Filmmaker highlights struggles of North Korean defectors

South Korean filmmaker Oh Chae Young, 23, speaks to the Asia Media Centre about her experience making The Gill, a short film on North Korean escapees.

What made you decide to do a film about North Korean defectors?

Oh Chae Young: I used to work at the North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival [held in Seoul]. While working with North Korean escapees, I learnt that South Koreans hold a lot of stereotypes about them, which can cause them to be segregated from society. The stories I heard made me feel upset and sad, more than any book or movies I’d watched, because they were not made up or exaggerated. Some escapees saw their siblings or parents starve to death, or killed. They are all terrible stories and the more I learnt about their experiences, the more I felt I had to do something about it.

My short film The Gill is about North Korean escapees coming to South Korea for a better life, but finding they are alienated from society. It contains defector interviews and re-staged memories of defectors. The title The Gill is a metaphor to illustrate North Koreans struggling both inside and outside of their homeland, like fish struggling to live outside of water. 

I received a prize from the [Seoul-based] Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights for making this film and some other film projects.

What is one thing you were surprised to learn about North Korea when you were making this film?

That life in North Korea isn’t as limited as people think. When I talk to Americans for instance, they always mention that North Koreans have limited access to information and they could get assassinated for talking about other countries. Some of it is true. But in the capital city, a lot of North Koreans lead regular lives just as we do, and enjoy facilities and services.

How do defectors feel about their homeland?

I haven’t heard a lot of North Koreans complaining about their homeland. They do sometimes compare the differences between the eras of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. One escapee I spoke to said that in Kim Jong-un’s reign, they did not have sufficient food for people and that their “golden era” – dictated by Kim Jong-il – was gone.

Chae Young Oh

Oh Chae Young with her prize from the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights for her filmmaking.

Is there any way for defectors to keep in touch with their families?

A lot of defectors never get to keep in touch with their families. Some escapees hear from their families through brokers in China who commute from China to North Korea. Brokers get paid by entering in and out of North Korea and bringing people from places to places.

What are some of the struggles defectors face when living in South Korea? 

I do not think they are entirely accepted in South Korea. There is definitely a quiet undercurrent of discrimination. A lot of South Koreans say they welcome defectors, but the majority tend not to hire them or become close friends with them.

There is a short animation called A Purpleman that illustrates the isolated feelings and experiences of a defector. Often South Korea is represented with the colour blue and North Korea with red. A Purpleman is about a defector who thinks he doesn’t really belong in either places, so he defines himself as a purple man.

Do you observe any differences in interest on North-South issues by your generation and your parents’ generation?

I do keep up with developments on North Korea through online news and social media, and discuss news with my friends and family. I think my parents’ generation has very complicated feelings about North Korea. They used to sing a song called Our One Wish is Reunification, but at the same time were criticised for supporting communism. I think at the back of their minds, they yearn for a better condition for North Korea which reunification would bring, but they are afraid of the economic, social, political realities of reunification.

Youth unemployment is a real immediate problem. I have a lot of friends who struggle to get a decent full-time job in Korea. Low-paid and temporary jobs are very easy to get, but of course what people really want is stable, consistent employment.

Personally, I am not worried about employment when I return to South Korea. What concerns me more are glass ceilings that I will have to break, unfair access to opportunities for minorities, and whether or not I can have open discussions about issues I believe in.

Oh Chae Young is director of The Gill, and a Film and Media Studies student at the University at Buffalo, New York.

Interview by Francine Chen in Seoul on the sidelines of the World Journalists Conference 2018, hosted and funded by the Journalists Association of Korea.

– Asia Media Centre