Horrific details of Kim Jong-un’s gulags have emerged in a documentary showing defectors desperately trying to flee from North Korea.
In the gripping documentary Beyond Utopia: Escape from North Korea, harrowing footage reveals the lengths desperate people will go to to leave Kim Jong-un’s regime full of famines, a developing economic crisis and crippling international sanctions.
One defector said he didn’t make it out and was detained in North Korea during his escape attempt, where he was tortured for nine months and was starved to the point he only weighed 35kg (77lbs).
When he finally confessed to being a foreign spy – he wasn’t but hoped if he confessed the torture would end – he was brought to a camp, where he had to march up a hill every day to chop down trees.
The cut-down tree stumps would then tumble down into prisoners still climbing up the hill, leaving them with horrifying injuries or dead.
‘Their limbs were broken and intestines leaked out of their wounds […] when the bodies decomposed they fused together,’ he said.
Among the stories featured in the film is that of Soyeon Lee, a desperate mother to be reunited with her 17-year-old son who she had to leave behind when she defected.
The film by Madeleine Gavin also follows a family of five who fled through China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to finally find refuge in South Korea. Footage taken on their phones documents their perilous journey.
Footage shows the harrowing scenes people in North Korea have to go through after being punished for trying to defect
The film by Madeleine Gavin also follows a family of five (some pictured) who fled through China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to finally find refuge in South Korea
North Koreans are under constant surveillance, as the documentary reveals
A prominent figure in the film is Pastor Kim Seongeun who has been helping those wanting to defect from the hermit country for 24 years after seeing several bloated dead bodies floating on the Tumen River after a failed escape attempt.
He is based in Seoul, South Korea, and has helped more than a thousand people escape from the totalitarian regime with his ‘underground railroad’ organisation the Caleb Mission Church.
He said that most defectors avoid crossing over directly to South Korea, as the border is lined with two million landmines to prevent anyone from leaving.
Instead, they have to cross the Yalu or Tumen rivers, which replace the border with neighbouring China, dodging North Korean military posts at night as well as spies trying to lead them straight into traps.
Pastor Kim himself has braced the rescue route several times, telling the documentary: ‘I feel emotionally exhausted just worrying about it. The most taxing part of the journey is us having to illegally cross through the jungle.’
At the border, defectors meet brokers who help guide them to freedom – but some of them have become untrustworthy after being swayed by higher rewards, according to Pastor Kim.
Footage taken on their phones documents their perilous journey, pictured above
In terrifying footage from their escape they can be seen wading through a thick jungle (pictured) while dogs searching for them with their military police handlers can be heard barking in the background
Footage from Beyond Utopia show the dangerous journey defectors have to go on
The family of five document their journey through China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand
They constantly had to be on high alert for untrustworthy brokers trying to sell them out and police trying to detain them before they can escape
The escape route involves crossing through the Yalu or Tumen rivers that make up the border to China
The route to escape from North Korea is not as straightforward as just crossing over the southern border. Defectors have to escape via several countries until they can take the resettlement route from Thailand to South Korea
The Roh family, including a little girl, finally made it to safety in Thailand, from where they were resettled to South Korea
A prominent figure in the film is Pastor Kim Seongeun (pictured) who has been helping those wanting to defect from the hermit country for 24 years after seeing several bloated dead bodies floating on the Tumen River after a failed escape attempt
He said that once the Chinese government is told about defectors crossing over from North Korea, it offers brokers six months’ wages to give those leaving the regime up.
Beyond Utopia follows defectors trying to leave North Korea just before the pandemic, making the documented escapes some of the last since after the hermit country closed off routes out of it.
Soyeon Lee defected ten years prior, leaving behind her small son. She was part of the North Korean army and left her family in the search for better living conditions.
On her escape, she was caught by the police and was sent to a prison camp, from where she successfully fled after two years.
She wanted her son Han Jeong-Cheong, 17, to also defect to South Korea and organised his escape with Pastor Kim.
