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Portrait of a North Korean propagandist turned protest artist

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Before fleeing to China, Song was a propaganda artist. In a rural studio south of the capital, Pyongyang, he created grinning portraits of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il and vibrant billboards depicting ranks of revolutionary workers and peasants.

Song started painting as a hobby, but his talents were quickly noticed by the authorities and he was soon recruited to work for the regime.

He says the central authorities would present him with strict models outlining the posters’ style and content. Painting “outside the lines” – making personal alterations to the models – was strictly forbidden. “Every line, every angle, it was all presented in the model. It was just copying. There was no creativity, none of the artist’s personality, nothing.”

At his small studio in suburban Seoul, Song unveils a reproduction of a typical propaganda poster, rendered in an apocalyptic palette of reds and browns. It shows a stern-faced worker clenching his weapon, with shrill yellow Korean script running along the top and bottom of the painting: Are you going to live as a free human, or as a slave? Let’s protect the red flag of the revolution until the very end.

“In North Korea, this is an actual slogan,” Song says. “But it could be turned back at them: Are you going to live as free men or as slaves? Look at how you’re living: You’ve got no freedom of speech or activity or assembly, or anything in North Korea.”

Defector numbers

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