Choi Eun-hee knew there were problems before the needle knocked her out.
It was 1978 and Choi, one of South Korea’s most famous actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had at the beginning of her career. The promise of a possible film partnership from a man who claimed to be from Hong Kong had drawn her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront location in the southern part of Hong Kong, where she got out of a vehicle and noticed a group of men walking nearby of a boat. Choi sensed something was wrong, but before she could think about it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown on board.
When she woke up, Choi was in the captain̵
About eight days after her abduction, Choi was in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been subjected to violence and turned over to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, it was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who was soon to join them involuntarily) were exactly the people the country needed to usher in a new era in North Korean filmmaking and let the whole world sit up and pay attention.
That both Choi and Shin would be prisoners of the state was of little importance to those responsible. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were There. And Kim had no intention of letting her go.
Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as the leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films – including much pornography – and ordered traveling diplomats to return copies of international films for his pleasure. Kim even penned a book in 1973 About the art of cinema, that was intended as a guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a unique, unified vision and complained that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. Kim was all but ignored by the rest of the movie world and wanted the North to produce features that would be accepted by film festivals.
At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to meet its need for trained workers simply by kidnapping. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; Between 1977 and 1978, they kidnapped five South Korean students who were becoming instructors for future undercover Nordic agents. They also tried to kidnap a concert pianist once who became aware of the situation when he arrived at his private appointment and overheard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim followed a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way of achieving his film goals.
Choi was only part of the plan. When she was grabbed, Shin began to look desperately for her. The two, once considered the “golden couple” in South Korea, divorced in 1976 after Shin’s affair with a younger actress, but remained close.
Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar himself. Although his career had also recently cooled, he was a celebrated director once known as the “Orson Welles of South Korea”. Although there are different stories about how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help find his missing ex. And when this trail finally led him to Hong Kong, Shin soon found himself with a bag over his head and was pushed to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned himself to accepting her fate – she lived in a luxurious mansion surrounded by guards – Shin was more combative. After numerous attempts to escape, he was sent to prison.
For four years, Shin ate grass, salt, and rice without seeing Choi or receiving any information about their safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Eventually, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither knowing that the other had been there the whole time.
Kim apologized for the late meeting and said he was busy. Since Shin had been detained for four years, he dismissed this as a misunderstanding. Only then did Kim explain why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, and he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the film business.
None of this was presented as a choice. The couple remarried that same year – also reportedly at Kim’s suggestion.
There were discussions about escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to look for productions, but Shin refused.
“What’s wrong with you?” Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir: Kingdom of Kim. “I won’t try unless it’s 100 percent certain. If they got us, we’d be dead.”
Instead, Shin considered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $ 3 million annually for personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from a few firm edicts – Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan while somehow softening its image of totalitarian terror – Shin had a great deal of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first kiss on screen. He has made Run away, a 1984 film about a Korean wandering family in 1920s Manchuria that Shin believed was the best film of his career.
Best known was that he directed Pulgasari, a monster film clearly inspired by Godzilla Inside was an oversized monster helping an army of peasants trying to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who participated in the Godzilla Films coming to North Korea to aid production and keep it safe. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second to wear the Godzilla suit, appeared as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.
Kim was very pleased with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which had grown to seven films. Some even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually he gave them more and more freedom to travel and finally allowed them in 1986 to take an escorted trip to Vienna in order to win a possible European distributor that would facilitate the distribution of a North Korean film. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.
“Being in Korea, living a good life of your own and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness but torture,” wrote Shin.
The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards, Shin and Choi chased a taxi to the American embassy and declared their eight-year ordeal as creative prisoners of Kim. Within a week they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland and the CIA.
North Korea denied the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had made sure they came back with evidence. She had an audio cassette recorder in her purse during a meeting with Kim, which indicated that they were there voluntarily if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before she escaped, a trick that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government who gathered information about North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice was ever heard.
Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three ninjas knuckle and produced several other films under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They finally returned to South Korea in 1999, despite some South Koreans believing that Shin had gone north and voluntarily committed to communism and treated him with suspicion.
“I couldn’t dare to go back [to South Korea] with no evidence that I was kidnapped north, “Shin said in an interview.” If [the Seoul government] I was accused of traveling to the north alone and of working with the North Koreans. I would have had no evidence to deny this. “
The story of Shin and Choi was examined in depth in the documentary by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan The lovers and the despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng DailyChoi said she was still having nightmares about being followed by North Korean agents. “Although [Kim Jong-il] I haven’t used the right resources to get what he wanted. I understood his desire to develop the North Korean film industry, “she said.” He mentioned that he wanted to make changes in North Korean films that were all similar, directing and acting. But please don’t get me wrong that my forgiveness for him means that I agree to the North Korean system because I don’t. “
Although North Korea never admitted kidnapping the couple, Kim Jong-il got clean in 2002 when he kidnapped several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and formally apologized.
When it finally got a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as stupid. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has not yet had any influence on the international film scene.