Abduction of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee

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The abduction of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee occurred in North Korea between 1978 and 1986. Shin Sang-ok was a famous South Korean film director married to actress Choi Eun-hee. Together, they established Shin Film and made many films through the 1960s which garnered recognition for South Korea at various film festivals.[1] In 1978 Choi was abducted and taken to North Korea to meet North Korea's soon-to-be dictator Kim Jong-il.[2] The abduction of Shin followed six months later.

After three years in prison, Shin was united with Choi, and the two were instructed by Kim Jong-il to make films for him in order to gain global recognition for North Korea's film industry.[3] After making many films for Kim, in 1986 Choi and Shin escaped from North Korean supervision to a US embassy while in Vienna.[4]

Kim Jong-il and film[edit]

Kim Jong-il joined the Propaganda and Agitation Department in 1966 and soon became director of the Motion Picture and Arts Division.[5] He was a big fan of films, with a library of 15,000 at his disposal. As director he reached the public with films and operas homogenous in theme: pride in the nation and specifically in Kim Il-sung. Charles K. Armstrong writes in his book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World 1950-1992, that "Kim took North Korean arts in a direction that seemed specifically designed to ensure his father's favor: under his guidance, new films and operas focused as never before on the anti-Japanese struggle of Kim Il Sung and his comrades in Manchuria during the 1930's".[6]

Kim Jong-il was frustrated with his films in the early 1970s. He could tell that in contrast to the other films being released globally, his were stiff and lifeless. His diagnosis was a lack of enthusiasm from his actors and crew. Bradley K. Martin, author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, explains this while quoting a 1983 tape recording of Kim: "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." [7]

He needed fresh and passionate voices that would advance North Korean cinema. In the grand scale of Kim Jong-il's plan, further excerpts from the recording went as follows: "If we continually show Western films on television, show them without restraint, then only nihilistic thoughts can come about... all those things, patriotism, patriotism – we have to increase this, but we only make them idolize Western things... So we must advance the technology before opening... thus, because of this, I want to give rights to a limited degree." [8]

Choi's capture[edit]

Actress Choi Eun-hee was abducted in Hong Kong when she was propositioned to direct a film and possibly run a performing academy in a Hong Kong school.[9] She was taken from Repulse Bay and arrived in Nampo Harbor, North Korea, on January 22, 1978. She was housed in a luxury villa called Building Number 1.[10] She toured the city and was shown Pyongyang as well as Kim Il-sung's birthplace, among other landmarks and museums.[11] She was given a tutor who instructed her on the life and achievements of Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il took her to movies, operas, musicals, and parties. He asked her opinion on various films and respected her perspective. It was five years before she knew that she had been kidnapped as bait for Shin.[12]

Shin's capture[edit]

After Choi disappeared, Shin Sang-ok began searching for her. They had been divorced and Shin had another family at that time. Shin had also been struggling with the South Korean government because his film license for Shin Studios had been revoked. He had been traveling the world searching for one of his films to be greenlit so that he could acquire a resident visa. Six months after Choi's capture, Shin was in Hong Kong and was captured as well.[13] He also was given lavish accommodations but wasn't told what happened to Choi. After two escape attempts, he was sent to prison for his disobedience. On February 23, 1983, Shin received a letter saying he was to be released from jail. On March 7, 1983, Shin and Choi were reunited at a party hosted by Kim Jong-il.[14]

Films[edit]

Shin and Choi were shown Kim Jong-il's vast personal film library. He had collected over 15,000 films from around the world. The couple was instructed to watch and critique four films per day. Mainly the films were from the communist bloc but there were also the occasional Hollywood films. Shin and Choi had respect for Kim's film knowledge and perspective. Eventually Kim shared how he wanted Shin to direct a film and enter it into an international contest. Shin would have an office at Choson Film Studios in Pyongyang.[1] Kim was aware that the internal propaganda slant of his films might not appeal to an international audience and garner spots in international contests, so he allowed Shin to broaden the subject material and select themes that would be more acceptable abroad.[3] Shin began work on October 20, 1983.[1] Shin and Choi won an award for one of their films at a festival in Czechoslovakia. The final and most expensive film that they made under Kim Jong-il was called Pulgasari, which was heavily influenced by the recently popular Godzilla films.[1]

