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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 Mom and Son’s Harrowing Escape | Harry’s Story

January 5, 2024

The town I grew up in was surrounded by mountains. When the season was right, my friends and I would hike up to look for pears. Fresh fruit was a luxury in North Korea, but the mountainside was covered in orchards. One day we snuck in when the fruit was still green, hoping to avoid the guards.

I hid in a tree, passing down pears to my friends, when we heard a whistle blow. My heart was pounding; it was like a heist movie. I rolled away and ran out of danger. Somehow, we got away with it. It didn’t even matter that the fruit we ate was not ripe and made our stomachs hurt—we felt unstoppable.

Little did I know that just a few years later, I would be running for my life once again… but this time, it was not a game. I would be escaping from North Korea.

Life in North Korea was normal to me. I went to school and spent time with my friends and older sister. All I knew about South Korea was from the movies I’d secretly watched. It seemed like a scary place, where they trafficked drugs and stole your organs.

My mom was often busy with work. She had a job that connected North Koreans to China, wiring money between families. With her income, we were able to live comfortably. But it was risky. She could usually bribe the guards to let her cross the border safely, but it wouldn’t work forever. One day, she was caught and sent to one of North Korea’s brutal prison camps.

My mom spent two years in the prison camp, forced to do intense labor every day while barely being fed. She told us later that she had shared a concrete cell with 50 other people and they lacked basic things like soap, toilet paper, and sanitary products. Guards would abuse their power and find any reason to assault them.

Many people in the camp were also women who had been arrested for crossing the border, trying to find ways to make a living and take care of their children. Dying in prison meant your crimes would be passed on to your family. And so, many of those women endured faithfully until they were released, and then passed away afterward.

When my mom finally left the camp, she quit the work she was doing and told her clients she was done. But one of them refused to hear it.

He was a South Korean fisherman whose boat had been thrown off course by a typhoon, and North Korean authorities refused to let him return home. One night, he showed up drunk at our house and threatened my mom. If she didn’t take him across the border, he would turn her in. So she had no choice. None of us did.

My mom took me with her and brought the old man to the border of North Korea. We were supposed to meet some brokers who would take him across, but they couldn’t agree on a price or a place. After a few days of waiting, everything went wrong.

The police had discovered our plan. They had our photos and were already putting up wanted posters for our capture. There was no way we could go home now. The choice was made for us. We had to flee the country with the old man.

I thought I would die that night. Armed soldiers patrol the river bordering North Korea and China, and are told to shoot defectors on sight.

If caught, my mom would have faced life in prison for her second offense—no better than a death sentence. But somehow, we made it to the other side.

In China, we waited three days in the mountains for our brokers. Every moment spent at a standstill was a huge risk, because Chinese authorities pay local citizens to report North Korean refugees. When it became clear that help wasn’t coming, we headed for a nearby village, laying low in the grass until the cover of night.

By nightfall, we took our chances and entered the village. Luckily, we met a kind woman who introduced us to a new broker. This broker helped us get to another city where the old man was picked up by South Korean officials and flown home to his family. As for me and my mom, we couldn’t go back to North Korea. So we went to see my middle sister, who had already been in China for quite some time.

Before I was born, my mom took my two sisters to China with her. She wanted them to stay there safely, but my oldest sister refused and returned to North Korea with my mom. My middle sister was left behind, sent to live with a trusted friend. But the unthinkable happened. At 12 years old, she was trafficked and sold to be married to a much older man. Every night, she would stand by the water well, threatening to hang herself if the man came near her.

But one year later, the inevitable happened. When she was just 13 years old, she had a baby. 

Like many other young North Korean women, my sister went across the border seeking a better life, but ended up living her teenage years in captivity, with no laws or family to protect her. Every day she had imagined running away, until finally she did. She reunited with my mom in North Korea when she was 20.

But not everything went as hoped. Though she was happy to be together with our family again, it turned out life was just as hard in North Korea. In the end, my sister returned to her daughter in China just a few years later.

It had been years since we last saw my sister, and it was my first time meeting her daughter, my niece. We were the same age. For a month, we all enjoyed the bittersweet reunion. Then my sister connected us with another broker, and my mom and I finally escaped for good.

We eventually reached South Korea and it turns out, it wasn’t the dangerous country I had seen in movies. 

Still, the memories of everything we had been through tormented me. I was angry at the old man who pressured us into his escape plan. I hated that my mom chose such a risky job in the first place.

Later we found out my oldest sister had been tortured by North Korean authorities when we left, leaving her devastated by mental illness. They wanted her to confess that our family had helped the old man escape. Someone had to take the blame. My older sister, who was once strong and reliable, would never be the same again.

When I first reached South Korea, I hid my past. Everything was terrifying and different—the culture, the lifestyle, and even the language. My new friends would hang out at internet cafes and I didn’t even know how to use a computer.

But I started learning. I studied hard in school and got a job to support myself. I began reading books to develop my own philosophy for my new life. I even started playing video games and for better or for worse, became just as obsessed as everyone else.

When I got to high school, I finally told my friends the truth about my life. Their response was so different from what I had expected. I found that rather than being cruel, they were curious. I realized the importance of my story, and how sharing my family’s painful experiences could change people’s perspectives about North Korea.

In 2019, at the end of high school, I met someone from Liberty in North Korea. I was so curious how she spoke about North Korea. She invited me to attend their Changemakers Summit and I had never experienced anything like that before—South Koreans, North Koreans, and even foreigners who were all young, open-minded, and interested in how to make an impact on this issue.

Truthfully, I never saw myself as an activist. I didn’t think I had what it takes. 

But if I could change how just one person saw North Korea—to see the people and their resilience, bravery, and hope instead of the regime—I realized I was already acting as an advocate.

These days, I’m working and studying full time. After coming to South Korea my mom got her masters degree and is now writing a book about her life. My middle sister eventually escaped and joined us in South Korea too. She got remarried and finally gets to live a normal life. Even though we’re all pursuing different things, we’re still together, holding tightly to the hope that we will someday reunite with my older sister.

Today, I can be my own person. I can buy fresh fruit whenever I want, or walk along the Han river anytime. After all of the running and all of the pain, I am finally free to choose my own life.

Harry’s story echoes that of many North Korean refugees, who live with the weight of their past while grasping onto hope for the future. After what happened to his oldest sister, Harry says he has nothing left to lose. That’s why he chooses to speak openly about the horrific things he and his family have experienced, hoping to bring change and one day reunite with her in a free North Korea.

Help us continue to to sustain refugee rescues, empowerment programs, and efforts to change the way the world sees North Korea.

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