In the previous interview with the KTG team, we discovered the point of view of tourism operators in North Korea. However, many of my whys remained unanswered. I felt the need to compare myself with a person who was native to the country. A person who did not speak to me for commercial purposes or who offered me a reality packaged by the regime. In North Korea, interviews are illegal. Furthermore, it is practically impossible to communicate with anyone, as the internet signal is absent and every single movement is controlled by the government. I was left with one remote possibility: to get in touch with someone who had managed to cross the borders of North Korea. In recent years, several young people have managed to escape, but many indulge in incoherent and often blatantly engineered speeches to achieve notoriety. Only one person remained. When I wrote to him, my hopes of receiving an answer were minimal. Instead I was wrong. He is Sun Mu, the artist of the two Koreas. His life changed dramatically in one night. Within hours he found himself without a family. Without a homeland. Faceless. Nameless…
Sun Mu could not have known that that desperate swim between the stars and the moon would cost him his identity. No one has seen his face since that night. Nobody ever called him by name again. Even today, more than twenty years later, he has to wear a mask in public. To show up would be too big of a risk, as his family is still in North Korea. Sun Mu is not his real name. It means ''without borders'' and is the pseudonym he chose for his second life. Without borders… it sounds ironic for a person who has suffered so much because of borders. But his name is a tribute to hope. The hope that one day those two Koreas who cannot find a balance, can return to dialogue. Sun Mu promotes peace through art. When he was a child, he saw his peers painting for Kim Il Sung or King Jong Il. The leaders complimented these little propaganda artists. So, Sun Mu decided that this would be his destiny: to study art to prove his loyalty to the leaders and to the country. He believed he was happy. He believed that his art represented his free thinking. But from that night in the river, he began to understand that he had lived in a great lie. He decided to continue making art. This time, however, for himself. It wasn't easy. When he held his first solo exhibition in Beijing in 2014, Chinese authorities seized and burned his works. An arrest warrant was issued. Among his crimes, drawing a North Korean girl playing hand in hand with a South Korean boy. Because of that exhibition, he was forced to seek refuge in South Korea, where he still lives today. Since then he hasn't heard from his family. Although his talent has achieved world fame and his story has been consecrated by the award-winning film I Am Sun Mu, this great artist has not forgotten his roots. For me it was a real honor to be able to interact with him. I'll never know his name. I don't even care. What I will remember about him is the kindness and dignified melancholy with which he welcomed me into his story.
Sun Mu, you did not leave North Korea by will. You found yourself on the other side of the line and suddenly you were alone, orphaned. What were your thoughts in the days that followed the moment you realized that you could never go back?
Everybody has their beloved parents, siblings, friends and a beautiful hometown. They are meant to live in our memories. I never dreamed of leaving all this behind. However, the existence of man is often unpredictable. I too have had to deal with unwanted things in my life. At the time I thought it would not be good for me and my family. I took this path and now I feel it will be difficult to see my parents again. I thought: ''How will you be able to live in this unknown Chinese land? What can you do for a living? Why should I live like this? Why should I live in hiding? Why should I live without an identity? Why should I live escaping the eyes of public safety every single day?''. So many questions were going through my head ...
Who helped you in the first few months?
My relatives live in China. I lived with their help.
How did you feel when you found out that you have lived in a big lie all your life?
I found out that I lived like a frog in a well. I lived by trusting only in the General. Then I started thinking about the value of my existence. Every time I did this, I felt that this faith kept falling apart. I wanted to continue to believe only in the General, but the real world seemed to whisper that it was not possible. I wanted to get away from reality. The meaning and regret of living in the world have disappeared. My life in China has been the continuation of this agony.
Your pseudonym sounds like a hope for peace and not a provocative incitement. However, the Chinese government has not grasped either the meaning of your name or that of your works. Why did the Chinese government, instead of helping you, try to arrest you, according to the will of the North Korean regime?
I chose this name in the hope that the dividing line between North and South Korea will disappear. China fears that the North and the South are playing well with each other. China hopes that the South and the North will continue to be divided. Therefore, China cannot ignore the demands of the North Korean authorities. They are uncomfortable with my existence, more than with my works of art. The Chinese government knew the meaning of my work, but considered it more important to comply with the North Korean government's demands and tried to arrest me. Luckily, I escaped and managed to get to Seoul.
South Korea is often described as the opposite of North Korea. Is this really so or are there still certain ideologies related to the Cold War?
The two Koreas have been living with different systems for over 70 years. Therefore, there are many differences in reality between the South and the North. I'm not saying who is better and who is worse. The way of life is different. I think that, in order for the South and the North to resume a dialogue and turn to the future, they should first of all know the current reality of both countries. I try to express the future of the South and the North in my work with a critical perspective on reality.
