A Hope Beyond Utopia: Rescue, Restoration, and the Flight from North Korea

Beyond Utopia debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

There are films that are moving and profound; There are films that are urgent. And then there’s Madeleine Gavin’s Beyond Utopia.

The film takes its name from a quote by Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector and the author of The Girl with Seven Names. Gavin’s documentary follows North Koreans who, like Lee, make the treacherous attempt to flee the country. It also highlights the care and sacrifice of those trying to help them escape. Specifically, the movie centers on South Korean pastor Seungeun Kim’s efforts to safely coordinate the defection of a family. The family—a husband, wife, two young daughters, and an elderly grandmother—is faced with a daunting journey that is their only hope for safety. To reach South Korea, they have to cross China, Vietnam, and Laos before flying to Seoul from Thailand. Along the way, Seungeun Kim coordinates with smugglers in China and his family’s relatives in South Korea to prepare a way for them.

Beyond Utopia would be crucial regardless of how it was filmed, but it is astounding for using absolutely no recreations. Reportedly, all of the footage comes from hidden cameras smuggled into North Korea; from smugglers (called brokers) and the escapees themselves during their long trek through China; Or from members of the film crew that join the family in Vietnam and Laos. Added to this is archival film, footage obtained from various news sources such as the Associated Press, and the documentary crew’s filming in Seoul.

What this means is that the audience is given an unprecedented firsthand picture of life under the North Korean government. It means the emotions are actual and spontaneous in a way that even few documentaries can achieve. The point here is not to praise the documentary but to be in awe of the lives of the men, women, and children who risk everything they can imagine to seek a sanctuary outside of their country. That awe goes equally for the South Koreans aiding the defectors, thus making themselves targets.

The sense of reality that North Korea gave to its citizens left no space for hope outside of its borders.

Nearly all of the unprecedented access is thanks to the work of Pastor Seungeun Kim and his agency, Caleb Mission. They have not only smuggled hidden cameras into North Korea, but also placed them along the border of China across the Yalu River. Pastor Kim exhorts the defectors to record as much footage as they can as they cross mountains and rivers in their escape. It’s this footage we bear witness to, and it is overwhelming for the travesty of life under a totalitarian regime.

In The origins of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt sought to understand the cultural forces that enabled the rise of totalitarianism and the brutal methods that kept totalitarianism in power. Writing in the latter half of the twentieth century, Arendt was focused on Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia—regimes that can feel far removed from us in the 2020s. But totalitarianism, under the influence of Soviet Russia, has taken hold of North Korea for decades. Its destructive form of control is still an evil at work in the world today. Despite knowing this, it’s distressing to see so much of what Arendt articulated in the smuggled footage that Beyond Utopia collects.

This totalitarian power draws its strength from an endless campaign to instill devotion in the hearts and minds of North Koreans. Loyalty to the regime is inculcated from a young age through school lessons and mass games. Young children are taught songs about decimating “American bastards” and forced to practice for innumerable hours in preparation for the games. It’s an embodied indoctrination alongside a complete isolation from any encounter with the outside world. Defectors tell stories of police agents placing bugs in children’s toys; Even watching a South Korean movie is denounced as a crime.

Arendt noted the purpose of these insulating practices in Germany and Russia, writing that “this type of organization prevents its members ever being directly confronted with the outside world, whose hostility remains for them a mere ideological assumption.” These methods trap North Koreans in an “insane reality.” The people are cut off from communication, connection, and any idea of ​​what the rest of the world truly consists of. They are not equipped with any tools that would allow them to even begin questioning the lies they’ve been taught. The government thus stifles the available social imaginary of its citizens and guarantees loyalty, even love.

In turn, that love takes precedence over human relationships and the fact of reality itself. To American ears, it’s surprising to hear that the family is at the center of Beyond Utopia didn’t want to leave North Korea. They only decided to flee when the government released an edict that any known family or associate of previous defectors would be exiled. Their lives were already living in a substatus of social suspicion, but they knew that exile would only mean death. As the neighbor turns in suspicion against the neighbor, the regular human bonds of friendship and compassion are shattered—if they were ever allowed to form to begin with.

