Cinema can portray human contrast and conflict like no other art form. The images visualize the differences and similarities so precisely. The grief and disparities that even millions of words may not be able to convey. In Escape from Mogadishu, we see two groups of people who share the same language and culture. They once called themselves brothers until they got divided by a border. They are now each other’s nemesis because they have different political ideologies. What a world we live in.
Ryoo Seung-wan’s film, Escape from Mogadishu depicts South and North Korean embassy workers trapped in Mogadishu during the Somali Civil War in the 1990s. With no outside help from their governments, the diplomats plan an escape on their own. The film, inspired by real events, captures their enthralling journey to reach their home country.
‘Escape from Mogadishu’ Plot Summary
In the 1980s, to become a member of the UN, South Korea, and North Korea sent their diplomats to Africa, which has the largest number of member states in the UN. Their main objective was to impress the African state government and earn testimony to help the Korean country achieve a seat in the UN. Following the diplomatic war, the South Korean government sent its diplomats to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
Kang Dae-jin (Jo In-sung), a South Korean intelligence officer, arrived in Mogadishu in 1990. At the airport, he meets the South Korean Embassy Ambassador, Han Shin-Sung (Kim Yoon-seok), and his secretary, Gong Soo-cheol (Jung Man-sik). Counselor Kang brings gifts for Somali President Barra to help Ambassador Han gain diplomatic favor in the UN.
Han and Gong quickly leave to meet President Barra, but they are attracted to and robbed by Somali thugs on their way. The diplomats reach the palace on foot, but Barra refuses to meet them.
Han finds out that he is meeting with their rival, the North Korean Ambassador, Rim Yong-su (Heo Joon-ho). Ambassador Han surmises that his North Korean counterpart is playing dirty tricks to gain Barra’s favor. In the meantime, North Korean intelligence officer Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan) meets the thugs who attacked South Korean diplomats. He pays them off and takes the briefcase stolen from Ambassador Han.
The tricks and games continue when suddenly, General Aidid of the United Somali Congress ignites a rebellion against dictator Barra. Somali rebels demand the release of Islamic leaders arrested by the government. The civilians seize the streets, and amid chaos, a lockdown is imposed in Mogadishu. In a state of national emergency, diplomatic rights cease, and diplomats from other countries are stranded in Mogadishu.
Major Spoilers Ahead
No Outside Help
Ambassador Han tried to contact a travel agent to send his family back to South Korea. However, when they visited the shop, everything was closed down. During the civil uprising, the communication system broke down. The diplomats failed to inform their government about the emergency.
Counselor Kang got into a brawl with a Somali police officer who refused to provide security to the South Korean Embassy. After a hustle, the government finally sent a few gun-bearers to protect the embassy workers from the violent mob. Han and Kang arrived at Mogadishu airport to arrange a way out, but diplomats weren’t allowed to board an aircraft unless their government had sent it.
Soon, the situation became worse as the rebel troops arrived in Mogadishu. The ferocious gunfight between the government and the rebels led to mass death and destruction. The army imposed travel restrictions, and diplomats were stranded in the embassy with no electricity, water, or communications.
An Unusual Truce in Foreign Lands
North Korean counselor Tae decided to travel to Kismaayo Port, 500 kms away from Mogadishu. From there, he planned on taking a boat to Kenya. Tae tried to arrange travel passes through indirect means; however, he was tricked by the rebels. The armed rioters attacked the North Korean embassy and looted it.
With no food, medicine, and shelter, Ambassador Rim decided to take refuge in the Chinese Embassy. The families discreetly made their move, but on their way, a mob blocked their way. Helpless, the North Korean diplomats and their families retreated. Ambassador Rim had only one safe portal to save his family and thus decided to seek help from their adversary, the South Koreans.
Putting away their pride for the safety of their family, Rim and Tae reached the South Korean embassy. Believing in humanity, Han let North Koreans in, but Somali guards left the embassy as they demanded extra money for extra heads to protect. The two ambassadors decided to put their differences aside and help each other leave Somalia. They combined their intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to find a safe route out.
Han approached the Italian embassy while Rim went to the Egyptian Embassy to seek help. They both agreed to see if they could crack a route and, if possible, promised to help each other in times of dire need.
‘Escape from Mogadishu’ Ending Explained
Rim failed to find any help from the Egyptian Embassy. However, Ambassador Mario at the Italian embassy informed Han that they had a Red Cross medical plane to take them out of Mogadishu. But the Italians didn’t have diplomatic ties with the North Koreans, and thus they refused to help them. To support his new ally in the name of humanity, Han lied to Mario that North Korean diplomats had defected to their side. Ironically, the governments were much more interested in defected diplomats and quickly agreed to help. Why? The intel and the pride they could flaunt to the world.
Han and Kang brought cars from the Italian embassy, but reaching back without any collateral was a matter of luck. Hence, Rim suggested covering their cars with books and banks to protect them from the bullets.
The convoy left for the Italian embassy during Adhan. The cars reached the military barricade. However, the vehicles were so closely packed that officers couldn’t check their IDs. Secretary Gong struggled to wave a white flag from a car, but one of the soldiers in the building perceived it as a gun. He quickly raised the alarm, and the Somali soldiers started shooting the Korean convoy.
After a massive chase and struggle, the convoy finally reached the Italian Embassy. Tae’s car was last to arrive, who a military officer was following. Tae procured bullet wounds and died on the spot. Grieving over the loss, the survivors finally boarded the red cross and reached Mombasa airport in Kenya.
The Last Act of Humanity
In Mogadishu, Han lied to his seniors that North Koreans had defected to their side because the North Koreans had no diplomatic relations with Kenya. The government probably believed that evacuating North Koreans from riot-stricken Mogadishu would portray them as heroes. However, Han knew that it would also make them traitors in North Korea.
Han feared that when Rim knew the truth, he would probably hate him. But on the plane, Rim informed Han that he had contacted Pyongyang from the Italian Embassy, and his government had made arrangements.
As the plane arrived in Kenya, the South Korean officials arrived to take the detectors. Counselor Kang cunningly asked his officials and family to move out of the aircraft before the North Koreans so that they could create a diversion for them. Han asked his new allies not to greet or acknowledge him once they stepped off the plane, or they would be labeled traitors in their respective countries. Their sweet but humble truce ended on the plane. The borders were about to be drawn again.
Kang and Han rushed to their director and took him to the car, while North Korean officials took their countrymen to their respective vehicles. The unspoken words, the unheard acts of humanity, the friendship no one knew about, spoke the loudest in these last moments. Han and Rim and their respective families didn’t look at each other in the airport, but they felt the last departure in their hearts.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan stimulates a lot of emotions through some really memorable visual shots that create undefinable contrasts. For example, while Koreans leave for the airport, Ryoo captures a South Korean kid inside the bus looking at Somali children raising guns in their innocence. An entire generation will be raised with guns in their hands instead of toys and books. A conflict we will never be able to overcome. The loss of innocence and the introduction of violence at such a tender age will breed hatred in this already dying world.
Maybe Han understood this fact, so he decided to shed his political indifference and help Rim. Diplomats from both countries have seen enough blood to make them realize that war is never a solution but a blind ignorance of humanity. What makes Escape from Mogadishu special is that it depicts how we are so similar in our skin, emotions, culture, and language, only if we look beyond our differences.
Escape from Mogadishu is a 2021 South Korean Drama film written and directed by Ryoo Seung-wan.