From Fear to Freedom
North Korea's foreign policy is being closely scrutinized by the international community as it once again ratchets up tensions with the South. But what's happening internally is almost impossible to determine. What we do know is largely limited to what we learn from those who escape – the defectors. The risk and hardship these men and women endure in order to escape North Korea is the subject of Ann Shin's new film, The Defector: Escape from North Korea. Ann and her team followed a group of young North Koreans from northern China to Thailand, and then on to South Korea, where they sought asylum. We talked to Ann about what it was like to be part of their journey.
Tell us a little bit about your motivations to create this film. What compelled you to take on such a challenging topic?
I’m of South Korean background – my parents were immigrants to Canada. The Korean War had a big impact on my family. I had an aunt and uncle who suffered greatly for being socialist Northern sympathizers. When they fled to the North, they were rejected and considered traitors. So they fled back to the South, where they were interrogated and tortured, and my uncle was eventually killed.
But the film is not about only your family. How did the idea of telling the stories of other defectors take shape?
My family’s story is not unique – for many Koreans, the separation of North and South remains a deep wound in our national and personal histories – so I knew that there were other families with connection to defectors out there. But I didn’t really have a sense of how many North Koreans defectors there are until I started meeting defectors living here in Canada, which happened when I started going to churches here in Toronto. When I heard their stories, I felt compelled to share their experiences and struggles.
Many North Korean defectors embark on difficult journeys in search of safe passage to a country where they can seek asylum and apply for refugee status. They all run the risk of getting caught en route and being deported back to North Korea to face severe punishment. The more I heard about the challenges so many had faced in order to leave North Korea, the more I felt the need to ensure the defectors’ experiences were widely understood.
In the film, we find out that 80 per cent of defectors from North Korea are women. Aside from gender, what are the other characteristics of a “typical” defector?
People of all ages have escaped but nowadays, because the journey is so arduous, typically only those in their twenties to late fourties are the ones able to make it out. Many defectors have been arrested at some point, which encourages their desire to defect, or have been previously imprisoned for very small misdemeanors. In North Korea, it’s illegal for the average person to use or own a cellphone. It’s also illegal to sit on a newspaper that happens to contain an image of Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un, as this is seen as showing disrespect to the Leader, which is considered treason. Some defectors may have a family member who needs medicine only available in China, others may themselves need medicine.
Was it difficult to decide how much detail to provide on the defector’s route out of China? Clearly you were concerned that your cameras might draw unwanted attention during the actual shoot, but did you leave anything out so as not to compromise the safety of future defectors?
There are some very common routes out of China that are often investigated by authorities but many still escape even in through areas where inspections routinely occur. Still, as a precaution, we don’t mention exact city names in the film, and we were careful to disguise the actual route our defectors took in other ways. We did inevitably run some risks during filming because in any kind of compound or residential area, even in the countryside, there were CCTV cameras that might have picked us up and led someone to investigate whether there was something out of the ordinary going on.
Placing your trust in Dragon, the broker in the film, was clearly another risk, for both you and the defectors. In the film, you clearly have mixed feelings about his motivations. Have you made up your mind about Dragon, and the role of brokers more generally?
My opinion of this particular man changed several times throughout the film. When I met him, he had a tattoo of a dragon on his shoulder and he was carrying three cell phones… I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But during our journey through China, he proved to be incredibly knowledgeable and meticulous. And we trusted him implicitly. But after the journey was over and he stared trying to collect his fees, I found his behaviour to be uncomfortably aggressive. There were many times when I wanted to step in and eventually I did try to lobby him on behalf of the defectors.
I think that over the course of filming, I gradually gained a better understanding of the context in which he and other brokers are working. There are many former defectors that offer to guide others to freedom for a substantial fee. Demanding payment is not unreasonable; they’re putting themselves at great personal risk. And the defectors all agree on the fee out of desperation. However, once they’ve made it to safety, whether they typically receive job training and a government stipend, the feeling of urgency that led them to agree to the broker’s fee starts to fade, the result of which is that they may evade payment. The brokers end up having to behave like collection agencies. It’s a complex issue.
Making this film led me to reconsider my views on human smuggling, which is different from human trafficking or the selling of one person to another. Smuggling is when a person ferries someone out of a country for payment. I have come to see this as a necessary evil, especially in places where governments and NGOs are unable or unwilling to help people. Tamils, Sudanese, Burmese, North Koreans… there are so many people stuck in limbo. When you see how few options they have, and how willing they are to risk their lives in pursuit of freedom, you start to see human smuggling in another light, and feel grateful that there are individuals willing to risk prison or worse to help them. If human smuggling weren’t illegal, it would be easier to prevent escapees from being taken advantage of, but for now, they’ve got little choice but to trust strangers with their lives, and they have no one to turn to if things go wrong.
North Korea has been in the headlines pretty consistently as of late. Can the public learn something about North Korea from your film that they don’t know already?
I hope this film will show people that the North Korean issues is complex – it is not simply about a crazy dictator with nuclear weapons running a rogue state in East Asia. A humanitarian problem has been created in many countries, and it’s coming right up to our doorsteps in North America. There are tens of thousands of North Korean defectors living in hiding and desperately seeking asylum. That’s something the mainstream coverage leaves out.
I also hope the film will help people understand that Kim Jong Un is even more aggressive in his conduct of internal affairs than of foreign policy. When he stepped into office, one of first decrees was a crack down on defectors and their families. The tragic stories that escapees tell are a direct result of his harsher policies. There is much more that needs to be done to help the North Korean people.
Is there more Canada could be doing to help those who have fled North Korea?
Canada is quite receptive to North Korean defectors, and the ones that I’ve spoken to feel they have been well received by Canada. The asylum decision-making process takes a while, but people do get a fair hearing when they make it to Canada. The problem of actually getting here is the big one – it’s very difficult for defectors to make it beyond Asia. Many escape China only to have to wait in bordering countries such as Thailand for up to a year for their refugee status to be recognized. Canadian officials could do more to expedite this process.
Also, Canada could rethink its approach to human smuggling. Anyone who aids a defector out of China or Laos can be considered a human smuggler, so if you were to help someone come to Canada, you could be legally compromised. Under current laws, there is no way to privately sponsor a North Korean refugee claimant, which would be a legal way to provide assistance.
The Defector is accompanied by an interactive website. Did you always plan on having an interactive component accompany the film?
Yes, for two reasons: firstly, I always wanted to tell the stories of defectors, but also to let them tell theirs. Secondly, because the experience of defecting is so foreign to most people, I wanted to create an immersive experience that would, as much as is possible, allow viewers to walk in the shoes of a North Korean defector. There are a growing number of interactive web docs, so I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more experimenting with different kinds of visual experiences.