Arendt writes that “provocation, once only the specialty of the secret agent, becomes a method of dealing with his neighbor which everybody, willingly or unwillingly, is forced to follow.” In a world where ultimate love is reserved for the totalitarian movement, anyone can be motivated to accuse those closest to them. Going even further, she says, “what totalitarian rule needs to guide the behavior of its subjects is a preparation to fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim.” The North Korean government enforces devotion even in the face of terror, creating a devotion that supersedes human compassion.

Beyond Utopia They refuse to hide from that terror. We see classroom lessons of young children being formed by falsehoods. We see hatred of outsiders cultivated. We see the splendor of the mass games, but we also see the excruciating conditions under which children were forced to practice. We see the stark conditions of a country in a decades-long depression. We see people collapse in the street from hunger. We don’t merely listen to a report about North Korean executions, we hear a first hand account of one. And then we witness one. It is unbearably heavy. It is unbearably real.

“I never knew who is God, what is God… but somehow I prayed, ‘Please, help me.’”

That the terror does little to mitigate the citizens’ loyalty is a dark testament to the strength of totalitarianism. The only force seemingly strong enough to break the hold of devotion is a true confrontation with reality. Even after the family flees, their hearts are with their homeland. Part of this is understandable: There is real sorrow to leave everything you know, even when you know it’s worth risking everything to escape. But it goes beyond that. The sense of reality that North Korea gave to its citizens left no space for hope outside of its borders.

When interviewed by the film crew about Kim Jong-un, the grandmother confesses that she loves his leadership and wants to see him succeed. But the grip of North Korea’s ideology starts to crack, slowly at first. The grandmother confesses that she believed any American would only want to do her harm, but her experience with the documentary’s crew casts doubts on that assumption. “As I look at you… that makes me think that perhaps my government has lied to me.”

Arendt stated that the ultimate method of totalitarian regimes was to isolate humans, to stifle their individuality and ability to interact with one another. “To destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources.” It’s only when that sense of personhood—the dignity we’re each given as image-bearers of God—is restored that the grip of such ideologies is broken.

Beyond Utopia is vital for more than just the revelation of reality in North Korea. Gavin’s documentary puts that profound dignity in focus through the family’s journey and the work of Pastor Kim. Kim’s service is literally built on love—much of his knowledge about smuggling people across Asia was learned while finding a way to get his wife safely out of North Korea. He and his wife took that knowledge and used it to help many others escape across decades. And if he began to love, he continues to love. Their ministry tends to both the souls and bodies of North Koreans. They work to bring rescue, restoration, and hope to the oppressed.

It’s a hope that the powers of North Korea could never attain, no matter how grand their delusions are. The North Korean government criminalizes the mere possession of a Bible, but they also “plagiarize” it. The regime frames its history by casting Kim Jong-il as a deity, making Kim Jong-un the son of god. The citizens are even taught to follow ten principles set up by the regime, held aloft as their own Decalogue. All of this is an attempt to sanctify and concretize the regime’s ideology. But it also reveals the emptiness of it and points, instead, to the source of actual hope.

Hyeonseo Lee describes a moment of faith during her initial escape across the North Korean border. “I never knew who is God, what is God… but somehow I prayed, ‘Please, help me.’” There’s a source of rescue and restoration greater than the might of totalitarianism. Unlike the tyrants who rule over North Korea, the true God is one who hates oppression. In Psalm 82, Asaph gives a picture of God toppling the false gods of the nations:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the affiliated and the destitute.
rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
and fall like any prince.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for you shall inherit all the nations!

Hundreds of years after Asaph’s song, Christ began his ministry by proclaiming good news to the poor and declaring liberty to the captives and the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21). Christ is the fulfillment of that declaration, heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God. And in the promise of his return, we have a true hope that tyranny and oppression will one day cease. It’s a hope that even the worst evil of this world can’t snuff out.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo


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