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The Making of 'I Am Sun Mu' – an Interview with Director Adam Sjoberg

August 27, 2015
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Filmmaker and photographer Adam Sjoberg has been working for the last two and a half years on a new documentary about our friend and renowned resettled North Korean artist Sun Mu. The film, titled I Am Sun Mu, follows Sun Mu as he prepares a new exhibition. We have known Adam for a while—he directed Danny From North Korea—but he is also known for previous works such as Shake the Dust and many other internationally-recognized films.

Check out our interview below with Adam on his most recent documentary.

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When did you begin working on I Am Sun Mu?

Justin Wheeler introduced me to Sun Mu in January of 2013. We had dinner and discussed the possibility of doing a documentary about his life and work. Because Sun Mu can’t show his face and has to go to great lengths to protect his identity, he was understandably careful about getting involved in a feature film about his life. However, because of the long-term relationship he’s built with LiNK, and my approach to filmmaking, he decided it was a good partnership. I’m super thankful that he said yes. A year after we initially met, he was invited to China to show his work in a solo exhibition. This was an unprecedented event for a North Korean artist—and a bold decision on the part of the curator. I decided this was a perfect opportunity to film him and use the exhibit as a narrative arc with which to tell the rest of his story.

What was your favorite part of the process?

The whole filming process has been a joy to work on. I loved some of the quieter moments of filming it when it would just be Sun Mu and me in his studio. He would be painting or working away on a piece, and I would just be a “fly on the wall” filming. That collaborative effort was really inspiring. I’ve also loved working with a team of creatives that are so talented. Mariana Blanco, our editor, has been crucial to getting the film completed. Ryan Wehner has been making some beautiful animations of Sun Mu’s work that really help bring Sun Mu’s back-story to life. And composer Joel P. West has been working on a unique and beautiful thematic score to round out the film. I love working as a team with people that inspire me.

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What are some cool things you learned while you filmed?

There has been so many things that I’ve learned. I already had a basic knowledge of the history of the Korean peninsula, but I’ve learned even more about it—as well as the nuances of the Kim’s rule and influence on every portion of North Korean life. Hearing Sun Mu discuss his life in North Korea, as well as his process of “un-brainwashing” after he left was fascinating. But most importantly, developing a friendship with Sun Mu over the last two years has helped me see past the politics and stereotypes surrounding the issue. Part of the beauty of Sun Mu’s paintings is that they don’t sit in any particular political space. He misses his homeland and longs for a more idealized, free North Korea. His work reflects his torn heart: He is not North Korean or South Korean. He’s simply Korean, which is why so many of his paintings focus on the idea of reunification, which is often seen as an archaic solution to the future of the two Koreas. But I don’t think he’s painting about reunification because he’s sure it will happen, only that he hopes it will.

What was most challenging for you with creating the documentary?

I don’t want to give too much away, but things did not go as expected at Sun Mu’s exhibit. That created safety and security challenges. Beyond that, making a feature-length film is a tough job. There are so many parts of Sun Mu’s life that I wish I could tell. The more I filmed him, the more I wanted to include. But in the end, you have to decide what stories push the overall narrative forward and keep people interested. It was tough to lose some scenes, but there are always DVD extras!

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Do you have a favorite scene?

Can I pick two? My favorite is probably a scene where Sun Mu describes the day he escaped. It’s mostly a compilation of his paintings brought to life with animation. Afterwards, Sun Mu sings a song while playing the guitar that he used to play back in North Korea. Another favorite scene is of Sun Mu painting with his daughters. He then describes a couple of paintings he made of them—one of which is of his oldest daughter holding a “letter that cannot be sent” to her grandmother. It’s powerful.

Why do you create documentaries? Why did you choose to do this one in particular?

I create documentaries because I have a passion for helping people tell their stories. I love the genre because of how it opens up people’s eyes to the world. Ever since getting involved with Liberty in North Korea back in 2010, I’ve been interested in this issue. The crisis in North Korea is often overlooked, thought of only in terms of its politics, and is considered by many to be a complicated “cause” in which to be involved. I’ve worked with commercial brands that haven’t wanted to align themselves with LiNK because their manufacturing is in China. But it’s one of the greatest ongoing tragedies in the world today—and I’m proud to be associated even a little bit with what LiNK is fearlessly doing.

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Who is this documentary for?

Hopefully it’s for everyone. We tried to make a film that is not just about North Korea, but about a person—an artist. It has a little bit of everything in it: a few laughs, a story of family, a story of escape, and a story of an artist trying to make it. Sun Mu is a very poetic person, and so I think people will be drawn in by his narrative.

What are you most excited for people to see in the documentary?

The climax of the film is pretty exciting and emotional, but I’m most excited for people just to get to know Sun Mu.

Why should people watch this? Why is this important?

As I’ve mentioned above, this is an issue that is often only seen in the media regarding it’s politics, or else in comedies or shock-docs. I want people to see a more human side: to not walk away thinking of the Kims, but of the many people in North Korea who live under one of the most oppressive regime in the world. Not just of their plight, but of their potential.

Where/when can someone see the documentary?

There will be a website up soon with more information. It will take some time before we secure international and domestic distribution. Stay tuned to what LiNK is doing. We’ll try to keep everyone in the loop once it’s out for the world to see!

UPDATE: January 2017! We're excited to announce that I Am Sun Mu is now available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and other video on demand platforms! Watch it, rate it, and share!

Want some of Sun Mu's art for your home? Check out the Sun Mu canvas prints on the LiNK Shop!

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Time Travelers: North Korean Defectors Resettling in South Korea

December 16, 2022

To reach freedom, North Korean defectors typically brave a perilous 3,000 mile journey through China and Southeast Asia. But even after finally reaching safety, they face a long road ahead as they begin their new lives.

