Listen to the story of Kim Jong Il kidnapping Korea’s most famous actress and director
Many people in the West are fascinated by the oddities and incongruities of the Kim dynasty who have ruled North Korea since the 1950s. Kim Jong Il in particular gained a reputation as an eccentric man-child with a penchant for luxury goods. Often tales of his predilection for Hennessy cognac and Hollywood movies have gained more traction than any about the suffering of the people of North Korea under his regime.
But sometimes the stories are so incredible they’re difficult not to pay attention to. One such tale is the time that Kim kidnapped one of Korea’s most famous actresses and its most famous directors (who also happened to be her ex-husband). Choi Eun-hee was a very popular actress in the 1950s and 60s and also happened to be the star of many movies directed by her then-husband, Shin Sang-ok. Shin was a very well-renowned director who directed and produced hundreds of films in Korea under his production company which Choi helped him run. Shortly after their divorce in the late 70s Shin’s production company was shut down by Park Chung-hee’s dictatorial government for failing to follow their censorship guidelines.
Around the same time Kim, who was a self-styled film expert owning tens of thousands of videos and DVDs by the time he died, was convinced radical steps were needed to improve the terrible quality of North Korean cinema. Seeing Shin was now out of work, he decided to kidnap the director and his actress ex-wife without each knowing about the other and bring them to North Korea for that very purpose.
The couple was reunited after being held separately for a number of years and were given license to create films using whatever budget they wanted (although under strict supervision from the regime). After working on several productions the couple fled to an American embassy during a trip to Vienna and plead asylum. The couple moved back to South Korea in the mid-90s and have told their tale a number of times since then in their Korean-language autobiographies.
This story may not be new but it was recently told again and in more depth in a book released earlier this year called A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History. The author, Paul Fischer, was interviewed for this week’s episode of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life. The segment is about 20 minutes long and well worth the listen. It examines and unravels the perverse contradiction of being forcibly held against one’s own will to be given full artistic freedom on a scale Shin had never experienced back in South Korea and how unimaginable can bring a divorced couple back together.
It starts about 4 minutes into the episode.