Despite its whimsical title, "Seoul Train" is deadly serious -- and yet so compelling that you can't stop watching even though you know it will haunt your dreams. Its subject is the "underground railroad" of North Korean refugees who are running for their lives in a desperate attempt to reach freedom. (On PBS's Independent Lens series, Tuesday, 10-11 p.m. ET. Check local listings.)
Getting out of North Korea, which this documentary accurately describes as the "world's largest prison camp," may be the easy part. Once they make it over the border into China, the refugees are hunted like rabbits by zealous Chinese cops and soldiers. Forcibly repatriated to North Korea, the refugees face torture and imprisonment for the treasonous act of leaving the country. It's a crime punishable by death. Some of the North Koreans interviewed for this film probably are dead already.
Apart from a few sickening scenes shot secretly in North Korea, most of the program takes place in China, where we meet groups of refugees awaiting rides on an underground route to safety. One of the most welcoming destinations is Mongolia, which has a reputation for treating North Koreans humanely before helping them reach their ultimate destination in democratic South Korea.
Schindler of Asia
We meet the first group of refugees as they plan a trip by train, taxi and foot across China to the Mongolian border. They include Han Sul-hee, who is 17. She and the rest of the group, mainly young adults who have left parents and siblings behind, are sitting in a safe house with a Christmas tree and Santa decorations. They have been waiting several months -- eating proper food and trying to gain enough weight so they'll look healthy enough to pass for South Korean tourists. So severe is North Korea's government-induced famine that the average 7-year-old child in North Korea is about half a foot shorter than his counterpart in South Korea, and it's estimated that up to three million souls have perished from hunger in recent years.
The camera follows Sul-hee and the others as they head for the train station in Yanji, China, for a journey that will be full of peril at every stage, especially in towns where the locals like to report foreigners to the police. The refugees' escort is Chun Ki-won, a South Korean pastor who has been called the "Schindler of Asia" for his rescue efforts. We last see him and his little tour group as they head into the Gobi, just a few miles from the crossing into Mongolia. The hidden camera could go no farther, so a message on our TV screen fills in the rest: Chun and all his charges were arrested at the border by Chinese police.
We know how awful that must have been from the scenes we do see, of another group of North Koreans who tried a different method of escape. With the help of activist-guide Moon Kook-han, this group moved into a motel near the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China, where they spent days preparing to dash through the gates onto sovereign Japanese soil and demand asylum. According to the plan, two men in the group would go first, pushing Chinese guards aside so the women, including 2-year-old Han-mi and her mother, could rush into the consulate yard.
A camera across the street recorded what happened next: Reaching the gate, the men barged through but the guards grabbed Han-mi and her mother. As a crowd gathered, and the camera rolled, the mother clung to the iron gate, screaming and struggling with all her might to break free and get to safety, just a few precious feet away. But the guards wrestled her to the ground. The last shot we see is little Han-mi's terrified face as the guards overpower her mother.
Like a Human Being
Mr. Moon also worked with the seven North Koreans who tried yet another approach and formally applied for refugee status at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The MoFA-7, as the group became known, were arrested by Chinese authorities and presumably repatriated. None has been heard of again. Mr. Moon weeps when he thinks that he may have, in effect, led them to their deaths.
Watching film of the MoFA-7 in the moments before their arrest -- one woman tells the camera that she's willing to risk death for the chance "to live like a human being with dignity" -- it's tempting to heap all the blame on China and North Korea. But the behavior of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is in a way more shocking. A UNHCR official interviewed here says that while some of the North Koreans may be refugees, there's not much his agency can do to help them. After all, he explains, "a couple" of UNHCR representatives went to the border "four or five years ago" to look into the situation of refugees there and were prevented from doing that by Chinese authorities, "so it's not like we haven't tried."
A few of the North Koreans seen in this program have since been released from captivity in China and made their way to South Korea, some with the help of concerned members of Congress. But most of the stories do not have happy endings. Since Mr. Chun was arrested at the Mongolian border in 2001, many thousands of refugees have tried and failed to reach freedom. All the program can do is end our ignorance. Someday, when the full extent of North Koreans' suffering is revealed, no one who has seen "Seoul Train" will be able to say, "I didn't know."
Time and time again people across the world have demonstrated that life without dignity has little meaning. In Asia thousands poured across the sea to Taiwan when the Red Tide swept through China. Again when Korea and Viet Nam was partitioned, thousands moved toward freedom. The phenomenon of the Vietnamese boat people illustrate this decades later as well. Note that many keep on trying, despite bodily harm and deaths of friends and family. I feel shame for those who enjoy lives of liberty who would perpetuate life without dignity as an end in itself, even to perpetuate the familiar oppression of a dictator.