Arts & Books

Book review: How North Korea’s dictator kidnapped a film star

People bow to statues of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il (PA)

A Kim Jong-il Production
by Paul Fischer
Penguin, £14.99

North Korea’s “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, had a massive land army, an air force and scores of warships to protect him – and even a nuclear arsenal to keep neighbouring countries on their toes. And there was no judicial system, which helped when he wished to imprison or shoot people out of hand. Eerie satellite pictures of his country reveal very few lights on after dark, but he didn’t worry about that because his palace and Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, were brightly lit – albeit strangely devoid of people, except for the privileged few in his inner circle.

So what did he do to fill his spare time? He enjoyed nothing more in the evenings after an excellent dinner than sitting down with a glass of cognac, smoking cigarettes and watching Hollywood blockbusters starring Sean Connery or Elizabeth Taylor.

In this remarkable book, Paul Fischer takes up the story as it suddenly occurred to Kim Jong-il that he should have a “world-class” film industry of his own. Local productions, simply designed to keep his population in step, were boring in the extreme – “tedious stories of loyal factory workers and exemplary farm girls”.

So in 1978, as film directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were making their mark in the US, Kim had the brilliant idea of kidnapping a director and star from South Korea, whose “knowledge and manpower” would stimulate his own cinematic ambitions. After all, as his brainwashed population believed, he was the man who could catch rainbows with his hands. Those who dared to question his rule could end up in one of his vast penal colonies. Idle “chatter, laughter and singing” were forbidden.

Kim Jong-il’s next step almost beggars belief. He ordered a successful commando-type raid on Hong Kong to abduct the “golden couple” of South Korean cinema. The film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress partner, Choi Eun-hee, who had a name for producing “melodramas, thrillers, historical epics and martial arts films full of zooms and moving cameras”, were separately snatched from the harbour, drugged and bundled into a speedboat and then into a freighter by the North Korean “covert operations department.”

“Welcome to North Korea,” said Kim greeting Choi, who was kept under house arrest in cloistered luxury, while Shin – who twice tried and failed to escape – was kept in solitary confinement and indoctrinated, all because of Kim’s determination that he should make award winning movies for the his country. Finally, when Shin relented in 1983, the couple were reunited and put to work by the head of propaganda.

When it was finally believed that Shin and Choi had been thoroughly brainwashed – Kim all of 5ft 2in wearing platform shoes and bouffant hair – invited his “guests” to attend regular feasts and drunken parties thrown for elite members of his Workers’ Party Central Committee, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Although the remainder of the country was in famine – eating frogs and mice – Kim indulged himself with imported exotic foodstuffs. He collected motorcycles and Mercedes and Cadillacs, built luxurious villas, travelled on his own special train and drank expensive brandy; the annual budget for cognac was $700,000.

How was this lifestyle sustained? With loans given to the country by Moscow and Beijing, the proceeds of organised crime and bogus insurance claims made against Allianz Global and Lloyd’s of London. Yet if ever a whisper of this excess or embezzlement got out, executions followed.

There is an ending to the couple’s ordeal, yet it falls disappointingly short of the Hollywood tradition of the “bad guy” getting his just deserts. Eventually assuring Kim that “I will take part in the revolution,” Shin suggested making a propaganda film out of the country. Here, he believed, was a way of escape – by persuading Kim to permit a location shoot abroad in Budapest and Vienna. It seemed that they had built up sufficient trust to be allowed to travel.

Though surrounded by armed guards, Shin and Choi made a dash for freedom in Austria, and after a frantic car chase hid in the American Embassy. From there they were flown to Virginia. Shin subsequently worked again for the Disney Channel and was a juror at the Cannes Film Festival with Clint Eastwood. He died of liver disease in 2006.

Choi moved back to Seoul, where she lives her old age in obscurity, her story scoffed at by neighbours who regard her as a defector, not a former abductee.

Kim Jong-Il died in 2011. And there are no signs that his son, Kim Jong-un, next in line after his father’s death, is any better. He is prone to egocentric outbursts of temper and is ruling over a country which has been rightly called an impenetrable black hole. Certainly, this highly readable book proves that there is barely anything you could make up about the Kim dynasty’s propaganda efforts that wouldn’t seem highly plausible.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (8/5/15).

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