In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, a group of activists hope to embarrass China into changing its policy toward North Korean refugees – accepting them as defectors from a harsh regime rather than returning them to North Korea as "economic migrants."
"It's a good time to show China cannot be given a free pass for forced repatriation to North Korea," says Park Ji Hye, the international coordinator for a group called Justice for North Korea.
One way the group hopes to convey its message is through repeated screenings of a new South Korean film, "Crossing," which is the first cinematic attempt to address the tragedy of North Korea's refugees. The film recounts the story of a father who makes it to South Korea, leaving his ill wife to die in her village while his son meets an untimely end fleeing through Mongolia's Gobi Desert in the hopes of finding him.
To promote the film and Justice for North Korea's campaign, Ms. Park and leaders of foreign groups involved in North Korea have embarked on a 1,500-mile bicycle tour through Europe that culminates in London on July 13. "We want to appeal to citizens in Europe, to raise the awareness of Europeans about the plight of North Korean refugees," says Park. In addition to screening "Crossing," participants in the tour recount the sufferings of a half-million North Koreans sent to prison for crimes against the regime and another 300,000 living desperate lives hiding in northeastern China.
After opening last week in 350 theaters across South Korea, "Crossing" is now showing on 289 screens. As of Tuesday, 654,000 people had seen it – a modest number by local box office standards. In fact, the film's producers are not certain if they will recover the investment of $4 million – a hefty sum by local standards.
"Crossing" aims to remind South Korean viewers of an issue that they tend to overlook in a society concerned with its own economic problems.
For some South Koreans, the film provides fresh insight into the issue of human rights in a society that is both Korean and yet foreign to them. "I had almost forgotten what's going on in North Korea," says Park Young Mee, a young woman who saw the film with her husband. "[The film] reminds us of how we will have to deal with this issue."
"Crossing" juxtaposes images of the abject hardship of village life and prison camps in the North as well as the struggle to work and hide in China while on the way to freedom in South Korea. There are scenes showing children looking for crumbs in the dirt, a sickly woman who is forced to kill her family's pet dog for food, and prisoners being beaten. Shots of imprisoned children piling up stones for dams are interspersed with those of payoffs needed to buy escape.
The harrowing story reminds a journalist of interviews with North Korean defectors, whose stories differ in details but revolve around a common theme of lost relatives, beatings, disease, hunger, and furtive flight.
Some critics complain, however, that "Crossing" does not actually depict the horror of village and prison life in North Korea in its full magnitude.
"They wanted to make a sad story and they found this one," says Kim Sang Hun, a retired United Nations employee who has worked for years with North Korean refugees. "The movie shows a family destroyed for hiding a Bible, but they are destroyed for much less."
Mr. Kim adds that "conditions for prisoners and defectors are much more serious." Still, he praises the film for calling attention often-ignored issues.
Fueled by the story line of "Crossing," campaigners persevere with their tour. "In every city, we are demonstrating at either the Chinese consulate or embassy," say Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who fights for human rights in North Korea after having worked for a nongovernmental organization there. "I'm especially pleased as a German to return to Germany and remind people of concentration camps like those in the Nazi era."