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July 12th, 2011
Crossing Heaven's Border

“Recounts the harrowing, heartbreaking stories of North Korean refugees
who escape – or try to – across the border into China”
–Miami Herald

“The kind of suspense Hollywood cannot manufacture”
– Wall Street Journal

About the Film

In the past decade, up to 100,000 defectors have crossed the waters of the Tumen and Yalu Rivers into northeast China to escape from North Korea, the world’s last closed Communist state. In Crossing Heaven’s Border, WIDE ANGLE tells the moving and dramatic stories of a few of them.

Crossing Heaven’s Border reveals the plight of North Korean defectors from the point of view of intrepid South Korean journalists who risk their lives filming undercover for ten months to capture the haunting stories first-hand. The reporters introduce us to a mother working in China as a tour guide to support her six-year-old son who is sick with cerebral palsy and in dire need of medical attention. And we follow the grueling ten-day journey of a teenage girl and a little boy smuggled overland across China and Laos into Thailand, where North Korean defectors can request asylum at the South Korean embassy.

About the Issue

The exodus began in the mid-90s when North Korea was plagued by a famine that killed up to a million people. Most defectors flee from North Korea’s poor border regions into northeast China, where they live in hiding, work illegally and have no access to education or medical care. More than three quarters of the defectors are women, many of whom work in the sex industry. If caught by Chinese authorities, they are repatriated to North Korea, where they face severe punishment: persecution, torture, even execution in prison camps. Only a lucky few reach their ultimate goal: asylum in South Korea.

WIDE ANGLE anchor Aaron Brown further explores the plight of defectors from North Korea in a post-film interview with Debra Liang-Fenton, a human rights expert with the United States Institute of Peace, and the former Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

  • Chris Seelbach

    I attended the premier of Crossing Heaven’s Borders last night at the Asia Society. It was packed and the interest in the program was electric. This was even better than the first you had on China’s legal system last year. This type of venue should be expanded as you will generate more buzz and expand your audience at a reasonable cost. Expanding this program with other international groups in NYC, with groups related to the UN, with World Learning from Putney, VT & in NYC and other non-profits, with international businesses and with university alumni groups are other likely venues. Some of these groups could also be interested in some cooperative web site efforts.

  • Chan

    This program is a complete, 100% rip off of the film “Seoul Train”

  • David Budd

    Just watched it. The final comments are finishing right now. Im not a very empathic person, but this touched me. The North Korean people deserve better.

  • Jennifer Sunseri

    Having lived in South Korea for two years and being exposed to North Korean broadcasts, I applaud you for publicizing the plight of North Koreans. I’m so dismayed this kind of regime can exist into the current era! I hope I see North Korea’s demise before my own.

  • Michael D. Rubin

    This was a remarkable and touching view of the horror and evil that is North Korea. May the regime crumble. May the people’s of the world say enough and may Korea unite as one.

  • James

    What’s the point of communism? What’s the point of any government if it doesn’t serve its people?

  • Courtney Wray

    I just finished watching the documentary with tears in my eyes. Anyone who can’t empathize with the N. Korean people is heartless. I feel like I need to be doing something. Their plight is terrible. They are in my prayers.

  • Rob V

    Amazing! This was a very touching film. I really want to know how we can take action.

  • Mischa

    I lived in South Korea for 15 months. I have heard mony stories of the journeys of many people seeking freedom. This documentary really brought those stories home. BRAVO!

  • Michael del

    Despite dealing with such a compelling topic, “Crossing Heaven’s Border” felt oddly shallow and unfocused. I imagine this is due to the short length of the film which easily could have (should have) been longer. I wanted to know so much more about these people and their lives. Nevertheless, I was especially touched by the one mother’s relationship with her son. The scene on the night before she left with her son crying and trying to bury his face in her arms while she held him was wrenching. The look on her face was almost emotionless in its resolve but also betrayed a tremendous amount of heartbreak. The shot was devastating.

  • Steven

    Heartbreaking tearful film. Good luck to all those who filmed this issue for us to see.

  • Theresa Speights

    How heartbreaking! I applaud the bravery of the North Korean defectors, the film crew, and your organization for bringing this to the public’s attention.

  • Peter

    I missed the first half. Is there anywhere online where it can be watched? The second half was evoking enough by itself. Done well. Horrible situations.

  • Lauren

    Hi Peter, the full episode will be online tomorrow. Thanks!

