How to Escape From North Korea

The Defector director Ann Shin talks to Hazlitt about the human smugglers who extract people from the DPRK, why so many defectors are women, and where those who leave go next.

Chris Frey is a five-time National Magazine Award-winner, has contributed to the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Azure, Maisonneuve, and CBC Radio, and is...

With The Defector filmmaker Ann Shin tracks the chancy exodus of five North Koreans who, having already escaped across the frigid, heavily patrolled Tumen River, must make their way some 3,000 kilometres overland through China, evading detection by police while riding public buses, trains and hired vans, and hiding in safe houses. This before one last, long, arduous hike through Laotian jungle controlled by drug traffickers—and guided, in all likelihood, by those same traffickers—before arriving in Thailand where they can claim refugee status.

The journey is made possible by an enigmatic “broker” named Dragon, himself a North Korean escapee and self-described “human rights activist.” He says that last part with an almost ironic smile. Of course the nature of his work demands that he conspire with criminals and not entirely witting middle-men who could tattle on his operation should they wish. And as Dragon admits later, “There have to be profits for us to work.”

It’s an exhilarating piece of embedded, undercover journalism that, through the stories the protagonists recount along the way about life in the DPRK, only amplifies the hardships and absurdities endured under the Kim family’s Stalinist regime. Stories in this case made especially poignant when the group learns of the death of Kim Jong-Il at the outset of their journey.

Toronto-based Shin is an award-winning filmmaker (The Roswell IncidentCow vs. Clown), new media producer, and poet. Hazlitt spoke to Shin a few days before the Canadian premiere of The Defector at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

Dragon is your entry-point to the film—he’s called a guide or a broker, but really he’s a human smuggler. He’s the one responsible for getting the group of defectors you’re embedded with to freedom. How did you find him?

A North Korean defector I knew in Toronto introduced me to a few guides in South Korea, and Dragon was one of them. And when I talked to Dragon on the phone he was the only guide who talked about the sort of trip and group of defectors that could work for the film, and that I wouldn’t be too much of a hazard joining them. When I met him it turns out he’s this guy with a big dragon tattoo and he carries three cell phones—to me, anyone who carries more than two cell phones you can’t really trust. I changed my mind about him about five times during the production. He was a really ambiguous, interesting character to work with.

It’s one thing for Dragon to let you into his world, but how did you gain the trust of the escapees?

Dragon told me he had five defectors who wanted to be filmed and they were happy to have me follow them so I took his word for it. But when I went with him and my cameraman to this safe house, a little farm on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, the defectors hiding there looked at me in shock. They did not expect a film crew and they did not want their faces on camera. I was, like, “Oh, god”—not only had they not consented, they didn’t even know we were coming.

To Dragon’s credit he helped break the ice. He talked about how I’m from Canada, and [as though I was] an older sister or aunt—in Korean you use kinship terms to talk about one another. Which helps create a sense of camaraderie or brotherhood.

They address you as “Auntie” in the film—

Yeah, I’m their auntie. He told them how I could help them out in ways they couldn’t imagine. We talked a bit about my own family history and how we were affected by Korea’s division into North and South after the war. Then we sat down to a bowl of chicken congee and that’s when they started sharing their stories. From there we travelled with them. And when you’re travelling together in a group and your lives are at stake trust happens instantaneously. We really bonded. They were happy to share their stories as long as I kept their identities concealed.

In the film you blur their faces and out of necessity much of the shooting was done surreptitiously. What sort of difficulties did you face filming undercover?

It’s interesting filming undercover, especially when you have to consider not only your own safety, but the safety of your subjects. So I went only with a cameraman and picked up a soundman there. We had to take DSLR cameras that looked like tourist cameras, since we went to China on tourist visas. We had to hide all our hard drives and halfway through our trip I shipped one of the hard drives out. I was constantly hiding my shoot notes in my luggage so they wouldn’t be found. And we took a lot of B-reel shots of the landscape in case we got caught and officials wanted to see our memory cards—then we could show them our stupid tourist shots.

