Seoul-train-film-posterSarah G. Kim is a Brandeis University Senior majoring in Sociology and minoring in International and Global Studies. As part of ‘Deis Impact! 2013, she is organizing a screening of the award-winning documentary, Seoul Train (2004), about the lives and deaths of North Koreans as they try to escape their homeland. The film will be followed by a discussion with Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee from Tufts University .

Gulag Nation: North Korea and Crimes Against Humanity
Thursday, February 7th, 12 – 2 pm
Levin Ballroom

What inspired you to organize this event?

This event is part of the second annual social justice festival called ‘Deis Impact! 2013 Exploring Social Justice on Campus, in Waltham and Around the World. Early on, when I first found out about all these insane human rights violations in North Korea, they stuck with me partly because of my own cultural and ethnic ties to where my parents were from. Also, I don’t understand how people can just continue going about their lives when they are exposed to this kind of information. So since high school, I started to bring awareness to people around me and that’s what I was hoping to do with this event as well because not many people know about the atrocities happening in North Korea and I figured that the best way to easily present these issues was through a film. With just words, I think for a lot of students here, it tends to go in through one ear and come out the other because there is so much information on our campus. So with this documentary film I hope to show them that this stuff is actually happening no matter how bad or unrealistic it seems. For instance, there are gas chambers in North Korea and public executions that not a lot of people know about. I also invited a guest speaker, Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee who is Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University. I met him over the summer when I was looking to see if there were any Korean studies programs in the area. I realized that he also speaks a lot on broadcast news such as BBC, CNN and NPR so I thought if we had someone like him come to our school, all the information and knowledge he could share would help inspire us and also see what we can actually do to help these people.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the film?

It is a documentary about North Korean citizens who are trying to either flee from North Korea or from China. A lot of them tend to escape to either Russia or China because the 38th parallel is very heavily guarded and it is almost impossible to escape by entering South Korea. It is a bunch of activists, many of them are either North Korean or Chinese citizens who act as double agents and they set up this route of safe houses for them to escape into. I thought this film was interesting also because it asks the Chinese government that is part of international law why they violate those laws by systematically arresting these people and sending them back to North Korea. It sheds light on why the Chinese government doesn’t view these people as refugees, which is a very important issue. It also questions why the United Nations hasn’t done anything to save these people. It shows live footage of these people planning their escape routes and it talks about what they were subject to when they were forced to live in prison camps.

Why is this event important and relevant for IGS students?  

I think this film is of interest to IGS students because they are studying a world that is becoming more and more globalized but a country like North Korea is still isolated despite all its neighboring countries that have been growing tremendously in the past few years. It is interesting to see how North Korea comes into play in affecting global trends especially if it were to be re-united with South Korea, or at least if the dictatorship ended what would it mean for countries like the US, South Korea, China or Japan. I think it is important to see all this in an international perspective. So stop by anytime during the event. I hope IGS students will have the heart to come and learn something new. Learn that North Korea is not just a country with nuclear missiles but there are people there that are suffering a tremendous amount.

For more information about the event, you can contact Sarah at


  1. I am personally so glad and thankful that this event took place during Deis Impact this year. The humanitarian crimes being committed by the North Korean government has long had my attention and few others around the world. By “few others”, I don’t mean to devalue the efforts of so many people who have put in their effort into helping North Koreans, but instead to highlight the startling fact that although this issue has been going on for decades, so few people know about it.

    Although I am a Korean American, born and raised on Long Island, the crimes committed against the North Korean people by their own government is deeply and personally offensive. I’m sure that those who identify with any ethnic group that has been the victim of crimes against humanity can understand the heart-wrenching pain that comes from seeing one’s own people being brutally murdered, tortured, and oppressed. Although I have never been to North Korea and have only been in South Korea once for roughly three days, being Korean is such a huge part of my identity and the sense of community and belonging that I feel with all other Koreans runs deep. I think this also testifies to the notion that, contrary to popular belief, North Koreans and South Koreans are really one people, not two, that was forced apart by unfortunate circumstances.

    The speaker, Professor Sung-Yoon Lee, gave an extremely informative and compelling description and analysis of the going-on’s of the North Korean government. While the stories of the brutal and unbelievably inhumane punishment and oppression the North Korean people face from their own government was not new to me, I was very interested to hear Professor Lee’s suggestions about putting an end to this humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, as Professor Lee explained, the North Korean government can only be stopped after many years of intervention, but to start, we can make the issue public. One reason why the North Korean government has been getting away with this gross violation of human rights is that there are little to no pictures available of what is happening because of its high security. Another directly effective way that Professor Lee suggested was to economically disable the North Korean government, as previous efforts made during the Bush Administration proved to be successful.

    I really hope this becomes a more widespread issue on our campus and around the world. Thank you, Sarah, for starting it on our campus!

  2. I am really happy that Sarah brought this event to Deis Impact this year. Before seeing Seoul Train, I was not aware of the horrors occurring in North Korea such as famine and the high poverty rate. The horrible crimes committed by the North Korean government need to be told to the world and people need to know of what goes on in North Korea in order for something to be done to stop it. Professor Lee stated that the only way the North Korean government can be stopped is with years of intervention, we need to start now because all we are doing now is simply wasting time. The North Korean people do not have time to waste. The film also showed me that there are people who put their lives on the line for others such as those men and women who work in the Underground Railroad. These people are truly admirable. I hope that I can personally find a way to help the North Korean people because this issue means very much to me.

