• SUN MU, North Korea

    The artist who once ran away from North Korea

“5 pm, exit number 7” said his last email.
The co-ordinates of our long-awaited meeting were as shrouded in mystery as the man himself.
He is Sun Mu, a mysterious North Korean painter who lives undercover in Seoul, painting art works that the ruthless dictator of his homeland wouldn’t certainly like.

They don’t know that while they are in the office I am painting a portrait of Kim Jong-Un with Mickey Mouse and Tinker Bell on his shoulder.

Sun Mu
=(sun mu)

Take off your clothes of ideology
Let’s play together

Kim Il Sung, you are the Sky of Korea,
The Sun of the Nation”

=(sun mu)

My daughters say
we want to meet you”

=(sun mu)

South Korea North Korea fight each other
Angel’s concern
“How can I deal with this?”

A North Korean childhood

In the little mountainous town where he was born, life was simple.
Same routine, same events each and every year.
As a child, little Sun Mu was selected to sing on the stage for Kim Il-sung’s birthday. What a great honour – and how proud he was. Well, quite far from how he feels today.
It was during high school that he realised he loved painting. But even then, he needed to comply with some rules: for example, drawing the leader’s face or naked women was strictly forbidden. So much so that you could be killed.

One day something very strange happened. And things changed, forever.
“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. I locked myself into my room and I secretly started to paint. I just couldn’t stop. Before the colours would even dry, I got scared and I burned it all.
But that day something moved inside me.
I found out what my talent was.”

=(sun mu)

When His birthday comes, 
all the children in the country sing.

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. That is to say New York City and Seoul invaded by homeless people begging in the street, just to give you an example.

Then he smiled bitterly.
“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.”

=(sun mu)

My mother washes clothes in a willow-swayed stream.
I play with my friends around my mother.
This is my hometown.

The realisation

“I remember I used to hide in the tobacco fields. Truth to be told, I was scared and insecure.”

“I was studying Art at University when we had the greatest famine of our history: people were starving. It was in the 90s. Food supplies were always coming late. One month, two months. And our rice was never there…”

He was hungry, and so was his family. He had to do something.
So, he made a plan: he would run away to China to reach his relatives, ask them some money and food, and then go back to North Korea.

He went to a little village at the border and stayed for two weeks at a family who was working as illegal agency for defectors.
Every day he walked to the top of a hill from where he could see the land of his hope: China. All he had to do was crossing the Tuman river.

“At night I studied the area, looking for the best way to run away. I remember I used to hide in the tobacco fields. Truth to be told, I was terrified.”

But one night he decided that the time had come. And he started the journey.

=(sun mu)

Where to go.
Looking at the stars in the sky I crossed the Tuman River.
Do not stop my way to find my beloved one.

The identity

China was his very first contact with the outside world. And he started to have some doubts about everything he had been taught in North Korea. And yet, he would tell to himself “don’t doubt, North Korea is the best, and you will go back”.

But right when he was ready to go back, something changed his plans.

“I was informed that in North Korea there had been some last-minute elections and the whole country had gone to vote. This meant only one thing: they knew I was missing…”

Running away was considered a big shame. Not only they would cut defectors out of the society: they were not seen as human beings anymore.
That was the moment Sun Mu realised he could never go back to his homeland.

I want to see
I want to hear
I want to feel

I want to eat
I want to play
I want to have

“I stayed in China for two years”, recalls Sun Mu.
“But the Chinese police was looking for North Korean defectors to send them back, and even if I lied my accent would betray me as soon as I started to speak. I was a danger for the whole neighbourhood, they were taking a big risk to protect me.
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. How on Earth could he get there?
That’s when his long and arduous journey started.
He had in fact been told that in Thailand there was the South Korean embassy.
He travelled for months, trekking through Laos and Vietnam.

“I was inspired by the places I was seeing, and painted very often. I also ran into many indigenous tribes in the forests: they would always show me which way to go. Other times, I would just guide myself with the sun or the stars.”

=(sun mu)

I cannot release my face
this is me and the reality

The other world – Seoul

“I realised there is no wrong, there is no right: it’s just about different ways to see things.”

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: people wearing modern clothes, piercings, tattoos and dyed hair. The girls were dating many boys at the same time, while in North Korea everybody was so conservative.
Here it was, the rotten capitalistic society he had seen in the TV.

“I couldn’t understand that society. I couldn’t even fully understand their language. Relationships in that modern world were very superficial and shallow. The girls were dating many boys at the same time, while in North Korea they were so conservative. Everything was just insane!”

Plus, people were scared of North Koreans.

“They thought we were weird. I couldn’t make friends because everybody was afraid of me. One of my classmates could barely look at me in the eyes without shivering.” 

=(sun mu)

“Although we are different, let us play together.”

It took him many years to see both sides of the coin.
He told me, “I realised there is no wrong, there is no right: it’s just about different ways to see things.”
What fascinates him in South Korea is the fact that everybody has personal freedom: whether it’s the choice of who to marry, where to work or what kind of life to live. But politically it had always depended on the United States.
On the other hand, while North Korea didn’t have any personal freedom, it maintained its own political system.

(sun mu)

“South and North Korea, let us meet together and have a good drink”

Today – the artist with no face

“Daddy, why your friend doesn’t wear a suit and go to the office like you?”

Today, Sun Mu lives in Seoul: he graduated from the Art University, got married and has kids.
But part of his family still lives in North Korea.
“I need to paint undercover and with a fake name to protect them, because my art works could cost their lives. That’s why I don’t show up at my exhibitions around the world.”

“I am not interested in blaming anyone anymore. I just want to feel free to express my feelings, trying to be a bridge between North and South Korea through my art works.”

Only few colleagues, a handful of journalists, and obviously his wife know about his real identity.

“People I meet on a daily basis have no clue about who I really am: not even my closest friends. Sometimes they ask me why I don’t work, and even their kids are curious. Sometimes they tell them – daddy, why your friend doesn’t wear a suit and go to the office like you? -“, he laughs.

They don’t know that while they are in the office I am painting a portrait of Kim Jong-Un with Mickey Mouse and Tinker Bell on his shoulder”.
Here, we all laugh.

When I ask him about his feelings on the recent improvements between North and South Korea, he smiles.

“I am happy, 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.
Plus, South Korea is modern and developed, while North Korea is way less advanced. If they reunify now, South Korea would just take over.
In my opinion, now they need to start a long-lasting friendship, and in the meantime North Korea needs to grow.
And then, eventually, when they reach the same level they will go back together. Just naturally.”

And when I look at my South Korean interpreter, he smiles too.

I agree”, he says.

“I hope that more and more people will visit North Korea – especially young people, who hold the future in their hands. Young people can change things.
They need to know that there is a real country out there, with real people living in…”

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.

=(sun mu)

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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