“What is ‘Defecting’”? Ask a Pastor Who Has Defected 1,000 People | FRIDAY DIGITAL

“What is ‘Defecting’”? Ask a Pastor Who Has Defected 1,000 People

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The identity of the person who has defected more than 1,000 people for 24 years

We often see and hear about “defection” in news reports and Korean movies. However, few people know what it is really like, how much preparation is required, and what hardships are involved.

“Beyond Utopia: “Defections”” won the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.


In this film, the camera closely follows the journey of five North Korean families as they leave what they believe to be a “paradise,” attempt a desperate escape, and arrive at freedom.

Their escape is supported by Pastor Kim Seong-eun of the Caleb Mission, a Christian organization in South Korea. He is a core member of the “Underground Railroad,” an organization that supports defectors, and has helped more than 1,000 people escape from North Korea over the past 24 years.

”I hope that as many people as possible, including churches and businesses, will watch “Beyond Utopia: Defecting North Korea” and support the film,” said Pastor Kim Sung-eun (PHOTO: Mayumi Abe).

When we were informed that Pastor Kim would be visiting Japan, we conducted an interview with him.

“The director of this film is an American woman named Madeleine Gavin, but actually it was I who filmed it. It is our Caleb Mission that has the inside footage and images of North Korea.”

“The impetus came when the director Madeleine asked me to film the actual situation in North Korea. There are about 100 organizations for North Korean defectors in South Korea, but none of the organizations that the director met with and requested actually experienced the process of defection, although they all said they could at first.”

Madeleine was led to Pastor Kim after researching the actual process of North Korean defectors’ defection on YouTube and other sites, and came across a video of the Caleb Mission Church. From there, he was asked to document the process.

“At first I refused. I didn’t mean to discriminate, but if a foreigner were to accompany a person in the process of North Korean defectors, he or she would first stand out. However, we were told that we would shoot the film as Pastor Kim had instructed, so we went to China and filmed there, and from Southeast Asia, the film was shot under the direction of Director Madeleine.”

Why did he decide to accept the request, which he had initially turned down?

“I have been working for 24 years to support North Korean defectors, but I felt there was a limit to how much I could do on my own to bring the issue of North Korea’s defection to the public’s attention. So I personally filmed a documentary and informed foreign human rights organizations and the United Nations. I believe in the power of documentaries and films, and I thought it would be most effective to disseminate information through these media.”


No fake footage, no reenactments, the reality of “North Korean defectors” filmed with their lives on the line.

The film depicts the dangerous journey of more than 50 brokers who, after escaping from North Korea, travel 12,000 kilometers through four countries (China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand) to reach their final destination in South Korea.

I wonder if he had any fear in allowing the filming of the dangerous, life-threatening process of escaping from North Korea, which is neither faked nor recreated in any way, and still appearing in the film with his face on display.

“I am a human being, so I was afraid. In fact, when I learned that North Korea had tried to assassinate me twice, I was very scared. But the main reason I continue to do this work is the power of faith.”

In fact, Pastor Kim’s support for North Korean defectors began when he helped his own wife to defect from North Korea. He also lost his son in the process, which motivated him to continue his support.

He said, “I wished my son were still alive, and my desire to work for the North Korean defectors for his sake motivated me to do this work. The sacrifices that all of my siblings and family have made in helping defectors has also helped me to overcome my fears.”


There is a scene in the film where Pastor Kim says with a gentle smile that he has been seriously injured many times in the process of helping defectors. 

“My body is actually not in very good shape. For example, I have a scar on my neck where I had surgery, but that was in the process of supporting the North Korean defectors.  I have a scar on my neck from when I fell off a cliff after walking through the jungle for about nine and a half hours in support of the North, 7 It was a major operation to put seven bolts in my neck. Also, Five years ago, while helping orphans escape from North Korea I also fell in the jungle and had to undergo major surgery five years ago while helping orphans escape from North Korea, and I also suffered a COVID-19 crisis. 3 I also had three back surgeries due to the Corona disaster.”

“I have had my life threatened many times, but I can still speak with a smile on my face because I consider it a great honor that I have been able to help 1015 people defect from North Korea so far.”

The entire process of defection, filmed for the first time with hidden cameras and cell phones © TGW7N, LLC 2023 All Rights Reserved

Why the Success Rate of North Korean Defectors is Nearly 100

While there are many brokers who provide assistance to those who have successfully defected from North Korea, their success rate is not very high, and in 24 years, Pastor Kim has had only one case of unsuccessful defection. In addition, there has only been one case in which a family was split up due to a fight.

