Human Rights Watch states the case very clearly: North Korea “remains one of the most repressive countries in the world.”
In a 2022 report, the nonprofit said, “The North Korean government does not respect the rights to freedom of thought, opinion, expression or information… Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent.”
Amnesty International, in a 2022 report of its own, noted, “More than 40% of the population were undernourished and required humanitarian assistance.” It added, “Teenagers were reportedly executed for watching and sharing a South Korean TV show.”
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The U.S. State Department, in a 2022 assessment, outlined a staggering tally of abuses in North Korea, “including coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons… and the worst forms of child labor.”
Given these nightmarish conditions, small wonder that many in the country of nearly 26 million would like to leave (even though they are told from childhood on that they live in an earthly paradise). But to flee is extremely difficult and extremely dangerous, as seen in the documentary Beyond Utopia, which screened this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival.
Director Madeleine Gavin came onto the project after meeting Hyeonseo Lee, author of the book The Girl with Seven Names, who fled North Korea 25 years ago. Lee’s recollections are woven throughout the film, but Gavin says above all she wanted her documentary to reveal the reality of what’s happening right now.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be recreations,” she told Deadline during an interview in Telluride. “And I knew I needed a present tense – an escape, really, or an attempted escape.”
She connected with South Korean Pastor Seungeun Kim, founder of Caleb Mission Church, who estimates he has helped a thousand people escape tyranny in North Korea. Beyond Utopia follows the pastor as he attempts to conduct three generations of the Roh family to safety – two young children, their parents and elderly grandmother who had managed together to cross the Yalu River from North Korea into China. There, “they roamed Changbai Mountain for five days with no idea where they were or where they were going,” until Pastor Kim came to their aid.
What ensues is one of the most dramatic flights to freedom ever captured on film.
Pastor Kim came to Telluride for the Labor Day weekend screenings, along with another protagonist in the film, Soyeon Lee, who shares her story of escaping North Korea and heartbreaking attempt to be reunited with her teenage son whose father would not let him leave.
Pastor Kim’s bold missions come with grave risks. “If you get caught [helping escapees],” he told Deadline through an interpreter, “you get seven to 10 years in prison.”
He has also sustained serious injury on rescue attempts in wintry conditions in North Korea and China. He lifted up his shirt to show a back brace meant to relieve some of his pain. “Three times surgery on the back area,” he noted. His gallbladder had to be removed as a result of a fall in mountainous terrain, he said, and he has a metal rod inserted in his cervical spine.
In the famine of the 1990s that is estimated to have killed millions of North Koreans, Pastor Kim said he witnessed horrific scenes of people who perished as they tried to make it to China.
“When he arrived during the famine years in China the first time, there were dead bodies coming through the Tuman River [running between North Korean and China]. Bloated bodies,” his interpreter said. “The Chinese guards would just push the bodies back to the North Korean side, and the North Korean side pushed the bodies back to China.”
In the film, Hyeonseo Lee, the author, recounts a shocking fact of life in North Korea. The country is so poor that it lacks money for fertilizer to grow crops, so ordinary citizens are required to harvest their own excrement, which is then collected by the government. There are strict quotas on the quantity of human waste people must deliver for the sake of the nation.
“People really do steal [waste] from each other,” Gavin said. “People are locking their outhouses [to prevent theft]. It’s a big, big deal.”
As we discussed this extraordinary situation around a table in Telluride, Soyeon Lee, the recent North Korean defector, expressed befuddlement at our reaction. Her interpreter said, “She’s just surprised that we are surprised.” The interpreter added, “She said she always puts a lock on her bathroom door,” to prevent thieves from accessing the toilet.
A typical route of escape takes a would-be defector from North Korea across the Yalu River into China. The aim is eventually to get to South Korea, which will grant asylum, but escapees often have to complete a circuitous journey from China to Thailand or Laos before reaching ultimate freedom in South Korea. It is by no means safe to stay in China, a close ally of North Korea, “which tends to scoop up intruding North Korean refugees,” according to a report by public radio’s The World, “and ship them back home, where they face grim retaliation in gulags.”
It is mostly women who try to escape North Korea, and for those who become stranded in China – a number that could be in the hundreds of thousands – life is grim.
“They’re being sold into prostitution, being used in pornography… or forced marriage to a Chinese man,” said Sue Mi Terry, a producer of the film and a top North Korea analyst in the Bush and Obama administrations. “Then these women will escape [China]. They’ll come back to North Korea and if they’re pregnant, they’re forced to have an abortion. There’s even infanticide that’s going on. So, this is a huge crisis, particularly for women.”
“The other thing is that if you’re a North Korean woman in China, whether you get married or not, you will never have rights in China, ever,” Gavin said. “Which means that anyone can turn you in at any time. So, if your husband gets mad at you, if your boyfriend gets mad at you, if you don’t do what they want, they can threaten to turn you in and have you repatriated.”
Beyond Utopia premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It is being released domestically by Roadside Attractions and Fathom Events.
Gavin said her goal for the film is “educating on both sides, telling us about what life is really like in North Korea and having people care and give a damn about these 26 million people who we never hear from. And then educating people inside North Korea.”
Terry, the producer, also hopes for a big impact for Beyond Utopia. “There’s not enough focus on humanitarian issues and hearing from North Korean people,” she said. “So, my hope really is for raising awareness, not just for everybody who’s watching [the film], but also in the policy circles too. We have lost our focus and priority. We’re just really focused on WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and not the people of North Korea.”
Pastor Kim said he’s tracking the cases of 200 people who are urgently attempting to flee North Korea right now. He said he hopes the film will generate more financial support for his group so that they can rescue more people.
Soyeon Lee, the North Korean defector, describes a simple wish for the impact of the film.
“Her hope through this movie is to have a meal with her son. That’s the main hope,” Lee’s interpreter explained. “She said she’s lucky that even her story was told and people listen to it, but there are more people suffering without anybody noticing their story. She keeps the hope that one day all these people can, like every other mother, just share a simple meal [with their loved one]. That’s her hope.”
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