There is a myriad of questions, opinions and assumptions whenever you read the words ‘North Korea.’ Due to its highly stringent boarder controls, the north half of the amazing island is, and has for a long while been closed off to rest of the world, isolating itself both from the inside-out as much as the outside-in. And as with most things in life, the unknown has the ability to spark curiosity, but while us—the outsiders—wonder what life is really like within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we should realize that while many are surely numb with content in being within their sanctuary, there are still those that yearn to discover the big wide world and all that they’ve been shunned from by military force.
The pop artist’s story, and Sjöberg’s recount of his experience in getting to know Mu, is one that will without doubt change your views on North Korea as a whole.
This was very much the case for the North Korean controversial pop artists known publicly as Sun Mu—his real name to remain hidden, as he explains in our interview, due to fear of harm towards his family who still reside within the boundaries of his home country. In a sad yet epic and gripping story, Sun Mu offers himself out to the world, and through the lens of talented photographer and humanitarian filmmaker Adam Sjöberg who had the fortune of intimately documenting Mu after his escape, which has resulted in the highly acclaimed film aptly titled “I Am Sun Mu.”
The pop artist’s story is one that will without doubt change your views on North Korea as a whole, but more importantly reminds us of the human aspect that can be found in each and every one of us, no matter the creed, color or country, all of which is presented by Sun Mu himself, who we were lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with. Check out the trailer for I Am Sun Mu above, and read on for the unfolding of this amazing story.
We know “Sun Mu” means “No Boundaries,” but how did you come up with and decide on that name specifically?
As widely known already, I cannot work publicly with my real name because I am concerned about my family in North Korea whose safety can be jeopardized if the North Korean regime finds out my identity. When I decided to live my life as an artist, I also wanted to find a good artist name and what meaning I wanted it to represent. Yong-baek Lee is one of my professors who taught at my South Korean university, Hongik University. He is also a well known artist whose work depicts South Korean contemporary art and has exhibited his artworks at the 2011 Venice Biennale as a representative artist from South Korea. One night Professor Lee and I were hanging out, drinking and discussing different artist names for me. We came up with a name, 무선 Mu Sun (also means no boundaries) and later I changed it to Sun Mu 선무 because 무선 sounds more like wireless.
Where did you learn how to do art, and what did you start off painting?
When I was a kid, I saw Kim Il-sung being pleased with another kid and hugging that kid on TV. It was then I started to desire to make him happy through art and decided to become good at drawing. I started learning how to draw in art classes while in elementary school and I continued to practice drawing at home. At the time, I drew things I saw in my environment like rocks, trees, mountains, villages, people, living items, etc.
Art is an act of expression. Many of us don’t know what it’s actually like being an artist in North Korea. Can you describe what the typical environment is like for someone wanting to do art as a career?
I actually don’t know. I was not a recognized as an artist back in North Korea. I don’t know exactly what kind of environment it is even for the artists working at Mansudae Art Studio, which is considered the best art studio in North Korea. I can say what I have heard from other people about the environment there but I don’t want to.
Did you expect to receive the attention you have now when you started off making art? How does it make you feel?
When I started making art, I had no idea that my artwork will get as much attention as I am receiving now from people from all over the world but I knew that my genuine artwork would resonate with everyone. I am glad and thankful that certain individuals in different parts of the world are interested in my artwork. It feels good and it motivates me to make better artwork for everyone.
What keeps you motivated to do art today? What about life in general?
It is hard to say what keeps me motivated exactly butㅣalways try to figure out what we, as a society, need to do and what I need to do by drawing my life and my family’s lives in North Korea and thinking about the future of my daughters. I get ideas for my artwork from different current issues/social phenomenons, which is also the reason why I have to live my life the way I do and my wishes for the future of our society.
Many people have said the film is filled with heartbreaking moments, but we the audience don’t truly know this feeling. Can you describe what is the most heartbreaking about your journey as an artist?)
The most heartbreaking thing about my journey as an artist would probably have to be the tragedy of the two Koreas being divided. The reality here is I cannot see my parents and siblings nor can I call or write letters to them. I remember when I was hiding in China, I saw South Koreans being able to freely do business, have performances and meet Chinese people in public. On the other hand, I often had to meet people carefully and be cautious not to get caught by the Chinese police because I was from North Korea. It is reality that people live under and are discriminated against because of where they were born: North or South.
