North Korea is a place of terrifying fascination. It is the world’s most brutal regime, led by a dynastic dictator, Kim Jong-un, who has proven even more ruthless and obsessed with nuclear weapons than his father, Kim Jong-il. We all have a certain vision of North Korea, a country sealed off like a prison, cut off from the rest of the world by technology (or the lack of it). You could say it exists as a kind of ghost state, a totalitarian hell on lockdown. But when you watch Madeleine Gavin’s wonderful documentary “Beyond Utopia,” about what’s really going on in North Korea, and the handful of desperate souls who try to escape it, you see North Korea — the absolute nightmare of a place — like never before.
The filmmaker obtained contraband footage that was smuggled out of the country, and in that footage we see citizens lining up to watch a public execution; Then we see the execution. We see North Koreans who have had trouble with the regime – which one man did to tear up a piece of newspaper with a picture of Kim Jong-un so he could roll a cigarette – in interrogation rooms, brutally beaten and tortured. What happens to them? They were “deported” by being deposited in the desert or incarcerated in one of the gulags, otherwise known as a concentration camp. That last phrase is certainly a loaded one, and the reference to “beyond utopia” clearly asserts that North Korea is a religious state of relentless terror that the only country it compares to is Nazi Germany.
As profiles North Korea’s glum dystopia (a state newspaper, a state TV channel, apartments without elevators where tenants burn wood, outhouses dug into the ground, human waste collected by the government to fertilize farms, citizens encouraged to spy on other citizens) , “Beyond Utopia” has a quotidian terror. It’s a peek behind the Potemkin-village facade of what, for a very long time, we’ve really been able to see about North Korea. But the movie tells the story of five members of a family and their escape with a frightening, breathless suspense, shot on a cellphone footage, to leave this nightmare of a nation.
The documentary’s central figure is Pastor Seunjeun Kim, a mild-mannered South Korean Christian who himself defected from North Korea years ago. In the last 10 years, he has risked his own safety to help 1,000 people escape. He is a figure of benevolent fearlessness, and emerges as a master strategist, as he orchestrates the Roh family’s escape plan.
The DMZ, which separates North and South Korea, contains two million land mines. Today, if you want to escape, your only choice is to cross the Yula River into China, then make it through Vietnam and Laos. These are all communist countries that, if caught, will send you back to North Korea. On the other side of Laos is Thailand, the promised land. Thailand is not communist; If you go there, you’re free. But to do this, the defectors must embark on a treacherous journey, traveling on foot through jungles and mountains, aided by brokers who do it for money and who have no interest in whether the desperate people who pay them do it. their destination.
Generally, when refugees flee oppressive regimes, they know what they are leaving behind; They can taste the freedom they are looking for. But part of the story in “Beyond Utopia” is that North Korean citizens don’t fully understand how oppressed they are. They can’t; They saw no other way. In that sense, apart from Nazi Germany, the country most similar to North Korea is Mao’s China during the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Hundreds of millions of people died from famine in China due to Mao’s disastrously unstoppable economic policies. Later, partly to cover it all up, China became the first national propaganda media state, with its vast population daily brainwashed into holding Mao up as a living god.
The North Korean regime, in many ways a perverted outgrowth of Maoism, goes even further. As the film shows us, it takes its theology from the Bible, portraying Kim Jong-un as a Christ figure, and we see footage of great mass stadium demonstrations for which citizens, including thousands of schoolchildren, rehearse. One year at a time — looks like an Olympic opening ceremony staged on mile-long electronic billboards where each LED light is a choreographed human. All these loony-toon specials are intended to celebrate North Korea’s “utopia,” depicting the outside world, especially America, as such a demonic place that the only word used to refer to anyone in the United States is “American-bastard.”
The joyless suppression of life in North Korea prompts at least some citizens to suspect that there must be a better life on the other side. Such is the family of defectors in “Beyond Utopia”; They are ordinary people who have put themselves on an ongoing mission. We also follow the story of Soyeon Lee, who defected to North Korea and is now trying to get her 17-year-old son to do the same. The members of the Roh family (mother, father, two young daughters, 80-year-old grandmother) are guided by Pastor Kim, who arranges to visit them in China; They travel perilously step by step. Lee’s son is not so lucky. He was captured by the authorities, tortured and sent to a gulag. We see a picture of a helpless handsome high school student and it’s a surreal horror to imagine what happened to him. At the moment, his mother’s pain is almost unbearable.
North Korea wasn’t always as terrifying as it is now. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia helped subsidize the country and for years it was economically stronger than China, held up in some quarters as a shining example of how communism could “work.” But the fall of the Soviet Union left the country devastated. The famine that ensued killed 3 million citizens, and Kim Jong-il began the strategy of using nuclear weapons as a threat and a diversionary tactic, a way to make the West forget about the country’s human rights abuses. It worked. The weapons, now in charge of the militant-dictator Kim Jong-un, attract everyone’s attention. Of course, the West is right to approach any nuclear threat with cautious caution. But what we have forgotten is the people of North Korea. For years, their plight has existed under a blackout. “Beyond Utopia” is a light shining on the wall looking behind it.