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An Open Letter to Independent Lens about “Beyond Utopia”

By Deann Borshay Liem, Hye-Jung Park and JT Takagi | January 7, 2024 | Originally published in 

Publicity still from “Beyond Utopia”

The following letter was sent to Lois Vossen, Executive Producer at Independent Lens, regarding the documentary Beyond Utopia, on January 7, 2024.

Dear Lois,

We are writing about the documentary Beyond Utopia, which is opening the new season of Independent Lens. As documentarians, we have traveled to North Korea many times. We have made films about the un-ended Korean War, the division of the Korean peninsula, and the effects of these devastating events on Koreans in the diaspora. Over the past two decades, our work has focused on combating stereotypes and historical erasure and bringing nuance and humanity to those living on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

We are concerned that Beyond Utopia presents an unbalanced and inaccurate narrative about Korean history and North Korean society. While the film’s verité sequences of the Roh and Lee families’ plight are compelling, noticeably lacking is any mention of the ongoing impact of the Korean War and U.S. policies that have destabilized the livelihood and well-being of North Korea’s people — factors that cause families like the Rohs and Lees to leave the country.

While an armistice stopped the fighting in 1953, a peace treaty was never signed. North and South Korea, as well as North Korea and the United States, are still at war. Ongoing hostilities have resulted in the hyper-militarization of North and South Korea and the remilitarization of Japan, threatening to engulf the region in renewed fighting. These factors contribute to North Korea’s siege mentality, nuclear weapons development, and the economic hardships faced by the civilian population.

U.S.-led sanctions underpin the difficult economic conditions portrayed in the film. North Korea is one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. Dr. Kee Park of the Harvard University Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, a neurosurgeon who has trained doctors and regularly performed surgeries in North Korea, calls these sanctions “warfare without bullets.”

In this context, the film’s sequence about North Koreans coveting human waste is simply callous. Other countries also use human waste as a fertilizer and for the production of methane gas. In the case of North Korea, sanctions severely limit the country’s capacity to import oil, fertilizer, and even spare parts to run farm equipment. In the absence of this information, the sequence promotes derision rather than empathy for the plight of ordinary people struggling to get by with extremely scarce resources.

We are also concerned that the film’s factual imprecisions obscure events that are critical for understanding Korean history. For example, the film’s narrator explains that “At the end of World War II when Japan surrendered, they lost the empire that they had been building. Part of the settlement deal was that Korea was split.” By inferring that the division of Korea was a term of Japan’s surrender (which it was not), this language erases the role of the U.S. in dividing Korea. In an effort to prevent the USSR from occupying the entire peninsula, the U.S. proposed (and the Soviets agreed) to divide Korea at the 38th parallel to disarm Japanese forces. The division was solidified by the founding of two separate states in 1948.

Similarly, the film portrays the Korean War as an international effort led by a “UN force containing soldiers from 21 different countries.” Lost is the fact that of these countries, the United States comprised 99.7 percent of the international force, totaling 5.7 million military and support personnel. The U.S. led the war effort and continues to be the only foreign presence with military bases on the Korean peninsula.

We also have questions about the power dynamics in the filmmaking process between the filmmaker, the crew, the pastor, and the defectors. Unequal power relations undergird these rescue activities in which defectors are entirely reliant upon brokers, missionaries, smugglers, and others for food, shelter, and security. In what ways did the filmmakers take advantage of, benefit from, and contribute to these unequal power relations and vulnerabilities? This dynamic is alluded to in the film itself as Pastor Kim directs the Roh family as to how they should film their journey for the documentary during some of their most vulnerable moments. The power imbalance continues in South Korea, where defectors are reliant on NGO largesse and the South Korean government for their support and livelihood.

Beyond Utopia implies that identifying brutalities and helping North Koreans flee to freedom are the only solutions to North Korea’s human rights violations. To be sure, the North Korean government, as all countries which ascribe to the United Nations charter, should be held accountable for breaches in human rights. But U.S. policies that have destabilized the human security of the North Korean people for the past 70 years must also be held accountable. We believe that diplomacy, engagement, and building trust are more sustainable and effective ways to improve the lives of everyone on the Korean Peninsula.

We are taking this step of writing to you because this film is being presented on public television, an entity that we support and which has presented our own films. We would like to know the process by which this film was vetted and by what standards. We ask that you add a disclaimer on the film and on the website that indicates the film represents only one perspective of what is a highly controversial situation and its causes, and offer additional resources for your viewers. We also request that Independent Lens pursue alternative, diverse programming for audiences seeking further information about the issues raised by this film. We ask that you include voices of Asian American and Korean diasporic community members, scholars, and activists who have a critical understanding of this history, and who have been researching, writing about, and grappling with issues of displacement, war, peace, and the impact of U.S. policies on the Korean peninsula.

Thank you in advance for your consideration. We look forward to your response.


Deann Borshay Liem, Producer | Director, First Person Plural, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, Memory of Forgotten War, Geographies of Kinship, Crossings

Hye-Jung Park, Producer | Director, The #7 Train, The Women Outside: Korean Women and the U.S. Military, North Korea: Beyond the DMZ

JT Takagi, Producer | Director, Bittersweet Survival, The #7 Train, The Women Outside: Korean Women and the U.S. Military, Homes Apart: Korea, North Korea: Beyond the DMZ


Carrie Lozano, President and CEO, Independent Television Service

Stephen Gong, Executive Director, Center for Asian American Media

Don Young, Director of Programming, Center for Asian American Media

Leslie Fields-Cruz, Executive Director, Black Public Media

Denise Greene, Director of Program Initiatives, Black Public Media

Francene Blythe-Lewis, Executive Director, Vision Maker Media

Cheryl Hirasa, Executive Director, Pacific Islanders in Communications

Amber McClure, Director of Programs, Pacific Islanders in Communications

Sandie Viquez Pedlow, Executive Director, Latino Public Broadcasting

Luis Ortiz, Program Manager, Latino Public Broadcasting

S. Leo Chiang, Co-Director, Asian American Documentary Network

Grace Lee, Co-Director, Asian American Documentary Network


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