North Korean film director Kim Gyu-min tells of pain of family separation

Kim Gyu-min fled the oppressive regime, twice. His experiences fuel his new film, Crossings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 4:10am

North Korean film director Kim Gyu-min can thank the country's founder Kim Il-sung for his escape to freedom.

On April 15, 2001, the artist was planning to flee across a river into China. It was Kim Il-sung's birthday, and soldiers across the country were under strict orders not to consume alcohol out of respect.

The next day, when soldiers finally had their hands on spirits again, they got drunk and continued to drink into the following day. On April 17, Kim, who is in Hong Kong for the city's first North Korea Human Rights Film Festival this weekend, seized his chance and made his way across the border unnoticed, but not without incident.

"After I took off my clothes [to swim across the river], I saw a drunken soldier right beside me. It left a big impression on me. That has something to do with why I like drinking now," Kim, 38, said.

"Because North Korea has been left out of globalisation, people do not know what opportunities there are outside the country. However, life is so bad they seek anything in the hope it's better," he said.

Kim had fled the North before. He made his first crossing into China when a famine swept across the country in the '90s. Left with nothing to eat, he spent six weeks walking from his home to the border in 1999.

After a year hiding on the mainland, Chinese authorities discovered Kim and sent him back to North Korea, where he was sent to a political prison camp.

"An elderly person was covered in excrement. He was starving to death," Kim recalled. "Pregnant women were forced to give up their babies."

In the movie Crossing, which Kim co-directed, a North Korean father crosses illegally into China in the hope of finding medicine for his wife. He ends up being sent to South Korea, failing to return to his family.

His son manages to sneak into China, where he heads north and eventually reaches Mongolia. However, in a heartbreaking twist, he dies in the Mongolian desert, away from his family.

Kim himself reached South Korea via Mongolia after fleeing that night after the founder's birthday. He said about 70 per cent of the film was based on fact.

Another defector, Lee Aram, 25, left the country for the South Korean embassy in China in 2008.

Her father, however, was caught at the border and sent to a political prison, where he died. She yesterday called on Beijing not to repatriate defectors.

Four films and one documentary were on the programme for the festival, which is being held in Jordan. Heather Cheng Cheuk-man, 21, said she attended the festival to personally connect with defectors. "I used to think the defectors would be safe after entering China," she said. "The movie showed there are still risks even if they manage to escape to Mongolia."