But the plan was thwarted when the untrustworthy brokers handed him in to the North Korean police.
The teenager was sent to a prison camp after being tortured, interrogated and severely beaten to the point he couldn’t even eat anything.
‘In North Korea, they will go so far as to kill him. Eventually, my son will beg them to end his life,’ she said in the film.
In an interview with Independent Lens, she said that her son has remained in the camp for political prisoners where he is ‘not given any food, forced to work and subjected to all kinds of beatings and assaults’ since.
Soyeon Lee said she was hesitant at first about taking part in the documentary, because she feared her son would suffer the consequences.
‘I decided that if the voice of a mother trying to save her son became known to the international community […] and if more people came to my side, learned about North Korea’s human rights violations, and criticized North Korea with one voice, it would have an impact,’ the brave mother said.
She added that if she would have to escape again herself, she would pack poison, as it would be ‘better to die’ than live in a concentration camp.
Soyeon Lee (pictured) defected ten years prior, leaving behind her small son. She was part of the North Korean army and left her family in the search for better living conditions
Soyeon Lee (pictured here with Pastor Kim) said she was hesitant at first about taking part in the documentary, because she feared her son would suffer the consequences
She wanted her son Han Jeong-Cheong (pictured), 17, to also defect to South Korea and organised his escape with Pastor Kim, but he was captured
Soyeon Lee has revealed that her son is still alive, in a camp for political prisoners somewhere in North Korea
The Rohs, the family of five (pictured) also featured in the film, fled through several countries before finding refuge in South Korea
Their escape led them into China and from there into the Vietnamese jungle, before they went to Vientiane in Laos and finally Thailand, where they provided their identity as North Korean refugees
The Rohs, the family of five also featured in the film, fled through several countries before finding refuge in South Korea.
In terrifying footage from their escape they can be seen wading through a thick jungle while dogs searching for them with their military police handlers can be heard barking in the background.
‘I thought a lot about our neighbours on that mountain, I wondered about the path to survival when the price is abandoning our hometowns.
‘I miss our friends and our dog. We wouldn’t have lived if it wasn’t for the pastor,’ so-called Mama Roh, the mother from the family of five, said.
Their escape led them into China and from there into the Vietnamese jungle, before they went to Vientiane in Laos and finally Thailand, where they provided their identity as North Korean refugees.
After this, they were relocated to a resettlement facility in South Korea, where they were taught about what really is going on in the world after being fed by the regime’s propaganda machine and strict ban on outside information.
All defectors get taught about this to help them integrate into the South Korean Society. They also receive housing and other benefits to help them get on their feet.
Pastor Kim also established a community centre for defectors to help them adapt to life in a free country.
‘There they and South Koreans worship and farm together, share information, share food, and learn to live together. Caleb Mission is helping North Korean defectors become self-reliant,’ he told Independent Lens.
He added that many North Koreans have a thirst for education after they defect, like Mama Roh, who is now studying to be a social worker.
Another protagonist of the film is Hyeonseo Lee, who fled 20 years ago after realising she was brainwashed while living under the oppressive regime.
Another protagonist of the film is Hyeonseo Lee (pictured), who fled 20 years ago after realising she was brainwashed while living under the oppressive regime
She said she had grown up thinking she was living in Utopia, an illusion that was eventually shattered as she realised everyone around her lived in misery and constant fear of public execution
Propaganda by the North Korean regime shows seemingly happy children running across a field
She is now an activist and a human rights campaigner living in South Korea and has revealed the extent of the brainwashing that is happening in North Korea
‘We are literally told that Kim’s dad is God, and Kim is son of God,’ a defector said. ‘We didn’t know another life existed besides the one we had. We were captured in a huge, virtual prison’
She said she had grown up thinking she was living in Utopia, an illusion that was eventually shattered as she realised everyone around her lived in misery and constant fear of public execution.
