January 2, 2024 – This documentary, in Korean with English subtitles, about people trying to escape from North Korea, depicts not only a harrowing journey, but the tragedy of those caught, and the astonishing extent to which people can be brainwashed by an authoritarian government.
The hero at the heart of this movie, directed by Madeleine Gavin of “What I Want My Words to Do to You: Voices from Inside a Women's Maximum Security Prison,” is a minister, Seungeun Kim, director of the Caleb Mission in South Korea, which has helped over 1,000 people escape from North Korea in the past 23 years.
A video crew and phone cameras record the very risky escape of the Roh family from Korea, including an 80 year old grandmother, a husband and wife and their two young daughters. Also depicted in the movie is Soyeon Lee, a mother trying to find out what happened to her son after he is captured in China and sent back to North Korea.
Escape from North Korea requires help from “brokers” both inside and outside North Korea, who work for money to get people out. Some brokers, however, will betray escapees by turning them over to Chinese authorities for reward money. Young girls may end up being sold as slaves by brokers
There is also an Underground Railroad to help escapees navigate the difficult journey from North Korea to China, and thence through Vietnam and Laos to Thailand, where at last, they would be safe. This is somewhat similar to the journey of refugees from South America, who have to travel through several countries to get to the United States, facing many dangers during the long journey.
The most difficult part of the journey depicted in the movie is a climb through jungles and over mountains from Laos to Thailand. Seungeun Kim, who has been injured several times during such journeys, sprains his ankle on this one, and is clearly laboring to try to keep up. Young children and their grandmother are also having trouble with the 10 hour climb.
Along the way, the film cuts away several times for a discussion about the history of North Korea, dating back to the Japanese invasion of Korea over 100 years ago, followed by Japan's defeat in WWII, and the division of Korea that followed. Russian leader Joseph Stalin chose North Korea's leader, Kim Il-Sung, a communist sympathizer, in order to prevent the unification of North and South Korea.
The result of this, and the Korean War, is a dynasty of leaders in North Korea, which is isolated from the western world. There is only one radio station in the country, only one TV station, only one newspaper and no cell phone service connecting it with the rest of the world. A couple of defectors from North Korea are interviewed about what they experienced there.
The country's leaders have taken on the roles of gods. Journalist and author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” Barbara Demick, says in the film, that former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (son of Kim Il-Sung and father of current North Korean leader Kim-Jong-Un) is regarded as a god in North Korea:
“They claim that he was born in a log cabin on Mount Paektu ... It's said his birth was heralded by a beautiful star, and a double rainbow. They wanted to keep this powerful imagery for themselves, so the Bible is banned.”
The extent of the brainwashing is evident in members of the Roh family who believe in fantasies about North Korea and the rest of the world. These beliefs persist right up to the time when they finally arrive in South Korea and find out for themselves how people in developed nations live. They experience such luxuries as plentiful food, running water and electricity that they have not enjoyed before.
As the movie ends, Covid lock downs in China have closed the borders, making escape from North Korea impossible. Just about every day, Seungeun Kim is still getting phone calls, begging him for help in getting people out of North Korea. Maybe the borders are open again. I hope so. This movie rates an A.
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