Their films included the following:

  1. An Emissary of No Return (Doraoji annun milsa). Made in 1984. Based on a stage play called Bloody Conference written by Kim Il-sung. In the film, Ri Jun, a Korean emissary at The Hague International Peace Conference in 1907 tries to convince the international community to help reverse the Japanese-Korean Protective Treaty of 1905, which left Korea under Japanese leadership. Ri Jun delivers a speech at the conference and when he doesn't win support from the Western powers, he commits hara-kiri in front of the diplomats. Shin shot sections of the film in Czechoslovakia and used European actors, something never done before in North Korean cinema.[15]
  2. Love, Love, My Love (Sarang sarang nae sarang). Made in 1984. A take on the ancient Korean folk tale, The Tale of Chunhyang. The film was shot as a musical and featured a first in North Korean cinema, a slightly veiled kiss between the two leading actors. Chunhyang falls in love with Mongnyong, a wealthy aristocrat, but he must leave to the capital to train to be a government official. While he is gone, a new governor takes over the province and falls for Chunhyang. When rejected, he imprisons her. Just before she is about to be executed, Mongnyong returns to save her.[15]
  3. Runaway (Talchulgi). Made in 1984. A story set in the 1920s in the Japanese colonial period. Protagonist Song-ryul and his wife (played by Choi Eun-hee) live in poverty. The family moves to the Gando area of Manchuria looking for a better life, but their suffering persists. Song-ryul joins the ranks of the Kim Il-sung group and once he is with the guerrillas, he blows up a Japanese army train.[15]
  4. Salt (Sogum). Made in 1985. A story set in Gando in the 1930s. In the film, Choi Eun-hee plays Song-ryul's wife. The family hides a wealthy Korean-Chinese merchant, and the father is killed in a fight between the Japanese police and the Chinese bandits. She believes that her husband died because of the communists. Then Choi, in poverty, asks for the Korean-Chinese merchant's help, but he rapes her. After a series of tragedies, a neighbor tells her about a lucrative illegal business: smuggling salt. While she is smuggling salt, the group she is with is attacked by the Japanese, and a communist group saves her. She discovers that the communists were actually the ones fighting for the common people and sets out to join them. Choi won best actress at the Moscow Film Festival for this role.[15]
  5. The Tale of Shim Chong (Simcheongjeon). Made in 1985. Shin directed a musical version of this classic tale of filial piety. Shim Chong lives with her blind father. She sacrifices herself so that his blindness can be cured, so she is taken by merchant sailors. They toss her overboard and she goes down to the palace of the God of the Sea. She is put back on land inside of a giant floating orchid. She is found by the king, and they fall in love and are married. In the end, Shim Chong is reunited with her father, and he is healed of his blindness.[15]
  6. Pulgasari. Made in 1985. This film was heavily influenced by the popular Godzilla films at the time. It is about a farmers' uprising in medieval Korea. A little girl pricks her finger while sewing, and when the blood falls on a little dragon toy made out of rice, it comes to life as a monster. It fights for the farmers and smashes the emperor's palace. Nevertheless, his appetite is so big that he starts eating the farmers' tools, so the girl who spawned it decides to sacrifice herself by disguising herself as Pulgasari's food. When the monster accidentally eats the girl, he explodes and dies.[15]

Escape[edit]

To defend themselves should they ever escape North Korea, Choi and Shin decided to sneak in a tape recorder to their conversations with Kim Jong-il so they would have proof that they didn't willingly leave the South. In one recorded conversation on October 19, 1983, Kim spoke openly about his plot to kidnap Shin and Choi to upgrade North Korea's film industry. He told Shin and Choi that it would be best if they spoke to the press saying that they came to North Korea voluntarily.[1] Shin and Choi attended a press conference on April 12, 1984 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia where they said they were in North Korea by their own choosing.

