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.”

See Beyond Utopia for yourself

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 your opportunity to see Beyond Utopia for yourself on October 23rd and 24th at select theaters across the United States.

Reserve your tickets today

URGENT: North Korean Refugees At Risk of Forced Repatriation

November 8, 2023

A Call for Advocacy and Action from LiNK’S CEO, Hannah Song

There are currently large numbers of North Korean refugees being held in detention in China, including a group of individuals who were caught earlier this year while trying to escape through LiNK’s networks. As of last month, the Chinese government has started forcibly sending them back to North Korea where they are at risk of torture, imprisonment in horrific forced labor camps, and even execution.

A North Korean mother grappling with Chinese police as she seeks asylum at the Japanese consulate, 2002. Forced repatriations have been happening in China for decades.

This comes after the North Korean government has slowly reopened the country’s borders. During the pandemic, extreme lockdowns and increased security effectively brought forced repatriations to a temporary halt. At the same time, Chinese authorities continued to arrest and detain North Korean defectors, waiting for the opportunity to send them back. UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Elizabeth Salmon, estimated this number to have reached 2000 people.

On October 13th, in response to media reports that Chinese authorities had forcibly repatriated around 600 North Korean refugees, the South Korean government confirmed that “a large number” of North Koreans had been sent back.

We are deeply concerned about this situation and the imminent repatriation of more North Korean refugees, including specific individuals we have confirmed are currently in detention.  We are closely monitoring these cases and continue to advocate directly with 10 other governments, the EU, and the UN on this issue. In September, LiNK also signed an open letter to China’s President Xi alongside civil society organizations, calling for humanitarian protection for North Korean refugees.

Right now, this issue needs more attention. The Chinese government needs to know that the world is watching and that North Korean refugees must be treated with humanity and dignity.

The Chinese government has 276 embassies and consulates representing their interests around the world, more than any other country. Please contact the embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN, through email and social media to send a simple but direct message of concern and support for North Korean refugees.

Here's What You Can Do:

Copy, and feel free to edit, the template letter below, and email it to the Chinese Foreign Ministry via the Chinese embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN:

United States
DC: [email protected]
NY: [email protected]
LA: [email protected]
SF: [email protected]
Chicago: [email protected]

South Korea: [email protected]
Australia: [email protected]
Canada: [email protected]
France: [email protected]
Germany: [email protected]
Japan: [email protected]
UK: [email protected]

Chinese missions to the UN
Chinese mission to the UN in New York: [email protected]
Chinese mission to the UN in Geneva: [email protected]

If your country is not listed above you can find it by googling “email Chinese embassy [your country]".

Template Letter to Chinese Foreign Minister:

Dear Minister Wang Yi,

I am writing to express my concern about the large number of North Korean escapees who are currently in detention in China, and the risk of them being forcibly sent back to North Korea to face torture, horrific conditions in forced labor camps, and potentially even execution.

Such treatment would clearly be inhumane from any standard of basic decency, but since China is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and Convention against Torture, there is even more obligation and expectation for Chinese authorities to facilitate an individualized determination of refugee status and humanitarian protection for North Korean escapees in China. Failure to do so damages the image of China and the reputation of the Chinese government around the world..

I appeal to your good conscience, and the sympathy of Chinese people for North Koreans facing horrific abuse, in asking your government to stop forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees and instead treat them with the humanity and dignity that any person in this world deserves.


Twitter (X) Users:

Additionally, you can tweet at the Chinese Foreign Ministry using this template tweet: 

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. The Chinese government is taking advantage of this diverted attention to quietly send North Koreans back, and it will quietly continue to do so. This is the time where we need strength in numbers and Allies around the world to clearly and firmly call out their inhumane actions.

Thank you for standing with the North Korean people.

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