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North Korea’s defector-activists: imagining a unified Korea

Sun Mu, the artist whose name translates to ‘No Borders’

Sun Mu defected from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, to South Korea in 1998. There, he worked as an artist tasked with producing propaganda for the state. Today, under the free artistic expression privileged in the more liberal southern state, he has more freedom to make art for himself and others. What he calls, “my propaganda”.

Ironically, his art continues to resemble the kind of propaganda produced by the DPRK state. Combining harsh communist propaganda with liberal satire, Sun Mu says his work is a reflection of his unlikely life and experiences as a DPRK defector living in South Korea. Through these mediums, he manages to delicately capture the deep-rooted tensions which have formed after 70 years of the political divide. In opening a dialogue on this contentious issue, Sun Mu challenges the border and the polarised politics either side of it. Rather than picking a side, he claims to promote a politics of sameness and understanding.

‘Hard’. Sun Mu wants his art to challenge ideological divides and bring about a unified Korea.

Why do North Koreans defect to South Korea?

Sun Mu is not alone in his circumstances. Over 30,000 people have defected from the DRPK to South Korea since the end of the Korean war in 1953. Forced labour, famine and religious persecution are a few of the reasons why people leave to seek refuge in the south. Most defectors initially escape across the northern border to China, before undertaking a dangerous journey to Thailand where they can finally fly to South Korea. While other neighbouring countries also offer asylum to DPRK refugees, most defectors seek citizenship in South Korea. Despite the political divide, there is still a sense of a united Korean ethnic identity and South Korea is seen by many defectors as their homeland.

Missing home

When they arrive, the realities of life in the south can also be difficult. Arriving with no money and often no family, many defectors struggle to get on their feet in a competitive market economy. Research shows that many defectors struggle to come to grips with the cut-throat individualism of one of Asia’s largest economies. This is despite the state’s funding of extensive integration programmes run by South Korea’s own Ministry of Reunification.

Many face prejudice and xenophobia for their northern identity and are perceived as “peasants” by those from the south.

North Korean diasporas across the world have faced this kind of xenophobia. Six-hundred-thousand North Koreans live in Japan. Many of them were born in Japan and consider themselves Japanese. However, the community has faced a politics of suspicion from the state, exacerbated by growing political tensions between the two countries. This has fuelled a campaign of abuse from far-right nationalist groups who tell them to “go home”. This can leave many defectors feeling deeply marginalised by the host society.

Sun Mu has experienced such alienation first-hand. At his first art exhibition at the Busan Biennale in South Korea, his exhibition was reported to the police as DPRK propaganda. This highlights the continued prevalence of ideological divides between the states - particularly among attitudes in the south, which prides itself as being a liberal democracy whose constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Alienation in the host country has led to many looking back to their lives in North Korea. Many miss their homes in the north, where they have left friends, family, and their culture behind. However, once defectors arrive in the south, they are automatically ‘naturalised’. They are given South Korean citizenship and are prohibited from returning home, or ‘double defecting’. For those who miss home, the border, first a barrier to freedom from a repressive regime, is now an impasse preventing them from returning to their home and loved ones.

One defector, Kim Ryon-hui, left the DPRK hoping to access better health care. She arrived in South Korea not realising that she would never be able to return home. She has been campaigning against the South Korean state to be sent home and reunited with her family ever since.

Kim Ryon-hui, holding a picture of her daughter.

Imagining a Korea without borders

Others are not so sure about returning home, due to the repressive nature of the DPRK state. They see reunification as the only solution to ending the divide and reuniting Koreans on both sides of the border. Defector Park Sang-Hak founded Fighters for a Free North Korea, a group which campaigns for unification and the end of the DPRK regime. His method is to challenge the very propaganda that he sees as upholding the political divide.

Every week, they fill balloons with counter-propaganda, in the form of declarations of human rights, sweets and South Korean soap operas, and send it over the border.

For Park Sang-Hak, reunification means the restoration of Korean national identity, the reunification of the Korean people and the breaking down of physical and ideological borders which have divided the nation for the past 70 years. He holds onto the memory of his homeland but imagines a different future.

Balloons carrying counter-propaganda drift across the border.

Unfortunately, the South Korean state has recently changed its policy toward such activism. It now tries to discourage activists from flying counter-propaganda over the border. The state claims that it wants to minimise confrontations that might emerge from programmes such as Park Sang-Hak’s balloons. However, the state has also reversed its policy on encouraging North Korean defection. Some argue this is related to the challenges the state faces in integrating defectors into South Korean society. Activists have criticised these actions, arguing that a retreat from policies aimed to promote reunification have further entrenched the divide and signify a regression back to the cold war stand-off.

For now, the likes of Sun Mu, Kim Ryon-hui, and Park Sang-Hak will have to wait.


About the Author

Corin has worked with a number of community organisations over the years on a variety of social justice issues such as equality and diversity and environmental sustainability. In particular, his experience with organisations such as Leeds Development Education Centre and Muslim Engagement and Development has centred around promoting intercultural understanding through global learning and perspectives. He recently graduated with an Anthropology degree from the University of Sussex. He is currently working as a mental health support worker alongside volunteering as a tutor with Conversation over Borders and Action Tutoring, which provides academic support for school children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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