N.K. film hopes to inspire action

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Aug 26, 2015 - 18:59
  • Updated : Aug 26, 2015 - 18:59

A new documentary by an expat director sets out to highlight the struggles of people campaigning for change in North Korea, and hopes to inspire viewers to join the fight.

Director of “While They Watched” Jake Smith said he had always been fascinated by North Korea, but was inspired to make the film after reading “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick.

“I had previously always seen it from an ideological or political angle, but after reading ‘Nothing to Envy’ I saw it from a personal point of view,” he said. “The stories of the people who have either survived an escape from North Korea, or people that hope to liberate the country, inspired me to make this film.”

Justice for North Korea protestors are quizzed by police in a still from “While they Watched.” (Square Eyed Pictures)

Set in the future, “While They Watched” starts from a hypothetical point after the collapse of the existing North Korean regime, aiming to look back at the people who fought to bring about its demise.

The film stresses the abuses faced by North Korean defectors and people campaigning against the regime. Justice for North Korea founder Peter Jung is shown harassed by police in Seoul during an anti-N.K. protest, while balloon launches carrying information critical of Pyongyang and basic necessities are halted by South Korean authorities.

Smith said that the film, which took a year to make and relied on crowdfunding, brought some strong reactions among the people they had shown it to, with many moved to tears. Some people also walked out.

“One was a mid-20s Korean woman who said ‘It is too shocking’ and that she didn’t know these things were happening,” he said.

“Another Korean-Canadian who walked out, but came back, said, ‘This makes me so angry that people aren’t doing more. I can’t believe the South Korean government haven’t helped more defectors.’”

The film is openly partisan, with its website giving details of the campaigns shown and suggesting viewers join or support them.

“I hope that people will be inspired to act after watching the film. The reason for setting the film in a hypothetical future is to make the audience realize that they have a say in how this turns out. They aren’t powerless and they can make a difference to peoples’ lives,” said Smith.

“I choose three things that I believe will help erode the powerbase of the North Korean regime and followed characters that were acting on them.”

Among those characters is Park Yeon-mi, a defector whose testimony about the abuse defectors face has drawn global attention to the problem, but whose story has been accused of containing inconsistencies by defectors and others.

Park has blamed this on language issues and stated that she will clear up any confusion in an upcoming book.

The film focuses on Park’s preparation for and delivery of a speech at a global summit in Ireland, before the controversies gained broad attention. Smith acknowledged the importance of those controversies, but said he wanted to keep the film short and focused.

“The film contains many characters, so in 93 minutes it would have been difficult to address everything we wanted to,” said Smith. “There was a lot we wanted to include but couldn’t. Perhaps it warrants its own film, which I have spoken to Yeon-mi about.”

The film is currently being shown in private screenings ahead of its formal release, which the filmmakers hope to announce after acceptance at film festivals.

For more information, visit

By Paul Kerry (