Sunmu always knew that his talent lay in art. Unlike many other North Korean boys forced into military posts or farming, he was grateful to have achieved what he had always wanted: becoming North Korea's state propaganda artist.
The biggest honor for a North Korean artist is to receive the state's imprimatur, giving him license to handle portraits of the communist nation's late founder, Kim Il Sung, and its current leader, Kim Jong Il.
"I used to peek inside the curtained window when high-level artists came to our hometown, all the way from Pyongyang just to fix cracks on those portraits hanging on top of the community center," said Sunmu, who has lived under an assumed name since his defection to South Korea.
He still has family in the North. He says their lives are at risk if his identity is revealed. He says not only painting but even touching the portraits of the two Kims is considered sacred in communist North Korea.
But today, Sunmu is painting the two men as much as he wants -- and with a touch of satire, which, he confesses, helps "to heal the huge hole in my heart."
In his latest exhibition in Seoul, an oil painting of Kim Jong Il wearing his trademark Ray Ban sunglasses welcomes guests to the gallery.
At first glance, it looks just like any other portraits that can easily be spotted in North Korea. The background is painted bright red, a symbolic color of the revolutionary comrades.
But a closer look at what's reflected in Kim's lenses reveals Sunmu's message; hunger-stricken people fleeing bare soil while soldiers point guns at their backs.
"Kim Jong Il knows how miserable the people live. But he blinds himself behind those black sunglasses he loves to wear in public," Sunmu said.
Hunger drove Sunmu to cross the river bordering North Korea and China. His venture into the northern Chinese provinces to find food and money for his parents and siblings back home failed.
After three years of hiding in China and in the jungles of Southeast Asia, he eventually found a new home in South Korea in 2001 with help from missionaries. Since then, he has continued his career as an artist, graduating from a prestigious art school in Seoul. He is now married to a woman he met during the journey to freedom and has a 3-year-old daughter.
'North Korean Kids Deserve to Know...Another World'
"Whenever I see my little girl growing up so healthy in this fortunate environment, it reminds me of those poor innocent children back in the North. They're brainwashed to think they are happy children," he said, singing a verse from a famous North Korean children's song called "We Envy Nothing in the World."
The lyrics describe how happy they are, how lovely their country is, and their home is in the arms of the Communist Party under their father Kim Il Sung. "You see here, they are singing that we-are-happy song in perfect unison," Sunmu said, pointing at a painting that shows a row of red-dressed North Korean girls singing and bowing at a performance.
"But this girl at the end is curious about those girls in the South," he said, pointing to another painting hung next to it. It shows a hip performing group in South Korea wearing colorful tank tops, low-waist hip shorts, and knee-length boots.
"This is what I hope to see in the future. North Korean kids deserve to know that there is another world where you can sing and listen to all kinds of music, not just the propaganda song," said Sunmu in a hollow voice. Many of his paintings are of North Korean children who appear to be curious, or holding items like Coca-Cola, iPods or cigarettes.
His dream now is to see the day when the two Koreas unite so that he can then search for his family, whose thoughts haunt him, left back in the North. That is why he goes by the pseudonym Sunmu. It literally translates into "no divisions" or "no borders."