What role can ‘visual arts’ and ‘North Korean refugees’ play for the future of the Korean peninsula?

Koreans are still living in a state of tentative war. This is because two countries, the Republic of Korea (known as South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (known as North Korea) arrived towards the end of the Korean War in 1953 at a ceasefire agreement, not a peace treaty.

Although as a South Korean, I have had no experience the war, I have many opportunities to hear and see its painful legacy. I had a few fellow students from North Korea in my university years, so I would sometimes hear about the tough process of defection, during which my peers risked of their lives. Interestingly, even though each of them had different reasons for deciding to defect, they seemed to form a bond of sympathy, since many North Korean refugees experience similar indescribable pain. Specifically, among the alumnus, Chun-hyuk Kang (강춘혁, 1986~) has been an impressive North Korean refugee artist as well as rapper in South Korea. Notably he made headlines in 2014 when he participate in a rap survival audition TV Show named ‘Show Me the Money Season 3’. In an interview with Hanuribiz (2017), he said: ‘I want to convey my story to help restore the homogeneity of the two Koreas as well as North Korean refugees like me through my arts as possible as I can.’

In addition to this, there is a North Korea Human Rights Film Festival (NHIFF) established in 2010 in Seoul, South Korea, to introduce and share the reality of North Korean human rights and the need for the reunification.

Further, the 2017 selected movie ‘Crocodiles in Mekong River’ was directed by Yoo-sung Park (박유성), a North Korean refugee. This documentary film shows the route of defection through Thailand of two young South Korean and two North Korean refugees in order to not only provide indirect experience of the defection but also to challenge stereotypes of defectors. (Many North Korean refugees are also participating in the NKHIFF as actors and writers, to name but a few roles that enhance the practicality of the festival.)

As well as the two artist mentioned above, there are North Korean refugees using painting, movie, books, appearances of television, YouTube and so on. In common, they are sharing their own experiences by utilizing visual arts to provide various assistance, from their human rights to the reconciliation of the two Koreas. In this context, what could we, each Korean person who grew up and live in different environments for nearly 70 years due to conflicting political ideologies, really contribute towards a peaceful reunification? Recently amid optimistic prospects for reunification pouring in and out of the Korean Peninsula from ‘the Pyeongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018’, we should seriously consider the role of ‘cultural unification’ based on the aforementioned visual arts to accomplish complete unification step by step. In the process, North Korean refugees visual artists and arts will able to play an important role like a stepping-stone by representing both sides.

By Naim Seo