived in North Korea. As Ferguson’s interview relates, Song understood the economic disparity between his homeland and that of other nations but had long believed that North Korea had found the most superior way to inhabit the earth and had developed the best culture. It is no wonder that his propaganda art had been successful when he had lived in North Korea, considering his genuine love for his nation. However, his journey to a new life in South Korea, which involved encounters with different cultures and people, led him to new conclusions and reflections. He considers his previous allegiance to the North Korean regime and his devotion to the regime’s previous leaders blind – one that failed to see the limitations of his homeland or the positive aspects of other cultures and nations.

Song paints his feelings of disillusionment in a comedic fashion in his art. Having come from a background of painting art for the purposes of propaganda for the Communist party of the North Korea, Song’s style reflects the same bright and bold colors; poster-board two-dimensionality; and politically motivated themes. However, the images no longer read as images of devotion but suggest the cynicism of the artist. Ferguson’s article speaks of Song’s transition as a man of propaganda art to one of pop art; however, with art that takes on political figures and themes as its topic, it does not lose its edge as a political device. In this case, forces that meet the North Korean regime with bafflement and a lack of understanding can use Song’s new pop art as a form of propaganda as well. Perhaps, as Song continues to create new works of art and continues to grow and develop in his personal understanding of his life and loyalty to the North Korean regime, he will shed more light on the society and people that continues to puzzle much of the international community.

Please continue reading the second part of this article for a more detailed look into specific examples of Song’s works of art.

For Paul Ferguson’s article on Song Byeok, please refer to this link of the CNN website:

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