He spent four years as a propaganda artist, portraying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in unvaryingly heroic poses, but now the painter Sunmu is having fun with the form. Since arriving in the South in 2001, 38-year-old Sunmu — it’s an assumed name — has been lampooning his old master from a musty studio in a run-down suburb of western Seoul. In the eponymous work Kim Jong Il, the North Korean supremo is shown in a pink tracksuit, grinning and fat. In Please Have Some Medicine (pictured), he is a dying hospital patient being offered Coca-Cola by a faceless North Korean child. In Remote Controller, he is a demigod overseeing destruction, militarization and fear.
It’s no wonder Sunmu — the name can be translated as “no divisions,” a reference to his wish for a united Korea — refuses to show his face in photographs and frequently moves about Seoul in dark sunglasses and a hat. “I worry for my family back in the North,” he says, wary of the brutal punishments dealt out to defectors’ relatives — never mind the relatives of defectors who choose to subvert the revered likeness of the Dear Leader or who produce blasphemous images of the worker’s paradise. One of Sunmu’s best-known series of works, the Happy Children paintings, features rows of identical North Korean youngsters wearing fixed, disturbing grins that radiate hysteria rather than joy. “No one knows what happiness is in North Korea,” Sunmu explains. “They are just told to be happy.”(See rare pictures from inside North Korea.)
It was simple hunger that drove Sunmu out of North Korea in 1998. A talented painter since childhood, he was assigned to a propaganda unit during compulsory military service and so impressed his superiors that that the normal 10-year tour of duty was cut to four years, and he was allowed to attend art school. But, at 27, the famished student crossed the Tumen River into China, eventually finding a path to South Korea via Laos following three years in hiding. Once in Seoul, he used a government stipend to further his art studies, and since graduating has eked out a precarious living, supporting his wife — whom he met in China — and young daughter on an artist’s income. It wasn’t until his first solo exhibition — held last year and entitled “We Live in a Happy World” — that he began to establish a reputation. These days, his pieces sell locally and overseas for around $3,000 and up.
Diplomats and expatriates are among Sunmu’s best customers, because curiously his work meets with a mixed reception from many South Koreans. Tough national security restrictions govern any display of North Korean imagery, and pictures of Kim Jong Il are no laughing matter to some gallery owners and officials, even if the satire is leaping off the canvas. Organizers removed a Sunmu painting of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father and the founder of North Korea, from an international festival in Pusan last year.(See pictures of Kim Jong Il.)
“People worry his work might be viewed as communist propaganda because they only look at the surface meaning,” says Yi Sun Ju, an independent curator in Seoul. “In fact, most of the interest in his work comes from abroad or from South Koreans who have lived overseas.”
Unsurprisingly, Sunmu is headed overseas for his next show — a group exhibition at the New Society for Visual Arts (NGBK) gallery in Berlin on the theme of migration during the Cold War. The show is being held as part of the commemorations for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and runs from Oct. 10 to Nov. 15. It doesn’t look like there will be a repeat of German reunification on the Korean peninsula anytime soon, but Sunmu can still hope. One of his strangely poignant paintings depicts a group of teenagers from the North and South — sharing Starbucks coffee.