One Thousand-ri will be a documentary film following North Korean refugees and examining issues prior to their escape, such as; hunger, sexual abuse, forced labor, torture, and near death, and issues pertaining to resettling in South Korea such as; education, advocacy, safety, and separated families. The film will take place in South Korea where many young refugees now live.
With the number of North Korean defectors increasing daily and the country now experiencing a change in power after Kim Jong Il's death in December, the observation of and discussions with newly escaped North Koreans will be able to explain the political situation and the real life circumstances for the people living under the communist regime. After about 60 years of separation, the North and the South have developed in very different ways. While the South has raced ahead through its advances in technology, healthcare, and education, reports from the North say that it has fallen drastically behind. One Thousand-ri will examine the current conditions of the country by documenting the struggles of North Korean refugees who escaped to the South and their reasons for migration.
The working title of the film comes from "one thousand-ri" (about 400 km) which is what the North Korean's use to refer to Kim Il Sung's journey to China some time after his father was arrested by the Japanese in January 1925. According to the official North Korean website, Kim (the founding father of North Korea as we know it) vowed never to return to Korea until he could make it an independent nation. His journey is still celebrated in North Korea when students between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to march the same path that he did nearly 90 years ago. The journey represents commitment to the fatherland and to the "Eternal President" of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. To the North Korean people, the journey is symbolic of the sacrifices Kim made for the national liberation of the country. There are variations to this story, but the journey itself is a crucial part of the history of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
On July 27, 1953, after 3 years of fighting that resulted in the deaths of roughly 4 million people overall, North Korea's General Nam Il and the United States' Lieutenant General William K. Harrison signed an armistice ending the Korean War. But nearly 60 years later, no peace treaty has ever been signed. Military personnel from the North, the South, and from the United States remain stationed and standing toe-to-toe in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), which runs nearly 160 miles along the 38th parallel north, separating the two countries by about 2.5 miles. The DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world and it is the only location for negotiations on the Korean peninsula since its installment.
North Korea is not a common tourist destination due to its strict guidelines for entry. Passports and cell phones are confiscated by authorities for the duration of the visit and tourists should assume that they are being watched at all times, including while in their hotel rooms. The only way to travel to North Korea is with a guided tour, allowing for little to be seen other than what the government has prearranged. As a result, there is not much known about North Korean society, but it is suspected that human rights violations occur regularly within the borders.
Despite the mystery, what is known about life inside North Korea is especially disturbing. Agencies have estimated that during a mid-1990s famine, between 220,000 and 3 million North Koreans perished (North Korea reported the lowest number of deaths in that range). Even without exact numbers, evidence of human rights violations continues to surface as more and more refugees escape North Korea. On average, North Koreans are 2 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts and teachers at the Yeomyung School in Seoul have reported signs of severe malnourishment in their students.
(Teacher) Cho has been working with young defectors for almost a decade. She believes their cognitive skills are getting worse, because of long-term food shortages. "These days I am seeing lower intelligence among students. It's to do with their brain growth being stunted, as they haven't been properly fed from infancy," Cho says. "Before, I'd explain the same thing 10 times before students would understand it. Now it takes 40 times. I think that's a tragedy."
So why should you care? Human beings are social animals. Even through film, we thrive on the emotional connections we have with others. It isn't easy to understand the perspective and experiences of another, but it is possible and if you don't take it for granted, then spread the word about this issue; the conflict on the Korean peninsula and the people involved. Even on a small scale, One Thousand-ri is an effort to educate and a good excuse to connect with others.
There are real costs that go into making a documentary film. Even after production, post-production costs can quickly add up: licensing and film festival fees, among other things, are expenses that are difficult to cover if the filmmaker works full time editing hours and hours of footage. I have narrowed the costs of this film down to the bare minimum. These will include:
- travel expenses totaling around $4,500 (New York City to/from South Korea, China to/from South Korea, and travel within South Korea)
- living expenses totaling around $1,500 (accommodations are already arranged)
- camera equipment totaling around $2,000 (includes HDSLR and lenses)
- licensing fees in post-production (will be limited to) $1,000
- miscellaneous $1,000 (includes the costs of SD cards, hard drives, translating services, etc.)
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Thank you in advance for your generosity!
How can one documentary make a difference?
Whether a film ends happily or not, inspiration often comes from narratives when the viewer is able to connect to the characters. Though their stories are nearly unimaginable, some of the potential characters of and contributors to this film, North Korean refugees (currently unnamed for protective purposes), are relatable simply because they have similar wants and needs to what many of us have. Basics like proper healthcare, food, electricity, and protection from persecution are not always provided in North Korea. One refugee, a witness to real life in North Korea, reports that seeing homeless and sickly children lying on the side of the road is not uncommon and people, including government officials, pass by with little to no reaction. The government, which divides the North Korean people into 51 social categories classified by the extent of loyalty to the "Supreme Leader" (according to The Economist), is responsible for the fear and hopelessness among North Koreans, much like any government is responsible for a struggling economy or poor healthcare.
People have a lot to say and film is just one way to spark a conversation. In the time it takes to watch a documentary film, so much can be learned and when we learn, we question. 60 years have passed and still North Korea remains a dictatorship under which so many people, so many families, are suffering. Please ask others to question this conflict by taking part in the making of this film. The impact may start small, but it can end in a very big way. Just imagine.
Thank you for reading.
*** Graphics in the titles are from North Korean propaganda posters and do not reflect the opinions of the filmmaker.