Repatriation (2003) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Waiting for repatriation

South Korean documentary film “Repatriation” simply follows the lives of a bunch of unconverted North Korean people who could not go back to their country even after being imprisoned in South Korea for many years. As observing their long struggle for repatriation during several years, the documentary gradually lets us have some empathy and understanding on these old but defiant people, and it is surely the powerful presentation of rather unknown human tales behind the ongoing political situation between South and North Korea.

It must be pointed out that these North Korean people were once an active part of a long military/espionage war which still does not completely end even at this point. Although the Korean War eventually reached to the cease-fire in 1953, South and North Korea constantly clashed with each other behind their back, and both sides attempted numerous covert military/espionage operations on each other during next 20 years, though none of these operations was successful at all except making them all the more hostile to each other.

According to existing records, more than 7,000 North Korean agents were sent to South Korea, and many of those captured North Korean agents were subsequently incarcerated in prisons for many years. During their incarceration periods, all of them were brutally pushed toward political conversion in one way or another, and most of them were eventually coerced to go through political conversion on record, while rest of them defiantly stuck to their political belief to the end.

After managing to survive for more than two or three decades, some of those defiant North Korean political prisoners were eventually released mainly due to their old age, but they were still not allowed to be sent back to North Korea, which did not recognize their existence officially. While being stuck in South Korea, they had no choice but to continue to live in a society alien to them in many aspects, and, not so surprisingly, their living condition was not so good at all because they were not technically South Korean citizens.

The documentary mainly revolves around two of these unconverted North Koreans: Jo Chang-soon and Kim Suk-hyung. In 1991, Director/writer/co-producer Kim Dong-wan happened to come across these two very old North Koreans when they came to reside in Kim’s shabby neighborhood in Seoul thanks to some little help from a local civilian support group, and that was the beginning of his accidental friendship with these two old North Koreans. Like many of South Koreans accustomed to anti-communist propaganda stuffs, Kim surely felt some distance between him and these two old North Koreans, but he came to like and care about them more than expected as recording some slices of their ongoing lives, and that was the starting point of his personal project which came to took more than 10 years before its eventual completion in 2003.

Through his two unlikely North Korean friends, Kim was allowed to approach to many other similar North Korean folks in South Korea. In case of Kim Yeong-sik, this old North Korean guy was just a crew member of one North Korean boat which was supposed to contact with some North Korean agent hiding in South Korea, but he happened to be captured along with his crew members due to that agent’s betrayal, and he subsequently became ‘converted’ after being tortured and harassed for next several years. Still feeling ashamed of what he was forced to do, he cannot help but become emotional when he is visited by one of his living colleagues, and that is one of the most poignant moments in the documentary.

Regardless of being converted or unconverted, many of these North Korean folks really hoped to go back to their country, and there fortunately came a big chance for them when the political conflict between South and North Korea became less tense than before in 1998. Right after getting elected as the new President of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung embarked on his “sunshine policy” on North Korea for bringing peace to the Korean peninsula, and everyone in South Korean became quite hopeful about the possibility of unification in the near future as watching that historical moment between their president and Kim Jung-il, who was the leader of North Korea at that time.

In the end, the South Korean government allowed the repatriation of a small group of unconverted North Koreans in 2000, but things did not go as well as they hoped. Their repatriation was objected by not only those right-wing organizations but also the association of the family members of those numerous South Korean people taken to North Korea, and the documentary sharply recognizes how complicated the circumstance surrounding the eventual repatriation process. While it is certainly nice to see those North Koreans finally getting their wish, they were eventually used as a propaganda tool for the North Korean government, and I personally wonder whether they were really happier to be there, considering how grim the life in North Korea can be.

Anyway, “Repatriation”, which deservedly received the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, is still a valuable documentary for many reasons, and it is also a bitter reminder of how things looked a bit more optimistic during that period. Unfortunately, the situation between South and North Korea has worsened during next two decades, and the hope for repatriation was accordingly disappeared while many of old North Korean folks in the documentary passed away one by one in the meantime. While you may disagree with them a lot on many political subjects, you will come to have more compassion on them after watching this exceptional documentary – and you may also reflect more on their undeniable tragedy in the last chapter of the Cold War.

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