By Kummam Mohammed Al-Maadeed
Reviewed at 2013 Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival
Since the division of Korea into North and South after World War II, more than 20,000 North Koreans have fled their homeland, claiming refugee status in countries including South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Canada. In ‘The Defector: Escape from North Korea’, director Ann Shin follows Dragon, a North Korean broker, as he smuggles five defectors on a 5,000-kilometre journey through China toward Thailand and potential freedom.
It is astonishing how little seems to be known about the regulations the North Korean government forces people to live by. These defectors are risking everything for the chance to live a better life – the authorities will not only punish them, but their whole families if they are caught in their attempt to flee. Shin is careful not to reveal the identities of the defectors or of Dragon; she blurs their faces and speaks to them in shadows. Most of the documentary is shot with a camera hidden in a bag; absolute discretion is a must – even using cell phones can lead to disaster. We only see bits and pieces of the journey, but the intensity and the danger are felt in every sequence, keeping the audience on edge, hoping the defectors will escape without anyone being caught.
The bravery of these people is inspiring. After they muster all their strength and courage to flee, and then, after they manage to escape, they must plead for refugee status in the country they have arrived in and hope they will be granted the approval to stay. It’s a life or death journey for them. If they do obtain refugee status and are allowed to remain in their new country, they still have to adjust to a whole new world and way of life. In North Korea, they are taught that other countries are poor and that people suffer under their political systems. When they are subjected to this kind of harsh influence throughout their lives, it’s hard for people to move on to a life they have been repeatedly told is much worse than the one they have left behind.
At the end of the documentary there is a plea from the defectors to us, the viewers, to please help them. One rejected refugee claim can mean death – not only for them, but also for their families back home. The film also leaves us wondering about the extent of suffering in North Korea. Through the story of Dragon and these defectors, Shin points to huge and complex issues like human trafficking, government injustice and brainwashing. If she dug deeper, it’s frightening to think what Shin might find.