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TORONTO — The flashing digital screens inside the Toronto International Film Festival’s Lightbox building are usually complemented by extravagant red-carpet events and miles of traffic down King Street, where fans line the sidewalks for hours just to catch a glimpse of their favorite Hollywood stars.
But last weekend it was the site of the second annual North Korean Human Rights Film Festival, a screening of nine films on the reclusive and repressive country of North Korea. And the focus was not the glitterati but on three North Korean defectors: Jake Park, Seongmin Lee and Young Il Kim.
“This festival is about the North Korean people, and this year, we’re handing it over to them,” said Gilad Cohen, executive director of Jayu, the human-rights group that sponsors the weekend. “All of the guest speakers this year have either lived in or been to North Korea, and we are opening up our festival so our audience can be exposed to the real North Korea.”
The festival’s first slot went to “Comrade Kim Goes Flying,” a 2012 film that had three directors, including Kim Gwang Hun from North Korea, Nicholas Bonner from Britain and Anja Daelemans from Belgium. It closed with “Camp 14: Total Control Zone” a firsthand account from Shin Dong Hyuk, the only known person to have been born in and escaped from a political prison camp.
For some of the refugees, the films could provoke a mix of emotions. Park, 22, is believed to be the first North Korean defector to see "Comrade Kim Goes Flying,'' which mixes traditional North Korean songs with animated sequences and scenes with North Korean actors. It presents a soaring and idyllic vision of the hermit country and implies that anyone can “fly,” even a young female coal miner who wants to become an acrobat and a trapeze artist.
Despite some disapproval of the dreamlike portrayal of North Korea, Park said, “for the first time, I was proud of something that came from my country.”
Park’s life story would make a very different kind of movie. His mother abandoned him and his sister to find a better life in China. He was forced to quit school, he said, to care for his sibling.
In 2006, about 18 months after their mother left, she contacted them and ordered them to meet her at the border, where she bribed guards to let them through.
“When you’re starving, you can’t dream of a future for yourself,” he said. “It is a very sad thing to experience.”
Park and his family eventually safely arrived in South Korea, and he now lives in Toronto. He dreams of becoming an engineer. He doesn’t always know how to answer questions about his enigmatic homeland, he said, but he believes his stories and the stories of others can help provide understanding.
“My story isn’t special,” he said, “but if it can make one person understand North Korea better, then it matters.”
The dangerous journey
Leaving North Korea can be an extremely dangerous undertaking. After the death of Kim Jong Il, the new leadership issued a shoot-on-sight order for people illegally crossing the border to China.
Like Park, Young Il Kim, 36, a former North Korean soldier, says starvation eventually led him to flee the dire situation in his home country. Kim, who lived in Pyongyang, left in September of 1996 after the food-distribution system collapsed, only two years into his 10-year mandatory service in the army. The famine that hit the country in the mid-1990s claimed the lives of nearly 3 million people, according to a report from the Institute for International Economics.
Kim, who is more than 6 feet tall, talks about that terrible period in the seemingly incongruous setting of the Lightbox’s Oliver & Bonacini restaurant. Looking through a large menu, he seems confused. He understands the irony: “I don’t know what to eat!”
After ordering a simple salad, he said, “I saw many people die from starvation.”
He lived on strict food rations. “In the army, we could only eat 150 grams of rice a day (about the equivalent of two-thirds of a cup)," Kim said.
Regulations stipulated that citizens could eat up to 800 grams of food each day. “We never had a chance to eat that amount,” he said. “Only when we performed propaganda drills did we get enough food to look strong and healthy.”
Motivated by his experiences, Kim devotes his time to the nonprofit organization he founded, People for Successful Corean Reunification, which provides resettlement and education support for North Korean defectors. (“Corea” was the spelling in English before the 20th century.)
‘We are real people’
PSCORE’s education program and other assistance programs for defectors help students like Seongmin Lee, 26. He lived in a town near the North Korean–Chinese border and endured multiple beatings by military officials after his curiosity about what was on the other side led him to cross the border on several occasions.
After trial and error, he was able to move almost freely between North Korea and China and even began smuggling goods across the border. Eventually, he decided to leave North Korea with his family and reunite with his sister, who had already defected. After a precarious journey in Southeast Asia and imprisonment in Laos, he arrived in South Korea.
Lee currently lives in Ottawa, where he is interning with the Canadian Parliament. He said he wants to go back to North Korea one day and educate North Koreans. The film festival allows him to have a voice, he said, and humanizes escapees like him and those they left behind. “It is really great what they are doing, giving others a chance to see that we are real people,” he said.
There is another way that refugees are being heard. The United Nations formed the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea in March, with a one-year mandate to investigate widespread violations of human rights involving extensive reports and testimonies from North Korean defectors.
Since August, the COI has been gathering information from North Koreans in Seoul, Tokyo and London. COI meetings continue today in Washington, D.C., with a public hearing and then a private meeting, where the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a Washington-based nonprofit, will submit a 100-page report to the COI.
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK, told Al Jazeera America that the goal of the hearings is to find unconditional reports of crimes against humanity through North Koreans’ testimony.
“We are very likely dealing with the worst human-rights violator in the world,” he said.
He adds that nuclear development issues overshadow the gravity of the human-rights violations in North Korea but that now “it’s time to consider a different approach, and we should all care because we are human.”