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Unfortunate Brother

by J. Lee Simons

Mr. Lee unloads the back of his small truck as a few people stand and watch. He thanks them for coming on this day. Together they begin writing “messages of love” with markers on sheets of paper. The papers are stapled to socks and packed in an ordinary cardboard box, which is then attached to a large plastic bag filled with hydrogen. This band of men and women, some fellow defectors, stand and watch as the box lifts and moves up over a hill toward unseen North Koreans in desperate need. They will not only wear the socks, explained Mr. Lee, they will sell the socks in the market to have money for food or other commodities that are in scarce supply. “Socks,” he said, “are like money falling from the sky.”

This somber scene from the documentary “Unfortunate Brother: The Korean Unification Question” underscores the deprivation of 25 million North Koreans. In the newest film from the Beyond the Border series, Mr. Lee revealed he defected from North Korea after seeing China for the first time and realizing they were not starving. He knew then that all he had been told about life outside was a lie. Now he is committed to helping those to the north, saying: “Even if I live in South Korea, my heart is in North Korea.”

Having recently completed Nothing to Envy, the current Kennedy Center Book of the Semester written by award-winning journalist Barbara Demick, I felt I understood what Mr. Lee did not say about his former life. I also understood something of what the family members he left behind would experience. The cost of defection is written on his face during his personal narrative that is interspersed with footage from South and North Korea and commentary from Korea specialists, current U.S. and former South Korea military personnel, and South Korean officials.

A Relevant Story

“We took our first recon trip to go to the North Korean border with China in 2009,” said Dodge Billingsley, the film’s producer and director. “Eric Hyer and I were over there trying to find the story. We knew we wanted to do something on the Koreas, but we wanted a relevant story.” Hyer is a BYU professor of political science and Asian studies coordinator at the Kennedy Center.

That first trip led to several discussions with Mark A. Peterson, chair of the Korean section of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at BYU, who served an LDS mission in South Korea in 1965, was a Fulbright student and later a Fulbright director there, and he served as president over the Korea Pusan Mission. “The thing about traveling with Mark Peterson in Korea is that he is very well known,” said Billingsley. “In fact, the people refer to him in Korea as kukbo, which means ‘national treasure’—he did not tell me that; the Koreans told me.”

In spring 2010, Billingsley returned to Korea on a fellowship with the Korean Society, and Peterson was the instructor. While traveling throughout South Korea, they determined that the divided state would be the focus. However, coming up with a plan for the North Korean angle would be problematic. Access to North Korea is possible but pricey. If they had decided to pay the price, filming would have been severely limited to push the North Korean propaganda agenda. This film would ultimately be a personal story, so the quest to find a North Korean defector became the primary goal. The North Korean side would be told from the anguished perspective of one who had been born there, had a life there, and had made the difficult choice to leave it behind.

Sanctuary and Assimilation

Approximately twenty-three thousand North Koreans have now defected to the south—60 percent of them are women. Usually slipping through China with sympathetic assistance from the underground network, refugees arrive in a modern environment they could not imagine. Suffering from chronic malnutrition, post-traumatic stress, and lacking the basic skills necessary to function in such a society, an estimated 90 percent of the defectors are taken immediately to a Hanawon “reeducation” center, where they learn how to navigate tasks as simple as shopping and as necessary as ATMs. First created in 1999, there are now three such centers operating to handle the influx from the harsh existence in the north.

“Hanawons almost never allow cameras inside,” offered Billingsley, “but Gordon Flake had a contact and boom we were filming.” L. Gordon Flake is executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which “promotes understanding and cooperation among the nations and peoples of Asia and the United States” (from their web site), and a Kennedy Center alumnus. “We were not allowed to film the refugees, but we spoke with Director Miryang Youn and saw the facilities that give a sense of what goes on there,” Billingsley said.

In spite of Hanawon efforts to bridge the gap for these transplants, including money to begin a new life, they earn one-third less than their South Korean counterparts, and their unemployment rate is over three times as high. Youn acknowledges that they underestimated the challenge it would be for the refuges to assimilate in a South Korean culture that has changed during the more than six decades of separation.


At the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, speculation about the possibility for change faded as his son, Kim Jong-il allowed the country’s decline to continue. In December 2011, Jong-il died and his third son, Kim Jong-un, took charge and has been posturing with a failed missile launch and talk of nuclear tests. After nearly seven decades of isolation and impoverishment, a North Korean’s lifestyle bears little resemblance to their South Korean neighbor. During the first decades, the separation divided families. Few families now have any personal connections in North Korea—except for the refugees who have fled south.

The young adult population in South Korea is especially disengaged from the unification question. Peterson said the generation gap in the U.S. is like a crack in the sidewalk compared to the generation gap in South Korea that is like the Grand Canyon. They are not likely to be willing to sacrifice for their northern neighbors.

South Korea first began to examine the reunification issue in 1970, and lessons have been learned from Vietnam and German unification. However, unification for the Koreas—culturally, economically, and militarily—is not comparable to either example. Estimated unification costs vary from $224 billion to as much as $5 trillion, much of which would need to be applied to North Korea’s crumbling infrastructure. “South Korean President Lee Myung-bak proposed a 2 percent unification tax to be put away to cover the cost when the two Koreas become one,” Billingsley noted. “However, his proposal did not gain any traction and instead exposed a strong sentiment against unification that not only runs through the South Korean population but also the international community.”

Choosing not to unify also has a cost, a human cost. “Why should North Koreans live like animals and people living in this free world are concerned about diets and how to lose weight?” asked Mr. Lee. “North Koreans only think about how to sustain their lives.” Unfortunately, the decision to move toward change rests primarily with the north.

Final filming took place in September 2011. With a new leader in place, Korea is once again making headlines for all the wrong reasons, but the film was completed at an opportune time. HDNET premiered a thirty-two-minute version in June. A longer, academic version will be screened in New York, Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City, and at the Kennedy Center in the fall.