We shot with the DSLR cameras often just hanging around our necks, from the chest. The soundman was brilliant—he was really risking his livelihood, because if we were caught he’d be in a Chinese prison for sure. He had a portable recorder, which he stuck in a man-pouch and he’d just kind of walk next to whoever was talking. On buses or trains he’d just get close to our subjects and blend in with everybody. He just disappeared. Meanwhile he was collecting great sound without having to use a boom or a mic.

Did you ever find yourself worrying that your presence would compromise the safety of the group?

Of course that’s the biggest concern with a film of this kind—when you’re filming illegal migrants essentially, or people who don’t have status—compromising their safety. Especially when we were on the bus, public transit, or on trains, I felt really concerned. On purpose we didn’t pull out our cameras a lot. Which hampered our shooting. Normally you want to shoot as much as you can, take your time, set up all the angles, but there was none of that.

You seem to have developed quite a strong bond with two of the women escapees in particular, Sook-Ja and Yong-Hee. Coming as they do from a totalitarian society where many of their relationships are circumscribed, and information is so tightly-controlled—was their something in their personalities or in the way they related to you that bespoke the fact they came from that sort of society?

Yeah, I felt there was camaraderie with Sook-Ja and Yong-Hee. I really wanted to help them out. I wanted what was best for them. To do whatever I could to make sure they were successful. But at the same time they were constantly feeling the long shadow of DPRK. Despite having consented to filming they kept asking are you really going to hide my face, and in the end they both wanted me to stop filming once they were in South Korea because they were so concerned for their family.

The fact that they’re from a quasi-Stalinist state, and I was a filmmaker who was with them at these intense times but wouldn’t be there for the long-haul—it was a compromised relationship. We had a kinship and camaraderie but at the end they did keep up a shell to protect themselves.

What did they know of the world outside North Korea before defecting?

It was funny, some of the defectors talked about seeing a mall or a shopping centre for the first time, going to get groceries, and they were shocked to see all the piles of food. And what surprised them the most were the prepared packages of food. They thought not only was there a lot of food out there, but there’s so much luxury that someone will prepare, cook it, and package it so you can eat it instantly later.

Most of them knew that even countries like China were better off than North Korea, but none of them imagined how much more food there could be for the average citizen. How many more luxuries, or that life could be that much more comfortable. To have reliable heating, to be able to buy clothing and furnishings and all that, without having to line up or barter or go on the black market.

Now that they’re out, and they’ve seen life elsewhere, what are their feelings about North Korea?

A couple defectors I was following once they were out and safe in South Korea felt their lives had been robbed from them. One man was 37 years old, and he said because I happen to born by chance inside the North Korean border my first 37 years were robbed from me. He hated the Kim regime, and what happened to his life because of it. But most of the defectors have a longing still for their hometowns, and their families and their friends, and they want to see them and help them. So it’s very mixed, they hate the regime and the way the country’s run, but they long to see their families.

It’s mentioned by Dragon that 80 or 90 percent of the escapees are women. How do you account for that?

That’s because there’s a gender disparity in China and its one-child policy. There’s a high demand for women, and North Korean women [who are thinking of defecting] are easily preyed upon because they have no status in China. If they’re abducted they can’t yell or go to the police. A lot of the women will be trafficked into China against their will or unknowingly, or some will believe that if they go to China they can find a way to make a living.

But often they don’t really know what they’re escaping into.

A lot of people will cross into China thinking they can work on a farm or in a mine. But a couple of the women I spoke to were duped by contacts who said to them, “Hey, there’s good work in China, I can connect you to a friend who will get you there.” And in fact what they were doing was connecting them to traffickers. There aren’t really any statistics about it, but my sense of it is that roughly 30-40 percent of the women I spoke to were duped.

Toronto has a sizeable and well-established Korean community, and there’s a side-story in The Defector that follows a North Korean gentleman here applying for refugee status in Canada. What are relations like between North and South Koreans in Toronto, and how much of a support system is there for defectors who end up here?

