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July 2nd, 2009
Crossing Heaven's Border
Video: Full Episode

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.

  • dale

    You presented “Crossing Heaven’s Border” as a documentary film, but I find it was not an actual film as “life as it is…” A dictionary defines the documentary as follows:
    A work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration.
    Contrary to the above definition, a half part of your film is not an actual and factual but a rehearsed drama played by an actress and her alleged sick son.
    The story about an exiled woman leaving her gravely ill son and final re-union with the son is not a documentary but a theatrical rehash to emphasize the predicament of North Korean refugees.
    Would you want to know how I can find it out ?
    1. The story was already told in other documentary film with real mother and son.
    2. The woman does not speak with a clear North Koreann dialect with strong accent! Instead, she was speaking in peculiar South Korean dialect that any Korean can easily distinguish where she comes from.
    She is not a refugee from North but a South Korean who appears to be recruited to play a drama.
    There are some other discrepancies in the film that devalued your socalled “documentary”, I may tell you if you ask me.

  • sven

    This is the most heart wrenching documentary. I couldn’t watch the whole episode without having to switch the channel to stop from crying. I’m a guy and this is really hard to watch.

  • Dan Chong

    Hope, hope, hope, is the best life line for all humans as this film shows. This film injects dire hope for the North Korean people in suffering. Thousans of thousands of South Koreans who sympathize the communision of North Korea must watch this film for aversion to its destiny, collapse by itself.

  • wc

    powerful. please keep us updated with more information! no one in the US knows about what is going on over there

  • John E. Munnelly

    I fought in the Korean War, 1950-51. When I returned on the 50th anniversary of the war a ROK honor guard was there to greet us. Having lost classmates and comrades in the war returning to see a modern demnocratic Korea, ranking eleventh in gross domestic product, gives evidence that our sacrifices made the difference. The “armistice” ending combat in 1953 has been repudiated by the DRPR thus the future is uncertain with Seoul within artillery range of the north. Your PBS presentation should be seen by as many people as possible. Well done. JEM

  • felix spengler

    I am a native from Cuba, came to US in 1980. I also risked my life to flee to freedom. Got political asylum during the Peruvian Embassy conflict. I could not hold my tears as this brought back memories of what I had gone through then. It is painful, too painful to live under totalitarian regimes as these. Yes, everyone should see this documentary to understand what we have experienced. Thank you Mr Brown…it needs to be broadcast again.

  • Nadine

    I adopted my daughter from Korea and now understand why so many people tell me I saved her…thank you for this important documentary. Could you PLEASE tell us more about the child that closed the documentary, the one with the cerebral palsy (sp?) Did he get help? Did the seziures affect his vision? Is he BETTER OFF than he was before? My heart goes out to his courageous mother.

  • Mark Lloret

    Only on PBS! I really enjoyed your program, and I wonder why so many South Koreans are anti-americans. Don’t they realize what would have happened if we did not defend them in 1950?

  • Joshua Go

    This was really tough to watch. Especially after seeing Bo Song cry because he just found out his mom is leaving the next day. But I’m glad I saw this video, it really opened my eyes with the situation in North Korea. I admire the defectors’ courage and strength throughout the whole ordeal. I wish them luck and happiness in their life. I also wish the same for all the people that aren’t able to get out of North Korea.

    I hope that one day, they will be able to live life without poverty and dictatorship.

    Please let me know if there is a follow up on the defectors’ from this video.

    - Josh

  • Bobby

    More needs to be done by the international community to address the human rights violations in North Korea. Also, more need to be done to assist the defectors.

    What can the average U.S. citizen do to assist these efforts?

  • Shannon

    I am very grateful for the reporters who risked their lives to film this story. Ten years ago, 1999, was the publishing date of Lee Soon Ok’s memoirs of being a political prisoner in a North Korean concentration camp, and her testimony to the US Congress in 2002 resulted in little action due to fear of jeopardizing trade relations with China. I hope that many people around the world will view this documentary and be moved into action.

  • Rob

    The most magnificent film I have seen on television. Heroic. Courageous.

  • Rob

    The most magnificent film I have ever watched on television.

  • Young Colvin

    During the communist takeover of North Korea my Mom and Dad both escaped to the South. They had to leave everything behind including some family members, even being separated from each other and not knowing if the other one was alive or dead. They did not even know where their two oldest sons were. A story too often told at that time.

