The producer of a film that gives a heartbreaking account of North Koreans risking their lives across the Yalu River to China has brought the movie to Washington in a bid to highlight the plight of defectors escaping from human rights abuses and starvation in the hardline communist state.
The film, 48M, which refers to a 48-meter (158-foot) -wide stretch of the Yalu River, the shortest route between North Korea and China, explores the circumstances driving defectors to escape, how they flee, and what they endure after crossing the border.
The movie is based on the experiences of around 300 defectors who made their way to South Korea after crossing the Yalu into China, where many North Koreans are caught and repatriated home to face severe punishment, torture, and even execution.
On Wednesday, the film was shown to American lawmakers and discussed at a U.S. congressional hearing in Washington on human rights abuses in North Korea. It will also be screened at a church for the Korean community in Virginia state on Sept. 22.
“I have brought with me a human rights-based movie that is based on the heartbreaking and sad reality of the escape of North Koreans along the border of North Korea and China, and the forced repatriation carried out by the Chinese government,” producer Ahn Hyuk told lawmakers at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing.
“The movie contains the truth and reality of what is going on right now along the shortest distance in the North Korea-China border, which is 48 meters,” he said.
“[It] shows why the North Korean people are leaving their hometowns—which they are so attached to and where they were born—[and] risking their lives to escape.”
South Korea’s Database Center for North Korean Human Rights estimates that as many as 200,000 North Koreans refugees are hiding in China after fleeing persecution and starvation in their homeland, and that many lack legal status and access to basic social services and are susceptible to human trafficking.
Many others are stuck in third countries awaiting transit to South Korea or have been repatriated to North Korea by Chinese authorities.
Beijing does not recognize North Koreans as refugees, but considers them to be illegal aliens who have entered the country seeking economic opportunities.
Ahn Hyuk, who spent three years in the notorious Yoduk prison camp during the late 1980s and who fled to South Korea in 1993, said the film also demonstrates the determination of the North Korean defector community now living in South Korea to expose rights abuses by the Kim Jong Un regime.
“North Korean defectors [in South Korea] who bear the immense pain of escape and forced repatriation who did not have any other recourse to appeal what they went through, came together and planned the film,” said Ahn Hyuk, who himself fled from the North to the South in 1993.
The producer added that only a few years ago, due to a policy of reengagement in South Korea, “it would have been unimaginable” for North Korean defectors to make such a film.
“Another thing that would have been unthinkable and unimaginable in the past is the fact that now North Korean defectors are producing and sending radio broadcasts into North Korea aimed at the North Korean citizens, and also sending leaflets via balloons into North Korea,” he said.
“The reason why we are able to rise up and continue our efforts for the democratization of North Korea despite the terror threats from the North Korean regime … is because of the determination to go back to our homeland, even if we were to die.”
Repatriated to torture
Also present at Wednesday’s hearing was Pack Kwang Il, a former North Korean teacher who in 2001 fled his country to China after authorities discovered that he had been responsible for the dissemination of a South Korean TV drama.
During his testimony, Pack described how Chinese authorities had detained him and repatriated him to North Korea, where he was subjected to brutal torture.
“Even though I succeeded in fleeing North Korea, within 15 days I was arrested by the Chinese security police in Yanbian, in the Korean Autonomous region. It was because I did not know my way around China at all,” he said.
Chinese authorities soon sent him back to North Korea, where he underwent 60 days of “unbearable torture and investigation” in an underground interrogation room.
At the end of the 60 days, while being transferred to a new location for further interrogation, Pack threw himself off of the train he had been packed onto in an attempt to commit suicide.
He survived the attempt and crawled for nearly two weeks to the Chinese border, where he collapsed on a road after crossing the Tumen River.
Pack was eventually rescued by a Korean-American missionary who nursed him back to health and helped him to resettle in South Korea after nearly two years where he joined the Youth and Students Forum for North Korean Democratization.
Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, told the Tom Lantos Commission that Pack’s experience, and the experiences of many of the defectors featured in 48M, is common for North Koreans attempting to cross into China.
She noted that following the death of former regime leader Kim Jong Il in December last year, the North Korean government ordered that three generations of a family would be executed if one family member fled during the mourning period.
The regime also issued a “shoot to kill” policy for North Koreans trying to flee to China at that time.
But she also criticized China for its “illegal, cruel and inhumane” practice of forcing refugees back to North Korea, knowing they will face unusually harsh treatment.
“China’s brutal and unlawful repatriation policy has led to the exploitation of North Korean women who in their vulnerability become the victims of traffickers and has created a lawless environment in China,” Scholte said.
Scholte also blasted Beijing for refusing to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees any access to the region to determine whether North Koreans who cross the border can be claimed as refugees.
In May during the premiere of 48M in Seoul, Scholte commended the film for its portrayal of the suffering North Koreans face at home and what they must endure in China while seeking resettlement in South Korea.
“We hope that many people will watch the movie and learn about human rights in North Korea and the problems faced by refugees,” she said at the time.
“We plan to continue working until the day when there is freedom and respect for human rights in North Korea.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.