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Documentary reveals perilous path for North Korean defectors

December 17, 2023

An award-winning documentary about defecting from North Korea exposes the grim reality facing those who cross the Chinese border, only to be captured and sent back. The number of people attempting the trip is increasing, but the post-pandemic era is making it easier for China to hunt them down. Pressure is now mounting on Beijing to rethink a policy that puts these fugitives at risk of torture or death.

"Beyond Utopia" follows the harrowing journey of a family of five as they escape from North Korea, and another woman who makes it to South Korea unlike her son, who is caught and jailed.

The film clinched the Audience Award in the documentary category at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the United States. Some critics predict it could win an Academy Award.

China sends defectors back

"Beyond Utopia" depicts what happens to defectors who are discovered hiding in China and sent back to North Korea.

Officials in South Korea are so concerned about the situation that the National Assembly adopted a resolution in November. It urges China to instead relocate the escapees to South Korea.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs is making diplomatic efforts to that end. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also notified China in a statement that "deportation to North Korea is not an acceptable act."

So far, Beijing is not listening. China and North Korea have a close relationship and both counties face criticism for their human rights records.

United Nations resolution

At the United Nations, the General Assembly's Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee adopted a resolution in November criticizing Pyongyang's human rights abuses.

A similar resolution has been adopted annually for 19 consecutive years – except this time it also takes aim at China. The resolution "strongly urges all Member States to respect the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, especially in the light of a resumption of cross-border travel."

Pyongyang responded angrily, with North Korea's ambassador to the UN Kim Song criticizing the defectors as "human scum" in English in a speech to the Committee.

Kim Jong Un sheds tears

In Pyongyang, a gathering called the National Mother's Conference was held for the first time in 11 years in December. Women in traditional costumes traveled from all over the country to meet leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim reportedly delivered a speech expressing a sense of crisis over the declining birthrate, noting "It is patriotism for mothers to give birth and raise many children."

State-run media broadcast images that show Kim shedding tears – though it's unclear exactly why. Many families that have been split apart by North Korea's policies are also feeling sorrow, clinging to hopes that continuing international pressure will one day allow for reunions.



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