North Korean Defector Brings Artwork to DC

Former North Korean propaganda artist Song Byeok stands in front of two of his newest paintings. Photo by Nicole Glass.
Washington, D.C. will host a unique, temporary art exhibit from April 13 – 30, depicting images of North Korean oppression, propaganda and satire – an exhibit that takes us on a journey through the mind of a North Korean defector – Song Byeok.

“They will be shocked, surprised. Who’s gonna dare make a painting like that?” said Byeok, imaging a typical North Korean reaction to his art. “He’s the Son of God. You cannot make fun of Kim Il-sung.”

But that’s exactly what Byeok did after his escape from North Korea. The former North Korean propaganda artist used to paint images glorifying the “Great Leader,” Kim Il-sung, as well as Kim Jong-il. Now, he uses art to ridicule the men he once worshiped.

Byeok’s early years were filled with happiness and pride for his propaganda art. His troubles began after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, which led to a nationwide famine that compelled Byeok and his father to illegally cross the border into China in a desperate search of food.

“At least when Kim Il-sung was alive we were still able to eat corn, as opposed to rice, which is Korea’s staple,” he said. “After Kim Il-sung died, our food rations disappeared and many people starved.”

But on one fateful border-crossing journey, his father was swept away by a strong current of the Tumen River. After searching the riverbanks for his father’s body, Byeok was arrested, questioned and brutally tortured by North Korean border guards – and that’s when escaping first crossed his mind.

“When I was in prison, I realized there was something wrong with the North Korean government, so I wanted to go to South Korea,” Byeok said. “I was released because I was almost dead and they didn’t want to keep me.”

Miraculously, Byeok escaped from North Korea in 2002, and has spent the past decade working as a satire artist in Seoul.

His two-week long exhibit at “The Dunes” in D.C. will feature twenty pieces of art, six of which have never been seen before.

Perhaps his most famous work depicts the head of Kim Jong-il on the body of Marilyn Monroe, trying to keep the wind from blowing up her dress.

“Marilyn Monroe is trying to hide something like Kim Jong is trying to hide something,” the artist said, who uses clothes to represent power. “I am mocking Kim Jong-il in a way and it’s a very humorous way.”

Monroe’s body is surrounded by little red fish, who Byeok says represent the people of North Korea, looking for freedom.

Although Byeok is sure that the mockery could put his life at risk, he hopes North Korean leaders will see his work and be influenced to see past the propaganda that shapes their society.

“A lot of high official leaders are watching this and they are shocked, but they will be thinking about my work, my message,” he said. “They’re not dumb.”

Hannah Barker, the exhibit’s community relations representative, said Byeok’s art has attracted crowds from all walks of life, from lovers of pop art to students interested in North Korea, and has the power to touch a lot of lives.

“The presence of the artwork is so much more alive when you see it in person,” she said. Barker, an American University senior who has helped Director of Operations Gregory Pence put together the showcase, said Byeok’s work and positivity has inspired her.

“He paints a future that he’s imagined, that there is no guarantee will ever happen – especially no guarantee that it will happen soon,” she said. “But the fact that someone who’s been through as much as he has and can still look positively at the future and hope for that – that’s pretty inspiring.”

Song Byeok’s artwork will be displayed at The Dunes at 1402 Meridian Place, NW until April 30. Visit for more information.

Song Byeok stands in front of his Marilyn Monroe-style painting of Kim Jong-il. Photo by Nicole Glass.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Nicole Glass is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist and a contributing writer at National Geographic News Watch. She also writes for USA TODAY, The Huffington Post, Russia Today (RT TV) and Demand Media. Previously, she was Assistant Editor and later Weekend Editor of, David Frum's political news outlet (now a part of The Daily Beast). She grew up abroad, has moved more than 15 times and has visited more than 40 countries. Visit her website, to see her published works and follow her on Twitter @NicoleSGlass.