The pseudonym adopted by Sun Mu roughly translates as ‘no boundaries’ in English. It’s a bold statement from an artist who in 1998 crossed a figurative and literal boundary that still impacts his life more than 20 years later. During the North Korean famine, he left the DPRK under the cover of darkness, swimming across the Tumen River to China and eventually making his way to South Korea. He went on to become arguably the most well-known artist to have defected – and yet he remains anonymous, his true identity revealed only to a select few for fear of repercussions for his family in North Korea.
Born and raised in the DPRK, Sun Mu served in the military before joining university to study art. “The art education system in North Korea is very different from the one that exists in South Korea,” he tells us. In the North, he says, students are divided up based on their specialisms, whereas in the South, these focused studies would be done outside of school hours at a private academy known as a ‘hagwon’.
In North Korea … it is only for the General. Even a single tree or blade of grass should have love for the Leader and the General
“The art teacher emphasised endless repetition until the work we want comes out,” he recalls of his education. Only through repetition would his hands become “skilled” and he would find his “individuality”. However, the most crucial thing he learned about art back in North Korea was who it was for. “In North Korea, I would say, very naturally, it is only for the General,” he says. “Even a single tree or [blade of] grass should have love for the Leader and the General.”