Escape Art and Propaganda: Part II

Continuing my first article on the pop art by Song Byeok, a former party member and propaganda artist of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, this article takes a look into one of Song’s notable pieces to explore his relationship to his former homeland and the ideas that one can glean from the image “Flower Children.”

Looking at the image of “Flower Children,” the young girls stand in their school uniform either waving excitedly or smiling at the audience despite the holes in their shoes symbolizing their poverty. Moreover, all of their eyes are closed. Looking more closely at the faces of each individual child, though two or three appear genuinely ecstatic, the other girls have more faces – as they smile and accept or turn a blind eye to the way things are in North Korea, the people have grown weary as their circumstances have yet to change. Paul Ferguson also addresses this painting in his CNN article; Ferguson writes, “The girls in “Flower Children” are waving and posing for foreigners in the way they’ve been trained: brimming with confidence that they live in the world’s greatest country. Song painted them with their eyes closed, blind to the reality of their poverty.” As mentioned in the first part of these articles about Song’s artwork, Song admits that his initial reasons for leaving North Korea temporarily, when his father was still living, revolved around the need for food and work; likewise, most other North Koreans also defect for similar reasons.

As Ferguson iterates, the closed eyes and excited faces of the girls in this painting reflect the blind adoration of the North Korean people that Song feels he had been personally guilty of when he lived in North Korea. However, Ferguson’s comment alludes to the common opinion that the people of North Korea have been brainwashed by the regime. But I think that this painting once again points to the question of how much access people who live in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea receive about the rest of the world. I agree that they learned a certain degree of patriotism that depends on a form of expression that includes the exaggerated happiness seen at the birthday celebrations of their “supreme leaders” and the extravagant tears recorded at the funeral of the late Kim Jong-Il.

However, I think that in this age of nation-states and nationalism, people of every nation learn a certain set of standardized forms of expression that relay their love and loyalty for their country. As another example, in elementary, middle, and high school, we “saluted our allegiance to a flag,” and throughout college, groups of college boys would often stroll throughout campus chanting, “USA.” Nobody questions that form of patriotism, but why not? What makes the North Korean people’s expression of love for their nation any more subject to the scrutiny of others than that of American citizens? Is it because of the instability of the regime or the wrongs the regime has committed upon its people? When does one cross the line between a love for a nation that has been learned and one that has been chosen?

As always I never seek to apologize or accept the injustices that have been acted upon the people of North Korea. I only hope that through my articles, I can convey the importance of bringing an open mind and heart to discussions of the situation and future of the nation and its people. Perhaps the caption at the bottom of Song’s painting, “Our Prosperous Nation,” may receive warranted criticism for the current state of affairs in North Korea; but the two or three children who genuinely smile and feel pride in their nation (though blind) need to be met with sensitivity and understanding, not the derisiveness that often greets the enthusiasm of a patriotic people.

Photo Credit

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