Kang Chun-hyok, a 29-year-old North Korean defector and hip hop artist now living in South Korea, wants to release his first album in December and become the first internationally recognized hip hop artist of his native country.
Kang was born in North Korea’s Onsung County, North Hamkyung Province. In an interview with the Indonesian radio network KBR, he recalled listening to the Pochonbo expand=1] Electronic Ensemble, a propaganda orchestra that glorifies the regime and takes its name from a 1937 battle against Japanese occupation led by Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founding leader and grandfather of current dictator Kim Jung-un.
Growing up on the street during the deadly famine in North Korea in the 1990s, his childhood was one of intense suffering. “I was starving when I was a kid, I had to steal food. Yeah, I’m angry about that. Why did I have to live like that?,” he says.
Kang says he ate tree bark and drank out of puddles while the ruling Kim family drank expensive and imported booze.
The hip hop artist escaped from his home when he was 13, arriving in South Korea in 2001, where he is now an art major at Seoul’s Hongik University.
With his politically charged lyrics, his goal is to raise awareness among South Koreans about what is happening north of the Demilitarized Zone. “I know people here have lived under tough times too, but it’s hard to compare to how North Koreans live. South Koreans write love songs and about breaking up. But I’m writing lyrics about human rights,” he explains to KBR.
Besides rapping, Kang is also an artist. Inspired by his same tragic memories, he draws scenes of daily life in North Korea. Roland Chi from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a refugee support group in Seoul, says that when Kang first arrived, he had a knack for drawing.
Back in North Korea, the rapper couldn’t express himself in any form of art whatsoever. “They’ve been brainwashed, any sort of artistic compunction they have has been stamped out, unless it’s directed at glorifying the state of North Korea,” Chi says.
Kang now wants his life to revolve around his music. So far, he’s written four songs, destined for the album he hopes to release before the end of the year. He is also getting help from the Korean-American producer Woody Pak, who says he was “struck by the way his words are reflecting what he’s probably too shy to say in a normal conversation.”
In July, Kang Chun-hyok appeared on the South Korean television music contest “Show Me the Money”, where he left a strong impression on the audience as well as on the judges. One of them, The Quiett , a South Korean rapper, said he hopes Kang will be able to educate young South Koreans about the situation in the North: “There are many things we don’t know, and he can tell it. It’s important,” he said.
You can watch Kang Chun-hyok’s performance on “Show Me the Money” below. He was eliminated later in the contest after forgetting his lyrics due to stage fright.
“Companions, listen up,
My name is Kang Hyok, I’m from Onsung County, Hamkyung Province
Ri Sol-ju is that country’s mother, but she’s not my mother
What my mother got from Hamkyung Province was tuberculosis
Exploitation of money from digging tunnels, making nuclear weapons
Lose that fat on your belly, I’m not afraid of public execution
That’s why I’m here at a public audition
Give me that dirty money, show me the money.”