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A new movie follows the dangerous escape journey North Koreans make to China

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For North Koreans trying to flee their country, making it across the border to China is only the beginning of a torturous journey toward freedom. That journey and the motivations of North Koreans who want to defect is the subject of a new documentary called "Beyond Utopia."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEYOND UTOPIA")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Chinese government has a hard-line policy of if they find North Korean refugees, arresting them and detaining them and then forcibly sending them back to North Korea, where they will face investigation, torture and a range of harsh punishments.

RASCOE: The film uses hidden camera footage of actual North Koreans as they flee their country to illustrate an escape route that very few people have ever seen before. It depicts the risks people face after crossing into China and the danger of being sent back to North Korea. Soyeon Lee is a North Korean defector. She's featured in the film. She's joined by translator Sunny Parker. Welcome to you both.

SUNNY PARKER: Thank you.

SOYEON LEE: Thank you.

RASCOE: I'm also joined by the film's director, Madeleine Gavin. Thank you so much for joining me.

MADELEINE GAVIN: Thank you so much for having us.

RASCOE: Soyeon, I want to start with you. You escaped from North Korea several years ago. Can you talk to us about what that journey was like for you?

LEE: (Speaking Korean).

PARKER: "So I used to be North Korean army when I was in North Korea, but even I worked as an army, I could - with the salary, I could buy only three candies per month. And after that, when I had my kid, it was really hard to feed him, like, three meals per day. To survive, I had to left North Korea. And in order to escape from North Korea, I have to cross the Tumen River. When I just got to China, then I got captured, and I was sent back to North Korea right away. And I stayed in jail for two years because I tried to escape."

RASCOE: So, Soyeon, then after she got out of prison, could no longer have contact with her family. And so then she ran again. And this time, she defected for good. And, Madeleine, you know, you talk about Soyeon's incredible - her journey that she went through. And then you also have footage of a family defecting and trying to get out of North Korea and the journey that they have to go through. Can you talk about how you got that on tape and, like, what that filming process was like?

GAVIN: Really, this all happened because of my relationship with a man named Pastor Kim, who's a South Korean pastor and really one of the key members of the underground railroad that takes people through China into Southeast Asia and ultimately to a friendly country. And it was really when I, you know, started to make this film - the reason that I wanted to make it was because I discovered that we really don't hear about the 26 million people who live inside North Korea. We really haven't heard their voices or their stories. And so when I met Pastor Kim, you know, he and I discovered that we really were interested in making the same sort of film. And it was really through him and his network that we were able to, you know, shoot in places literally on the border of North Korea and China, places that nobody ever shoots and nobody ever really wants to go. It was all because of his underground network and his connections.

RASCOE: So, Soyeon, you are - in the documentary, you are talking about trying to to get your son safely across the border. Your son is caught, and then you're later told it will be impossible for him to try and cross again. As a mother, I can only - I can't imagine what you are going through. How are you doing now? And, like, are you in contact with anyone in North Korea about your son?

LEE: (Speaking Korean).

PARKER: "So after my son capture, I try everything I could possible to find the news about my son. But nothing went well. But finally, I found out that my son is in the political prison camp. He is alive, even he's in the situation in that he has to be constantly hungry, doesn't have clothes to wear and cold situation. But important thing is that I found out he is still alive."

RASCOE: Soyeon, is there anything that you want the world to know about your son, and about what this regime has done to your family?

LEE: (Speaking Korean).

PARKER: "People in North Korea - they suffering without shelter, food, clothing because of the dictator. And that land is like hell. And secondly, I want people to remember the political prison camp almost equivalent or worse than the Nazi prison camp. Please remember those North Korean people suffering inside North Korea."

RASCOE: So, Madeleine, how has the path to escape changed for North Koreans since the pandemic and since your documentary was filmed?

GAVIN: Yeah, so we started following these stories right before the pandemic. And these are - you know, the Ro family is one of the last known defections out of North Korea because during the pandemic, the border between China and North Korea was completely shut down and China was, as a country, completely shut down and paralyzed. So nobody could move through China. We actually filmed, as well, during the pandemic. We were in South Korea when the borders shut down. When Pastor Kim is getting phone calls in the film with people desperate to get out of North Korea after the pandemic had started and when China was shut down, we were there. I was filming one of those cameras with him.

In terms of now, I mean, the entire underground railroad network was just decimated during the pandemic because part of that network is made up of brokers who are doing it for money. And obviously, with China being paralyzed, they weren't going to make a living that way. So they all scattered and started doing other things. The other part of the underground railroad is people doing it for the cause, people who are involved with the mission of helping people to escape. And they also turned their attentions elsewhere. So over the last probably nine or so months, Pastor Kim and the underground railroad has been trying to rebuild that network and rebuild routes. And actually, Pastor Kim - a couple of months ago this summer, he actually helped the first people escape since our film. And that was four people who he helped get out. So the routes are being rebuilt, but it's a slow process. But the good news is that Pastor Kim is starting to help people again.

RASCOE: Madeleine Gavin is the director of the new documentary "Beyond Utopia," which is out this week. She was joined by North Korean defector Soyeon Lee and translator Sunny Parker. Thank you all so very much.

GAVIN: Thank you.

LEE: Thank you.

PARKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.