Beyond Utopia: Documenting the Escape From North Korea

October 16, 2023
“...When life hands you an opportunity to watch footage like this, you don’t turn it down.” IndieWire

Sharing visuals from the field has always been a dilemma for our organization. On one hand, the highly sensitive nature of the work makes protecting our routes and the identities of those involved the top priority. On the other, there is undeniable power and potential for impact in showing the reality of rescues—the high-stakes peril, raw emotion, and incredible moments of bravery from our North Korean friends. If only people could see what we did; it would become undeniably clear how important this issue is.

When Liberty in North Korea was first introduced to the Beyond Utopia team and their goal of documenting an actual rescue, we were incredibly hopeful, but with a healthy dose of skepticism. We knew all too well the countless risks, conflicting interests, and stakeholders involved in making such a project. Yet when we saw the footage, even in the most initial stages of editing, we knew this was something special.

Soyeon Lee, one of the film’s central participants

Gripping, visceral, and urgent, Beyond Utopia embeds the viewer into the lives of several people as they navigate the path to freedom — a mother desperate to reunite with her son, a family of five as they attempt their perilous escape, and a South Korean pastor who’s devoted his life to helping North Korean refugees.

The film is both a simple record of events as they unfold and a suspenseful piece of cinema, weaved together with commentary from leading experts on the Korean Peninsula (including LiNK’s South Korea Country Director, Sokeel Park). It pulls back the curtain on the escape journey in a way that honors the truth and the film participants, while preserving the integrity of the work being documented. Although Beyond Utopia utilized Pastor Kim’s networks rather than our own, LiNK worked closely with the film’s team throughout post-production to review footage for security and accuracy.

The Roh family reaching a safe house during their escape from North Korea

The film made its debut in January 2023 at the Sundance Film Festival, long recognized as a hotspot for the upcoming year’s most impactful stories. To premiere at this influential celebration of cinema is a lifelong dream for many filmmakers, making Beyond Utopia’s inclusion alone a significant achievement.

LiNK’s CEO, Hannah Song, was able to attend Sundance alongside the crew and some of the film participants. She sat with the Roh family as they re-lived their escape on screen and saw how harrowing it truly was. For them to finally look back on their journey was a surreal and deeply emotional experience. Audience members were also tearing up and sniffling throughout the film and at the end, there was a long standing ovation — so deserved by these families for everything they have been through to reach freedom.

LiNK’s CEO, Hannah Song, with the Beyond Utopia team and film participants at Sundance Film Festival

Sundance had one more surprise in store for us. A testament to the film’s heart, it won the coveted Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, selected by festival attendees themselves. The heartfelt recognition launched Beyond Utopia into another level of visibility, setting the tone for its success in the film festival circuit with some calling it an “Oscar hopeful.”

Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival

LiNK is proud to be an impact partner and fiscal sponsor for the film. As Beyond Utopia heads to theaters on October 23rd and 24th for an exclusive two-day event, LiNK will be joining the film on-screen to turn audience interest into tangible action. This documentary follows the lives of a handful of people, but the story is much larger than that. The goal was always to raise awareness and invite new audiences to learn more about all aspects of this issue, get involved as Allies, and help more North Korean refugees reach  freedom.

As we’ve been able to slowly regain momentum with rescues since the pandemic, the level of visibility that Beyond Utopia offers is a timely opportunity. The journey has only become more challenging in recent years with border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and heightened restrictions. Costs have skyrocketed and become incredibly volatile, but our commitment to this work is stronger than ever.

Pastor Kim, Sohyeon Lee, and the film team at Camden Film Festival

Above all, Beyond Utopia is a story about the strength and resilience of ordinary North Koreans, despite the staggering circumstances stacked against them. Changing the narrative on North Korea to focus on the people, not a dictator or missiles, has long been a key pillar of our work. Beyond Utopia aligns with this perfectly, and we hope it brings greater urgency and support for this issue.

It cannot be overstated how rare this glimpse into this modern-day underground railroad is, and what a herculean feat it was for this film to be made.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Beyond Utopia for yourself — now available on Hulu, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime video, and more.

A North Korean Father Risks Everything for Family | Doohyun’s Story

April 24, 2024

I lived in North Korea for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I believed my life was normal. I grew up in a big city by the river. When the wind blew, I could smell the water on the breeze, and on holidays, I played along the banks with my friends.

The river ran along the border between North Korea and China. I could see across the water into a different world–one where cars lined the streets, and buildings stretched high into the sky.

But I didn’t realize that life should be different, until the day they took my father away.

