This North Korean rapper's lyrics draw on his experience eating tree bark and drinking from puddles

The World
Kang Chun-hyok is an aspiring rapper in Seoul. He's also a defector from North Korea, and his music reflects what life was like there.

Kang Chun-hyok is an aspiring rapper in Seoul. He's also a defector from North Korea, and his music reflects what life was like there.

Jason Strother

Growing up in North Korea, Kang Chun-hyok remembers listening to music like the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble's revolutionary and folk songs.

Now that Kang’s defected to the south, he writes his own music, but it’s nothing like what he heard back home. In one of his songs, he talks about how terrible the first 12 years of his life were in North Korea.

"While the ruling Kim family drank expensive, imported booze," he says, "I was eating tree bark and drinking out of mud puddles.

It’s these memories of life during North Korea’s deadly famine in the 1990s that inspire his lyrics.

“I was starving when I was a kid. I had to steal food," he says. "Yeah, I’m angry about that. Why did I have to live like that?”

Kang, who’s now 28, says he first heard South Korean hip hop in 1998 after he and his family got across the border into China. He started listening to American rappers like Nas, 50 Cent and Eminem after he moved to Seoul.

As for his own hip hop career, Kang still has a ways to go. He’s only written four songs, though he’s already made his South Korean TV debut. Kang was recently a contestant on Show Me the Money, a TV reality show for aspiring rappers.

Kang says the show was a great experience, but he realized that compared to most South Korean rap, his music is different.   

“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. I’m writing lyrics about human rights.”

For many South Koreans watching the show, Kang’s appearance might have been the first time they’d ever heard a defector speak, let alone rap, about life back in the north. It definitely made an impression on one of the judges.

“Is this guy for real? That was my reaction,” says Swings, a hip hop artist who counts himself among the many South Koreans who don’t know, or don’t care much, about North Korea and the 26,000 defectors who now live in the South. But he says Kang’s rap could shake up apathetic South Koreans.

“If a very talented rapper were to come out into the public and put a lot of risk on themselves to talk about North Korea, I’m pretty sure it could be an issue, a hot issue,” Swings says.

Kang Chun-hyok might have to get over some stage fright issues first. He was eliminated from Show Me the Money after he choked and forgot his own lyrics.

He’s getting some help now from a Korean-American composer and producer named Woody Pak.

“I was struck by the way his words are reflecting what he’s probably too shy to say in a normal conversation," Pak says. “Maybe he looks wistfully at South Koreans; you don’t appreciate what you have. He’s been here for 10 years now and he can probably see the apathy that South Koreans have toward North Koreans and maybe that’s why there’s that little jab toward South Koreans”

Pak and Kang have been working in the studio on a new song with lyrics like this: "Even though we grew up differently, we are still brothers. Even though the 38th parallel blocks us, we are still one."

Kang says he hopes his music will be a way for people here to find out a little more about North Koreans like him.