Review: Beyond Utopia


Fording rivers, climbing mountains, circling in a jungle, and hiking in the dark to evade capture, this long circuitous odyssey from North Korea through China to South Korea is what lucky North Koreans can expect to endure. For the unlucky it is betrayal by the broker, capture, return, life-threatening punishment, and extended incarceration.

Madeleine Gavin, director and editor, skillfully braids three painful stories of attempted defection into a thrilling adventure documentary that motivated me to donate to the cause. One critical story is about Pastor Seungeun Kim and how he ended up helping North Koreans defect to South Korea. If they are successful, Kim’s organization and the South Korean government provide them with housing, entry education, and support.

I love documentaries. I feel that the good ones give me a rich postgraduate education. “Beyond Utopia” is one such masterpiece. The history of Korea, especially since 1911 and the Japanese Occupation, helps to explain the strange state of Korea’s division since the end of WWII.

But even wilder is the Biblical story attributed to NK leaders and the fake news it propagates to keep its citizens in fear. One story is that America is the incarnation of the devil; so making it illegal for citizens to leave is the action of a “protective father.”

The title of the film refers to the indoctrination that North Koreans receive from their government, despite the deprivations they suffer. They are taught that they live in a utopia. So once they escape, the shock of the truth requires several months of education by South Korea and Pastor Kim’s organization.

If one person in a family tries to escape NK, the rest of the family members are banished to a hinterland without belongings and left to die. Since most of North Korea’s border is with China, an agreement has been made with Chinese border guards to return any defectors to NK for proper punishment. However, the guards can get bonus pay or extra vacation time if they shoot and kill.

Incredibly, Madeleine Gavin, the director and editor, has footage of violent interrogations of captured defectors. A quietly submissive woman is smashed so heavily that blood gushes down the wall. A man is kicked with full force repeatedly everywhere as he lies gyrating on the floor.

The first thing Pastor Kim does is warn people about the dangers of the journey. Every week North Korean defectors are captured and then never heard from again. Gavin keeps us on the edge of our seats as one dear family of five, including two small children who often need to be carried, attempt an approximate 3,200-mile trip on foot with sporadic secret transportation. Sometimes they sleep under a plastic tarp and at other times Kim provides them a safe house. They are given a cell phone to record their journey for this film.

The third part of the braid of this harrowing documentary belongs to Soybean Lee (pseudonym used for protection) who tries to get her son out of North Korea with the help of Pastor Kim and expensive brokers. Lee’s own story of how she got to South Korea is grueling and cruel, so she gravely fears for her son whom she hasn’t seen in ten years.

Short-listed for an Oscar (though not in the final five) and nominated by the Online Film Critics Society and over 15 other organizations for Best Documentary, “Beyond Utopia” is a gripping, well-edited film. Hopefully, the attention from the awards will encourage many people to see it and perhaps, like me, be motivated to donate to Pastor Kim’s cause.

Rating: 10/10


Director: Madeleine Gavin
Executive Producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Sharon Chang, Michael Y. Chow, Sue Turley, Randy Gebhardt & Chris Gebhardt, Thor Halvorssen and Hyeonseo Lee
Producers: Jana Edelbaum, Rachel Cohen and Sue Mi Terry
Featuring: Pastor Seungeun Kim, Hyeonseo Lee, Lee So-yeon, Jong-Il Kim, Jong-Un Kim and Il-Sung Kim
Cinematography: Kim Hyun-seok
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
Music: Adam Taylor and Taylor Page
Production Companies: Ideal Partners, 19340 Productions, XRM Media, Random Good Foundation, Two Chairs Films and Human Rights Foundation
Release: Nov. 28, 2023

How to view: Amazon Prime, Netflix, Apple TV, and YouTube and

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