Political Art “I am Sun Mu”: The Precarious Existence of a North Korean Satirical Artist

In a country with controlled human rights where trained artists create propaganda,  there is no such thing as contemporary art. Abstract art is forbidden and political art is unheard of.

“I am Sun Mu”, a documentary that screens at London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival yesterday, demonstrates the intersection of these elements. Sun Mu (meaning “no boundaries”) is a North Korean political pop artist who fled the hermit kingdom in 1998. Adam Sjoberg, the director of the film, follows the artist as he prepares for the opening of a controversial solo show at the Yuan Art Museum in Beijing. Entitled “Red, White, Blue” (after North Korea’s flag colours), the exhibition shows artwork critical of the regime with a blend of humour. One oil painting “Santa Claus” (2011) shows Kim Il Sung in a red and white furry Santa hat, while another features the names of his country’s leaders written on the floor and visitors must tread across them to enter his exhibition.

The decision to become an artist came early in life for Mr Sun, when he saw Kim II Sung on television with a group of artistically-gifted children who were praised and celebrated. He was only eight or nine but he wanted to please the Leader through art. After joining the army at 18, he was assigned to churn out propaganda posters bearing slogans like “The great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will always be with us!” and “Destroy capitalism!”

Throughout the film, Mr Sun is a man of few words and he does not permit his face to be shown on camera in case the DPRK government discovers his identity and sends his family to prison camps. North Korea has a rule—the “Three Generations of Punishment”—that penalises criminals and their family if the offence is deemed to be insulting to the state. 28,000 North Korean defectors have successfully fled to South Korea. Others aren’t so fortunate; nine out of ten are caught by border guards and either jailed for life or killed.

Luckily, Mr Sun made it out in 1998 as he swam across the Tumen River to China in the middle of the night. He was 26 years old, and left because he was famished. North Korea was experiencing an unfathomable famine that impoverished the country from 1994-1998. Once he arrived in China, Mr Sun took a bus to Laos, travelled to Thailand, and then took a flight to South Korea in 2002. He settled in Gongju before studying art at Hongik University in Seoul.

Now 44, he is recognised for criticising the regime of Kim Jong Un with satirical paintings. Some fuse playful Disney characters with a military aesthetic: “How about this 1” (2013) shows Pluto the dog with a North Korean child. Another has Kim Jong Un flanked by princesses and animals from the franchise, wearing Mickey Mouse ears. Others are more poignant; “Song of Knife 1 and 2” (2010) features political leaders wielding samurai swords. Some sculptures use barbed wire, which Mr Sun stole from the Demilitarised Zone border between North and South Korea, adorned with fake flowers. The border is known to be one of the most dangerous in the world; the pieces are symbolic of the thin divide between peace and violence.

Even a decade after his departure, Mr Sun continued to feel brainwashed. As he learned the truth, he became more critical of the regime and painted Kim Il Sung standing under an upside down North Korean flag in “God of Korea” from 2007. The painting was made in his Seoul studio, but the fear that someone would come up behind him and stab him for betraying North Korean beliefs persisted. Mr Sun tried to display the piece at the 2008 Busan Biennale but it was pulled last minute, proving too controversial to exhibit in South Korea.

The true power of art lies in a freedom of expression. Mr Sun is not alone in his endeavour; art has been treated as a form of criminal act in China too. Dissident artist Ai Weiwei and the hundreds of other artists and writers who have been detained are proof. Yet Mr Sun, after all this, still has hope: he dreams of exhibiting his work in Pyongyang one day.