Last year, Jim Butterworth was enjoying a laid-back summer night in Vail, Colorado and was far from imagining himself tracking down North Korean refugees in Beijing.
As a founder and investor in technology start-up companies, the 41-year-old Mr. Butterworth was happy with his life in Colorado, where, as he says, people are more interested in “ski conditions than atrocities occurring in other parts of the world.”
Mr. Butterworth considered himself up on world affairs, but he was also satisfied with the idyllic life in Vail. North Korean refugees, numbering 250,000 and living underground in China, were not among his chief concerns.
On that summer night, however, Mr. Butterworth was at a free outdoor music concert, where he was introduced to Lisa Sleeth, 34, a nurse at a local hospital. He soon found himself in a heated discussion with her about how to heal the world. They both realized they had a good deal in common and reached a conclusion that they need to do something.
Two weeks later, they attended a presentation on North Korea by James Brooke, a New York Times reporter based in Tokyo, who also covered Korea. Mr. Brooke spoke about a South Korean freelance photojournalist, Seok Jae-hyun, who had been imprisoned for helping North Korean defectors in China. After serving two years in a Chinese prison, Mr. Seok was released last April. His story moved Mr. Butterworth and Ms. Sleeth deeply, and though they had never heard of the refugee issue before, they decided to get involved.
Determination, however, was not enough; the real question was what to do. They decided to “use the power of media,” Mr. Butterworth says by creating a documentary, and so, starting from scratch, he founded Incite Productions, a non-profit film company, though neither he or Ms. Sleeth knew anything about film-making. “We’d never touched a camcorder before,” Mr. Butterworth said in a phone interview.
So they just bought a sophisticated camera and spent the first few weeks learning how to work it, getting assistance from local teenagers in their Colorado town. In the meantime, the two also raised funds, with Ms. Sleeth working night-shifts and Mr. Butterworth taking out a second mortgage on his home.
In October last year, they took leaves of absence from their jobs and flew to Seoul, where they contacted underground activists at work aiding refugees who had escaped North Korea. They then went to live with and among the activists in China.
Thus began a two-month journey in the two Koreas and China that resulted in about 50 hours of film. When they returned to Colorado last December last year, they were amazed at what they had accomplished.
Meeting the refugees, who keep low profiles to avoid attention from the Chinese police, was difficult for these first-time filmmakers from the other side of the world, Mr. Butterworth says. While filming refugees, both he and Ms. Sleeth posed as tourists to avoid attracting attention. They sometimes used hidden cameras and a camcorder they needed to assemble.
The Chinese government has been beset by the influx of North Korean defectors and the press coverage it has generated since the late 1990s. The authorities in China have arrested activists as well as refugees. Mr. Butterworth and Ms. Sleeth feared for their own safety, especially when standing on the bank of Tumen River on China’s border with North Korea. Across the river they could see snipers.
When they felt they had finished their work, they boarded a plane for home, knowing the “the film was no longer our little home movie,” according to Mr. Butterworth.
The project was far from complete, however. Additional interviews with experts needed to be added and the footage needed editing and subtitles. A professional filmmaker, Aaron Lubarsky, was called in to give the documentary the finishing touch.
Thus was born a 54-minute film, titled “Seoul Train.” The title conveys the notion of many North Korean refugees’ ultimate goal of reaching Seoul and also commemorates the selfless, underground “railroad” activists. “We wanted the film to serve to educate the world, not just Asia or the United States,” Mr. Butterworth said, “We want people to learn.”
Over the past several months, he has seen the effort pay off, with the film becoming acclaimed for raising public awareness of the refugees’ plight. After several work-in-progress previews at movie festivals and in the U.S. Senate, the film had its world premier in Hollywood last November.
Senator Sam Brownback, who took the initiative in seeking passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, which President Bush signed into law last month, called the film “the definitive expose of this large, growing and generally unknown crisis. “
Last month, the film won the best documentary award at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, International Film Festival. A U.S. non-governmental organization that supports North Korean refugees used the documentary to recruit college students, Mr. Butterworth says. The strategy paid dividends.
“I was especially happy to see young Korean-Americans come up to me and say thanks for reminding them of their ethnicity and letting them know that they need to do something,” he said.
