- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

SEOUL - Some of the most tragic experiences of Yoo Sang-jun’s life have made it into a major new South Korean feature film, but now that the results are on the screen, the North Korean defector is too traumatized to watch them.

“I don’t want to think about my past,” Mr. Yoo said in a phone interview, the day before a special screening of “Crossing” was held for reporters in Seoul. Some viewers, familiar with Mr. Yoo’s personal tragedy, wept as they previewed the film yesterday.

“Crossing” stars Cha In-pyo, one of Asia’s top actors, as a North Korean miner whose undernourished, pregnant wife contracts tuberculosis. With no medicine available in the impoverished nation, Mr. Cha’s character leaves his wife and 11-year-old son to travel to China to work, earn money and buy drugs.

While away, his wife dies, and his son, played by Shin Myung-chul, becomes a wandering orphan. The starving child attempts to escape to China, but is captured and placed in a re-education camp - where the film’s most harrowing scenes take place. A bribe arranged by his father, now in South Korea, breaks him out of the camp. The film’s jarring finale takes place in the Mongolian Desert.

Avoiding the melodrama of many South Korean films, “Crossing” is relentless in its detailed, docudrama approach. A cross-border trader and his family are seized by secret police in a midnight raid. Ragged orphans beg in destitute markets. Camp guards kick a pregnant woman in China in the stomach.

Kim Tae-kyun, the film’s director, said he did not retain Mr. Yoo, a high-profile defector, as a consultant for fear of creating a political incident while filming in China. Last year, Mr. Yoo was imprisoned there for four months after assisting North Korean defectors. Half of the film’s proceeds will go to help North defectors, Mr. Kim said.

The life of Mr. Yoo, now a Seoul-based Christian activist, mirrors much of the plot of “Crossing.”

After losing his wife and a son during the North Korean famine of the late 1990s, he escaped to China with his surviving son, Chul-min. Despairing of making a living, and in fear of deportation - Chinese authorities routinely send North Korean defectors home, where many face terrible punishment - Mr. Yoo put the boy into foster care while he attempted to escape to Seoul.

He reached South Korea and worked as a laborer, earning money to pay smugglers to bring his son out of China. In 2002, Chul-min set off from China for Mongolia to reunite with his father. In the barren frontier between the countries, lost, weak and exhausted, the child died from exposure.

Yoo Chul-min is buried under a wooden cross in the Mongolian desert. He was 10 years old.

German human rights activist Norbert Vollertsen, who briefly knew Yoo Chul-min, has arranged for the film to be screened in July at the European Parliament. He said the film took him back to his time working as an aid doctor in rural North Korea.

“People will see this film so they can see places where they cannot go, and see things they cannot see,” Mr. Yoo said. “I hope the film can help the world know about North Korea.”

“It would be pertinent if China’s leadership watched this film,” said Tim Peters, an American activist and friend of Mr. Yoo’s who attended the screening. “With the stroke of a pen, they could stop thousands of tragedies.”