Unification Media Group (UMG): The 7th Annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival was held in Seoul last weekend, once again showcasing the plight of defectors and reminding the world of the dire situation in the North. Reporter Kim Ga Young has this report on two of the films: “Crocodiles in the Mekong,” a film about the long and dangerous escape route taken by defectors, and “Why I Left Both Koreas,” a film about defectors who find a better life for themselves in Europe.
Kim Ga Young (Kim): In the first film, “Crocodiles in the Mekong,” a group of four young North and South Koreans set off to experience firsthand the route taken by many defectors on their way to South Korea. Director Park Yu Song takes the viewer along the same route that he took when he escaped the North a decade earlier, starting near the North Korean border with China and winding all the way to Laos and Thailand.
Though it looks like an exciting youth adventure film, it explores the sources of fear for defectors along the journey, which many try to suppress after arriving in the South. One of the most important aspects of the film involves the question of what the crocodiles represent to the defectors.
The second film, “Why I Left Both Koreas,” provides a rare insight into the lives of defectors who decide to leave South Korea for another country after risking their lives to escape the North. Director Choi Jung Ho found inspiration from his own journey, which took him from North Korea to South Korea, and eventually to Britain to study film. While in Europe, Choi met another defector by chance, and decided that the stories of defectors who left South Korea was a topic worthy of his next film project. The film shines a spotlight on both European and South Korean society’s treatment of defectors, with their numbers recently surpassing 30,000 in South Korea alone, and how these individuals grapple with the challenges of their new lives.
A scene from the film, ‘Crocodiles in the Mekong,’ which follows
four young North and South Koreans as they retrace the escape route
taken by many defectors.
UMG: They sound like movies that really make you think. Regarding the first film, did Director Park really encounter crocodiles in the Mekong River?
Kim: Director Park did not actually encounter any crocodiles. The title is meant to symbolize the fears of defectors along the difficult journey, where people often hear rumors from brokers or others that defectors have been eaten by crocodiles in the Mekong before. The belief may come from the distorted memories of defectors who were so terrified of being caught at any moment that they imagined crocodiles as the embodiment of that fear. Some also think that brokers talk about such rumors in order to justify raising their fees due to “heightened danger.”
But the point is to remind the audience of the dangers defectors face, in a way that is so palpable that they imagine monsters snapping at their heels. Director Park shows us these fears while traveling to the Mekong itself and also covering a firsthand defector testimony of the journey, vividly conveying a feeling of paranoia.
On the meaning of the crocodiles, Director Park said, “When I spoke with other defectors, female defectors in particular would often mention crocodiles in the Mekong. I heard this from many different people, and though it seems small, it piqued my interest. I had this image in my head of actual crocodiles, and fully believed the stories in the literal sense, so much that they made me teary.”
The film ‘Why I Left Both Koreas’ explores why some defectors
choose to live abroad in places like Europe instead of staying on the Korean peninsula.
UMG: It is indeed a thought-provoking title. The other film we are discussing today also carries the intriguing title, ‘Why I Left Both Koreas’. How does the film depict the lives of North Korean defectors who decide not to live in South Korea?
Kim: One important message of the film is to show how everyone has their own unique tale, with their own job and routine, and that the North Koreans who escaped each have their own story as well. But instead of dissecting their lives and showing us their routines, Director Choi conveys their plight by showing us how various societies view and treat their North Korean neighbors. Choi emphasizes how different countries and cultures have shaped the identities of these individuals.
The result is a picture of a European continent that treats their North Korean residents well, providing the individuals with a sense of stability. Though we in South Korea refer to the influx of North Korean defectors as the ‘”first stage of unification,” the truth is that people on both sides of the 38th parallel remain worlds apart.
“What one might call a ‘good life’ does not rely solely on having a good job. Rather, what I show in the film is that defectors in Europe can experience a better life due to the relative lack of prejudice and suspicion in those societies. Though defectors cannot receive in Europe the same level of upfront aid money that is offered by the South Korean government, other amenities make up for this,” Director Choi said at the festival.
“There is a prevalence of small, affordable supermarkets. There are programs that offer assistance to families raising children. The defectors I spoke with told me that their money goes further in Europe than in South Korea.”
UMG: One intention of the film could be to remind South Korean society of its responsibility in helping defectors to successfully integrate. It reminds us that a smooth peninsula-wide unification begins with the way our society handles the 30,000 North Koreans living here today. What do the two directors have to say about the current conditions for defectors and potential improvements?
Kim: Both Directors Park and Choi stressed the need for increased awareness and interest among South Koreans towards the plight of defectors. Our interest can keep the crocodiles at bay and help defectors integrate smoothly. These are the important first steps in healing the trauma of the past and welcoming them as vital constituents of our society.
Director Choi said that we cannot continue to view defectors as a mere curiosity, talking about them as a subject of fascination. He says we must appreciate their stories, exercising patience, and understanding that their unique backgrounds form the basis for their unique identities.
He noted that “when asked about what is most lacking in society, many North Korean defectors answer that it is the ‘interest’ of their fellow citizens. It is as easy as warmly greeting the defectors that you encounter, or to volunteer to help defectors just once a year.”
UMG: These and other films showcasing the lives of North Koreans continue to be a valuable resource, helping us learn how to improve the chances for successful integration for defectors. Both Directors Park Yu Song and Choi Jung Ho are showing their films at more international film festivals in the coming months, where more audience members will have a chance to expand their understanding of the plight of North Korean defectors.