  • Erin

    just finished watching film. i was especially moved by the story of Bo Song and his mother. very touching.

  • elizabeth Feuille

    How do I get a copy of Crossing Heavens Border? I am a social studies teacher and would very much like to use this in my classes…thank you

  • F1Frankie

    Powerful, compelling television. Similarly to Erin and Michael del, I was struck by the look on the face of the young mother as she held her wailing son…seemingly devoid of affect, but yet just enough emotion showing so that we could feel her inner struggle…to stay strong for her son, but yet feeling torn inside. Wide Angle, you have a new viewer. Keep up the good work!

  • Michelle Nikolai

    I taught English in South Korea from 1992-1994. Many of my students had family in North Korea who ended up there after the Korean War; they spoke frequently about reuniting with their families and the North. It’s got to be a disheartening situation to know that you have blood relatives who are being subjected to the Kim family regime . . . thanks for sharing their plight.

  • Sunny

    I wish you had chosen subtitles rather than dubbing over the Korean speakers.

    As a Korean-American I found this piece very interesting. So did my parents, but their English is limited. It would have been very interesting for them to hear their native language on PBS.

  • Tara

    Amazing film. Very thought provoking and inspiring, thank you.

  • Dave K.

    The South Korean government could do more to help if it wants to. It is one of the richest nation. They can hire some ships cruising along the Chines coast to pickup defectors so they don’t have to walk 12 hours. There are millions of South Koreans business people living in China. They have resources and connections to help their brothers and sisters.

    The film crew keep saying it was so danger for them to do this, compare with journalist working in Iraq, this is nothing.

    If U.S. wants, we can accept a few millions of defectors easily.

  • Frank

    Thank you for airing this documentary. I agree with other commentators that it was so heart-breaking to see these people risking their lives to gain freedom and hope. Bo Sung’s good bye with his mother crushed me. Thank you for the follow up footage of them meeting at the airport and shopping together. Otherwise, I would’ve written PBS everyday to see how we could get him out of China. :)

  • john b

    i live in south korea and i would love to watch the full wide angle program. is there any way?

  • Katherine Probst

    A powerful documentary which eloquently shows the plight of North Koreans refugees. I wish it could have been longer so it could have explained why some Koreans cross the river naked, carrying their clothes and how cruelly the North Koreans are treated by Chinese soldiers after having crossed into China. The South Korean journalists showed the same bravery and courage as the escaping North Koreans, and their words were translated in a seemless way which never interfered with the telling of the story. Well done!

  • Dale

    My gosh, how I was moved by this film. It deeply saddens me to think of the untold stories of these poor people. Thank you for at least letting us know of the mostly happy endings for those you followed. Let us know what we can do to help on this website please!

  • Montalak khomphengchan

    When I was watching last night , me and my soon, we both cryied, I am from the comunist country , but my country not that bad , open ( not much) alot bettuner than north korea, i felt sorry for the north korean , their lost , thier freedom, thier human right,They deserve better than that. How do we can help them ?

  • Grace

    As a Korean-American, I found the documentary to be moving, and I liked how the focus seemed to be on North Koreans living in China, an aspect that many people are not familiar with. To be honest, I did not like how PBS had a Q&A session with the Human rights expert and the moderator. The questions that were asked such as “Do you think North Korea would even know about Michael Jackson” or “Do the North Koreans really think they can destroy America” seem like unnecessary and offensive questions that only further portray North Korea as an inhumane and for lack of a better word, crazy country.
    If you look at the whole context of the history of how the Koreas came to be divided, and the U.S.’s and Soviet’s role in the construction of these two countries, then, I think we can be better at discerning how the two Koreas can work towards peaceful measures. By calling North Korea names and castigating it as an evil country, does nothing more than instill fear in people, and provides no solutions.

  • Michael Shugrue

    This is a great documentary. This is what television should be broadcasting, not 125 hours of what people think of MJ’s kids.

  • Kristina

    I had no idea how repressive N. Korea is until I saw this documentary last night. I found this documentary riveting, immensely informative, and emotionally charged. The story about the mother and the little boy with cerebral palsy reminded me of how much I love my 2 year old little girl and how much a mother will sacrifice for her child. Thank you so much, PBS and Aaron Brown, for presenting this outstanding documentary.

  • Irini

    Just watched this episode of Wide Angle and thought it was amazing. This single show had more of an effect on me than so many articles about N. Korea I have read in the news. It really gave me insight to the plight of N. Koreans looking to defect in the hopes for better lives. What they have to go through is heartbreaking.

