South Korean documentary film “The 2nd Repatriation”, which is the sequel to director Kim Dong-won’s acclaimed 2003 documentary “Repatriation” (It won the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, by the way), covers last two decades of a bunch of converted North Koreans still stuck in South Korea even after many years of incarceration. As they desperately hoped for returning to their country, the situation unfortunately got worsen between North and South Korea despite a brief respite in the early 2000s, and it is really sad to observe that they may be never sent back to North Korea even after their impending death.
The documentary begins its story at the point not long after the ending of its predecessor. Since the cease-fire of the Korean War in 1953, there had been many North Koreans who were captured and then imprisoned due to their military/espionage operations in South Korea, but they were not allowed to go back to their country even after they were eventually released due to their old age. In 2000, when the political mood between South and North Korea became quite mild mainly thanks to President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy”, 63 North Koreans who had been politically “unconverted” were repatriated to North Korea in the end, but their fellow “converted” North Koreans were excluded from that, and the circumstance did not change much for them even after they made a “declaration that the conversion by torture was invalid” in the following year.
The main focus of the documentary is one of such North Koreans, who incidentally gave one of the most poignant moments in the previous film. His name is Kim Yeong-sik, and he was just a crew member of one North Korean boat to contact with some North Korean agent in South Korea. Due to that agent’s betrayal, he and all of his crew members were captured, and that was the beginning of many years of plight and torment for him. Tortured and harassed for next several years, he eventually surrendered and let himself “converted” on record in exchange for his earlier release, and it is clear that he still feels hurt and ashamed about that.
Anyway, Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans defiantly launched a movement for their repatriation in the early 2000s, and the documentary closely observes how they continue to live and struggle day by day while never giving up their hope despite their very old age. In case of Kim, he often attempts to make some statement about his political status to South Korean citizens out there, and he is not daunted at all even though he is usually ignored by many of them and also insulted by some rude right-wing guys at times.
When President Kim Dae-jung was succeeded by President Roh Moo-hyun in 2003, the situation remained frustratingly same as before for Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans. After a certain famous tourist spot in North Korea was opened to South Korean civilians, Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans were certainly ready to go there for seeing their country again just for a few days, but the South Korean government did not allow some of them to go there for a rather insignificant bureaucratic reason, and that certainly dampened their mood to say the least.
Meanwhile, they kept trying to continue their little political movement for repatriation. When “Repatriation” was eventually completed and then released in South Korean theaters with considerable praises, Kim was certainly willing to go to a number of special screenings, but he later said to the director that he was not particularly satisfied with the documentary itself for a number of understandable reasons.
As listening to Kim, the director felt again the considerable gap between his viewpoint and Kim and other converted North Koreans’. As the son of a couple who fled from North Korea before the war, the director later came to reflect more on his deeply anti-communist family background, and he even came to learn later that there was even a sibling behind whom his mother left in North Korea at that time.
That made the director more motivated about getting a permission to enter North Korea for his documentary, but, sadly, the relationship between the South and North Korean government was soon reversed to that old hostile mood due to several unfortunate factors. Besides President George W. Bush in US (Remember “the axis of evil”?), two conservative South Korean presidents after President Roh, both of whom are incidentally big disgraces to South Korean democracy, were not so friendly to the North Korean government to say the least, and the possibility of the second repatriation was accordingly disappeared to Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans’ despair and frustration.
Nevertheless, they kept trying to live another day. As years hopelessly went by, many of them died one by one mainly because of their deteriorating health condition, but they do not still give up their hope entirely, and there is a touching moment as Kim celebrating his 88th birthday along with his friends and supporters in early 2021. He is still alive at present, and I can only hope that things will soon get better for him, though the political situation between South and North Korean recently becomes much more troubling thanks to the current president of South Korea, who is incidentally your typical right-wing nut just like Donald J. Trump or Jair Bolsonaro.
On the whole, “The 2nd Repatriation” is more or less than the continuation of its predecessor, but it is still a powerful documentary on the whole, and I also appreciate how the director often pays some attention to many other different people to observe besides his main human subjects. While it focuses on several female converted North Koreans at times, the documentary also listens to the angry members of the association of the family members of those South Korean taken to North Korea, and, regardless of their political differences, all these and other people in the documentary come to us the victim of the ongoing historical tragedy in the Korean peninsula. To be frank with you, I cannot help but doubt whether there will actually be the eventual closure for all of them before the end of the current decade, but I sincerely wish for the best anyway.