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'Beyond Utopia': The Story of Pastor Kim and the Rescue of 1000 North Koreans



Pastor Kim Seungeun during an interview with JAPAN Forward. (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

On January 24, hundreds flocked to Yoido Gospel Church in Seoul to meet "Pastor Kim," the man behind the award-winning documentary Beyond Utopia

The documentary chronicles a group of North Korean defectors' anguishing and gut-wrenching escape from the increasingly tyrannical regime. Recorded by mobile phones, the film captures firsthand the harsh realities of those crossing borders for a glimpse of free society.

Pastor Kim is pictured in front of the Beyond Utopia poster banner. The documentary was awarded the Audience Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

South Korean Pastor Kim Seungeun is the founder and president of Caleb Mission. He has operated a modern-day "underground railroad" for the last two decades, spearheading rescue missions. Since 2000, Kim has successfully transported over 1000 North Korean defectors and refugees to the South. 

An Interview with 'Pastor Kim'

In an exclusive interview, Pastor Kim, often dubbed the Oskar Schindler of North Korea, candidly reflected on his tumultuous undertakings.  

You have recused over 1000 North Koreans in the past two decades. I'm sure this required significant commitment and courage. What motivated you to initiate the rescue mission? 

It all started with my encounter with this one particular North Korean individual. When I was in China on a missionary trip back in 2000, I was standing on the Chinese side of the Tumen River overlooking North Korea. (The Tumen River forms part of the boundary between China and North Korea.) 

The scenery was horrific. Nothing remotely close to what I had heard of the country from my father. Mountains had no trees or grasses, and the Tumen River was black as coal. As I was weeping in sorrow, a young girl approached me from behind, grabbed my hand, and said: "Aren't we all part of the same ethnicity? Please help us survive." 

Aerial view of the Tumen River seen from Namyang, a town in North Korea. (©Public Domain)

Her words shook my core. I knew immediately that this was God's calling to save these citizens suffering at the hands of an increasingly repressive regime.    

I heard your current wife was also a source of motivation. 

Yes, she was one of the defectors I rescued from China. Her name is Park Ester, and she was a former army commander in North Korea. She crossed the border into China after a major famine hit her country in the 1990s. I met her during my mission in the summer of 2000.

To safely rescue the woman I fell in love with, I had to devise a meticulous plan. Given our limited resources, I had to find the best but most affordable route. After my initial success, words got around that "Pastor Kim" was the man to seek. Things sort of took off from there.  


Many of your works are understandably kept confidential. But can give us a glimpse of what your journey looks like? 

As you said, our works are inherently sensitive and clandestine, so not all can be revealed. But travel routes vary. Some days, we would travel past Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos. On other days, Mongolia, Thailand, or a combination of them. 

Beyond Utopia certainly presents one of those detours. It involves passing through coarse terrains and enduring unendurable weather, all the while remaining under the radar. Getting in contact with the right local brokers is also crucial.  

Some critics have argued that publicizing escape routes only encourages tighter surveillance and increases risks. What's your take on this? 

Believe it or not, an increasing number of people complain about this after viewing the documentary. I think such criticisms come from the fundamental lack of understanding of what we do.

Scene from Beyond Utopia Roh family treks through the jungle relying only on flashlight. (©Roadside Attraction)

For instance, the jungles in Vietnam and Laos extend some 4,800km near the Chinese border. The distance from Seoul (the capital of South Korea) to Busan (the southernmost city on the Korean mainland) is about 430km. Finding someone who disappears into the night in Seoul is incredibly difficult, even with all the security cameras. Now imagine the same happening in a dense, untamed jungle in pitch dark. 

Do you think that North Korean and Chinese authorities will suddenly intensify surveillance just because we filmed several defectors escaping via mobile phones? It's just nonsensical. Watchdogs won't even be able to identify the locations shown in the footage. 

Pastor Han Chung-yeol, a close colleague of yours, was stabbed to death in 2016 while on a mission in Changbai, China. Do you ever fear something may go wrong during a mission? 

Every time I leave on a new rescue plan, I tell myself this could be my last. There is no guarantee I would make it alive or that I won't be detained by the authorities. In fact, my mother and I have been imprisoned in a Chinese facility before while on a mission. 

Between the numerous rescues, I've broken my neck and had back surgery three times. I also had to remove my gallbladder due to an injury. But these are all "honorable" scars on my part.  

The most painful experience, above all else, was the passing away of my seven-year-old son. My sickly son died of respiratory obstruction while I was on one of the escape missions. I felt like burning in hell. To think that my own child died as I was saving others' killed me inside. But my wife helped me overcome the pain and convinced me to save more children in my son's name. 

Several churches and NGOs support your cause. Do you have any support from the South Korean government? 

There's a fundamental error in that question. Our government, whether they may or may not want to, is not positioned to assist us in any way. Why? Once the state gets involved, it becomes complicit in "kidnapping" North Korean citizens in the eyes of the North Korean regime. Whether our salvation mission is successful or not, the Kim [Jong Un] regime will blame the South Korean government for all wrongdoing if they aided us in any way. 


North Korea has been ramping up its military aggression lately. President Yoon Suk-yeol has taken an adamant stance of responding to might with might. How do you assess President Yoon's policies, and will the deteriorating relations between the two Koreas affect your work?   

You have to understand that we are dealing with a rogue regime. I'll put it this way. Imagine you're dealing with a mobster. A mobster demands you pay periodic fees to live in harmony without any major disturbance. So long as the payments are made on time, there is no harm. North Korea fundamentally operates under the same blueprint. 

Then-North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il shaking hands with then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun during 2007 inter-Korean Summit. (©Roh Moo-hyun Archive)

The Korean Peninsula was in relative peace when the Sunshine Policy was prescribed under former presidents Kim Dae-king and Roh Moo-hyun. Why wouldn't it be? We were offering them constant financial and humanitarian aid

But whether we give money or not, or we live in tranquility or not, a mobster is a mobster. How long are we going to subsidize a mobster who uses our assistance to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities at the expense of its despairing citizens?    

What sort of changes do you wish the documentary would bring?

I hope that Beyond Utopia will persuade Chinese authorities to accept North Korean defectors as asylum seekers. Those who don't make the trip to South Korea are often detained in China and repatriated to North Korea. Many are trafficked, forced to work in labor camps, or detained in jarring conditions. We must put an end to this horrific human rights violation. 


Interview by: Kenji Yoshida

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