What's Behind Kim Jong Il's Ray Ban Sunglasses?

North Korea's former state propaganda artist, living in South Korea.

ByABC News
December 14, 2009, 11:02 AM

SEOUL, December 24, 2009 — -- 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.