• SEOUL, South Korea

    Meet Sun Mu, the North Korean Banksy who paints undercover

There is a North Korean defector whose art works are widely appreciated and displayed in exhibitions all around the world. And yet, he never shows up at those exhibitions. In fact, nobody knows who he actually is – nobody has ever seen his face, apart from a bunch of journalists.
His name is Sun Mu, and he uses his paintings to openly express his opinions towards the North Korean regime, sometimes even defining Kim Jong-il as “pathetic”, or depicting him as a Disney character. A sort of freedom that the ruthless dictator of his homeland wouldn’t leave unpunished – if only he knew who Sun Mu is.
While Sun Mu is living a safe life in Seoul, his relatives still lives in Pyongyang: this is why covering his real identity is the only way he has to protect his family while enjoying his freedom of expression as an artist.
When I first heard of Sun Mu, I got in touch with him through an online format, and I wrote an open heart letter that explained all the reasons why I wanted to meet him.
To my great surprise, I received back an email that said “meet me at 5 pm, exit number 7. I don’t speak English – you’ll need a South Korean interpreter”.
The co-ordinates of our long-awaited meeting were as shrouded in mystery as the man himself. Without a second thought, off I went to Seoul.

During our meeting in the outskirts of Seoul, Sun Mu was happy to share his own story.
“Sometimes the world tends to forget that there are 25 million human beings living in North Korea, each one with his own experience and feelings”, he would say with a smile.
I soon learned that Sun Mu was born in a little mountainous town, where he was selected to sing on the stage for Kim Il-sung’s birthday: a great honour for him, for all he wanted was to please his Dear Leader – quite far from how he feels today.
But his real flair would come up later, during high school.
“One day I just felt this burning desire of making a portrait of Kim Il-sung: it was an obsession. He was like a God to me, and drawing him would be an immense joy. However, portraying our Dear Leader was strictly forbidden by law, and you could even be killed for it. Regardless, I locked myself into my room and I secretly started to paint, brush after brush: I just couldn’t stop. But before the colours would dry I got scared and I burned it all.”
And yet that day something changed forever inside Sun Mu: he had found out what his talent was.

When I asked him about his perception on the outside world while he lived in North Korea, he said that as far as his knowledge went, North Korea was the best country in the world to live in. He knew about some other 200 nations out there – but none of them could be as good as his wonderful homeland.
And you can’t blame him for thinking this way. For all he saw in the TV was images that showed how poor and underdeveloped the rest of the world was.
“I used to watch videos of New York City and Seoul invaded by homeless people begging in the streets at all times. The regime has a great way to brainwash people. I thought I had a very happy life: we were a perfect society, away from the rotten capitalism of the outside world. I felt thankful and safe.”
And then he smiled bitterly.
“Well, soon I had to change my mind”, he added.
When the greatest famine of the 90s ravaged North Korea, Sun Mu was studying Art at University. His family and him were starving, just like the rest of the country: that’s when he decided to run away to China.
“But unlike the other defectors, I wasn’t planning to leave North Korea forever: I just wanted to reach China to gather some money and some food. And then I would just go back to North Korea to feed my family. That was the original plan…“, he says with a smile.

 

Sun Mu went to a little village at the border with China, and stayed at a family who was working as an illegal agency to help defectors escape.
“From the top of the hill I could see my land of hope: China. I remember I used to hide in the tobacco fields, looking for the best way to run away. And then one night I decided that time had come: I crossed the Tuman river and escaped.
But by the time he reached China, North Korea called his population for some last-minute gathering. This meant only one thing: they would find out he was missing.
And as running away was considered a big shame, something that would be strictly punished by the government, Sun Mu understood that he could never go back to his homeland again.
“I ended up staying in China for two years”, 
recalls Sun Mu.
But he was little more than a ghost. The Chinese police was looking for North Korean defectors to send them back, and he had to hide at all times.
“Some Chinese people were protecting me, but I knew they were taking a big risk. 
I had no identity: I could not be North Korean, I was not Chinese. This was the real tragedy. I realised I needed a nationality, a country where to belong, and I thought of South Korea. After all, it had been my country too.”

 

But between him and South Korea laid the land he had defected from – and he had no clue on how to get there. Until he was told that in Thailand there was the South Korean embassy.
“That’s when the journey started. I travelled for months, trekking through Laos and Vietnam. I met many indigenous tribes in the forests: they would always show me the way. I saw beautiful places, and painted very often. And then I reached Thailand, and was sent to Seoul.”
When he finally reached his destination, it was far from the paradise he had imagined.
At the Art University where he managed to enrol himself he was surrounded by what could have been aliens from another planet.
“Here it is: the rotten capitalistic society I had seen in the TV – this is the first thing I told myself. I just couldn’t understand that society. I couldn’t even fully understand their language. Relationships in that modern world were very superficial and shallow. People were wearing Western clothes, they had piercings, tattoos and dyed hair. The girls were dating many boys at the same time, while in North Korea everybody was so conservative. Everything was just insane to me! And South Koreans were scared of North Koreans too. I couldn’t make friends, and one of my classmates could barely look at me in the eyes without shivering.” 

It took him many years to see both sides of the coin.
Today, he knows that there is no right or wrong: it’s just about different ways to see things.
“In South Korea everybody enjoys a great level of personal freedom: whether it’s the choice of who to marry, where to work or what kind of life to live. But at a political level, South Korea has always been a puppet of the United States – and always will be. Then on the other hand you have North Korea, fiercely determined not to depend on anyone. But there is no personal freedom.”
When I asked him about his feelings on a reunification between North and South Korea, he smiled.
“I would love to see that, but I don’t support the reunification: not yet. The truth is that North and South Korea are two strangers… They have been separated for 70 years, they don’t know each other anymore. Even the Korean language they speak is different. It would be a shock for everyone.”
He also pointed at the fact that while South Korea is modern and developed, North Korea is way less advanced – if they happened to reunify at this stage, South Korea would just take over.
“Now my hope for them is to start a long-lasting friendship, and in the meantime North Korea needs to grow. And then, only when they will reach the same level, they will go back together. Just naturally.”
As I looked at my South Korean interpreter, I saw a warm smile crossing his face.
I agree”, he said, giving his opinion for the first time since we had all gathered.

 

“Is it hard to live undercover?” I asked him towards the end of our meeting.
“It is, but I have no choice”
 he said, “the people I meet on a daily basis have no clue about who I really am: not even my closest friends. Sometimes they wonder why I don’t work like everybody else. Sometimes their kids are asking them – daddy, why your friend doesn’t wear a suit and go to the office like you? They don’t know that while they are in the office, I am in my art studio painting Kim Jong-Il with a smiley Mickey Mouse walking on his shoulder.”
We all bursted into laughter.
As far as I can tell, Sun Mu is not interested in blaming anyone anymore: he just wants to feel free to express his feelings, a privilege he had never experienced before. To him, his art is a bridge between North and South Korea, a way to make people understand.
“I accepted to see you mainly because of your young age. Young people are the future, and you need to know more about North Korea. You need to know about the people living there.”
Someone once said that if you need a perspective, you need to climb a hill.
And that’s exactly what Sun Mu did.
He travelled far away from his birthplace, his friends and family. He also had to question everything he believed in, everything he had been told for years.
And from where he is now, he can see far. And through his paintings he can show the world his point of view.
Ironically though, the world can’t see him.

Clearly they are not robots, but humans
Still, they had to learn blind obedience in order to live there.

Sun Mu

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