Underground Railroad


The Film

A Korean man stands in front of a beige wall and holds a long, white cloth banner with Korean words written in large red print and “WE WANT FREEDOM” written in smaller English letters across the top 

Shot from above, a Korean child in a white T-shirt kneels to pick up bits of yellow grain from the muddy ground

A green tinged night vision shot of a young Korean boyıs face

“I can’t relax, even for a moment. If I hear the sound of a car, I run away because I’m worried about raids. I betrayed my country. If I go back, they will not welcome us. I came here to survive.”
—Cho Sung-hee, a North Korean refugee in China

In the riveting documentary SEOUL TRAIN, filmmakers Jim Butterworth, Lisa Sleeth and Aaron Lubarsky expose the life-and-death struggle faced by North Koreans who attempt to flee their homeland through China, a country that does not recognize their legal status as refugees.

In China, a few fortunate North Korean refugees discover Asia’s own Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and hidden routes set up to lead refugees to freedom in South Korea. SEOUL TRAIN features courageous individuals from all over the world who put their own lives at risk to operate this “railroad.”

There are an estimated 250,000 North Korean refugees living in China. Having escaped starvation and torture at the hands of the North Korean regime, refugees living in China must continue to fight for survival. The Chinese government systematically raids homes, train stations and even taxis looking for North Koreans who they categorize as illegal immigrants. Chinese citizens are rewarded for turning in North Koreans living silently among them.

A disordered crowd of men and women wearing baseball caps push and run outside a building. A uniformed Chinese police officer faces the camera in the foreground, poised to strike, gripping a black object in his white-gloved fists.
A Chinese soldier tries in vain to stop 25 North Korean refugees from rushing into the Spanish Embassy to obtain asylum

North Korean agents also cross into China looking to capture and repatriate North Koreans for the “crime” of leaving their country. Defecting from North Korea is a capital offense, and repatriated refugees face human rights abuses ranging from concentration camps and torture to forced abortion and summary executions.

Using actual footage taken by activists, SEOUL TRAIN goes behind the doors of the covert safe houses where different groups of refugees plan their escapes. We meet refugees like two-year-old Han-mi and her family, accused of speaking out against Kim Jong-il’s regime. We hear the refugees’ first-hand accounts of life in North Korea and their fears of being caught and sent back. SEOUL TRAIN includes the dramatic footage of their escapes, as well as the stunning outcomes.

The film also examines how the international community is dealing with this humanitarian crisis. Refugee experts and activists claim the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is making only feeble attempts to stop China from violating international law by sending hundreds of refugees back to North Korea each month. The UNHCR and Chinese officials also tell their sides of the story.

Experts also consider the possible fall of Kim Jong-il’s regime, an event that could send millions of refugees flooding across the shallow Tumen and Yalu rivers into China. Many fear that it will take such a catastrophe before the world truly understands the depths of this man-made tragedy.

Learn more about the Underground Railroad >>

View a timeline of North Korea >>

Meet some of the activists featured in the film >>

Read the Filmmaker Q&A >>


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