Visual Representations of North Korea: Harm or Benefit?

By | July 09, 2012 | 3 Comments

Official State Portrait of Kim Jong Il at his funeral.
Photo courtesy AP

Visual Representations of North Korea: Harm or Benefit?

by Jimin Lee

The Korea Society is currently holding the very first North Korean Poster Exhibition in New York City. The posters are from the Katharina Zellweger Collection, named for the individual whose work for the last 20 years has focused on North Korean agriculture development. Zellweger purchased the posters during her five years as director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation program in Pyongyang . The gallery director, Jinyoung Jin, disarms the notion that the exhibution of these works is pure politics, saying that the collection is only about agriculture and food in the North. And indeed, a few visitors to the show responded that the posters, with images of animals, crops, and traditional sports, humanized the North Korean experience in a way that increased their understanding of the dire plight of the average North Korean.

The conscious effort of the latest trend in media and art is to make North Korea, the leaders, and the related issues accessible and tangible, relevant to humans instead of antiseptic abstractions. Since Kim Jong Il’s death and the regime’s failed missile test, the media have portrayed Kim Jong Un’s regime as uncontrollable and radical while famine and human rights violations are still dire and urgent. The latest images of North Korea and the leaders’ caricatures are prevailing, and it is still questionable whether any efforts will ultimately bring peace between North Korea and the international community.

Representations |  The images depicted by Song Byeok, the North Korean artist who defected from North Korea in 2002, are satirical and provocative as one can see above.  The pictures simultaneously release and reflect the angst towards the ongoing political and military tension.  They capture in a, very vivid way, the conflicting absurdities that are North Korea.

Song Byeok defected to South Korea and came to the US to pursue freedom of expression in the art world; Something long denied to him in North Korea where he could only paint political slogans such as “ Let’s become the bullet for general Kim Jong Il”. He says, “ None of the artists in North Korea have freedom of expression”. One of his pieces titled “Take Off Your Clothes” shows his satirical voice towards the regime by depicting Kim Jong Il dressed like Marilyn Monroe, an icon of liberation especially signified by the Freedom Dove.

Song Byeok with Kim Jong Il.
Photo courtesy Reuters: Kim Kyung Hoon

Gregory Pence is one of the artists influenced by this North Korean artist, Song Byeok. Pence combined the North’s human rights issue with cartoon and animation. He depicted the North’s regime satirical way with his signature style of bright tones and colors. Gradually his pieces evolved into sharp criticisms of the regime. He tells  Daily NK in his interview that “ His work is to (be a ?)voice for people who are voiceless, to represent the values that are closest to the heart”.

Film Representations |  In Japan, Eiji Han Shimizu, a producer of the animated film project, is leading a new media project telling a true story based on a testimony of prisoners in North Korea. He met the director of Human Rights Watch Japan who urged him to look into the human rights abuses inside North Korean prison camps. He hopes to draw the public into the issue by using accessible and popular media like animation. He says “…the world would stand up and remember that it is humanity we are talking about not the politics.”

Yodok Stories – Surviving and Escaping a notorious prison.

Musical Representations |  Based on “Yodok Story” the latest musical “Until the Day” also tells a story of North Korean human rights. The NK Daily magazine classifies the musical  as ‘faction (fact+tion)’ instead of ‘fiction’ because it is based on the facts. It also goes beyond mere ideological conflict; the subject holds the two Koreas can be reconciled in love. The play is not too dark or depressed as one might suppose a play about large scale human suffering would be, but delivers fun to the audience via vibrant and upbeat songs.  Through these literary and media devices, it maximizes the tensions and emotions to motivate feelings of  the necessity of improving human rights in North Korea at the ground level.

The unification of the divided peninsula is not simply the integration of economy and ideology. Unification is related to the much more fundamental and important issues of human freedom and dignity. A lot of stories introduced above use various perfomance media and engage the senses of sight, sound and humor to bring attention to  these problems.

Through movies and videos the ‘values’ required for the integration of two sides are well expressed and they deeply penetrate the central need for unification.


Conclusion | At the North Korea Human Rights International Film Festival Opening, ‘North Korea VJ’ director, Ishimaru Jiro, assures that through visual arts dire issues of North Korea can be seen in a better way because it engages multiple audiences with its powerful ripple effect. Jiro’s thoughts are a fitting conclusion: “The most effective thing about movies, broadcasting, or books is that images give great shock to many people. It will draw the attention from the audience to how real the reality of human rights in North Korea is. ”


3 Comments

  1. Where are the films “North Korea VJ” and “Winter Butterfly” going to be shown in New York on/after July 19th?

  2. Bernie – are you named after “that” Bernie? Just an aside, we’re checking on the dates/locations. Both films were recently screened in D.C. at the North Korea Human Rights Film Festival. http://www.nkhrff.com/films-schedule/

  3. It is I. Thanks for looking.

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