When Kim Seungeun first visited North Korea, he saw a barren land devastated by famine, its trees stripped by people desperate to heat their homes. He can still picture the corpses floating down the Tumen River on its border with the South. “Sometimes there was just one body, sometimes two or three,” he told me. “They’d probably all starved to death.”
Kim watched in horror as people on both banks poked the corpses with poles until they burst and sank beneath its waters, rather than bother to retrieve them. Then came the pivotal event in his life. A stick-thin child — a boy of about seven, malnourished and driven by grinding hunger to cross the swirling river despite the bodies — begged him for help. “I fell to my knees, crying so many tears, and promised God to devote my life to helping these people,” said Kim.
The nightmare he witnessed on his volunteer church mission at the turn of the century could not be more different from the portrait painted by his grandfather. Growing up in a small South Korean fishing village, Kim was frequently regaled with tales of the beautiful mountains, rivers and women seen in the north before their country was sliced in half following the Second World War. Three decades later, this romantic image had been shattered.
After his epiphany, Kim became a Christian pastor and devoted himself and his Caleb Mission to saving North Korean citizens from the clutches of the Hermit Kingdom. When we met earlier this year, I asked how many people he has helped to flee using his clandestine routes that rely on bribery, smugglers, subterfuge and safe houses. “1,008,” he replied with a smile.
This, despite the fact that anyone caught escaping North Korea risks torture, public execution or being sent to a slave labour camp for life with their entire family. Now his work is being highlighted in Beyond Utopia, a gripping new documentary that features astonishing footage of one family’s flight to freedom shot on their mobile phones. At one point, the mother, hiding beside her weeping young daughters after crossing a border river, is shown on a video call pleading for salvation. “Please help us live,” she begs him. Later, this family of five, which includes a grandmother aged 83, are seen dodging officials and wearily scrambling through the mountains, rivers and jungles of four nations to safety in South Korea. They all carried suicide pills to swallow if caught.
During our conversation, Kim described the people he is still trying to save. These include one woman in her 20s who crossed the border five years ago, but was traded to a Chinese man who twice made her pregnant, then sold both the babies. He has also been told of bounty hunters murdering North Koreans hiding in China to harvest body parts, such as kidneys and hearts, for sale to hospitals. Six years ago, he rescued two teenage girls whos a broker was threatening to sell into the organ market, taking them into his own home to raise them alongside his own daughter. Other rescues include a teenage girl sold to a Chinese man in his sixties and a woman raped every night by a father and his two sons. “I’ve heard so many horrible stories,” said Kim, 58. “When you hear such things your mind collapses.”
He started his underground railroad in 2000, after falling in love with Park Esther, an early defector who he met shortly after she crossed into China. A former army officer, she fled after her parents died from starvation. “It was through loving and talking to my wife that I discovered how hard life was for North Koreans and how difficult it was for them to find freedom,” said Kim.
He spent months seeking out possible escape routes, eventually marrying her after buying identity papers from a dead Chinese woman. Now, both are pastors, their dedication to the cause boosted by the tragic death of their son. “He passed away when he was seven,” he said. “We were distraught, crying all the time and even questioning God. But then we realised that our son was in heaven and we should dedicate our lives to making him proud by giving more love to defectors.”
Kim, whose rescues have taken him deep into sweltering jungles and on daring boat missions on the seas, stopped travelling to China 14 years ago due to the dangers of detection as state surveillance systems improved and his reputation grew. Incredibly, Kim claims just two of his group’s escape attempts have failed. The first followed a tip-off to Chinese police following a domestic argument in a safe house as they were rescuing seven orphans. Fortunately, the children were young enough to avoid serious trouble when they returned to North Korea. The second involved two women defectors with children born in China who were captured by Chinese officials after being detected by facial recognition technology while travelling across the country in 2019. “We do not know exactly what happened. Probably the kids were sent back to their fathers and the women sent back to North Korea. They might well have been sent to the gulag as punishment.”
