(Yonhap Interview) North Korean rapper-painter talks about his incomplete mission

His grandparents came from Miryang, a small southeastern city in Korea. He studied fine art at a popular Seoul art school, illustrated four children books and held around 10 exhibitions with his paintings in and out of the country. Last Friday, he held an event to showcase his new songs.

Everything about Kang Chun-hyok, from his baseball cap to his hoodie, seemed so ordinary for a young Korean excited about a new adventure. Except that he escaped from North Korea in 1998 and made it to South Korea in 2001 when he was 14. Now 30, Kang has lived in the South longer than he did north of the border.

"I am still adjusting to society," Kang said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency a few hours before the event at a bar in the bustling university neighborhood of Hongdae. "It was much harder in the beginning."

Rapper and painter Kang Chun-hyok (Yonhap) Rapper and painter Kang Chun-hyok (Yonhap)

In his three new songs, including one titled "For the Freedom," he pulls no punches in criticizing the North Korean leadership. He raps: "The mother of the land is Ri Sol-ju. But she's not my mother. My mother earned tuberculosis in the mine. They make nukes by exploiting people digging in the earth." Ri is the wife of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

"Political news about North Korea is abundant. But outsiders don't really know what it is like for ordinary people to live outside the showcase city of Pyongyang," he said. "As someone who lived there, I felt a sense of mission for telling the true story."

Kang is from Onsung, North Hamkyung Province, located near the border with China. His father secretly crossed the border to work in China in 1997 only to be repatriated the next year. Sick and hungry, the whole family soon escaped to China and that became their new home for the next four years.

Being holed up there, he recalled that he once thought he would never risk his life to flee to South Korea upon hearing news after news of people being caught trying to do just that, often going through terrible ordeals back in the North. Life in China was not that bad, compared to the one he had in the North, he said.

But one day, the Chinese police broke into his house in the middle of the night and arrested them all for illegally staying in the country. His cousin, who was lucky enough to escape the sudden arrest, later bribed the police to let them go free.

His family had no choice but to leave China because it was not safe anymore. After several months of nightmarish plight, they finally arrived in South Korea. It was August 2001.

"I was surprised to see that the airport was so clean and modern. When a South Korean intelligence agent told us 'Welcome to the Republic of Korea,' I felt instantly relieved."

Starting a new life, however, proved hard. His parents divorced soon after they arrived. Alone and hopeless, he often got into trouble in middle school and eventually dropped out. For the next few years, he worked part-time at design and publishing companies or a daily laborer at construction sites.

This image provided by artist Kang Chun-hyok shows one of his pencil drawings about North Korea's human rights violations. (Yonhap) This image provided by artist Kang Chun-hyok shows one of his pencil drawings about North Korea's human rights violations. (Yonhap)

Around 24, he pulled himself together "before it was too late." Rekindling his long-held passion for painting, he worked hard to enter the art school of Hongik University.

"I never forgot about how much I wanted to paint. Painting freely was one of the biggest reasons for my escape. I thought I had to take action before I regret not doing it."

Two years ago, Kang appeared on the popular hip-hop contest "Show Me the Money" on cable music channel Mnet. He was the talk of the town as the first rapper from North Korea. People whom he had befriended through the show and the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based North Korean human rights advocacy group, helped him pursue his cause and produce his songs.

Kang said he has chosen to rap because paintings can be shown in a limited space while music can reach a much bigger audience.

"When you ask any Korean to draw a Korean map, no one would draw only the South. People draw the whole peninsula. I hope more people listen to what I say and try to understand that we are one and the same nation," he said.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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