Tracing back the footage of several refugee groups with the help of activists, the film also includes quite a few numbers of interviews with leading proponents, such as Senator Brownback.
In the film, international activists complain that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has failed to effectively address the refugee issue. UNHCR members respond saying their efforts have been thwarted because they are denied access to the defectors. The film-makers also interviewed Kong Quan, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, who said, “We do not need to consult the UNHCR regarding this situation. They [North Koreans] obviously are not refugees.”
The Chinese government, which has promised to repatriate defectors, has argued that North Korean defectors to China are not refugees but economic migrants.
As the film proceeds, however, viewers can plainly see that the North Koreans, who were lucky enough to escape from hunger and other deprivations in their homeland, are refugees in dire need of help with their lives at stake.
With Mr. Butterworth seeking distributors to open the film in South Korea, the film premiered in Seoul last month at the National Assembly. On the day of the screening, the Chinese government moved to repatriate 62 defectors.
The screening accompanied an exhibition entitled “North Korea Holocaust” and discussion sessions, initiated by Moon Kuk-han, a longtime underground activist who also appears in the film. Like the film-makers of “Seoul Train,” Mr. Moon, 50, did not imagine he’d become an ardent activist when he went to Beijing in 1994 to open a stationary business. What awaited him in Beijing, however, was a group of rescue calls from North Korean defectors living in hiding. “North Korean defectors simply thought that if they just meet a South Korean, they can go to South Korea just like that, which made them contact me again and again,” Mr. Moon recalls.
Trying to concentrate on his business, Mr. Moon first turned down appeals from the defectors who unexpectedly appeared, begging for help.
In 1996, he finally decided to help out a defector, a charitable act that turned out to be more overwhelming than he’d ever expected. Getting a broker, an ethnic Korean in China, to forge a South Korean passport, Mr. Moon accompanied the defector, whose identity he still keeps secret, to the airport. In the process, he had to bribe guards and immigration officers before he finally arrived in South Korea with his companion. The defector now lives as an average citizen in Seoul, says Mr. Moon, who made an enormous emotional and financial sacrifice.
“I swore to myself that this was my first and last time. It was just too much for an individual like me,” Mr. Moon said. Three years later in 1999, however, Mr. Moon found himself again trying to rescue defectors. This time, it was not just one, but 15, who were all family members. “I just could not turn my back on them. I guess I was possessed by something,” Mr. Moon said.
As part of an effort to let the world know about the defectors’ suffering, Mr. Moon had the North Koreans draw sketches of what they witnessed back home. One showed a father selling his daughter.
Giving up his business, Mr. Moon walked thousands of kilometers from China to Mongolia through the desert, and also visited southeast Asian countries looking for safe routes to South Korea and bribing brokers and border guards. In 2001, he decided to employ a daring, but direct, strategy of helping defectors break into foreign embassies to seek asylum. The strategies worked, with telling photographs of defectors desperately trying to get into embassy compounds. With international public opinion beginning to coalesce in support of the North Korean defectors, Mr. Moon succeeded in sending a large number to Seoul.
Starting last year, the Chinese and North Korean governments were growing edgy over the issue; Beijing started to crack down more harshly on refugees and activists and Mr. Moon found himself all but banned from China.
At the moment, the activist Choi Yeong-hun is serving a five-year sentence in China for helping defectors. Many international activists also put their lives in danger, like Takayuki Noguchi, an assistant director at the Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, a Tokyo-based non-governmental organization, who served time in a Chinese jail from last December to August this year for helping defectors.
In response to growing criticism against brokers who seek to profit from aiding defectors, Mr. Moon expresses sympathy. “They’re at least saving people’s lives, unlike the government that is sitting idly doing nothing,” he says. “You need money to get those defectors helped anyway. And let me tell you, it’s not an easy job when it’s so unrewarding and tiring. The defectors are total strangers, after all, and they tend to ask too much from activists. They have no knowledge of what the outside world is truly like after spending all their lives in North Korea under Kim Jong-il.”
Although he welcomes U.S. willingness now to accept North Korean refugees, Mr. Moon is concerned about suggestions that the leadership in North Korea may be under strain. “When the North Korean regime collapses, there’ll be millions of people flooding into China and other countries. We should be ready for that, or the world, not to mention northeast Asia, will be in a total mess,” Mr. Moon said.
by Chun Su-jin