Movie provides gritty look at defector’s struggle in the South

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Movie provides gritty look at defector’s struggle in the South

North Korean refugee Jeon Seung-chul, battling terminal stomach cancer in South Korea in 2008, had a final request for a film student friend: make a movie about my life even if I never get to see it.

Park Jung-bum has done just that with “The Journals of Musan,” a raw and gritty look at a refugee’s struggle to survive in the new world of South Korea.

“This is like my letter for Jeon Seung-chul,” said Park, whose friend died later in 2008 at the age of just 30.

“Seung-chul went through so many hardships to come to the South .?.?. only to die so young. I felt I had to do something for his memory.”

“The Journals of Musan,” a film school graduation project that Park made with $74,000 and 12 crew members, has brought him unexpected fame.

After premiering last October, it won awards at home and abroad and went on general release last month to rave reviews.

The film focuses on the bewildering problems refugees face crossing the gulf between an impoverished communist dictatorship and a wealthy but sometimes uncaring capitalist democracy.

Park, 35, directed the film, wrote the script and plays the main character named after his late friend, who came to the South via China in 2002 after leaving the North’s northeastern border city of Musan.

The movie’s protagonist, like some 20,000 others in the past half-century, fled chronic hunger or repression in the North.

But life in the South doesn’t offer a happy ending in many cases.

With most of their knowledge and skills outdated or irrelevant and southerners viewing them with suspicion, many defectors lament that they are treated like second-class citizens in their new-found home.

Many also complain of difficulties finding decent jobs and making friends, and some allege discrimination in the workplace.

The jobless rate for refugees last August was 8.8 percent compared to 3.3 percent nationally. Half of them earned less than 1 million won ($924) a month last year, less than one third of the national average.

The movie captures the isolation, loneliness and disillusionment refugees feel in what was once the country of their dreams.

When Jeon heads to a job interview at a trading firm, his guardian - a local policeman assigned to monitor him - urges him repeatedly: “Never, ever say you’re from the North.”

At the interview Jeon says as little as possible - to hide his distinctive North Korean accent - but still doesn’t get the job.

The boss immediately notices the social security number that demonstrates he came from the North. (In 2009, the numbering system was changed so defectors can’t be identified so easily.)

Jeon, like many defector colleagues in the movie, ends up doing dead-end odd jobs - pasting nightclub flyers to walls and working as a karaoke clerk.

He and his colleagues live in decrepit neighborhoods far from the glitzy main streets of Seoul. The shabbily-dressed Jeon window-shops in downtown stores but rarely dares to walk inside.

“Did we come all this way, risk our lives for this?” Kyung-chul, Jeon’s roommate in the movie, angrily asks other refugees.

Unlike Jeon, a quiet, hard-working man trying to keep his integrity in the face of hardship, Kyung-chul epitomizes a darker side of refugee society.

He shoplifts and scams other refugees out of big sums with false promises that he can smuggle their family members to Seoul.

Park said the script is based on the experiences of Jeon and other refugees. Many of them, he said, have since migrated from South Korea to the United States.

“Many North Korean defectors feel like a foreigner in what’s supposed to be their home country, so they’d rather go another place where they really are a foreigner and can earn more money,” Park said.

“I hope more South Koreans will be open-minded about defectors and accept them as the ordinary neighbors that they are.”

Park’s film “contained some hard, uncomfortable truths few South Koreans know, or care to know about,” said Lee Yong-hwa, a researcher at the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul.

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