In July 2003, we attended a presentation on North Korea. It was there that we learned of the story of Seok Jae-hyun, a photographer for The New York Times who in January 2003 had gone to China to document the plight of North Korean refugees. Unfortunately, Chinese authorities caught wind of the plan, arresting all involved, imprisoning Seok and forcibly repatriating the refugees.
When we learned about this incident and the attendant human rights crisis in North Korea, we were shocked that we had never heard about it, much less read about it in the NY Times. With millions of people dead, hundreds dying daily and a dearth of press coverage or international attention, we knew that the issue needed advocacy. That’s when we decided to use the power of the media to help make a difference.
As first-time filmmakers (Lisa’s an ICU nurse at the local hospital and Jim’s a businessman), our first task was to learn how to make a film…and we’d never even touched a camcorder before! We practiced our camera skills by interviewing one another and the local kids in our small mountain town in Colorado. Then, in October 2003, we took leaves from our jobs, packed up and headed for Seoul. We spent a total of two months in the Koreas and China living with and among the activists in the Underground Railroad.
Standing on the bank of the Tumen River, which forms the border between China and North Korea, we could feel the cold, visceral effect of North Korea. It’s this narrow slice of water, which freezes over in the winter months, that separates the misery the refugees endure at home and their potential for freedom. Guarding the border, however, are the omnipresent soldiers with their sniper rifles and AK-47s. North Korea — nicknamed The Hermit Kingdom because no one can leave nor get in — was only accessible to the daring, brave North Koreans who had successfully escaped once, and were willing to go back to document the horrors inside. Had they been caught, they would have been summarily executed.
Many people ask us if we ever felt afraid for our safety. Our main concern was actually more for the safety of the activists and refugees with whom we came in contact. Thus, we often posed as tourists, and used covert techniques — such as spy cams and a camcorder broken down to its bare parts — to film in places where it would bring unwanted attention or wouldn’t be allowed. Also, since they could go places we couldn’t, the activists entrusted us with their own footage from the Underground Railroad. It’s this footage that ultimately makes SEOUL TRAIN so heart wrenching.
When we returned home in December 2003, we knew that SEOUL TRAIN was no longer our little “home movie.” We also returned home with a moral obligation to make this footage public…it had been entrusted to us, and it was up to us to make something of it. A friend of ours then put us in touch with the final piece of the puzzle: Aaron Lubarsky. Aaron had just won the 2003 Primetime Emmy for Best Documentary Editing, and was a hot commodity in the film industry. Despite this, Aaron turned down much more lucrative offers and jumped at the chance to be a part of this effort. Together, the three of us formed the perfect balance and creative tension that comes through in the film.
It’s important to note that every effort was made to protect the identities and activities of the activists and refugees, as their continued success and safety depends upon it. Unfortunately, the fate is sealed for many of the refugees featured in the film. Now, the best that can be done for them is to show the world this crisis to prevent the same from happening to others.
SEOUL TRAIN is dedicated to the selfless activists that put themselves in harm’s way, using their own resources, and risking torture and imprisonment in North Korea and remote parts of China. SEOUL TRAIN is also dedicated to the memory of those refugees that have been sent back to North Korea to a horrific fate.
Lisa Sleeth & Jim Butterworth