Smuggler, Canadian filmmaker team up to help N. Korean defectors: A Yahoo! Exclusive

The Defector (Ann Shin/Fathom Film Group)

When Ann Shin set out to document the journeys of North Korean defectors, she didn't expect to change her mind about human smuggling.

When she set out, she figured smugglers prayed on vulnerable defectors from the secretive Hermit Kingdom. But one undercover journey through China later, she sees things differently.

"I was surprised and intrigued by where the film ended up going," she told Yahoo! Canada News of her 71-minute documentary, The Defector: Escape From North Korea, which is making its world broadcast premiere on TVOntario this week.

To tell this story, Shin left behind her Toronto family to team up with Dragon, a shady "broker" who helps North Korean defectors illegally cross China on their way to freedom.

Armed with four Cannon DSLR cameras and a voice recorder, concealed in a khaki-green pouch, Shin and her cameraman filmed Dragon's group of five defectors dashing from one safe house to the next.

[ Related: North Korean leader Kim used luxury yacht to tour coast: website ]

"Now I see that human smugglers, like Dragon, can actually in some ways be a necessary evil," she says. "[When] governments and NGOs are not able to help, human smugglers [helping defectors cross illegally for a fee] are providing a service that's necessary."

Defection from North Korea is no easy task. It’s incredibly dangerous and has no guarantee of success, but it’s one that hundreds of North Koreans try to accomplish every year, risking their lives to illegally cross their homeland's borders. In the process, they may get shot, captured, sold to wealthy Chinese buyers looking for wives or prostitutes, or face other painful deaths, such as drowning while crossing perilous icy rivers.

But the dangers don't stop at the border. In China — where most runaways head because North Korea’s border with China is significantly weaker than the impenetrable Korean Demilitarized Zone with South Korea — defectors are considered illegal migrants. If caught in China or in other countries that don’t recognize them as refugees, captured North Koreans will be delivered back to the waiting hands of Pyongyang, where they will likely be tortured and sent to labour camps along with their families.

Earlier this June, nine terrified-looking young defectors made the news after they were forcibly repatriated from Laos. North Korean state TV circulated a video of the group that could still "face harsh punishment including execution," Reuters has reported.

"We almost sunk into the depth of misery forever. But our dear leader Kim Jong-un saved us," repatriated boy in a crisp white shirt says on camera in Korean. "Kim is our true mother and father."

This, of course, makes one wonder what the state has done with the real mothers and fathers of captured defectors.

Because of such incidents, Shin now recognizes the smugglers' role as an essential one. The brokers are certainly not altruistic humanitarians (even Dragon smirks after describing himself as “a human-rights activist” on camera), but they run the new kinds of underground railroads to deliver defectors to freedom — for a fee.

The filmmaker’s seen her group of defectors speak with gratitude of Laotian smugglers who work the Golden Triangle. "They were actually really respectful and really trustworthy," Shin said. The smugglers guided the defectors through checkpoints, whisking them off on motorcycles and then supporting and cajoling tired, frightened women through the challenging terrain of the jungle.

Shin, who grew up in Vancouver after her parents emigrated from South Korea, became the first Canadian filmmaker to follow North Koreans undercover in China. She'd have been detained and questioned if caught, and her footage would be confiscated, but as a Canadian, she’d likely be released soon enough.

Still, there were significant risks for her and the refugees: her footage — which had not yet been blurred at that point — would be compromising the defectors' identities. Her local soundmen/translators would also not go unpunished.

"I went into the film shoot knowing there were risks, but I've learned a lot more about the risks while filming undercover," Shin says. "Because I have two children, I don't think I'd do that [once again]."

Because of these looming risks, a number of participants backed out of the production. Shin initially envisioned a film profiling a network of people working with the defectors. But then her aid worker and church worker contacts grew increasingly anxious. So did the first cameraman she’d approached.

[ Related: North Korea says surveillance leaks prove U.S. is 'kingpin' of rights abuse ]

But, luckily, Shin found Dragon.

Shin is still not entirely certain why Dragon decided to participate in her film: perhaps the broker craved recognition, perhaps the large handler fee swayed him, but he had a group of defectors lined up and waiting for Shin’s arrival.

That’s where The Defector begins, as Dragon’s group secretly meets for the first time in China, huddled in a private room of a karaoke bar, surrounded by oddly out-of-place bubble gum-pink walls plastered with red and blue bubbles.

According to estimates, between 100,000 to 200,000 North Korean defectors remain in hiding outside of North Korea, Shin says. With the world eying the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, the award-winning filmmaker wanted to give voice to invisible North Koreans.

"I hope that people will see that there are a lot of North Koreans that have escaped who are still not free, they are living in limbo, in hiding," says Shin, who produced, directed and wrote for the film.

[ Related: Rare photos of North Korean leader released ]

The filmmaker says there are ways to help the defectors. The Research Centre for North Korea estimates that some 3,000 North Koreans are currently living in Canada. But many of the ones that have made it here need help integrating into a democratic society — anything from the concept of neighbourliness to access to electricity at home would be new to them. Lobbying for international governments to change the laws around human smuggling is another step, Shin explains. It would help refugees reach countries where they can seek asylum. Right now, even paying for a defector's airfare from China to Canada could be viewed as human smuggling in some countries, Shin explains.

Shin's final product feels like a thriller at times, leaving you on the edge of the seat as you wait for the defectors to resurface in Thailand. The defectors tell Shin about leaving their homes, crossing an icy river without knowing how to swim and running for their lives. One woman remorsefully tells Shin that the man who bought her on the black market in China will now have to waste money on another wife since she's escaped.

That’s when it strikes you that Shin’s film is not at all like Hollywood’s political thrillers — the defectors’ experiences are real, dangerous and all kinds of horrible. It didn’t make it into the documentary, but somewhere in the middle of the jungle one defector broke down. She’d expected her mother and sister to follow in her footsteps out of North Korea, but somewhere after crossing the mountains, she knew that her elderly mother would never survive such a journey.

“I want to erase my name, I want to forget the memory of being born and growing up in North Korea,” she later told Shin.

“And it just floored me," Shin said.

The feature, peppered with lipstick camera footage smuggled out of North Korea, blurs some lines with the filmmaker becoming a participant in the escape. You can tell that Shin really wants to help her defectors and hundreds of others, still hiding in Asia.

"I felt really over-privileged when I came back from the first shoot," she said. "I came back on a plane, and came to my house with my car, my two kids, who take ballet lessons, you know."

That's when she remembered a conversation she had with a defector in a safe house hidden in rural China. She complemented the man on his bravery and he stared at her with a puzzled expression. "No, it's not bravery." he told her of his escape. "I'm just hoping to have a normal life."

All three screenings of The Defector were sold out at Hot Docs film festival earlier this spring. The feature will be broadcast tonight at 9 p.m. ET on TVO and on June 27, 28 and 30.