The majority of North Korean refugees have resettled in South Korea. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. In addition to learning about things like the internet and ATMs, getting used to their newfound freedom alone can be a lot to grasp after decades of living in the world’s most authoritarian country.

A new journey, one of restoration, discovery, and adjustment, begins.

When North Koreans first arrive in South Korea, the culture shock can be overwhelming

Resettlement Process

When North Korean refugees first reach South Korea, they go through a thorough debrief process with the National Intelligence Service to verify their background. From there, the Hanawon Settlement Support Center helps them ease into modern South Korean society. 

Every defector must complete a three month adjustment program, which covers:

  • Basic skills, like how to open a bank account and use the Internet
  • Job and vocational training
  • Field trips to shops, food courts, and other businesses
  • The social and cultural differences between North and South Korea
  • The history of the Korean peninsula


After completing the program, refugees receive government benefits to begin their new lives, including an initial subsidy, housing support, and healthcare.

North Korean refugees go through a three month adjustment program when they first arrive

South Korean Culture Shock

Emerging from Hanawon, North Korean refugees often experience culture shock when they find themselves fully immersed in South Korean society.

One of the first things many notice is the abundance of greenery and trees compared to North Korea. While the entire Korean peninsula was severely deforested by the mid-20th century, South Korea is one of the world’s few reforestation success stories.

Many defectors are also surprised by how safe South Korea is. One person can manage a big market stall on their own and not worry about theft, whereas goods have to be closely guarded at North Korea’s Jangmadangs. Other new experiences include the widespread availability of clothing and existence of vending machines and mannequins.

Modern South Korean society. Photo Credit: Diego Mariottini and Getty Images.

New Challenges

While the South Korean government provides material support, many North Korean refugees still face challenges starting over in a very different society. Just navigating daily life can be difficult at first, and making longer-term decisions like what to study or finding a stable job can be even more overwhelming.

“When I first arrived in South Korea, I was confused and didn’t know where to even start my new life in freedom. I wasn’t even sure who I was as a person.”

– Geumju, escaped North Korea in 2008

Geumju, a North Korean refugee who resettled in South Korea

At school, additional study may be needed to catch up with their South Korean peers after decades of propaganda-based learning. In the workforce, many refugees have to retrain and re-qualify for the same jobs they had in the North, such as doctors and teachers. These discrepancies have contributed to an income gap between North and South Koreans in South Korea’s hyper competitive society.

In addition to figuring out the future, many refugees are still coping with physical and mental health issues from a traumatic past. A lack of healthcare in North Korea often results in decades of unaddressed medical and dental problems. Roughly 50% of North Korean refugees also suffer from PTSD. Many had to leave loved ones behind, witnessed or experienced torture, or survived trafficking, which can be tough to process.

Adjusting to South Korean life can be difficult for many North Korean refugees

Finding Community & Onward

Forming new relationships in South Korea can be one of the biggest challenges for defectors. In North Korea, lack of mobility and aspects of life organized by the regime meant that everyone in a neighborhood knew each other. To meet up with someone, it was commonplace to just stop by their home. In comparison, South Korea’s decentralized “yaksok” (promise) culture of scheduling a time and place to meet specific people may feel unfamiliar and take extra effort.

Refugees may also not want to reveal that they’re from North Korea or can have trouble sharing past experiences. Some may also experience prejudice against North Koreans for their accent or stereotypes, such as being uneducated or untrustworthy.

Overall, although life in freedom brings many advantages and benefits, it comes with some unexpected challenges. Before their escape, North Koreans may have only heard good things or focused on the positives. Moving to a foreign place and building a new life from scratch is difficult for anyone, and can be especially challenging for North Korean refugees.

Impact of the Pandemic

During the pandemic, refugee numbers have been at an all time low. Unprecedented restrictions on movement and surveillance have made the journey through China and Southeast Asia almost impossible.

The number of North Korean refugees who have resettled in South Korea


On the resettlement side, refugees have also struggled as some support programs were scaled back or cut altogether. Many have felt especially lonely during this time or found it difficult to work towards their goals.

Agents of Change

Despite all odds, North Korean refugees are some of the most powerful examples of human resilience. When they have the support they need to successfully resettle in freedom, they can become some of the most effective agents of change on this issue.

Resettled North Korean refugees

Defectors are embracing and taking pride in their identity, sharing their stories on the global stage as YouTubers, entrepreneurs, and advocates. When they reclaim the narrative on North Koreans, they directly challenge the regime’s portrayal of their country.

North Korean refugees also have the unique opportunity to affect change inside North Korea through remittances. Many maintain contact with their home communities and send money back to their families, helping people inside and accelerating change at the ground level.

The Support of a Movement

Reaching freedom is just the first step. LiNK is dedicated to working with North Korean refugees to help build their capacity and realize their full potential in their new lives! We do this by:

  • Organizing workshops for entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more
  • Facilitating a 1:1 English tutoring program
  • Sponsoring scholarships for North Korean students pursuing higher education
  • Providing a community of ongoing support and resources

A North Korean Refugee who has resettled in South Korea
“I’m touched by LiNK’s supporters. I can feel their genuine heart. Before I learned more about LiNK, I just thought that I came out through a rescue network. I never imagined that so many people have been rooting for us and that it’s a bigger movement than just rescues. Now that I know all of you helped us with kind hearts, I want to succeed and do good things for others in South Korea.”

– Yuna, escaped through LiNK’s networks and resettled in 2021

We’re only able to provide this crucial support with your help. Donate today to keep these programs running.

Your generous donation will rescue and support North Korean refugees
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