My father was a great businessman. He provided for our family despite being forcibly discharged from the military when his Minister of Defense was executed by Kim Il Sung. Labeled as a “traitor,” he was banned from decent jobs and opportunities. 

Still, my father was a clever man and found success within the private market system that many North Koreans rely on to survive. Until one day, the police came to investigate him.

Without reason or warning, my father was arrested and imprisoned. They tortured him for a year. When he was released, my father weighed only 66 pounds.

Even after surviving the unimaginable, he was defiant. He wrote 20 pages of complaints to the Central Party about the human rights abuses he endured. My family was terrified of the consequences, but we couldn’t stop him. He fought for his voice to be heard.

On a warm Spring day, a Mercedes-Benz, license plate number 216, arrived at our home. February 16th was Kim Jong Il’s birthday, and cars with this number were only given to his closest aides. My father spoke with the man for hours about his letter. The man apologized and promised something like this wouldn’t happen again. This gave us a bit of hope for the future – for the possibility of change.

But the man left for Pyongyang. And then the police returned. I never saw my father again.

For two years, my family and I lived in unknowing agony, receiving no news on my father. Eventually, we heard from my father’s friend, who was a police officer, that he had passed away in prison. 

At the very least, we wanted to send him off properly, so we asked that same friend how we could get my father’s body. Three days later, he returned. He told us they would not return my father’s body. My father had been sentenced to eight years in prison. He’d passed away after two. He still had six more years to serve – as a dead body. As a corpse.

For the first time I wondered whether this was the way normal people lived.

In 2009 I decided to escape from North Korea. Life had become near impossible for me after my father’s death, and I continued to face discrimination due to our family’s status in society.

By then, I had been married to my wife, Jiyeon, for two years. Most of our relationship before marriage was through the phone, because we lived far apart, and traveling in North Korea is difficult. So we called each other every night and talked for hours. 

Now, I didn’t know if I was going somewhere she would never be able to reach. I told her it was a business trip. Two weeks. I’ll just be gone for two weeks

She still cried at the train station, thinking about those two weeks. I couldn’t cry with her because then she would know the truth. So I boarded the train without a word, and watched it take me away from her.

From the moment I escaped North Korea, it felt like I was being chased by a grim reaper. There were multiple close-calls where I felt death breathing down my neck.

I was once hiding in a corn field near the Chinese border. Lying on my stomach, I watched soldiers patrol the area when suddenly, one of them walked towards me. It was too late to run or hide. 

I had brought poison with me in case something like this happened - I knew it would be better to kill myself rather than be captured. But as I prepared to take the poison, I thought of my wife. I thought about how she would never know what happened to me.

In that moment of sheer terror, I heard the sound of water. The soldier stood right beside me but he hadn’t seen me. He had only walked over to relieve himself. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t move. The soldier had left, but my body held onto the terror of that moment. I remained hunched and hurried for the rest of the journey.

Eventually, I made it safely to South Korea. I started working as soon as possible – 12 hour days to pay back the broker fee, and save up money for my wife’s escape. My schedule was just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. It was hard, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope.

I was able to find a broker who put me in contact with my wife. It had been ten months since I’d defected at that point – ten months of her not knowing whether I was dead or alive. The call couldn’t be made in the city because the signal could be intercepted, so my wife and the broker hiked to the top of a mountain.

When we heard each other’s voices again, all we could do was cry. But we didn’t have much time, and so I asked her, you’re coming, right

She said she was.

On December 27th, 2011, Jiyeon crossed the river to escape North Korea on the same route that I took.

As soon as my wife arrived in South Korea, I went to meet her. I was so excited. I couldn’t stop crying. When my wife came into the room, she was crying too – but do you know what’s the first thing she did when she saw me?

She punched me – crying, calling me a liar. And I deserved it.

We live in Utah now with our two beautiful sons. We go fishing, camping, and enjoy the outdoors together. Every time I see them, I realize I’m living in a different world, one where we can finally dream and decide our own future.

This is the life I’ve made for my children. This is the life my father envisioned for me and for all North Koreans when he made his act of defiance. My father died fighting for his voice to be heard – and now, finally, he’ll be heard by the world.

Doohyun risked everything to create a future where his family could live together in freedom. Their story isn’t unique - there are many more North Koreans waiting and hoping for the day when they can reunite with loved ones. Help make freedom part of every North Korean’s story.

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Since resettling in the United States, Doohyun has completed his undergraduate studies and now works for a North Korean human rights organization. He considers helping the North Korean people to be his life’s mission, continuing his father’s legacy.

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