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The Defector: Escape from North Korea — a new documentary to screen at IDFA Amsterdam

Last year the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam featured the moving South Korean documentary Planet of Snail. This year the interest is north of the border, with a new documentary on North Korean defectors by award-winning film-maker Ann Shin.

The Defector: Escape from North Korea

Ann Shin, Canada, 2012, color, HDcam, 71′


THE DEFECTOR: Escape from North Korea follows the perilous journey of two North Korean defectors and the broker who guides them to freedom. Their journey reflects the reality of tens of thousands of North Koreans currently hiding in China. Filmed undercover by Korean-Canadian filmmaker Ann Shin, THE DEFECTOR features never-seen-before footage and intimate access to individuals risking their lives to flee. This compelling, high-stakes story poses broader questions around human smuggling and the pursuit of freedom.

The feature-length documentary film was selected for the festival’s “Reflecting Images – Panorama” stream of films, which means it will be eligible for the IDFA Audience Award. IDFA selects films that are diverse, topical, politically committed and notable for both cinematic innovation and relevance to society.


Every year, large numbers of people flee North Korea by attempting to cross its border with China. But not everyone makes it across, and those who do are still not safe: China does not recognize North Korean refugees, so those who are caught are deported back to their home country. They have to move on, and this is where Dragon comes in. Once a refugee himself, Dragon now mediates between refugees and human traffickers who lead them through the Chinese provinces and Laos to Thailand. This journey is also fraught with the constant danger of being caught. Dragon’s position is ambivalent; he sees himself as a human rights activist, not as “some shady broker” who charges a fee. This tense, revealing documentary uses a hidden camera to follow two North Korean refugees and Dragon. Along the way, the director builds a relationship with the refugees. We often see her on-screen, sometimes looking quite concerned. The parts of the story that take place in North Korea are shown by means of animation and footage that was smuggled out of the country. The situation of these North Koreans and the circumstances of their flight as revealed in this film raise questions about their human rights in China.

North Korean defectors in a karaoke bar
North Korean defectors in a karaoke bar

Screenings are as follows:

Brakke Grond Rode Zaal | Sun 18 Nov | 17:00
Tuschinski 1 | Mon 19 Nov | 12:45
Munt 11 | Wed 21 Nov | 15:00
Tuschinski 4 | Sat 24 Nov | 16:45

More details and booking information on The Defector page at IDFA.


3 thoughts on “The Defector: Escape from North Korea — a new documentary to screen at IDFA Amsterdam

  1. I have seen the film and I think that The Defector takes a really interesting look at the position that human smugglers put themselves in situations like this. Ann Shin, the director, said that after filming with North Korean defectors who rely on human smugglers, she thinks human smugglers are not so bad after all. Furthermore, that they’re needed (by North Koreans who would otherwise be deported and sent back to North Korean prisons. I guess in extreme situations like this, they’re a necessary evil of sorts… and in fact, many human smugglers aren’t evil! Certainly in this film you get to see a very well rounded portrait of what motivates the people smugglers to do what they do. For some it is a job, others really believe that they are helping people to find a new life and hopefully freedom.

  2. So looking forward to this film! An interesting look at the “necessary evil” of human smugglers. It makes me wonder, are we waiting until governments turn blind eyes before we accept human smugglers as just, or is there a real place for them within society? Should aid organizations start employing smugglers on behalf of the defectors?

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