SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - From time to time, we hear about North Korean defectors. Then they quickly recede from the public conscience, as if their plight has been fully understood and cared for. But is it?
A young North Korean defector recently risked his life to return to a poor, authoritarian environment 14 months after he crossed the border in the reverse direction. How horrible was trying to adjust to the South that the North looked like a better place?
News of the "double defection" overlapped with an indie film that aired on KBS last month. I was absorbed by the realistic and powerful performance of lead actor Lim Seong-mi. She depicts a North Korean defector who is subjected to derision and abuse as she struggles to carve out a new life alone. Then, fortunately, she finds hope in boxing at a gym where she works part time as a cleaner. Owing to the kindness of the coaches there, she is allowed to train.
The 2020 movie, titled "Fighter," begins with her monologue: "My name is Jin-ah. I'm what they call 'North Korean defector.' My fight isn't over yet. I'll fight to the end. And I'll rise."
As the story unfolds, the movie betrays audience expectations that it will show Jin-ah becoming a boxer and winning matches that give enough prize money to bring her father from China, where he faces the danger of being deported back to the North. Instead, it focuses on the relations between family members destroyed while escaping their country. They become estranged and embittered but a path to empathy and reunion emerges.
I found the film a poignant eye-opener to the real-life situation of North Korean refugees. More than 33,000 North Koreans have defected to the South over the last three decades. But to most South Koreans they merely exist as statistics and interpersonal contacts often lead to the Northerners experiencing suspicion and discrimination. Families scattered in different countries, with children scarred and traumatized, certainly require more attention and professional care.
It is rare for an entire family to move together throughout the long and perilous journey. Jin-ah's mother arrived in Seoul alone years earlier, leaving her husband and young daughter behind in the North. She has since formed a new family, which Jin-ah fiercely resents. This is a far simpler situation, though, compared with that in "Beautiful Days," another award-winning film by the same director, Yun Jae-ho (aka Jero Yun).
"Beautiful Days," the French-educated director's feature debut, attracted extensive media attention when it cast A-lister Lee Na-young for the lead role. Family relations portrayed by the 2018 film are intensely complicated and heartbreaking; no days in their lives are even remotely beautiful.
The mother character, gorgeously played by Lee, is a victim of human trafficking and endless exploitation and maltreatment. She grew up as an orphan in North Korea and was sold to an ethnic Korean in China as the older man's bride. She suffered from continuous harassment and abuse by a pimp/trafficker, who forced her into prostitution and illegal drug trade, demanding that she repay her debt.
The woman leaves her 5-year-old son and husband and wanders around to survive. She ends up in Seoul and operates a seedy bar, while living with a hoodlum. The movie begins when her son, Zhenchen, a college freshman, coming to the bar to fetch her for his dying father. But he is disappointed and angry to find his mother leading a lowly life. "Did you walk out on us to live like this?" he scolds.
Just like Jin-ah, Zhenchen is hurt and angered. It's only when he has returned home and reads his mother's diary, slipped into a bag of his new clothes she bought, that he begins to understand his mother and her tragic past.
Director Yun is known to have conceived "Beautiful Days" while traveling China in 2011, trying to meet North Koreans supposedly residing in border cities. There, he interviewed four individuals, which formed the backbone of his 2012 short documentary, "Looking for North Koreans."
Yun's travels to China also resulted in the full-length documentary "Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman," released in France in 2016. It is a real-life story that also runs against the stereotype of a North Korean refugee. The titular protagonist gets along well with her Chinese husband and his family. She is a self-confident woman engaging in trafficking North Korean defectors and supports her Korean family she left behind.
Mrs. B fled from Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, hoping to earn some money for just one year and return home. But upon crossing the river into China, she found herself carried to Shandong and there she was sold to a Chinese family. She nonetheless arranges for her husband and two sons to defect and later joins them in Seoul. But it does not mean she is settled with them; she wants to go back to China, finding her heart empty.
"My heart feels so desolate. I don't know how to describe this feeling. What a fate this is. Who would understand our fate?" she murmurs in tears aboard a bus headed for Kunming, in southern China. From there, she and a group of defectors were to cross borders into Laos and then Thailand in the last strip of their six-month journey toward South Korea.
Through subtitles of "Looking for North Koreans," director Yun explains his own journey: "I don't know for sure when it all started or when it's going to end. This search for the 'Lost Brothers' seems to me like an endless wandering. Would I have the courage to go on? I am aware of the risks of this clandestine and solitary journey."
Who can end the endless wanderings of these people - and how? Isn't this time to think seriously the ways to put an end to the tragedies that are unfolding secretly and silently?
- The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.