Kidnapped By North Korea—How Kim Jong Il Forced South Korean Filmmakers Into Making Movies For Him

That’s one way to “steal” the show.

In 1978, Choi Eun Hee, the leading actress in South Korea, went missing out of the blue. Six months later, her ex-husband and filmmaker, Shin Sang Ok, disappeared too. When the two re-emerged in public again years later, they had the wildest story to unfurl.

Choi Eun Hee and Shin Sang Ok | The Lovers And The Despot

Shin and Choi established “Shin Studios” together and produced many movies throughout the 1960s, garnering recognition for South Korea at various international festivals. It was the very factor that made them a target for North Korea. Kim Jong Il, the son of the then-supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, was a huge cinephile, with a library of 15,000 movies at his disposal. He joined the Propaganda and Agitation Department in 1966 and soon became director of the Motion Picture and Arts Division. In the early 70s, Kim Jong Il was frustrated with the movies being made in his country. He realized that the type of movies North Korea was making were lifeless and couldn’t compete with global standards. He concluded that the reason for these movies not being well-produced is because his country’s entertainers take their job for granted.

The difference, he suggested, was that North Korean film industry people knew that the state would feed them even if they performed only minimally, so they didn’t try hard… ‘Because they have to earn money,’ Kim said, Southern movie industry people expended blood, sweat, and tears to get results.

—  Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

But he was also reluctant to give way to Western-style movies, which, in his opinion, would have corrupted the minds of his countrymen with a “nihilistic” mindset. So, his course of action was to get fresh minds into the mix and create stories that could balance the cinematic aesthetic with the country’s ideologies.

Choi Eun Hee received a proposition from someone posing as a Hong Kong businessman to direct a movie in the country, with the added possibility of running a performing academy there. But when she set foot in Hong Kong, North Korean authorities drugged her and took her from Repulse Bay. She arrived in Nampo Harbor, North Korea, on January 22, 1978. Choi woke up inside a luxury villa called “Building Number 1”. The government gave her a tour of Pyongyang and showed her the historical landmarks and museums. A private tutor was appointed to teach her about the life and achievements of the supreme leader. Kim Jong Il took her to movies, operas, musicals, and parties. Kim would often ask her opinion on movies and showed respect for her perspective. It wasn’t until five years into her abduction that she realized her ex-husband Shin was also captured by the country.

Choi Eun Hee with Merylin Monroe | natgeo.com

After Choi went missing from Hong Kong, Shin began searching for her, even though the two were divorced at that time and Shin had a new family. He was also struggling in his career since the South Korean government revoked Shin Studios’ license. While traveling the world, Shin was hoping that one of his movies would get the green light so that he could acquire a resident visa in a foreign country. Six months after Choi’s abduction, Shin was taken by North Korea from Hong Kong as well. He was given the same luxurious treatment until he got caught trying to escape twice, after which he was sent to prison. In 1983, five years after his abduction, Shin finally realized Choi too had been kidnapped when the two reunited at a party hosted by Kim Jong Il.

(From left to right) Kim Jong Il, Choi Eun Hee, and Shin Sang Ok | The Lovers And The Despot

Kim then instructed the two to watch and critique four films from his collection every day. Eventually, they were appointed to make a movie that could enter international contests. Shin went on to have an office at the Choson Film Studios in Pyeongyang. He was given the liberty to broaden his subject matters beyond North Korea’s internal propaganda. Together, the pair made around 20 movies for Kim. Some of their notable works include An Emissary Of No Return, Love, Love, My Love, Runaway, Salt, The Tale of Chunhyang, and Pulgasari. Some of the movies made by Shin and Choi went on to gain international acknowledgment abroad, and overall, their filmography brought some never-seen-before elements into North Korean cinema. Pulgasari showed a rebranded version of the popular Godzilla movies, while An Emissary Of No Return was the first North Korean movie to have a cast full of foreigners, and The Tale of Chunhyang was the first on-screen love story in the country’s history.

(From left to right) Shin Sang Ok, Kim Jong Il, and Choi Eun Hee | The Lovers And The Despot

But while making these movies, Shin and Choi were also planning their escape from the country. The duo managed to sneak in a tape recorder to collect evidence of their abduction. During a conversation recorded on October 19, 1983, Kim Jung Il spoke openly about his plot to kidnap Shin and Choi to upgrade North Korea’s film industry. He was also heard instructing the two to tell the press that they came to the country willingly.

Once Pulgasari was finished, Choi and Shin went to Vienna in 1986 at Kim’s request to find someone that would finance a biographical film about Genghis Khan. The two checked into Intercontinental Vienna to meet a journalist named Akira Enoki for a supposed interview and managed to convince their guards to leave the room. Once the coast was clear, they asked a hotel employee to alert the US embassy that they were seeking asylum. At around 12:30 pm, they sped away in a cab with Enoki, only to end up being chased by North Korean officials. When they ran into traffic congestion, the duo got out of the car and sprinted into the US embassy. Both of them were able to seek political asylum in the embassy.

Choi and Shin held a press conference in the US after their escape | BBC

The two lived for a few years in Virginia, followed by California, and returned home in 1999. Shin worked in the American film industry under the pseudonym Simon Shin. North Korea, in the meanwhile, denied all responsibility and put out statements claiming that the two willingly came to the country, seeking sanctuary. After returning to South Korea, Shin died in 2006, and Choi passed away in 2018.

Shin Sang Ok in his later years | Korea Film Council

Choi Eun Hee | BBC

This case has piqued the interest of people across the globe, inspiring re-tellings of their stories on pages and on screen. At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, a cinematic adaption of the incident was presented in the World Cinema Documentary Competition with the title, The Lovers and the Despot. The film was directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam. In 2017, BBC Radio Four broadcasted a 90-minute dramatization of the ordeal as well.

Source: BBC and NPR