It was love that led Pastor Seungeun Kim, one of the subjects of the documentary Beyond Utopia, to his life’s work, running an underground railroad that leads North Korean defectors on a fraught path to freedom. In 2000, he was then a successful businessman and church volunteer using his vacation time on a church mission to the China-North Korea border when he met Esther Park, a one-time soldier who was defecting.
“My first motivation was that I wanted to save her,” Kim says on a recent Bay Area visit through interpreter Beyond Utopia associate producer Sunny Parker of the work that has consumed his life for more than two decades.
“It was easy to decide I’m going to risk my life and say we’re going to rescue these Korean people but actually the path I went through is really hard. I went to jail. Even my mother, who helped me to rescue North Korean defectors, she went to jail in China. And, physically, I’ve had a metal rod put in my neck and have had a few back surgeries. I lost my gallbladder after I fell in the jungle during a rescue mission… But even with the hardships, I also feel joy when I rescue so many lives. That’s what motivates me to keep going.”
Kim is one of the central subjects of Beyond Utopia along with Soyeon Lee, a defector living in South Korea agonizing over the fate of her teenage son who tried to flee North Korea only to be captured in China and sent back to face harsh punishment. The Sundance US Documentary audience award winner, directed by Madeleine Gavin, is very different from the film that producer Jana Edelbaum and Rachel Cohen originally envisioned. It was Hyeonseo Lee’s book The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story that introduced them to the topic and it was her story they originally meant to tell.
But the film began to shift and its focus widened as more people came aboard the project. Gavin, who is the film’s editor as well as its director, began her own extensive research when she joined the project. Another key addition to the team was Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and adviser on North Korea to the George W. Bush and Obama administrations—and a woman Edelbaum and Cohen knew from the playground, having children the same age. She brought her expertise to the project and became one of the film’s producers.
Hyeonseo Lee’s story is still part of Beyond Utopia’s larger tapestry that now includes footage smuggled out of North Korea that limns the country’s dire conditions, Soyeon Lee’s struggles to find information on her son, and a heart-stopping rescue mission as Kim tries to steer a family of five, including an 80-year-old grandmother, to freedom.
“Hyenseo is a wonderful person and her story is fascinating,” Terry says. “But in opening the story wider, you see what life is like. This is fascinating, even for somebody like me who follows [North Korea]. We know in theory what happens there but to see it like this, this doesn’t happen, even in the CIA. This is not something that happens, so that we get to see it, right? You only hear about it from defectors after they make it out. This is something just never done before.”
Much of Beyond Utopia’s storytelling relies on Pastor Kim. It is his contacts using cameras he smuggled into the country who supplied the film’s startling footage from inside North Korea, depicting a dystopian society of hardship and deprivation. He is the one paying off the brokers and human traffickers who lead defectors through China, Vietnam, Laos, and ultimately Thailand in a successful escape. But when the filmmakers came calling, Kim initially declined to participate, fearing for the safety of both film crew and defectors should a crew tag along on a mission.
“But they kept approaching me and I felt their truth—they’re really patient and passionate about the subject,” Kim says. “I really felt that they cared. I started to trust them. At around that time, the family escaped, so I had to make a choice in the moment, because this is a life-or-death situation. Everything worked out. It was great timing—or more like fortune.”
For Soyeon Lee, the question of whether to participate in Beyond Utopia or not came down to would it help or hurt her son. Scant information comes out of North Korea, but she does know that when he was returned to the country, her child was sentenced to a gulag with conditions so harsh that few ever come out alive.
“Jana and Rachel are mothers and they gave me their support as mothers to another mother,” Lee says. “They really helped me think it through. My son is already in the worst situation. So, instead of hiding and keeping silent, I need to step out and raise my voice to the international world so I can prevent other horrible stories like mine or my son’s. When the international world knows about human rights issues in North Korea, it might prevent other tragic stories like mine, so that’s why I decided to speak out.”
With COVID lockdowns tapering off, China plans to return 2,600 defectors to an ugly fate in North Korea. Currently, 200 people in hiding in China are in touch with Pastor Kim, hoping he can guide them to freedom. Overall, he estimates there are more than 50,000 North Koreans in China willing to risk everything for a better life.
What Kim would like to see arise out of Beyond Utopia is a change in Chinese policy, one that will stop the return of defectors to North Korea, and instead acknowledge them as refugees who should be allowed to continue their journeys. Seoyeon Lee hopes that raised awareness of the situation in North Korea will lead the international community to pressure the country on human rights and may one day lead to a reunion with her son.
“From mine and Rachel’s perspective, we went into this wanting to raise awareness,” says Edelbaum. “But I think now the goal is to help Pastor Kim and Seoyeon achieve their goals and also to make people stop and reflect on how precious democracy is and what it looks like when it doesn’t exist.”
Adds Cohen, “We would also like to shift the lens away from the weaponry and Kim Jong Un, that’s all we ever see. We need to focus on the 26 million human beings that we never hear from and who have no voice and just shrouded in that country.”
BEYOND UTOPIA opens in Bay Area theaters on Fri/3.