In many of your works, humanity clearly emerges, not politics. I think these two worlds drifted apart a long time ago… What do you think? Are humanity and politics starting to dialogue in the two Koreas?
Yes, it is true that they have drifted apart. I thought the era of ideology was over, but the South and the North are still at war even though it's been 70 years since the split. Even here in South Korea, some people don't like the exchange and communication between the two Koreas. For example, if I try to meet my brothers who live in a room on the upper floors of a house, I will only be able to do so by asking permission from everyone who lives in the house. I don't know if you know this unusual and miserable reality of North and South Korea. The current reality is that the inter-Korean problem is made more difficult due to the calculation of the profits of various countries such as the United States, China, Japan and Russia. The important thing is that the officials of the two Koreas resolve the problem of division responsibly.
Do you think future generations of North Korean leaders will understand the need for a change of course? Could Western governments favor or disadvantage this process?
The socialist capitalist theory was born to give people a better life. However, due to the greed of some individual selfishness, they split sides and created ideologies to fight each other. In this design, suffering and death had to be endured by the ''good people''. When I think back to my childhood and my youth in North Korea, I see the political will to make people's thoughts converge only on the party to prevent them from thinking about anything else. North Korea may appear to be a comfortable country where people enjoy health care, hospital care and free school education. And the system actually guarantees all of this. However, due to the economic sanctions of the United States and the United Nations, people's lives have become difficult and national institutions are struggling to function properly. There are countries that are trying to take advantage of the situation in North Korea. Several countries want it to collapse. For example, if the United States builds a missile, it is a weapon for world peace. If North Korea does it, it is a weapon of destruction, not a reaction. This is an unfair reality. I think it's hard to change things this way. I think the method should be to solve the problem through dialogue, cooperation and exchange.
How does the regime manage to kill people's thinking? Are there curiosity and doubt in North Korea?
Well, there are many ways. Much depends on the type of education that is given. They educate us to join the cause of the Great Leader to complete the project of socialism. They educate the whole society to become Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. It is difficult to go abroad, so there are no objects of comparison or curiosity. In a strictly organized social structure, social life is also regularly organized. There is no space to think about anything else. There are many countries in this world, but I don't think anyone manages people like North Korea. However, as exchanges with foreign countries increase, thoughts may change little by little.
Does the concept of 'I' exist in North Korea? What relationship do people have with their souls and feelings?
The soul of the North Koreans? From childhood, North Koreans are educated to fight for the party, the leader, the country and the people. In short, only for the leader! ''Only in the leader will we believe. Only the leader we will follow''. If you read this sentence, don't you think of something similar in your life? Before coming to South Korea, I had been to a Christian church in Thailand and I had a similar feeling ... ''Trust only in your Lord Jesus!''. In North Korea I was ready to die for the General and for my country. If they had given me a nuclear backpack, I would have worn it and used it. I would have died fiercely and heroically in Japanese or American lands.
I think your works have great power: looking at them you see not only North or South Korea, but also Palestinians and Jews, Armenians and Azeris, Turks and Kurds, or any other people or who lives in the balance between hatred and the possibility of dialogue…
This should be the charm of art. We are all human beings living on the same earth. We could all be sad looking at your sadness. We could all be happy looking at your happiness. You look at my life and maybe you see yours again. We live in relationship with one another. COVID-19 proved it to us. We are all human beings. Your job is also my job. My job is also your job. Only the politicians seem to ignore it.
Can freedom be taught?
Freedom… it is said that there is freedom in North Korea. However, it is very different from the freedom that others think. Maybe, if there was communication between the two Koreas and if foreigners traveled to the North, then maybe people would understand something. Suddenly teaching the freedom of the outside world can be counterproductive. It is like asking Christians to suddenly believe shamans. Time is needed.
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I believe that we Westerners should reflect on this last statement. Too many times our governments have supported wars disguised as peacekeeping missions. We have done serious damage that is difficult to repair. I thank Sun Mu for accepting my invitation. If you want to admire other works by him, you can visit his personal website.
My trip to North Korea ends here. We were able to compare two opposite points of view. I wanted to say a lot, especially in the first interview, but I agree with Sun Mu. Everyone needs their time and, on the other hand, everyone is free to travel wherever they want. If the lack of rights and all those human characteristics, including freedom of thought and speech, for some are fascinating, for me they continue not to be. I think observing certain things is like passively watching a huge aquarium where a shark devours small, unarmed fish. But this is my opinion. And you? What idea have you got?