This is a grim fate. One former guard told me how both officials and prisoners in a gulag had to watch two brothers being beheaded after they were caught in China as a warning not to flee — then all inmates were ordered to throw stones at the decapitated corpses. Even a short sentence in the slave labour camps that holds an estimated 200,000 people can be fatal. During her seven years working in a camp, the same guard witnessed routine killings, torture and rape of political prisoners. Former inmates have told me injured people being dumped to die in snow and rotting corpses left in piles beside their huts over winter.
The pandemic staunched the flow of those managing to escape, as Beijing’s “Zero Covid” policies heavily restricted movement in the country. Then, six months ago, new anti-spying laws made it harder for groups to operate in border regions. Meanwhile, North Korea responded to the virus by ramping up security in border areas. As a result, only 67 defectors made it to South Korea last year, compared with 1,047 in 2019 — and many are thought to be hiding in China, where activists fear up to 30,000 defectors may be stuck.
Since the lifting of Beijing’s anti-Covid policies, Pastor Kim has restarted his underground railroad. Today, he is focusing his efforts on defectors trapped in China, such as one woman who had been sold aged 17 to a man nearly two decades her senior. “It is almost impossible to get people out of North Korea now,” he said. “We used to be able to bribe guards but now they put different departments there to watch over each other. On the Chinese side, there is military as well as police to keep guard.”
Hundreds of miles of new fortifications have also been built along the North Korean borders with China and Russia to stop smugglers, and guards have been ordered to shoot dead anyone entering security zones. Night-time bans have been imposed on road and rail travel near barbed-wire fencing or security facilities. One market trader told the BBC in June that even approaching the border river could now lead to harsh punishment, “so almost nobody is crossing”. Another man spoke of a spate of executions of people trying to defect. “We are stuck here waiting to die,” he said.
Beyond Utopia also shows the bid by another defector called Lee So-Yeon to help her son escape, an attempt that ends badly and leaves her looking broken. I found this deeply disturbing, having first met the same woman seven years ago in Seoul. She had shown me how she smuggled computer memory sticks into North Korea containing footage of female defectors accusing named high-ranking officials of sexual abuse and rape. This was her revenge for the widespread rape she witnessed while serving in the army — including by her own commander, who assaulted 30 women in her unit. “The videos tell them they will be subjected to punishment after reunification,” she told me. Although the government has cracked down on the illicit use of mobile phones, the pastor said they can still make contact with sources inside North Korea using Chinese smartphones close to the border. (I agreed not to disclose their methods.)
Despite the difficulties and surging costs of escape — which have risen almost tenfold since the pandemic — Kim recently dispatched an aide to the border region, who sent up a drone mounted with cameras to search for any weak spots along the fences on both sides of the river. This aide told me that he had spent 10 years hiding in China after leaving his home town near the border. “I looked out to the place where I grew up but cannot go there and they cannot leave. It is so hard. It is impossible to describe such feelings,” he said. He then described how he is motivated by the hope of one day finding his young sister. “She crossed the border into China but I can’t find her. She may have been sold. I know that she is hiding or suffering somewhere in China.”
I have met many North Korean defectors over the past decade. Most have similar tales of tragedy and torn families. One man told me how his fiancé was beaten so badly by government goons after his escape that she was left unrecognisable, two of his uncles were tortured to death, and his teenage cousins were reduced to street begging. Small wonder many defectors are left traumatised — yet such is the indoctrination that, even as she flees, that family’s grandmother in Beyond Utopia is heard praising the ruling dynasty that dominated her eight decades on earth.
The Hermit Kingdom is a country that crushes humanity. “In North Korea you have no dreams, no hopes, no life,” said Timmy Kang, a restaurant owner who escaped in 2005. “Everything is controlled — it is horrible. Then in China our mothers, our fathers, our sisters and our brothers are hunted down like animals. This is why Pastor Kim is a hero to us.”Or, as one British film reviewer was moved to call him after seeing his exploits on celluloid, “the greatest man who ever lived”.