  • Jason Kasper

    I have read and heard stories such as these, but never have seen a report as powerful, beautiful, bold. This was truly an amazing feat and what I would like to see more often in the news. I find it ironic as well that we see how misinformation and non-information can affect a whole country, yet what do our own news outlets report? As a Canadian, I fringe at watching the CBC or other major network as the news is politically-like motivated. They only want you to hear what they deem as ‘news’, and what they think will get ratings to pay for their broadcasts. I therefore rely on the BBC.

    After watching this on PBS, I am encouraged and excited to see this type of journalism. Thank you for broadcasting this report and I truly hope it challenges you, me, and anyone else to actively support Human Rights and freedom for all.

    Lastly, how can we help, well, it starts with you and me. Let’s make an effort to spread the word, increase our own awareness and those around us of this atrocity. Hopefully it will inspire more reporters, who will spread the word out even more. To counteract N.Korea’s indoctrination, let’s start by making sure we are not blinded of it as well. Then perhaps if stand together and united, we could hear in your lifetime those famous words ‘yes we can’.

  • James J. Pryor

    I served in the US Army from 1968 to 1972 on the island of Kang Hwa Do, north of Inchon. There, we and the South Korean residents were subjected to speaker broadcasts and propaganda leaflets telling them to overthrow the American occupiers. This tragic situation has now gone on for 56 years. Except for documentaries such as this, the plight of the citizens of North Korea does not get air time in the U.S. and many other areas. Due to this many Americans are ignorant of the horrific lives led by these people. Please keep up this excellent expose. This is one way to shame the North concerning their brutal way of dealing with dissent. My wife of 36 years is Korean. As she listened to the Korean dialogue, she wept. One Question: Will this report be aired again. I would like my family and friends and the world to have the opportunity to view it. Thank you again for bring this grief to light. Well Done.

  • Paul Jenkens

    That’s strange, I thought all evil in the world was created by bad, imperialist America and George Bush. Could it be there really is an “Axis of Evil”? He didn’t make it up so his oil buddies could get rich?
    Wow…North Korea makes Gitmo look like Heaven!
    How come we haven’t been getting balanced information from our media?
    Could it be we are being lied to and manipulated?

  • Lee

    I’m Korean and came to the U.S for studying English early in this year. Conincidently I saw this program whaile I was searching the channel. Actually it was broadcated last year in Korea. It’s pretty impressive to broadcast in U.S for me. That program is very well organized and based on realistic. I’d say that program reflects most South-Korean view about the North, I think. Honestly South-Korean think the North as just poor country, don’t know about them well even though we are ‘One Vein’. And I appreciate to make this program and inform to lots of people in the world about human right North-Korean. I wish many people would watch this program and more concern about the North-Korea.

  • Maurice

    Congratulations for creating this monumental documentary! I had no idea…but you created the awareness. It was more thrilling than most of the Hollywood movies.
    First, we need to ask the Chinese government to provide North Korean defectors with the refuge status and the work permits.
    Secondly, I hope more people will provide financial contribution to Durihana missionary team. One more donation can rescue one additional life to a safer place. Thanks for posting Durihana link on the website for their contact information.

  • Stephen

    More information on the film is available here:

  • Adam

    This was an incredible piece of journalism. Before watching it, I had known some of what North Korea is like, but I never knew it was this bad. I can’t believe there are secret police that keep tabs on people. It’s difficult to imagine, in today’s world.
    The story of Bo Song and his mother was amazing. The scene where she’s leaving China for North Korea, and he begins to cry and cling to her was so moving. She looked so spent, so completely void of emotion, like she was tired and also holding back what she felt, because she knew that if she responded to his embrace, she would never let go.
    It’s an amazing story that everyone should see.

  • JP

    Request to PBS – This is a must see! Can you please air this episode again? Can you please promote the episode so that more people have the opportunity to watch the show?

  • Edward

    I too was touched by the story of Bo Song and his mother. Though they were reunited, I feel sorry for them and what they will face. Life for a mother and child with disabilities are bad, but in South Korea (which is not as rich as some would claim), they are a nightmare.

  • Minnesota Family and General Practice

    When I was watching last night , me and my soon, we both cryied, I am from the comunist country , but my country not that bad , open ( not much) alot bettuner than north korea, i felt sorry for the north korean , their lost , thier freedom, thier human right,They deserve better than that. How do we can help them ?

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