In my head, I was thinking, “Is it okay for me to cross the Tumen river like this? Am I making a right decision? Am I going to be dead by the time I arrive on the other side of the river? Why do I have to live like this?”
My South Korean friends in college and I were able to talk and understand each other. We were able to comfort each other in difficult times while drinking together. North Korea and South Korea use the same language and have been given the same history, tradition and culture for generations. However, we ignore and deny all of these and still are undergoing ideological warfare. This reality is such a tragedy for me and other Koreans.
You say in the film that “I’m just doing what I have to do.” In your own words, can you explain why you feel you need to do the type of art that you do?
Through my work, on a personal level, I am able to talk about my life and my family’s lives so this is why I have to do what I do. Within a bigger picture, the world can get to know the lives of North and South Koreans and I can paint the future of North and South Korea, which shows interaction with each other and depicts hope. This is the part I can do for the North Korean issue.
Is there anything that you miss about being in North Korea? What are they?
I miss everything I know while growing up in North Korea. Of course, I think a lot about my parents and siblings and even the trees and rocks that I used to see on my way to school. I miss the times when I’d go to someone’s watermelon field to steal some watermelons with friends. I remember when my body got so swollen because I got stung by bumblebees while trying to get honey from a hive on a mountain and when I went out to a farming town to help with farm work and had the chance to play games with some girls there during break time. I miss all of these moments and feel very nostalgic about them.
That night when you first stepped into the river after hiding in the tobacco field, can you share (from what you remember), all the different thoughts that were going through your head?
Oh man… it was so desperate and dangerous. I wanted to survive then. In my head, I was thinking, “Is it okay for me to cross the Tumen river like this? If I get caught, I will be a betrayer to my country, which I never wanted to be? But it will be okay since I am planning on coming back to North Korea after going to China… Am I making a right decision? Am I going to be dead by the time I arrive on the other side of the river? Why do I have to live like this? Am I doing anything wrong?!” I was asking myself so many of these questions and trying to stay positive. While I was hiding in the field, the grasshoppers’ sounds were so loud so it sounded like whistling of the border guards. And the sound of a branch being broken was so loud, it sounded like a gunshot.
What was is like meeting Adam Sjoberg for the first time?
I first met Adam through another young American friend of mine. When Adam said he wanted to make a documentary about me, I couldn’t trust what he said that much at first because I knew I couldn’t reveal my identity or show my face publicly. But he said he could still make a doc about me without showing my face. So I told him, “yeah try it if you think you can do it.” And he did. He is such a talented documentary filmmaker.
What’s your relationship like now?
I saw him recently in LA. Whenever we meet up we talk about how we’re doing. We enjoy hanging out and drinking together. Now, we are like brothers genuinely wishing each other the best of luck on what we are doing currently and what we are going to do in the future.
Who do you most want to see the film “I Am Sun Mu,” and why?
I want my parents and siblings to watch the film. I want them to see how I, as their son and brother, have been living my life in this world. If they see how I am doing confidently and shamelessly, my hope is that it will bless my mother’s heart and make her less worrisome about me.
What other artists inspire you?
There are many artists who have influenced me including my professors, Geum-su Choi, Yong-baek Lee and fellow artists, Dong-hoon Sung, Young-il Jeon, etc. I don’t think I get inspiration from anyone but I think it comes from my thoughts.
I want my parents and siblings to watch the film. I want them to see how I, as their son and brother, have been living my life in this world.
Can you describe your current typical day?
It is very simple. A little after 9AM I take my youngest daughter (I have two daughters) to a kindergarten and then head to my studio to work on my artwork in the the daytime. Then I go pick her up and go home to have dinner with my wife who comes home after work and my older daughter who comes home from school. This is what my typical day looks like. Sometimes I drink and hang out with my artist friends and come home late at night.
What is the future for you?
Hmm. I always try to figure out what and how to show and talk about certain issues and get people to truly feel them. I don’t have special plans for my future but I want to have exhibitions in different parts of the globe. In order to do so, I speak with different people while making artwork. There are different regional characteristics in different parts of the earth so I am curious about what it will be like making art in other parts of the world, which I am planning to start taking action to make that happen. I am also curious what kind of artwork I could make while living in different places like Europe or the U.S.