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New South Korean Films Spotlight North Korean Escapees' Plight

Two emerging South Korean film projects are focusing a media spotlight on the problems faced by North Korean escapees in China. The films hint at a new atmosphere in South Korea, which has officially downplayed the humanitarian crisis for years, amid efforts at reconciliation with Pyongyang. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.

The two films - one a fictional drama, the other a documentary - seek to raise the profile of the danger and suffering faced by North Korean refugees living illegally in China.

At least 100,000 North Koreans are believed to have fled over the border between their two countries, seeking to escape malnutrition, poverty and political oppression at home.

As a team of journalists from South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper seek to demonstrate, in their four-hour documentary series, On the Border, that many North Koreans rely on human traffickers to make the journey.

In one clip, a night vision camera captures two North Koreans who are dripping wet from crossing the Tumen River into China. One is a young woman, the other, a North Korean "broker" who aims to sell her - usually, say the filmmakers, for between $700 and $1000.

Human rights groups say tens of thousands of women have been trafficked in such a manner, many of them ending up in abusive situations or working in the sex trade. Because China views North Korean escapees as economic migrants rather than refugees, they are returned home involuntarily, if discovered, to face severe punishment or execution at home. The refugees therefore have little choice but to obey the client to whom they are trafficked.

Park Jong-in, the senior producer of the documentary, says the issue deserves more attention in South Korea.

He says there has been plenty of coverage of North Korean defectors who manage to reach the South, but that South Korea is in denial about the situation in China.

Park points out that North Korean defector issues have had a low profile for the past 10 years, during which South Korea has pursued an official policy of engagement with North Korea. Seoul has gone to great lengths to avoid irritating or criticizing Pyongyang. Many artists and journalists who have tried to draw attention to North Korean human rights issues have found themselves facing obstacles to their efforts.

That environment may be changing, with the recent inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has vowed to make North Korean human rights a major item on his agenda.

In another sign of change, South Korean director Kim Tae-kyun and well known actor Cha In-pyo are teaming up in a major commercial film titled Crossing, set to be released in May.

The film is based on North Korean defector testimonies and a number of North Korean defectors were part of the production team. The story shows the struggle to survive by an 11-year-old boy who flees to China, where his father has gone to search for food.

In another clip, a North Korean soldier severely beats a young boy, attempting make the journey into China.

Despite increased attention, the issue of North Korean defectors remains very sensitive here in the South, where only about 10,000 North Koreans have managed to settle permanently. Both films - On the Border, and Crossing - were produced in secret.