‘Beyond Utopia’, Beyond Wishes

By Professor Gordon Flake

On 27 March 2024, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted a public ‘in-conversation’ on North Korea. I was honoured to join Professor Rüdiger Frank of the University of Vienna, founder of the European Centre for North Korean Studies, and Jasmin Diab CSC, President of Women in Nuclear Australia and a 22-year veteran of the Australian Army, for what proved to be a wide ranging and robust discussion.

Not surprisingly, we covered North Korea’s nuclear program, its long-range missile program, recent allegations of its provision of military equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine, the challenge that North Korean actions pose to the “Rules-based-order,” the prospects for Korean Unification and implications for Australia, Japan, the United States, and the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Given the prevalence of these issues in international reporting, it is also not surprising that our audience was aware of and concerned by the threats posed by North Korea to Australia’s national interest.

There were, however, many issues which we were not able to discuss in the time allotted, notably the state of the North Korean people – those most directly impacted by the policies and politics we discussed. For over 75 years, since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the North Korean people have lived under the rule of the Kim family: founder Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-Il, and now his grandson Kim Jong-Un.

In March 2024, the film 20 Days in Mariupol was awarded the Oscar for best documentary. Speaking at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Director and Journalist Mstvslav Chernov responded to winning the first-ever Oscar for a Ukrainian film by saying, “I am honoured but I will probably be the first director on this stage to say that I wish I had never made this film. I wish to be able to exchange this for Russia never attacking Ukraine, never invading our cities. I wish to be able to exchange this for Russia not killing tens of thousands of my fellow Ukrainians.”

One of the other nominees for best documentary this year also caught my attention and inspired similar sentiments. Beyond Utopia, directed by Madeleine Gavin, had all the elements of a thriller as it traced the experience of several families attempting to escape oppression in North Korea and the heroism of those who provide assistance.

As I approach my 40th year of working in and on Korea, I find myself reflecting on Mstvslav’s wishes and making a few of my own.

I wish that the reality and the proximity of the North Korean threat, which lead to monthly civil defence drills when I lived in South Korea in the mid-1980s, was no longer relevant in the mid-2020s.

I wish that the horrific human rights abuses that mandated the “5th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees” in Warsaw Poland in 2004 were no longer an issue. Beyond Utopia makes it clear that these issues remain as urgent now as they were 20 years ago. My participation in that conference inspired me to spend nearly two decades on the Board of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, seeking to shed light on one of the darkest corners of the planet.

I wish that perhaps the best book ever written on the subject, 2009’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by award winning journalist Barbara Demick, was no longer timely. Barbara’s book has haunted me for years as I could not shake the feeling that during one of my several trips to North Korea in the mid-1990s I might have blithely passed on the street some of the individuals whose experiences she so carefully documents, unaware of all they were suffering. Barbara features prominently in Beyond Utopia.

I wish that the United Nations Human Rights Council 2013 Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and so ably Chaired by former Australian High Court Judge the Hon Michael Kirby AC, had not been necessary, and was not just as, if not more, relevant over a decade later.

At the same time, like many people I find inspiration in the resolve and heroism displayed by the people of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. I salute Mstvslav Chernov for the bravery required to record the fate of a besieged city and to document the atrocities of that war.

Beyond Utopia is likewise a tribute to those individuals who seek to aid those fleeing North Korea. I was fortunate to meet North Korean defector and activist Lee Hyeon-seo, who is one of the executive producers of Beyond Utopia, shortly after she arrived in South Korea. I have been awed by her energy and passion for aiding her former compatriots.

In a similar manner, I pay tribute to the filmmakers behind Beyond Utopia including the ever-impressive Dr. Sue Mi Terry for reminding us real threats remain that cannot be wished away, and at the same time there are good people who seek to make a difference.

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