Seoul Train, 2005

A smuggled video footage of a communal market in North Korea provides a profoundly sobering context to the grave, protracted, man-made humanitarian crisis caused by the government’s systematic diversion of international food aid to party loyalists at the expense of ordinary citizens (often from the rural provinces) as children scour the mud for occasional morsels of food (mostly grain biproducts). Despite the Chinese government’s knowledge that North Korean defectors will face torture and certain death if captured, the government has instituted a policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans found within their sovereignty, irrespective of formal appeals for asylum. For these desperate people, the only hope for survival lies in making a dangerous cross-country journey into China undetected with the goal of reaching a third country (often Mongolia) by any means necessary, aided along the way by a loose alliance of well-intentioned ordinary citizens operating in a multinational, underground railroad system between the northern border of North Korea and China. Composed of several breathtaking (and heart-rending) actual footage along their flight to freedom and interviews from several covert operatives – including an outspoken humanitarian named Chun Ki-won (dubbed by human rights activists as the “Schindler of Asia”) – as they plot their escape, rehearse their strategy for formally seeking asylum, initiate contact with their host families (often South Korean relatives), and finally attempt, often in vain, their one chance at freedom (as in the case of the MoFA Seven who delivered a formal, written plea to the Chinese government for asylum and were immediately arrested and deported), Jim Butterworth, Aaron Lubarsky, and Lisa Sleeth’s Seoul Train is an intensely visceral, illuminating, and deeply moving document of inspired activism against a seemingly unconquerable tide of moral apathy, bureaucratic inertia, and inhuman politics.

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