Toronto filmmaker Ann Shin documents harrowing escape of women from North Korea

Ann Shin couldn’t have picked a better time to debut her documentary.

The Defector: Escape from North Korea screens at Hot Docs later this month amid ramped-up rhetoric from the hermit state. But while Pyongyang pronouncements directed against American 'imperialists' are making headlines almost daily, the stories of the North Korean people who live under the spectre of the Kim family’s rule are often lost in the media ether.

With her documentary, Shin hopes to change that.

“We all know how aggressive Kim Jong-un is with foreign policy,” says Shin. “What’s lesser known is how brutal he is to his own people. He can’t get his little hands around American necks, but the people in his own country have no escape.”

The plight of North Koreans hits close to home for Shin, whose family suffered during the Korean War. Her background and journalistic curiosity led her to learn more about North Korean defectors.

“I realized there was a documentary here because there are all these people in Canada networking to try and help other North Koreans,” she says. “When Kim Jong-un came into power his second decree was to crack down on defectors and their families, so it’s become that much more desperate for defectors now. Fewer people can make it out.”

The lucky ones who do make it to China must remain underground for fear of the Chinese government repatriating them to North Kore, where they would face brutal interrogations and sentencing in work camps. As a result, many of the escaped North Koreans in China attempt to gain entry to a country where they will be guaranteed safety.

The Toronto-based Shin used her North Korean contacts in Canada to connect with ‘brokers’ in China -- men who earn their living ferrying defectors out of that country and into nations like Thailand, where they are able to declare refugee status.

Over the phone from China, a man who referred to himself only as ‘Dragon’ told Shin he had a group of defectors who would to talk to her about their journey. So Shin headed to China to meet them and document their journey to safety.

However, when she arrived in northern China to meet the defectors, two young women named Sook-ja and Yong-hee, it was clear Dragon hadn’t informed them about the journalist who wanted to tell their story.

“When we arrived, I saw the look on their faces and they were surprised to see me. They hadn’t consented to filming and we were all there covertly.”

Shin realized she would have to gain their trust if she wanted to tell their story. So, over a meal, she explained why she was there. “Food is probably one of the best icebreakers,” says Shin.

By the end, the women had consented and Shin joined them on their journey. “We travelled together night and day and when you’re dealing with that amount of danger on a day-to-day basis, it’s amazing how quickly trust forms,” says Shin. “Most North Koreans I’ve met want to tell their stories because they’ve lived through extraordinary things."

The Defector: Escape from North Korea, screens April 27, 29 and May 4 during the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. It airs on TVO on June 26 at 9 p.m. and midnight.

This year the festival will screen a record 205 docs from 43 countries at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and other venues.

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