    And a little over 40 years later we were told thru a friend that my oldest brother was still alive and married with four children living in the north. Needless to say we were speechless.

    With time and effort we were able to take my mother to North Korea in the late 80’s to see her first born son, his wife and grandchildren. I was born after the Korean War, so this was the first time I would be meeting my oldest brother.

    When we arrived in the North the tension was so incredible that it felt like it grabbed you and enveloped your whole body the entire time you were there. And we saw how “The People” were living, that indescribable fear, you will never get out of your mind as long as you live. That tension I described never left us again until we landed safely back in Lax Airport.
    We vowed we would never take FREEDOM so lightly again.

    I would like to express my thanks to Mr. John E. Munnelly and over 50,000 who sacrifice Their Lives for our freedom.
    When I run into any Korean Vets, all I want to do is give every single one of these guys a BIG HUG and Thank Them and their families for their sacrifices.

  • virginia patsun

    This was a powerfully moving documentary. Very well done. This is a real reality show!

  • K.S.

    I want to do something to help them…

  • 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.

  • AC

    This is a wonderful documentary. Thank you to Wide Angle for bringing this story to light. Given the headline grabbing saber-rattling of the North Korean regime, it’s easy to forget the human tragedy that has been unfolding for some time now. I would like to second any requests for updates on this underground railroad. Thank you PBS, Wide Angle and Chosun Ilbo.

  • Fabiola

    This documentary was so powerful it motivates us as people to do something to help. We take our freedom for granted so much and there are people who put their lives on the line to achieve it.

  • Chris Patera

    Truly an amazing documentary. Please keep up shows like this one, it provides amazing insight. Thanks you.

  • inde1

    One of the most evocative pieces of film and journalism I have witnessed. My prayers will always be with these courageous people who have redefined my thoughts of freedom.


    I accidently watched this documentaly with my young kids. I heard about this crossing stroy from different sources. But, not like this. I am so sad and gilty about ignoring what’s going on in North Korea. I hope I could spread this information as much as I can. So many people can watch and share it. Thank you so much for putting it in the air. I am proud of supporing PBS.

  • Anonymus

    I also noticed that there are North Koreans Heading to the Philippines to convert to Catholicism. I never knew that koreans were curious about western culture.
    I hope the Ling and Lee are still alive. I do not want to see their remains hiding in Kim Jong-Il’s Missles.

  • Bill Recto

    I also noticed that some Koreans moved to the Philippines just to obtain cultural and political freedom before going to the United States. I hope the North Korean people have their “People Power” Movement soon. I hope there is a North Korean Leader who is like Cory Aquino and who is like a good US President soon. I feel bad for North Korean men they are demonized for being the same race and Gender as Kim Jong-Il. I hope that Euna Lee, Laura Ling and other North Korean hostages are still alive. I hope
    the missle are not hiding

  • Jim Park

    What an amazing and emotoinally charged story, and that this goes on every day and night is even more amazing; makes my problems seem like a laugh!

  • Susan

    Most powerful example of all people who risk life and limb to reach freedom.
    Thank you Mr. Brown for this first episode of extra special reporting, and thank you for the interview too.
    I’m looking forward to the next one ” Heart of Jenin.”

  • Chen Says

    This is the most powerful documentary story. I’m a former refugee (boat-person) escaped from Vietnam with my Mom & family members. We were on the boat with roughly about 89 peoples (young childrens – adults – elderly – & even infants with a couple months old. We were on Indian Ocean for at least 7 days & 7 nights – on top of that we got caught by Thai pirates – they rescued us for until dawn the next day. After that, they started striping us jewlries & money, not only that they did pull out gold tooth from elderly people without mercy. After that they forced everybody back on the boat (they did destroyed the engine of the boat & pin the hole of the container & rice threw out the water). But we’re inluck that we sailing without engine & finally all of us landing safety in Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp in winter 1982. This movie brought me back memory & holding back my tear. I’m encouraging North Korean people find the way out to find hope & freedom.
    Thank you Mr. Brown to put this documentary story on the PBS Air. Keep us post on Bo Song (that little fella). I hope he got some kind medical attention for his special need.
    God Bless

  • Nancy

    WOW!!! I couldn’t hold back my tears. I feel so bad for those people. All they wanted was freedom. They had to work so hard for it. The same FREEDOM that I’ve been taken for granted. I’ve been so blessed to be an Asian-American. I grew up without fears, worries & most importantly my freedom. Thank you to those 3 brave journalists. Keep up the good/meaningful work.