‘Government officials come to houses with white gloves checking that pictures of the Supreme Leader past and present have no dust on them – and they are severely punished otherwise,’ she said in the film.
She is now an activist and a human rights campaigner living in South Korea and has revealed the extent of the brainwashing that is happening in North Korea.
‘We are literally told that Kim’s dad is God, and Kim is son of God,’ she said.
‘We didn’t know another life existed besides the one we had. We were captured in a huge, virtual prison.’
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, who turned 40 earlier this month, is a ruthless dictator who executes his enemies and pushes a state nuclear weapons program – while allowing entire families to starve to death.
His birthday, believed to be on January 8, is a secretive affair in North Korea. The US government lists Kim’s birth year as 1984, making him 40 years old this year.
North Koreans have been starved due to constant food shortages as the regime’s economy is in crisis
Brokers helped the Roh family (pictured) escape from North Korea to China, then Vietnam, Laos and finally Thailand
One of the little girls in the family were brave as they told their parents to ‘stay strong’ during the escape
In North Korean schools, children bow to their ‘God’, Kim’s father and Kim as the son of ‘God’
But there was no public announcement or celebrations at home as state media continued its decades of silence on the day – a contrast to the birth dates of Kim’s late father and North Korea-founding grandfather, who preceded him as ruler, both of which are national holidays in the authoritarian state.
Instead he entered his 40th year with artillery barrages into the sea, vowing to expand his nuclear arsenal and increasingly close ties with Russia.
For most of his young life – much like the secrecy around his birthday – Kim had been hidden from view. He was the youngest son of North Korea’s second ruler Kim Jong Il, and few had even heard his name.
But all that changed a little over 13 years ago when – on December 17, 2011 – his 70-year-old father died and Kim – at just 27 years old – was thrust into the spotlight as the new ruler of one of the world’s most-repressive dictatorships.
He has been a ruthless leader ever since, with Pastor Kim saying in the film: ‘When Kim Jong -un came into power, he made defecting a traitorous act.
‘After that, his soldiers began receiving awards and vacation time for killing people trying to escape.’
Kim has become one of the most recognisable faces on the planet for reasons that range from the terrifying to the ridiculous.
He carried out a bloody purge of top officials – thought to have included executions by anti-aircraft guns, mortar rounds, and flamethrowers – and had his own brother murdered with VX nerve agent in an elaborate fake prank.
He oversaw the construction of the country’s most-powerful nuclear weapons and missiles capable of launching them at the US – and then leveraged them to secure three meetings with Donald Trump – becoming the first North Korean leader in history to meet face-to-face with an American president.
But he also struck up an unlikely friendship with basketball star Dennis Rodman, sparked endless jibes and internet memes with his ever-expanding waistline, and raised eyebrows with some questionable fashion choices – from a fedora, to his leather coat, and an ever-changing but always-mockable hairstyle.
One of the little girls of the Roh family cried about friends and neighbours that are still in North Korea
Famines and a developing economic crisis while constantly fearing execution drove defectors out of North Korea
The escape route out of the regime is dangerous and many have died trying to leave as police have permission to shoot those trying to cross the border
More recently, he has established closer ties with Russia and China, in particular providing Moscow with arms for its on-going invasion of Ukraine – and his country’s nuclear sabre-rattling has grown louder.
Kim was even rumoured to have died and been replaced by a body double after going missing for several weeks, with reports suggesting he underwent surgery – further raising questions over his seemingly ailing health.
Over the years, the leader has appeared more and more bloated, his skin losing colour. He is thought to be around 5ft 6in tall, and at his heaviest weighed 22 stone.
Analysts have suggested he takes steroid injections and is a heavy smoker, and suffers from health issues such as hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Others say talk about his ailing health is speculation, and perhaps wishful thinking among those who fear Kim having his finger on a nuclear button.
Beyond Utopia: Escape from North Korea is available on BBC iPlayer.