The Tragic Life And Death Choi Jin Sil, The “Nation′s Actress” Of South Korea

She and everyone around her suffered even after her death.

Content Warning

This article includes descriptions of suicide or self harm that may disturb some readers.

Choi Jin Sil, often referred to as the “nation’s actress” in South Korea, lived a life riddled with tragedies. A child of divorce, she grew up in a poverty-stricken household with her brother and her single mother, dreaming of one day making it big.

Actress Choi Jin Sil | Wikimedia Commons

After finishing high school, Choi stepped into the entertainment industry through modelling. Her role in a Samsung commercial, where she played the role of a devoted housewife, received popular attention, gaining her the early celebrity status. In 1988, she debuted as a TV actress with her supporting role in the MBC drama, 500 Years of Joseon. Two years later, she debuted in films with North Korean Partisan In South Korea. In her two-decade long career as an actress, Choi went on to star in 18 movies and 20 dramas, appeared in 140 commercials, and won the 33rd Grand Bell Award for Best Actress.

But the sky-scraping career of hers came with a string of personal tragedies. Choi was a victim of toxic internet rumors and cyberbullying, which escalated to unprecedented levels, edging her towards taking a disastrous final step. In 1994, her former manager Bae Byeong Su, an influential figure in the industry then, was killed by her road manager. Choi was summoned as a witness, but rumors spread far and wide that she was involved in the murder too. Though baseless, the speculations dented her public image. In 1995, Choi survived an intense traffic accident and was often a victim of stalking as well. In 1994 and 1998, the actress was nearly abducted.

In 2000, Choi Jin Sil’s marriage to professional baseball player Cho Sung Min became a hot issue in South Korea. In 2001, they had a son, Hwan Hee, and in 2003, the couple welcomed a daughter, Joon Hee. But their married life was far from being a happy one. Throughout their marriage, Cho would use the media to portray his wife as a bad spouse to the public, even though in reality, he was the one at fault. Cho reportedly indulged in marital infidelity, and owed a huge debt to his mother-in-law and brother-in-law. He was also routinely abusive towards Choi, having physically attacked her in 2002, when she was pregnant with their second child. But Cho went to the media and publicized the attack as mutually violent. In 2004, he assaulted her again and in September of that year, he filed for divorce.

Cho Sung Min and Choi Jin Sil’s wedding | Yonhap

By that time, Choi had already charged him with assault. But to win the custody of her children, she had to drop all the charges and even nullify his debt to her family. Though Choi won sole custody of her children in the divorce, Cho was rewarded with visitation rights. The smear campaign that her ex-husband was fueling against her in the media became too much for Choi to handle and she decided to come forward as a victim of domestic violence in 2004. But instead of sympathy, all she got was further punishment.

The Dispatch report of Choi’s domestic abuse

At that time, Choi was the brand ambassador of Shinhan Engineering and Construction. But when she came forward with photographic evidence of her abuse, the company dropped her sponsorship, claiming that she had failed to “maintain dignity” as the brand’s representative as she had disclosed her swollen and bruised face to the public. They also filed a lawsuit, suing her for damages, but Choi won the case.

Choi revealed her bruised face to the public, causing even more animosity against her from her sponsor

In 2005, her career bounced back with the soap opera My Rosy Life, which gained her significant praise from critics and audiences. In 2008, she gave another showstopping performance in the show Last Scandal, and the show’s popularity got the producers to consider a second season. But Choi was gone before it could happen.

In September 2008, Ahn Jae Hwan, the husband of popular comedian Jeong Sun Hee, was found dead in his car. He died by suicide, reportedly due to the stress of his huge debt. Choi was a close friend of Jeong’s, and at his funeral, the actress was visibly disturbed. But shortly after the funeral, rumors spread through the internet that Choi was Jeong’s loan shark, therefore implying that she was the catalyst behind his suicide. Choi sought a police investigation to find out the source of the rumor, and eventually, the police arrested a security company employee who was behind this defamation campaign.

But the numerous stresses of her life caught up with Choi Jin Sil eventually. On October 2, 2008, the actress was found dead, having hung herself. Her death was followed by reports of multiple copycat suicides in the country. Min Seong Gil, a psychiatrist at Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital, said Choi’s death may have triggered what is known as the so-called Werther effect, which ended up causing a 16.23% spike in suicide rates in the country.

Singer Choi Jin Young, brother of Choi Jin Sil, carrying the photo of his late elder sister during a funeral ceremony at a Seoul hospital | The Korea Times

However, even after her death, Choi was disrespected multiple times. On June 4, 2009, the Supreme Court reversed the High Court ruling that was in favor of Choi in the lawsuit Shinhan filed against her. According to the revised ruling of the Supreme Court, Choi was at fault for not maintaining proper “social and moral honor” by disclosing herself as a domestic violence victim. A few days later, Korean Womenlink and the Korea Women’s Association United issued a joint statement criticizing the ruling.

When a person is suffering, he or she needs to restore their dignity and social honor by disclosing the damage and seeking proper legal help as Choi did.

—Director of Korean Womenlink

A month later of this ruling, on August 15, 2009, Choi’s ashes were stolen from her burial site. The police hunted down the thief and discovered the urn containing her ashes in his house. The urn was placed in a new tomb in the Gapsan Park Cemetery, where a small memorial park was built for Choi.

Choi Jin SIl’s new tomb | The Korea Times

Shortly after Choi’s death, her brother and her manager committed suicide, reportedly due to being severely affected by her demise. Choi’s daughter Joon Hee publicly claimed that she had an abusive relationship with her grandmother, who got sole custody of both the children of Choi after her passing. Joon Hee was later revealed to be diagnosed with Lupus, an uncurable and painful autoimmune disease. Four years after Choi’s death, her ex-husband Cho Sung Min also committed suicide.

Actress’s 13-year-old daughter cries for help after being abused by Grandmother for years

Choi Jin Sil, the beloved actress who persevered through immense pain, but had to let go in the end, now lives on through the Choi Jin Sil Foundation, established by her close friends, comedian Lee Young Ja and Jeong Sun Hee, models Hong Jin Kyung and Lee So Ra, and actresses Choi Hwa Jung, and Um Jeong Hwa.

Scroll to top