Inter-Korea relations appear to be making progress, will this open up more filming opportunities in North Korea?
In August a group of mostly elderly South Koreans crossed into North Korea to reunite with family members many haven’t seen nor heard from since the Korean War broke out 68 years ago.
The reunion has excited global media; not only because this a story of human happiness, but it is a rare opportunity for a glimpse into the secretive life of North Koreans.
North Korea holds a fascination amongst journalists and film makers across the globe. In our age of hyper connectivity, when Google, Twitter and Facebook, place information at our finger tips, North Korea remains an enigma. Just a handful of journalists have been granted permission to view the country, and even then, access is strictly regulated.
Procuring information on North Korea is perhaps a Fixer’s ultimate challenge. So how would one go about such a daunting task?
South Korea is the most popular location from which to gain access to filming opportunities with their Northern neighbours, and South Korean Fixers are finding themselves in increasing demand.
“Inter Korean relations is one of the most sought after topics at the moment, I would say 70-80% of my work is on this issue,” Says South Korean Fixer, Jayine Chung. Chung has worked for a range of international media channels, conducting many projects on defectors and exposing many incredible human stories.
However, access to North Korea is a highly complex procedure. Individuals holding South Korean passports are not allowed to travel to North Korea, and are even prohibited from attending the commercial DMZ tours that so many tourists go to.
“We can only access the DMZ through media tours organised by the United Nations Command, or the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Defence,” says Chung.
Even then, it is still an exhausting task for fixers. “Bureaucracy, red tape and last minute tour cancellations are all too common,” Laments Chung.
As a result, one of the most practical means of accessing uncensored information about North Korea is through defectors who have fled the regime in North Korea for China, South Korea or Russia. It is estimated that since 1953, 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans have left the country. The rate of defection increased dramatically in the 1990’s, when loss of support from the Soviet Union plunged North Korea into a devastating famine.
However, interviewing defectors is not a challenge for the faint hearted. “It is a dangerous job,” reflects another Fixer- who did not wish to be named for legal reasons.
Many defectors flee across the border to China; however the Chinese government forcibly returns North Korean’s who have fled the country, and thus establishing contact with defectors for media production purposes is highly illegal. Indeed, last year it was reported China are strengthening their efforts to secure the border and detain migrants, a move condemned by the UN.
If caught in contact with defectors, our fixer risks being imprisoned. “Because of this danger, all preparation must be conducted in South Korea,” He says.
However, this is an arduous task. “The Chinese government restricts email and telephone signals in the border area to inhibit movement of defectors and organisation of activity,” He says. As a result it contacting interviewees frequently takes several weeks, and many dead ends. Faced with such difficulties, many television networks shy away from reporting on defection, for fear of angering the Chinese government.
“Recently contact has become even harder,” Said our anonymous fixer. “North Korea have also deployed technology obstructing signal, so it takes even longer to find a suitable location from which I am able to contact people.”
His success is down to his ability to establish and maintain a trusted set of contacts. “Over the past few years I have established connections with several defectors, even when I am not working on a project I stay in contact, and seek out new connections,” He says.
However, the struggle does not end here. The most challenging part of his job is persuading defectors to speak out about their experiences. “Many are unwilling to conduct interviews,” he says. “They have grown up outside our technologically driven capitalist society, and are unsure how to navigate this world.”
Indeed, for defectors, leaving North Korea is just the tip of the iceberg. Once across the border they risk being deported, or falling victim to human trafficking.
When it comes to interviewing North Korean defectors, many of them expect to be paid for their time due to the sheer volume of media requests they receive. However, it also goes against journalism ethics for interviewees to be paid, thus the Fixer’s job demands significant diligence and discretion.
“As a fixer, I understand where both parties are coming from, Says Chung. “ It can get quite tricky as the middle person who has to facilitate mutual understanding and agreement between the two.”
Our anonymous fixer echoed her assessment. “This is often a complex situation for me to operate; I understand their hesitancy to talk, but I am also aware of the necessity for producers to arrange interviews,” he says.
Do recent family reunions spell a new dawn for filming in North Korea?
“Watching the tearful reunion of separated families broke the hearts of many South Koreans. It helps South Koreans to realise that we are one people,” Reflected Chung sombrely.
Despite the mixed feelings this reunion conjured up for many, both fixers remain optimistic the reunion signalled a changing relationship with the country.
“The previous reunions between North and South Korea relatives were just for show, but this one seems different,” he reflected.
Indeed, this year South Korea’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) screened several North Korean films.
However, access to North Korea remain heavily restricted. When asked for comment, the British Embassy in Pyongyang said, “Please note that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all but essential travel to North Korea (DPRK).”
Nevertheless, our fixers believe the future looks optimistic.
“I definitely see it as a step forward, although it might take a long time before we actually get to work together with North Korean media, Chung said. “Screening North Korean films is an important for building mutual understanding and empathy between the two nations.”
Developing inter-Korean relations presents a wealth of filming opportunities in the region. “We would have so much more to show the world through film and TV,” Says Chung.