    Thank you Sarah for bringing this event to Brandeis!! I enjoyed it very much.

  3. This ‘Deis Impact event truly hit home for me, touching on my passion for human rights in North Korea, and I am truly thankful to Sarah for creating this event. There was something very impacting in the documentary “Seoul Train,” as it brought to life the many stories I had only heard of when North Koreans defected out of North Korea. Seeing a face put to these North Korean defectors and hearing their background story really pulled the strings in my heart while I held back several tears during the film. What saddened me the most is that much of this information on North Korean defectors seeking safety is coming out too late, almost 10-20 years too late. The documentary “Seoul Train” came out about 10 years ago, while the famines in North Korea occurred about 20 years ago, yet many of us are still not given much information on the crimes against humanity that are occurring in North Korea today. I do fear that one regret many will hold when the North Korean regime actually falls is that many of us were too late to the atrocities done to the people of North Korea, such as what happened when the world was revealed to the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, I am truly thankful to Sarah in creating this event that brought greater knowledge and awareness to Brandeis students of what is happening to common North Korean people. I believe that most of us are too caught up in the politics and international policies of the North Korean state that brings too much attention on the leaders of North Korea, such as Kim Jong-Il and his recent successor Kim Jong-Un, that the common people of North Korea seems to slip our minds most of the time. One important factor to keep in mind is that change in North Korea could truly well up from the bottom up. Additionally, I am so thankful Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee from Tufts University came to speak about his thoughts on the crimes against humanity occurring in North Korea, occasionally making some bold statements that I could not help but to agree with. Overall this ‘Deis Impact event left a huge impression in my mind and gave greater fuel to my passion for North Korea.

  4. This was an amazing event! I also just wanted to share with all of you that Professor Lee’s hypothesis that North Korea provokes on American holidays/important days is eerily accurate, since it launched its 3rd nuclear test today, which is President’s Day, President Obama’s State of the Union speech, in the midst of the Chinese Spring Festival, and also conveniently follows on the heels of the Pope’s announcement to resign. It’s also still early in the week so it’ll be present in the rest of this week’s news cycle. Wow!
    I also found a NYTimes article that complements what he talked to us about: The last paragraph poses some especially powerful and interesting questions!

  5. I personally am very glad that I had the experience to see this film as part of the Deis Impact program. It really made a difference in how I view humanitarian issues. Before watching this film, I was not aware of the travesties that were occurring to innocent people. I was nearly brought to tears when hearing from the refugees and what they had to say about their present conditions living as citizens in a authoritarian run North Korean country. It was inspirational to see how a man would risk his life and the lives of the other families to venture out of the country through the supposed “Seoul Train.” It was tremendously moving when the people finally escaped but some were brought back and beaten up. I really have a hard time try to understand why the Chinese government considers this irrelevant and isn’t taking the necessary steps to make sure that north koreans get their freedoms. I understand that China doesn’t want to disagree with north korea and wants to keep peace between the two countries, but when their are people’s lives and freedoms at stake their should be special instances where you do the right thing in order to help others. What I am trying to demonstrate here is that China should not be a bystander in this instance and take an active approach in helping north koreans gain their freedoms that are otherwise suppressed in a country like North Korea and shouldn’t send north koreans back if they are in China whether they consider it a “security threat.” I feel as if the international community needs to do something in order to set an positive example of how people should be treated instead of being ill-treated by their country. It was an amazing film and I glad that Sarah was able to bring it to Brandeis and I hope everyone has the opportunity to see the film because it shows how we can make a difference in people’s lives one way or another.

  6. I went to several ‘Deis Impact events throughout the course of the week, and I have to say that this was one of the most powerful events I went to. Because I took a class which focused on Korean history the previous semester and have a profound interest in international politics, I already knew about the the existence of political prisoners and gulag work camps in North Korea. Yet, learning the full extent of just how many camps and prisoners there are was shocking, even to me. Because of the deep shroud of secrecy involving almost every aspect of life in North Korea, it is not surprising that it’s human rights violations are less understood than almost any other country on the planet.

    Even so, I found Dr. Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee’s lecture to be extremely interesting in its explanation of why North Korea’s actions have been so unchecked. He suggested that the U.S. and South Korea have too much to lose to intervene militarily against North Korea, and that as a result it will continue to grow more and more unchecked in its aggression, leading to more blatant and unparalleled abuses on its people. He also described at length the restricting and complex class system which governs every aspect of daily life in North Korea. His suggestion that North Korea’s rigid social structure and government-imposed food scarcity are just tools to control and manipulate the people was shocking in its calculated cruelty. Even though it definitely does not seem outside of the realm of possibility for a country like North Korea, I was still surprised that a government would essentially starve its people in order to keep them in line.

    Even though I had a relatively solid background in the history and politics of North Korea, I still walked away having learned so many things. I can only hope that some of Dr. Lee’s darker predictions for North Korean aggression in the future do not come true.

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