Beyond Utopia: Harrowing documentary on North Korea should drive us to pray
To its residents, North Korea is a paradise. It is the most wonderful country in the world. Yes, there have been famines; yes, people die in the street; yes, there are draconian rules that must be adhered to. But when compared with any other nation, it is utopia.
At least, that is what they are told to believe. There is one newspaper, one radio station, and one TV channel – outlets which only publish or broadcast State-approved media.
For some, the values and mantras the oppressive regime forces them to swallow are readily accepted, but for others, the hope that something better lies beyond the border’s armed turrets is worth risking everything for.
Beyond Utopia, a new award-winning US documentary, documents the brutality and bleakness of life under Kim Jong Un, and the journey of a few who attempt to escape.
The film provides a potted history of North Korea and interviews from those who have successfully escaped, but mostly centres on Pastor Kim Sung-eun, a South Korean Christian wanted in both North Korea and China for helping people to escape using a modern-day underground railroad. Its main focus is on a mother’s mission to free her son, and Pastor Kim’s attempts to smuggle a family of five, including an elderly grandmother and two young children, across the Yalu River into China.
Pastor Kim lost his own son to illness in 2009. Since then he has dedicated more than a decade of his life to freeing his fellow Koreans from the grasp of a brutal dictatorship. More than 1,000 lives have been transformed by his determination to see them freed.
Beyond Utopia is shocking in its no-holds-barred depiction of North Korea, in particular the way in which it brainwashes its citizens. Children are indoctrinated from an extremely early age. In nurseries they sing songs that denounce the evils of Americans, the monsters who hate North Koreans and will kill them if given half a chance. A popular song all youngsters are taught is “We have nothing to envy in the world”.
More chillingly, school is occasionally cancelled so that youngsters can witness the public executions of captured defectors. One defector interviewed recalls seeing her first execution aged just seven when a man was hanged from a railway bridge. The documentary also shows a man executed by firing squad. The filmmakers state that all footage is real, with no reconstructions.
While executions following interrogation and humiliating show trials are commonplace, some are sent to re-education camps where they are beaten and tortured, but may be released after a year or two. Others are sent to gulags, where escape or release is almost impossible.
One rare gulag survivor shared some of the scarring, traumatic things he endured and witnessed – from the starvation that left him barely more than a skeleton, to the way he was forced to carry the maimed bodies of fellow prisoners killed by the brutality of their work – and says those memories will never leave him.
Human rights charity International Christian Concern estimates that in North Korea there are around 400,000 Christians who secretly live out their faith. But being a Christian here – or even being caught in possession of a Bible – is enough to be sent to the gulags. Earlier this year, the US Department of State revealed that a two-year-old child was sent to prison with their parents in 2009, after North Korean officials found a Bible in their home.
Illyong Ju, who escaped to South Korea, told the charity: “Our brave brothers and sisters, fellow believers in North Korea, are preaching the gospel. Even this moment. They are multiplying disciples. They worship on the mountains, hills, and underground.”
“I want to say to the people who are being persecuted, please don’t lose your hope. We are fighting for you, and our God is fighting for you—and we win. God has already won. So please don’t lose hope, and please stay firm.”
One reason for banning the Bible is because it has been so obviously plagiarised by the Kim dynasty. Deceased leader Kim Jong Il is God, and his son Jong Un the Christ figure, born in a remote cabin high in the mountains under a shining star and a double rainbow. The two are worshipped as deities, and every household must display pictures of them prominently in their homes and keep them in impeccable condition. A random inspection that finds the images dusty could lead to severe reprimands.
According to religious freedom charity Open Doors, North Korea has long been the most hostile country in the world for Christians and gathering with other believers to worship is almost impossible. In its latest annual report, Open Doors explained that persecution is intensifying.
It seemed impossible that it could get any worse for Christians in North Korea, but it has, aided by a rise in reported incidents of violence.
In one horrifying incident that Open Doors heard about from reliable sources, several dozen North Korean believers from different underground churches were discovered and executed. More than 100 members of their families were said to have been rounded up and sent to labour camps.
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Because Christianity is so fiercely oppressed, it is completely alien to most in the country. In a quiet moment in the film, though while still on the run, Pastor Kim and his charges are able to share a meal in a safehouse. The pastor gives thanks for the food on the table and has to teach the family how to pray, not to their glorious leader Marshall Kim Jong Un, but to Jesus Christ.
Open Doors reveals that, such is the contempt Christianity is treated with in North Korea, even those who defect treat the Bible with deep suspicion. But the charity reports:
“Amazingly, many of their hearts soften and they give their lives to Jesus. But it’s an enormously risky step to make, given how Christianity is regarded in their homeland. Escaping North Korea already made these North Koreans an enemy of the state – becoming a Christian entrenches this.
One person who encountered Jesus at a safe house in China is Yong-Gi (name changed). “I would like to thank God’s grace that He made my dream come true,” she says. “This morning, God spoke to me through Bible verses, and now all I can do is to follow His commands. Thank you always for your prayers and sacrifice for the sake of us.”
Just as Christianity is alien to most in North Korea, so the horror of that state’s brutality is foreign to those of us who have only ever known what it is like to live in a free society. Beyond Utopia should open our eyes to the pressure Christians and others face under that desperately cruel regime.
This harrowing film should drive us to our knees in prayer for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ – and to give thanks for the outworking of Christian love demonstrated by Pastor Kim.
Beyond Utopia is being screened in limited cinemas across the UK.