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N. Korean Refugee Aspires to Be Country's First Hip-Hop Artist

  • Jason Strother

"Show Me The Money" S. Korean show promo photo

"Show Me The Money" S. Korean show promo photo

Among the more than 26,000 North Koreans who have fled their country for new lives in South Korea, one refugee is trying to start a career as a hip-hop artist with hopes his music will eventually make it back to his homeland.

"Show Me the Money" is a South Korean reality television program that gives aspiring rappers a shot at making it big. And for the first time, a North Korean defector appeared as a contestant.

Kang Chun-hyok, 28, is originally from North Hamgyong province in North Korea. He grew up there during the famine that is believed to have killed millions. Kang says it is that experience that influences his music.

He says he wants to criticize the North Korean government because people there have been starving to death and are desperate, but yet the system has not changed.

Kang, currently a student at one of South Korea’s top arts universities, says he only learned about hip-hop after he escaped from the North.

There is nothing like rap in North Korea, he says. Kang remembers listening to South Korean hip-hop for the first time in 1998 when he and his family crossed the border into China.

Refugee advocates say for talented North Koreans, like Kang, there are not many opportunities back home.

“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," explains Roland Chi with the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a refugee support group in Seoul.

Kang Chun-hyok says even though he cannot go back across the border, he hopes his music will.

South Korean music is already broadcast into the North by defector run radio stations in Seoul.

Jang Seong-woo produces the music program Hometown Train on Free NK Radio. He says North Koreans have been listening to South Korean pop music for decades as an alternative to government sponsored propaganda songs.

Jang says on his program he likes to play lively South Korean music. He usually plays older Korean pop music, but will also play K-pop and rap.

Jang adds that he would like to play music performed by other North Korean defectors too, like Kang Chun-hyok.

In this rap, Kang reminds North Korea’s rulers that while they were drinking expensive, imported alcohol, people like him were eating tree bark and drinking from mud puddles.

Those are lyrics that would not go over well with the Pyongyang regime. But Kang says he hopes his music will resonate with many people back home.

He says he is not so sure what people in North Korea will think about his songs, but maybe his lyrics could help start a revolution there.