Up to 100,000 defectors have fled hunger and political repression in North Korea since a devastating famine in the 1990s. But the border between North and South Korea is impenetrable — the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, separating the two countries is dotted with landmines, bunkers, and nearly a million troops. Defectors’ only way out is to escape across North Korea’s border with China, and from there travel clandestinely to other countries in search of asylum. Along the way, they must live in hiding and work illegally, with constant fear of arrest and repatriation to North Korea, where defection is punishable by torture, labor camps, and even possible execution. For many defectors, the goal is to reach South Korea, where North Koreans are automatically granted citizenship.
FOCAL POINT trains its lens on one of the 15,000 North Korean defectors who have made it to South Korea. Twenty-year-old Haejung (not her real name) was smuggled out of North Korea some years ago in the hope of a better life — leaving her family behind. She now attends Hangyeore High School, a special boarding school an hour outside of Seoul, founded in 2006 to help North Korean teens adjust to life in the South. Most of the school’s 240 students are separated from one or both of their parents back in the North, with little hope of ever seeing them again. They experience severe culture shock transitioning from one of the world’s most isolated Communist states to one of the most technologically and economically advanced societies. The school tries to fill both the emotional void and the cultural gaps. The students eat, sleep, and study on campus. The teachers live with them in the dorms, and many have training as therapists to provide psychological counseling. The curriculum includes everything from history to English to learning how to use a cell phone, computer or credit card. In Field Trip to the DMZ, the students make their annual trip to the border, and Haejung dreams of a time when her family and her homelands will be reunited.
Coming this summer, WIDE ANGLE tells the moving and dramatic stories of refugees crossing the North Korea-China border and the intrepid South Korean journalists who risked their lives filming with them undercover for almost a year.