  • Maggie Son

    Thank you Mr. Brown to put this documentary story on the PBS Air .
    Thank you Film makers Lee Hakjoon, Whang Youngho, Jung Intak.

  • Eve

    I honestly am a little disappointed that they didn’t let us know how the boy with cerebral palsy has progressed with treatment in South
    Korea. Other than that, I felt this story is both heart wrenching and heart warming. How blessed we are…

  • Otana

    What a beautiful, moving documentary. Learning about the human rights violations in North Korea is one thing, but putting actual faces to it, seeing real people trying to escape, just makes it that much more emotional. I hope they are all able to live long, happy lives in South Korea.

  • ericka

    I think this is a great doc. It was great watching it for school. It shows that there is people that are living a very tough life and that’s why we’re supposed to value ours. It was very emotional. Probably the best I’ve ever seen.

  • abdurahman

    this is a great documentary, thanks Wide Angel and to those reporters…….

  • Sam

    While my comment may be a little late in reply to others, as well as to this documentary, I still wanted to clear the air.

    The woman with the son does speak with a peculiar South Korean accent but that would be because of the defector rehabilitation center in South Korea known as Hanawan. DPRK defectors who come to South Korea and seek help are sent through a rigorous 2-month long program with almost over 9 hours a day of classes to give them a crash course in capitalism, technology and, of course, South Korean dialect as well as simply English. [The 9 hours was calculated by means of the number of hours of class they attended divided by 52, assuming they have weekends off.] This is why defectors will most often not speak with a clear North Korean accent. 90% of defectors will go through this center.

    Also, adopting a child from Korea is not “saving them.” South Korea is a wonderfully developed country and has come a long way for only being a democracy for 20 odd years. You CANNOT adopt a child from North Korea so to presume that you are saving a child from “the Koreas” is to assume that South Korea is a country worth saving from. That is an opinion that I find highly offensive since South Korea came from being a severely under developed country, too poor in the 1950s to afford pencils, to the 8th largest exporter, ranked 7th in the Education Index, 1st in the Digital Opportunity Index, and is the 15th in the world by GDP. They did this within one generation, while it took the United States an average of 3.

    As long as North Korea continues its isolation and continues to threaten the South with its enormous amount of weapons pointed at Seoul, it appears as though there is nothing the American government can do to help except for diplomatic talks. Hopefully this issue can be resolved within the next generation of Koreans. While I am not Korean myself, I feel as if I have become indoctrinated into their culture and my heart goes out to the whole Korean peninsula and I am a strong advocate of reunification.

  • Chupuk

    Why is this video not available for viewing in South Korea? What is the point of producing such a show and not having it available to those with possibly the most interest. Most Americans dont even know a war was fought for Korean let alone the struggle that has gone on between North and South since the early fifties.

    Shame on PBS for now making very little of their content available outside the US. Lets just chalk this up as another loss for freedom, which I thought PBS was always pushing as their credo. Count me as a 30 year supporter that will simply listen to the blab on CNN from now on. At least its free.

  • Rania


  • brad

    In parallel to what Sam mentioned about Dale’s comment, from back in July, the story of the woman with an inflicted son is real. Beyond the “accent” arguemnt, no actor could portray the look on her face as her son cries while hugging her goodbye. The look on her face crisscrossed so many different emotions in a nanosecond: exhaustion, determination, anger, numbness, longing, hatred, love, fear, malaise, emptiness, adherence, and vigilance. A touch of sorrow was thrown in for good measure as well. I have been studying acting and have acted for years, and, from my perspective, the idea that the mom and son story was theatrical by any means, other than how it was cut together, is appalling.

    Besides, the point remains profound: it is likely that a mother and son, any mother and son, who venture out of North Korea to defect dance with the possibility of never seeing each other again and other hardships; this a reality. The mother and son story in the documentary crystallizes the reality into one of the most engaging and emotional 15/20 minutes ever caught on film.

  • feltzr

    Due to international broadcasting agreements, the episode is only available in the United States.

  • feltzr

    Due to international broadcasting agreements, many videos are only available in the United States. Web Exclusive video, however, can be viewed from anywhere in the world.

  • Beth

    Are the three ‘filmmakers’ actors? Surely it would be too dangerous for the actual individuals to appear in this film?

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