When a North Korean crosses a border, how do they find freedom?
Freedom does not exist in North Korea. The past six decades have seen the ruling Kim family use its monopoly on power and violence to eradicate choice. Feelings of love and hate, joy and despair, right and wrong have all been appropriated. Individuality has been sacrificed for the collective. Human instinct has been suppressed. Moral standards negated. To exist in North Korea, is to serve the North Korean state.
Shut off from the outside world, 25 million North Koreans inhabit an ecosphere of captivity and censorship. The poor are starved and brutalised and do what they must to survive. But all must bestow their bodies and minds to the service of the Kim family. From the jobs and houses they are assigned to the songs they must sing, existence is dictated by a man constructed into a deity, Kim Jong-un.
For these slaves to the system, what price would they pay for freedom?
Every year, some 1500 North Koreans come to know the cost that freedom demands. Fleeing across the North Korean border into China and journeying 6000 miles to South East Asia and on to South Korea — all the while evading capture by North Korean agents, Chinese police, and human traffickers — exiled North Koreans pay for freedom with their bodies and minds, their families, their histories and futures, and often their lives.
Arriving in Seoul, South Korea’s megalopolis of neon lights and skyscrapers, North Korean exiles enter a world on the edge of comprehension. Fuelled by technology, modernity, and global cultures, the realization that freedom is not necessarily free, nor easy to navigate, dawns quickly upon exiles. Freedom, and the many choices it entails, offers more questions than answers.
In this brave new world, can freedom bring happiness? Is self-determination easily grasped once the Rubicon is crossed? Is life made simpler by cultural assimilation or can liberty be found by following one’s own path?
Borderlands is an ongoing project that tells the stories of North Korean exiles as they recover their humanity in a world of newfound opportunity. Following exiles as they explore personal freedoms in Seoul and reckon with their pasts, Borderlands documents how new borders are crossed each day and shows that true freedom is often hard won.