North Korea is a place of fearsome fascination. It’s the most brutal regime on earth, led by a dynastic dictator, Kim Jong-un, who has proved to be even more ruthless and obsessed with nuclear weapons than his father, Kim Jong-il. We all have a certain vision of North Korea, a country sealed like a prison, cut off from the rest of the world by technology (or the absence of it). You could say it exists as a kind of ghost state, a totalitarian hellhole in lockdown. But when you watch Madeleine Gavin’s staggering documentary “Beyond Utopia,” which is about what really goes on in North Korea, and about a handful of desperate souls who attempt to defect from it, you see North Korea — the full nightmare of the place — as never before.
The filmmaker got ahold of forbidden footage that was smuggled out of the country, and in that footage we see citizens lined up to watch a public execution; then we see the execution. We see North Koreans who’ve gotten in trouble with the regime — which one man did just for tearing off a piece of newspaper with Kim Jong-un’s image on it so that he could roll a cigarette — in interrogation rooms, getting savagely beaten and tortured. We hear about what happens to the ones who receive the worst sentences. They’re “banished,” by being deposited in the wilderness, or incarcerated in one of the gulags, otherwise known as a concentration camp. That last phrase is, of course, a loaded one, and “Beyond Utopia” makes the reference explicit by claiming that North Korea is a cult state of such relentless terror that the only country it’s comparable to is Nazi Germany.
As a profile of the glum dystopia of North Korea (one state newspaper, one state TV channel, apartments without elevators where the tenants burn wood, hole-in-the-ground outhouses, human waste gathered by the government to fertilize farms, citizens encouraged to spy on other citizens), “Beyond Utopia” has a quotidian terror. It peeks behind the Potemkin-village façade that, for too long, is all that we’ve really been able to see of North Korea. But the film also chronicles, with footage shot on a cell phone, the attempt by five members of a family to leave this bad dream of a nation, and their escape story has a scary, suck-in-your-breath suspense.
The documentary’s central figure is Pastor Seungeun Kim, a gentle smiling South Korean Christian who himself defected from North Korea years ago. In the last 10 years, he has helped 1,000 people to escape, risking his own safety. He emerges as a figure of benevolent fearlessness, and a master strategist, as he arranges the escape plan that guides the Roh family.
The DMZ that separates North and South Korea is rigged with two million land mines. Today, if you want to escape, your only choice is to cross the Yula River into China, then make it through Vietnam and Laos. All of them are Communist countries that, if you’re apprehended, will return you to North Korea. The promised land is Thailand, on the other side of Laos. Thailand is not Communist; if you get there, you’re free. But to make it, the defectors must embark on a treacherous journey, traveling on foot through jungles and over mountains, with the aid of brokers who do it for the money and have no interest in whether the desperate people who are paying them make it to their destination.
Usually, when refugees flee an oppressive regime, they know what they’re leaving behind; they can taste the freedom they’re searching for. But part of the story “Beyond Utopia” tells is that the citizens of North Korea don’t fully understand how oppressed they are. They can’t; they’ve never seen any other way of being. In that sense, apart from Nazi Germany, the country that North Korea most resembles is Mao’s China during the insanity of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Tens of millions of people died in China from famine, due to Mao’s disastrously unhinged economic policies. In the aftermath, partly to cover all that up, China became the first National Propaganda Media State, subjecting its vast populace to a daily brainwashing, with Mao held up as a living deity.
The North Korean regime, in many ways a depraved outgrowth of Maoism, goes even further. As the film shows us, it has taken its made-up theology from the Bible, with Kim Jong-un portrayed as a Christ figure, and we see footage of the great mass stadium exhibitions that the citizens, including thousands of schoolchildren, rehearse for a year at a time — displays that look like the opening ceremony of the Olympics staged on a mile-wide electronic billboard in which every LED light is a choreographed human being. All of this loony-tunes spectacle is meant to celebrate the “utopia” of North Korea, with the outside world, especially America, portrayed as such a demonic place that the only word used to refer to someone in the U.S. is “American-bastard.”
The joyless suppression of life in North Korea prompts at least some citizens to suspect that a better life must lay on the other side. The family of defectors in “Beyond Utopia” are like that; they’re ordinary people who have put themselves on a moving mission. We also follow the saga of Soyeon Lee, who defected from North Korea and is now trying to get her 17-year-old son to do the same. The Roh family members (mother, father, two young daughters, 80-year-old grandma) are guided by Pastor Kim, who arranges to meet up with them in China; they make the journey step by perilous step. Lee’s son isn’t so lucky. He’s detained by the authorities, tortured, and sent to a gulag. We see a photograph of a doleful handsome high schooler, and it’s a surreal horror to imagine what has happened to him. At moments, his mother’s torment is almost too much to bear.
North Korea wasn’t always as horrific as it is now. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia helped to subsidize the country, and for years it was stronger economically than China, held up in some quarters as a shining example of how Communism could “work.” But the country was gutted by the Soviet downfall. The famine that happened killed 3 million citizens, and Kim Jong-il commenced the strategy of using nuclear weapons as both a threat and a diversionary tactic, a way of getting the West to forget about the country’s human-rights violations. It worked. The weapons, now with the mobster-autocrat Kim Jong-un in charge, get all the attention. Of course, the West is right to treat any nuclear threat with sober caution. But what we’ve forgotten about, for too long, is the North Korean people. For years, their misery has existed under a blackout. “Beyond Utopia” looks behind the wall and shines a light.