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by Marinell Haegelin

Director N.C. Heikin’s abhorrence at stories she heard from survivors of North Korea’s prison camps drove her to expose the shocking crimes against humanity. Initially she wanted to make a dramatic feature, however in 2006 she decided to transform the project into a documentary. Kimjongilia is the hybrid red begonia that was created for Kim Jong Il’s 46th birthday and symbolizes wisdom, love, justice, and peace.

For sixty years the Kim dynasty has had a stranglehold on the country; it controls everything from religion to information. Kim Il Sung was born in Korea to a Christian family, adopted communism, and as a Freedom Fighter against the Japanese he was so effective they put a price on his head, forcing him to flee to the Soviet Union in 1941. After the Allies defeated the Japanese in 1945, the Soviets and the U.S. split the country along the 38th parallel. Kim Il Sung returned to North Korea with the Soviets, and in 1948 established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). “He appeared like a star and we worshiped him like the sun.”

In 1953, following the Korean War, Kim Il Sung set up the Korean Workers’ Party to rebuild North Korea into a Workers’ Paradise. However, the loss of Soviet aid in the late 1980s plunged the country’s already desperate economy and its inhabitants into destitution. In 1994 famine was declared, Kim Il Sung died and his son, The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il took over, and the government ordered farmers to grow opium.

When Kang Chol-hwan was nine years old, his grandfather was arrested for an unknown crime. Kang took along his pet fish when his entire family (grandmother, father, uncles and little sister) was sent to Yodok prison camp. That was the DPRK’s solution for a political crime; purge three generations. “You don’t have time for pet fish when you’re dying.” After ten years, and reading The Count of Monte Cristo, Kang escaped to South Korea; in 1992 he was the first to both expose and verify the existence of these vast camps.

Mrs. Kim and her entire family were imprisoned because her best friend became Kim Jong Il’s lover. Born in camp #14, Shin Dong-hyuk did not know his parents or anything about the world outside until a new prisoner from Pyongyang talked of the food he used to eat. Classical pianist Kim Cheol-woong was hung upside down and tortured for fourteen hours after one escape attempt. “My whole life is dedicated to the piano and I couldn’t play what I wanted.” Lee Shin, her mother, and sister were sold into sexual slavery in China when they defected. Byeon Ok-soon’s brother carried her to China on his back; he was publicly executed when caught taking food to their parents back in North Korea. Former solider Jen says the military infirmaries daily had 200 – 300 soldiers turn up with malnutrition. Career military officer Park Myung-Ho sailed south in a small boat with his family over 200 miles of rough water to escape, he spotted a North Korean Navy ship under sail: “... no fuel, no supplies… (Soldiers have to) steal to do as a commander’s orders.”

The film’s challenge, because of the staggering magnitude of information, was to let the survivors’ voices be heard. In Heikin’s own words, “Drawing on my background in the theatre, I wove performance into the narrative for its emotional impact, and North Korea’s own operatic propaganda for its fantastic contrast to the defectors’ testimony. The result is a film that may push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, but hopefully never diminishes the tremendous emotional power of these courageous refugees.”

The survivors’ opinions are mixed when it comes to the future of North Korea and whether or not to return if Kim Jong Il would be ousted. “The future? I don’t know,” says Kim Cheol-woong. Byeon Ok-soon hates North Korea and never wants to live there again. Well into her 70s, Mrs. Kim talks passionately about freeing her fellow county men, and Park Myung-Ho would most assuredly return. This film will most assuredly not disappoint.