Mock the “Dear Leader” with Song Byeok

Song Byeok - Take Off Your Clothes - acrylic on hanji; courtesy of

When Korean contemporary artist Song Byeok exhibits his work, he uses a pseudonym. That’s because he’s actually North Korean: his satirical paintings of the “Dear Leader” could result in execution or lifelong sentences in a gulag for the relatives he’s left behind.

This weekend, “The Departure” – an exhibit of his work at The Dunes – brings that dangerous satire to DC.

North Korea selected Song to be a state propaganda artist when he was only 24. According to an interview with Reuters, Song practically worshiped Kim Jong-il at the time, although he never met the dictator during his duties. Instead, he was handed a sketch every morning of daily propaganda to paint.

Song Byeok - Beloved Leader - acrylic on hanji; courtesy of

The severe famine in North Korea during the 1990’s eventually led Song to escape. He defected to South Korea, where he lives now.

While Song’s work retains the flatness of propaganda, his mockery of Kim Jong-il gives it new dimension. The acrylic paintings perfectly balance a tension between life and death, liberty and repression. He honors the North Korean people even as his dishonors the late dictator, and in doing so has become a bit of a pop art sensation.

Song Byeok - Messenger of Good News - acrylic on hanji; courtesy

It’s exciting to see such powerful images from the paintbrush of an artist who only recently obtained freedom of expression. The pieces look like they could explode any minute with energy, hope, youthfulness, and certainly some anger. You can sense that Song is still in process – and may always be – following his experiences in North Korea.

“Departure” invites us to learn more about the situation and people of North Korea; but in a larger sense it challenges us to feel deeper gratitude for artistic freedom and to use that freedom extravagantly.

Song Byeok’s “Departure” opens tonight at 7pm at The Dunes in Columbia Heights and runs April 13-30, 2012. Hours vary – check the venue calendar for specific dates and times. Recommended donation of $5. The Dunes is located at 1402 Meridian Place NW, Washington, DC 20009. Closest Metro: Columbia Heights (Yellow/Green line). For more information call 202-436-9118.

(Sponsored by the US-Korea Institute at SAIS and The Dartmouth Asian Pacific American Alumni Association, SB-DC’s project partner.)

Joanna moved to DC in 2010 knowing she’d love it, and as usual she was right. She enjoys eating fried things, drinking scotch and smoking cigars, and makes up for the damage done by snacking on organic oats and barley and walking long distances to wherever with her dog Henry. Joanna now lives with her husband and said dog in Los Angeles, and they all miss DC terribly. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at

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