JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, tales of escape from North Korea.
It’s from our occasional series The Economist Film Project, showcasing independently-produced documentaries that bring us things we don’t ordinarily see. The films are chosen jointly by the NewsHour and “The Economist” magazine.
Here’s an excerpt from “Kimjongilia” from — by filmmaker N.C. Heikin. She took an artistic approach to illustrating some harrowing stories.
NARRATOR: North Korean propaganda films paint a blissful picture of life under Kim Jong Il. But those we met who had escaped from North Korea in the last decade paint a very different picture.
Kang Chol Hwan remembers a happy childhood.
KANG CHOL HWAN, escaped North Korea (through translator): I had five or six aquariums with all kinds of fish. We kids competed to see who had the best fish.
NARRATOR: Then everything changed. His grandfather was arrested for an unnamed crime. North Korean practice is to purge three generations. Kang, his grandmother, father, uncle and little sister were taken to Yodok prison camp. Kang screamed so much the soldiers let him take one of his beloved aquariums. He was 9 years old.
KANG CHOL HWAN (through translator): The iron gates opened. The soldiers were armed. I began to feel real fear. Everyone was so skinny. The children were so weak and fragile. They were in rags.
At first, I dried bugs for my fish. That’s how I fed them. But when I started forced labor, I didn’t have time for them. I didn’t even have time to cry. Every day was so tiring. We worked so hard. I was so cold. You don’t care about your pet fish when you’re dying.
SHIN DONG-HYUK, escaped North Korea (through translator): We never knew when we’d get beaten. There was constant fear.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Total Control Prison Camp Number 14. He never knew why his parents were there.
SHIN DONG-HYUK (through translator): A guy from Pyongyang came to the camp. He told me what his life had been like, his life in Pyongyang. The best stories were about eating.
After I heard his stories, the camp became totally unbearable. I came up with the idea of escaping. I knew we could get shot or electrocuted. All of a sudden, I was afraid.
And then my friend said, “I don’t think we can do it.” But I couldn’t give up. I had to escape. I practically dragged him. And then I slipped in the snow, so he ran ahead of me. When I saw the wired gates, I figured he was squeezing through the electric wires. So, I followed his lead and squeezed through, too.
When I got up and looked behind me, I realized I was on the other side of the gates. And then I saw my friend was stuck and didn’t move. He was still stuck in the wires. If I hadn’t fallen, I would have been the first to squeeze through the electric wire. I would have been the one electrocuted.
NARRATOR: There are an estimated 300,000 prisoners in the camps today. But even outside the camps, life is difficult. There are fears that food shortages could get as bad as they were in the mid-’90s, when Byeon Ok-soon was growing up.
BYEON OK-SOON, escaped North Korea (through translator): Because of the great famine in 1994, we were having a very hard time. We would go to the mountains to pick roots. We ate grass from the fields and bark from the trees.
NARRATOR: Byeon Ok-soon lived with her parents, three brothers, and sister in a northern town. The only source of food was the state-run distribution system. By the time she was 17 that system had collapsed.
BYEON OK-SOON (through translator): One day, I was with my father in the mountains. I got soaked with rain while we were foraging. After we finished I went home. My body started to burn and I fainted.
We had nothing to eat and we certainly couldn’t buy medicine. So, they laid me to one side, waiting for me to die. I had typhoid fever and was in a coma.
NARRATOR: Ok-soon woke up from her coma in China. Her brother had carried her on his back across the Tumen River. He left her in the care of an old woman while he looked for work to pay for her medical treatment.
As the oldest brother, it was his duty to care for his parents and siblings. He took his duty very seriously.
BYEON OK-SOON (through translator): After he saved me in China, with our parents back in North Korea, my brother felt very tortured. He would get food and take it back to our parents. He was constantly sneaking back and forth.
When he realized the North Korean authorities were on to him, he decided to give himself up. If you give yourself up, you expect to receive a lighter sentence. That’s what he thought. Instead, he was taken and publicly executed.
PARK MYUNG-HO, escaped North Korea (through translator): The military suffered, too. The state only supplied us with rice and salt. We had to get everything else ourselves.
NARRATOR: Park Myung-ho was a captain in the Korean People’s Army. He served for 20 years. His father had also been a soldier.
PARK MYUNG-HO (through translator): These days, many officers desert. Even if you want to work, there are always supplies missing, making it impossible to do the job. But commanders go on issuing orders every day. You have to steal the supplies you need.
If you care at all, it is impossible not to express your frustration. Consequently, many are arrested. That’s what drove me to escape. We decided to cross the 38th Parallel by boat. We evaded navy ships twice. Because our boat was small and theirs were big, we could see them first and get away.
Actually, the North Korean ships had no fuel. They couldn’t start their engines and were under sail. When I saw all the trees on the mountains, I knew we were in South Korea.
BYEON OK-SOON (through translator): I know it’s the country of my birth, but I really hate it.
NARRATOR: Ok-soon and the other escapees now live in South Korea.
BYEON OK-SOON (through translator): I don’t want to live there ever again.
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s more from filmmaker N.C. Heikin on our website.
And you can learn about the project or submit your film at film.economist.com.