The South Korean immigrant community in Toronto has been helpful in receiving North Korean defectors into their churches and providing support, and there are immigrant settlement services for Koreans that have done a lot to help defectors. The South Korean-Canadian churches do a lot, but in terms of employing them there isn’t as much as that. A lot of the North Koreans don’t actually have work experience or know about work on a 9-to-5 basis, since much of the industry in North Korea has been shut down over the past decade. I wouldn’t say there are tensions per se between the two communities, but there are definitely cultural differences. There’s a bit of a gap there.

There are more than 24,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, which is where most them end up. What happens to them when they arrive?

South Korea has a robust program for taking in defectors from the north—it’s a combination of investigation and retraining at a facility called Hanawon, which like a live-in community college. They’re given classes, but they’re also questioned and investigated to make sure they’re not spies. Despite the process, though, there are still North Korean spies who get through. It’s an interesting program, they live at Hanawon for three to four months, they’re taught about capitalist society, they’re taught about world history all over again. And what’s like to live in modern day society.

Getting back to Dragon, the smuggler/guide, you say your opinion of him changed about him five times. Early on in the film he describes himself as a human rights activist, but one gets the impression he’s not entirely altruistic about this. Then there’s the fact he has to somehow get the people he helps to pay him only after they’ve resettled somewhere. He has to make sure they pay.

As a business model, Dragon’s line of work is one of the worst occupations you can choose. You risk your life, you risk imprisonment in a Chinese jail, and you get paid for it at the end when people are trying to take off and never be found again. But North Korean defectors, once they’ve gone through the reception process at Hanawon, they’re given a government stipend as well as an apartment as part of their resettlement. The norm is that brokers will get paid at the end, from the government stipend—in fact many of them are wired the money directly from Hanawon.

In the end, I thought Dragon… he can be aggressive, he can be intimidating, he doesn’t have the greatest bedside manner, but he knows what he’s doing. He lives by his word, so in his own way he’s principled. In the end I thought he’s a good guy. It’s interesting because he’s a human smuggler, or a guide, and I have to say that making this film made me open my eyes and change my views about human smugglers in general. They exist because governments and NGOs are failing people in certain circumstances. The Sudanese, Burmese, Tamils, or North Koreans—they might turn to a smuggler and say I’ll pay you money just get me out of here…

We’re talking here about people who are extremely vulnerable, and with very limited experience of the world. And Dragon’s work underground necessarily forces him to work with some shady elements, such as drug gangs operating in the Laotian part of the Golden Triangle.

The defectors put their trust in these guys but ultimately they don’t know who they’re being picked up by [at various transfer points], or who’s dropping them off, or who’s guiding them through the jungle. But I have to say defectors have told me that they ended up trusting their guides them implicitly, that they never felt they were at great risk. But I have heard other stories about defectors being taken advantage of in safe houses and stuff.

Given that defectors risk reprisals against their families back home in North Korea, how do they reconcile that their own freedom may come at the cost of their family’s suffering?

A lot of the defectors who escape know that if it’s discovered by the state their family will suffer repercussions. But they leave knowing that they can get money back to the family. And the family knows this, it’s what underwrites all the risk. A defector is never really free. They’ll make it to South Korean or Canada but they’re still sending money back to their family, they still feel fearful, both for what may happen to their families and for their own lives.

What was the impetus for embarking on this project?

When I started meeting defectors in my own hometown of Toronto, I felt there was something I could do to get this story out. Most people just think North Korea is this crazy, rogue state and what can you do about it? Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-Il—they’re nuts. But in fact there is something you and I can do to help North Korean defectors who have escaped and are trying to find a safe place to live.

This was a passion project from the start, and there’s something about it that still resonates with me—this extreme flight to freedom that is moving and humbling. I remember telling one of the defectors, “Oh, you’re so courageous,” and this fellow said, “No, I just hope for a normal life. If I had a normal life I wouldn’t be crossing borders illegally.” So that was inspiring, they’re doing this out of a sense of necessity, there’s no ego or pride about it, or even a sense of accomplishment in the end. It’s simply about can I eek out a living, can I live like a human now?


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Chris Frey is a five-time National Magazine Award-winner, has contributed to the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Azure, Maisonneuve, and CBC Radio, and is the Toronto correspondent for Monocle magazine.