Skip to main content

Why We Wrote an Open Letter to ‘Independent Lens’ About ‘Beyond Utopia’

By Deann Borshay Liem, Hye-Jung Park, and JT Takagi

Still image from 'Beyond Utopia,' showing five members of a North Korean family sitting on a couch.

Still from Beyond Utopia of the Roh family listening to Pastor Kim’s final instructions for their journey. Image credit: TGW7N LC. Courtesy of ITVS

Since Beyond Utopia debuted at last year’s Sundance, where it won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, the film has screened at film festivals around the world and garnered acclaim for its portrayal of two families defecting from North Korea. It was shortlisted for an Oscar and most recently won a duPont-Columbia Award.

But when we learned that the film would air nationally on PBS on Independent Lens on January 9, 2024, we were concerned. While the film’s verité sequences of the Roh and Lee families’ plight are compelling, the film simply points to the North Korean government as the problem. There is no mention of the continuing impacts 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 film’s protagonists to leave the country. The hardships faced by the people of North Korea today cannot be understood accurately outside of the context of ongoing hostilities stemming from the Korean War, including draconian economic sanctions against North Korea. 

To express our concerns about such an unbalanced and inaccurate portrayal being broadcast nationally on taxpayer-supported public television, on January 7, we posted an open letter to Independent Lens on Medium.

As documentarians, we have traveled to North and South Korea many times and have made films about the war, the division of the Korean peninsula, and the effects of these devastating events on Koreans, including those in the diaspora. Our work has focused on bringing nuance and humanity to those living on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and raising awareness among the American public about the U.S. role in perpetuating this conflict—and the U.S. responsibility in pursuing possible solutions.

The Korean War killed an estimated four million people, including some three million Koreans, and was suspended via a ceasefire, not a peace treaty. Although it is America’s longest un-ended war, in the U.S., it is often referred to as the “forgotten war.” Our work has been to intervene in this narrative of forgetting and erasure, of which Beyond Utopia is the latest filmic expression. For example, the film shows scenes of North Koreans collecting human waste for fertilizer as evidence of the dire conditions inside the country but fails to mention that this is a direct consequence of the devastating impact of U.S.-led economic sanctions on North Korea’s agriculture. The film’s treatment of this matter promotes derision, rather than empathy, for the plight of ordinary people struggling to get by with extremely scarce resources.

Moreover, Beyond Utopia obfuscates history through imprecise language that misleads, rather than clarifies. For example, audiences could infer from the film that the division of Korea was a term of Japan’s surrender in World War II—which it was not—instead of a direct result of U.S. actions that divided the country. The film also characterizes the Korean War as an international effort led by a UN force of 21 countries. Lost is the fact that of these countries, U.S. military and support personnel comprised over 90 percent of the international force between 1950 and 1953—5.7 million American men and women in all, according to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Indeed, the U.S. not only led the war effort but continues to be the only foreign presence with military bases on the Korean peninsula and would assume operational command of the South Korean armed forces should fighting break out again.

The film’s inaccuracies notwithstanding, we are also concerned that the film passed the PBS Co-Production Guidelines, which state, “[t]o protect the integrity of public television programming, the content of such programming must be free from the control of parties with a vested self-interest in that content.” Beyond Utopia was made in association with the Human Rights Foundation, with CEO Thor Halvorssen serving as one of the film’s executive producers. Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) was also actively involved in the film; CEO/President Hannah Song served as an executive producer, and board member Blaine Vess is listed as a co-executive producer. In addition, staff member Sokeel Park provides commentary in the film. These are not nonpartisan organizations; both have a vested self-interest in the film’s subject matter. Human Rights Foundation smuggles information—which “ranges from South Korean soap operas and Hollywood films to Korean-language versions of Wikipedia and interviews with North Korean defectors”—into North Korea on flash drives. In 2015, the group was responsible for dropping 10,000 copies of the Hollywood movie The Interview—in which two American journalists are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un—over North Korea via balloons. LiNK helps North Korean defectors escape and resettle in South Korea. It’s one thing for a film team to consult with impacted communities, following values such as those of the Documentary Accountability Working Group, but it’s another thing entirely for a film to be produced by an entity in its self-interest.

In some cases, PBS Standards allow such a conflict to “be addressed by prominently disclosing it to the audience.” Indeed, the producers did disclose these vested interests in the film’s credits. However, we fail to see how these disclosures ensure the programming integrity of public TV. This would be akin to PBS airing a film on gun control produced in association with the National Rifle Association (NRA), with its CEO Wayne LaPierre serving as the film’s executive producer, that failed to acknowledge any correlation between unregulated gun sales and the rise of gun violence, but merely disclosed that persons involved in the making of the film have ties to an organization that lobbies against gun control. In other words, disclosing self-interest does not by itself offset the promotion gained by partisan groups producing films. Although the exact nature of the roles Human Rights Foundation and LiNK played in the film is unclear, the extensive involvement of their board and staff blur rather than distinguish the line separating independent documentary from public relations.

Unfortunately, the omission of the ongoing Korean War as context for understanding Korea today, especially North Korea, has previously characterized public television programming on the subject of North Korean defectors. Such was the case of two earlier PBS films, Kimjongilia (NewsHour, 2009) and Seoul Train (Independent Lens, 2005). Films produced by public media entities have also omitted information critical to understanding the nature of U.S. involvement in the Korean War. In 1988, WGBH, a PBS flagship station, cut a six-hour Thames documentary, Korea: The Unknown War, down to two hours, eliminating interviews with North Koreans and scenes of U.S. bombing considered too controversial for an American audience, as explained by the series’ historical consultant, Bruce Cumings, in his book War and Television (1992). WGBH then renamed the film, ironically, Korea: The Forgotten War.

In our open letter to Independent Lens, we clearly state that North Korea, like all countries who ascribe to the UN charter, should be held accountable for human rights violations. But U.S. policies that have destabilized North Korean society for the past 70 years must also be held accountable. Today, there are too many Americans who are ready to bomb North Korea because they lack understanding of how we could otherwise resolve ongoing hostilities between the U.S. and North Korea. Given the hypermilitarization of the Korean peninsula and escalating tensions in the region, the urgent task is to step back from the precipice. But what is there to hold us back if we in this country have forgotten the Korean War and the continuing U.S. role in the conflict? How then will we understand that we have responsibility for ending the war and achieving peace?

At the time of this writing, we are still engaged in correspondence with Independent Lens. Our requests for programming and resources that would provide viewers with alternative perspectives, and a disclaimer about the film’s point of view, have not been addressed. Independent Lens did acknowledge, however, that there is “need for more programming on Korea” and that there are “aspects and questions to be explored in future work.” On this, we are in agreement. 

Deann Borshay Liem is a filmmaker whose work explores war, memory, family, and identity. Hye-Jung Park is a filmmaker and educator. JT Takagi is a filmmaker, sound recordist, educator, and arts administrator.