Most rap songs do not deal with matters of geopolitical significance — such as nuclear weapons and labor camps — but Kang Chun-hyok is not most rappers. The 29-year-old is an escapee from North Korea.
“You took money that we made digging earth to fund nuclear weapons. Take out that fat from your pot belly. Nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons,” he rapped at the opening of an exhibition in Seoul this month titled Kkotjebi in Bloom. “I am not afraid. Go ahead, attack me,” Kang continued, moving his right hand Eminem-style.
“Give me back that dirtied money. Show me the money,” he concluded, to cheers from the humanitarian workers, foreign diplomats and academics in the gallery, and from people who happened to be walking along Insadong-gil, a central Seoul street lined with art galleries and tourist shops.
Kang is one of a generation of North Korean defectors coming of age and finding his voice in South Korea. And his triumph is even more noteworthy given that he was a kkot-jebi, or “flowering swallow,” the term used in North Korea for homeless children, a reference to their constant hunt for food and shelter.
Kang ran away from his home in a northern North Korean province at age 13, and finally arrived in the South three years later, in 2001. He is now in his senior year as a fine-arts major at Hongik University, one of the South’s top creative colleges.
Kang also had his artwork on display in the exhibition, organized by the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization, to draw attention to the hardships that children in North Korea face. A set of his drawings — illustrations for a Southern children’s book called “Do You Know How Happy You Are?” — shows skinny kids in tattered clothing searching for food and sleeping on the street.
“People here don’t know anything about what’s going on in North Korea,” Kang said in an interview at the exhibition, “so I’m trying to show what is really happening there.”