After finishing Pulgasari, the two were in talks with Kim about another film when they took a trip to Vienna in 1986. The New York Times posted an article on March 22, 1986 announcing that the couple got away from their North Korean caretakers and sought political asylum in the US embassy.[16]

Following their escape, Shin lived in the United States for many years working in the film industry before returning home to South Korea. North Korea issued a statement denying the claims that Shin and Choi had been kidnapped and instead maintained that Shin and Choi had voluntarily defected to North Korea with a large amount of North Korean money.[4]

Recent accounts[edit]

After the release of Paul Fischer's book, A Kim Jong-Il Production, in 2015, the abduction of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee piqued the interest of those outside Korea. Vanity Fair documented a screening of Pulgasari in Brooklyn, New York, in April 2015.[17] The Washington Post suspects a film will be made retelling the story.[18] BBC Radio Four broadcast a 90-minute dramatisation in September, 2017.[19]

In January 2016, at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, a documentary about the North Korean ordeal, entitled The Lovers and the Despot and directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, was presented.

The French TV mini-series, Kim Kong, produced by Arte, written by Simon Jablonka and Alexis Le Sec, directed by Stephen Cafiero and starring Jonathan Lambert, is based upon these events.[20]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Fischer, Paul (February 3, 2015). A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power. Flatiron Books. ISBN 978-1250054265.
  2. ^ Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 326. ISBN 0-312-32221-6.
  3. ^ a b Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 334. ISBN 0-312-32221-6.
  4. ^ a b Armstrong, Charles K. (2013). Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 238 ISBN 080-146-893-0.
  5. ^ Armstrong, Charles K. (2013). Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 210 ISBN 080-146-893-0.
  6. ^ Armstrong, Charles K. (2013). Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 211 ISBN 080-146-893-0.
  7. ^ Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 333. ISBN 0-312-32221-6.
  8. ^ Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 336. ISBN 0-312-32221-6.
  9. ^ Fischer, Paul (February 3, 2015). A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power. Flatiron Books. p. 86 ISBN 978-1250054265.
  10. ^ Fischer, Paul (February 3, 2015). A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power. Flatiron Books. p. 96 ISBN 978-1250054265.
  11. ^ Fischer, Paul (February 3, 2015). A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power. Flatiron Books. p. 113 ISBN 978-1250054265.
  12. ^ Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 327. ISBN 0-312-32221-6.
  13. ^ Fischer, Paul (February 3, 2015). A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power. Flatiron Books. p. 124 ISBN 978-1250054265.
  14. ^ Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 0-312-32221-6.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Schönherr, J. (2011). The North Korean Films of Shin Sang-ok Ritsumei.ac.jp
  16. ^ Times, Special to the New York (23 March 1986). "Rumors Reappear with South Korean Couple". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 6 November 2017. 
  17. ^ Romano, N. (April 6, 2015). "How Kim Jong Il Kidnapped a Director, Made a Godzilla Knockoff, and Created a Cult Hit". Vanity Fair.
  18. ^ Martin, B. K. (January 30, 2015). "Book review: "A Kim Jong-Il Production,’ on filmmaking under duress, by Paul Fischer", The Washington Post.
  19. ^ "Episode 1, Lights, Camera, Kidnap!, Drama - BBC Radio 4". BBC. Retrieved 6 November 2017. 
  20. ^ "France's finest". Dramaquarterly.com. Retrieved 6 November 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Breen, Michael (2011). Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader (2nd ed.). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781118153796. 
  • Bärtås, Magnus; Ekman, Fredrik (2015). All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea. Toronto: House of Anansi. ISBN 978-1-77089-881-3. 
  • Choi Eun-hee (2007). Ch'oe Ŭn-hŭi ŭi kobaek: yŏnghwa poda tŏ yŏnghwa kat'ŭn sam 최 은희 의 고백: 영화 보다 더 영화 같은 삶 [Confessions of Choi Eun-hee] (in Korean). Seoul: Random House Korea. ISBN 9788925513997.