Film sheds light on North Korean escapees

Film sheds light on North Korean escapees
South Korean actor Jo Han-cheol (L) and actress Lee Jin-hee (R) attending a "48m" film premiere in Seoul.

SOUTH KOREA - He counted the bullets, one by one, as he pushed them into the cartridge, making sure they totaled 30.

"I was going to leave one bullet for myself in case I got caught," said Ahn Chan-il, a former North Korean soldier who fled the communist state in 1979 and the co-producer of a new film on defectors.

Before crossing the border, he left a personal letter in his barracks for Kim Il-sung, then North Korean leader, begging for his family's safety.

When Ahn reached the South however, every family member minus one sister was labelled a state traitor, and subsequently sent to North Korean gulags. They are all dead now, Ahn was told a few years later.

Today, he is a North Korean studies professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul and works as a North Korea human rights activist. Ahn's most recent project is the production of "48M" which recounts the ordeals of North Korean escapees.

The film, released at local theatres on July 4, is named after the shortest width of the Yalu River which runs along the border between North Korea and China. It puts together in its storyline over 100 first-hand accounts of North Korean refugees.

The 48-meter pass on the Yalu attracts starving North Koreans who dare to venture into the knee-deep, icy river, avoiding the eyes of North Korean border guards who lie camouflaged behind the riverbanks, waiting to machine-gun unauthorized crossers on sight.

"I was lucky in 1979. I was already a trained soldier specialising in infiltrating minefields and dodging border patrols. And I got to go directly over the border into Seoul, not over a river. These refugees are different. They are starving people who have to cross a freezing river barefoot while trained killers shoot at them in the open," the professor said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

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