From left, Yeongbok Woo, Sunok Park, Seungeun Kim, Madeleine Gavin, Jinhae Ro, Jinpyeong Ro, and Soyeon Lee attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Beyond Utopia” premiere at Park City’s Library Center Theatre on January 21, 2023. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
By Vanessa Zimmer
First, says Pastor Kim from the stage at Park City’s Library Center Theatre, he would like to thank God. Second, he would like to thank the audience for their attention — to his mission to help as many people as possible escape from North Korea.
As told in the documentary Beyond Utopia, which premiered Saturday, January 22, at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, the soft-spoken Pastor Kim risks his life daily by leading an underground network to facilitate the defection of North Koreans.
With the help of like-minded friends, paid brokers, and a few safe houses, the South Korean arranges for, and sometimes accompanies, the refugees on circuitous routes through myriad other countries — including China, where they risk capture and return to North Korea and, likely, harsh punishment there — on their way to freedom in South Korea. (People cannot cross directly into South Korea because the border is lined with an estimated 2 million land mines.)
Festival audience members rose to their feet, cheered, and shouted “Bravo” as Pastor Kim, director Madeleine Gavin, and several former North Koreans the network has helped (including the Ro family) came onstage for the post-film Q&A.
The film is told in thriller style, arguably most effective in following the Ro family, an 80-year-old grandmother, her daughter and son-in-law, and two frightened little girls. In one long scene, they creep through a jungle at night with headlamps, clamber over rocks and up steep inclines, over running streams of water — turning off their lights and hunkering down when they hear a dog barking or vehicles passing in the distance. That one leg, alone, of their journey took 10 hours, all on foot.
North Korea’s people have been taught that their country is paradise, defectors say — and that America is evil, that American-Bastards will kill them for no reason, and that most people in America are homeless. The documentary paints Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un as a ruthless man who has turned anti-aircraft guns — designed to take out huge planes — on single individuals, even relatives, who have threatened his rule.
If you criticize the regime, if someone accuses you of spying, if you are caught with a Bible, say refugees, you might be tortured or banished to the mountains to die. Or you might be publicly executed — sometimes in front of a group of deliberately gathered schoolchildren, says one defector, as part of their indoctrination.
Among the most sobering moments in the film is when, during their flight from North Korea, the Beyond Utopia cameraman asks the grandmother and the two young girls: What do you think of Kim Jong-un?
Grandmother vaguely makes excuses because he is “so young,” but she wonders if she has been lied to. The Americans so far seem nice, but could they turn on her family? Says the older girl: “He is the greatest person in the world.”
A year after their defection, on the Park City stage, Grandmother says she is very old, but she is happy to have her freedom. “I wish I had discovered it when I was much younger.”
The Ro family has 25 more family members who remain in North Korea.