“However, I wonder if money is a factor in the difference in success rates,” he says. “While most brokers focus on efficiency, we take great care not to send even one person back to North Korea, so it costs about 1.3 times as much.”

“In order to ensure a safer and more reliable rescue, I myself sometimes accompany the aid directly, and the higher the success rate, the more money it costs.”

Because of the myriad of landmines between North and South Korea, it is not possible to go directly to South Korea. Also, they will be deported to China. Since Vietnam and Laos are also under China’s economic influence, the route to North Korea pioneered by Rev. Kim is to go to Thailand and from there to South Korea.

“My wife was the first person I helped to defect, and she came to Korea from Thailand on a plane with a forged passport. Before the route was established, we had to go to the jungles of Southeast Asia and through the deserts of Mongolia, and there was a lot of trial and error.”

“At the time when I met my wife and succeeded in rescuing her by the method of airplanes, I sometimes felt that the trial and error and hardships I had gone through to get there were in vain. However, I now believe that those experiences were also important.”

“However, we are a mission, not a broker. So when we could not move because of the COVID-19 crisis, the brokers in Korea lost all income, but we paid the brokers we dealt with about $500 per month even if they did not work during the COVID-19 crisis, and we built a relationship of trust with them, which I think was important in securing a safe route. “

Nevertheless, there are brokers in the film who deliberately go the long way or demand an extra amount of money.


“They want more money because there are more cameras and film crews, and the more people, the more danger they are likely to be exposed to.”

“However, if we were to accept the request for the sake of filming the movie, we might be asked to pay more money for the same setting in the future. Fearing this, I refused the request, and responded by walking the long way around the clock.”

Please, please, please… Please help me…” © TGW7N, LLC 2023 All Rights Reserved

North Korea and China, and the revised “Anti-Spying Law”

The last part of the film shows the development that the Thai route has also been closed due to the COVID-19 crisis. What is the current state of support for North Korean defectors, and what is happening to North Korea now?

“The situation in North Korea is truly dire at the moment. They are obsessed with nuclear weapons and missiles, butto launchonemissile is enough to lose the food supply of the entire population of North Korea.” (*A South Korean government official revealed that the cost of the North Korean missile launch in 2022 was enough to purchase rice for all residents to eat for 46 days.)

In North Korea, the lack of daily necessities and starvation has been exacerbated by the blockade of the border to prevent corona and by not allowing logistics.

Some people have recently been repatriated from China to North Korea. 6 In all cases, priority is given to those who have met South Koreans or are Christians in China.

“If caught, they will be killed…” © TGW7N, LLC 2023 All Rights Reserved

There, Pastor Kim points out, we can see a common understanding between North Korea and China.

“In North Korea, they believe that if North Korean defectors tell the international community bad things about the North Korean regime, or in the case of China, if the international community finds out that North Korean defectors are trafficked through the process of defection via China, it will damage the credibility of their own regime. Because of these circumstances, North Korea actively wants to prevent any defection.”

“North Korea is pushing the idea of an ideal country and the happiest country in the world to its people, while China is considered to be a country that is as powerful as the U.S. in the world.”

“However, the reality in North Korea is not so, and even China is aware that it will be criticized worldwide if any human rights issues come up, so they support Kim Jong-Un.”

Furthermore, China has enforced the revised “Anti-Spying Law” against those who support North Korean defectors or criticize China since July 1, 2023. It has greatly expanded the scope of espionage. It also makes dangerous defection even more difficult.

”In North Korea, the border has been sealed to prevent corruption, and logistics have been denied, resulting in a shortage of daily necessities and a worsening hunger situation.”

Pastor Kim spoke about the current situation and future support.

“In the past, when we supported defectors, they were charged with human trafficking and kidnapping and were supposed to go to jail for several years, but now they have been changed to being spies, which means that they will be in jail for 13 years.”

“So, the cost to pay a broker used to be 3 million Korean won (about 320,000 yen as of December 29, 2023), but now, with the corona, the minimum cost is 20 million Korean won (about 2.2 million yen) or more. The cost is almost 10 times higher than before, and with the current difficult situation, only 200 to 300 people contacted me for help during the Corona period.”

“However, our organization is not that large and we cannot support them all. That’s why we have been working on “Beyond Utopia: Defecting North Korea”.  We hope that as many people as possible, including churches and businesses, will see the film and support it.”

The film opens in theaters nationwide on January 12 (Fri.) at TOHO Cinemas Chanter, Cine Libre Ikebukuro, and other locations.

For the official website of “Beyond Utopia: Defecting North Korea,” click here.

  • Interview and text by Wakako Takou PHOTO (interview) Mayumi Abe

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