A beautiful actress kidnapped by an infatuated dictator, a heroic ex-husband looking for answers, a bleak backdrop of authoritarianism. It sounds like the Hollywood blockbuster, but this story was not drawn up in California. Instead, it is the true story of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee in 1970s North Korea.
In 1978 Choi Eun-hee, an iconic South Korean actress, was reported missing. She had been in Hong Kong on business, hoping to expand her acting career by becoming a director, when her trip took an ominous turn. Choi, then in her fifties, recalls being drugged and carried onto a ship. When she awoke she found herself in Nampo harbour, North Korea, standing face to face with the man who had orchestrated her capture: Kim Jong-Il. For five years Choi lived in a heavily guarded villa and was forced to attend extravagant parties, where she was paraded around by the enamoured future dictator.
Choi was cut off from any contact with the outside world and thus unaware that her disappearance caused quite a stir in her home-country. When her ex-husband, Shin Sang-ok, famed South Korean producer and director, reported her missing, he quickly became the prime suspect. In an attempt to clear his name, he travelled to Hong Kong to find his ex-wife. Shortly after, he met the same fate as Choi and was forcibly brought to North Korea to please Kim Jong-Il.
Shin’s fate went from bad to worse when his attempt to escape North Korea by crossing a frozen lake into China was foiled in the winter of 1979 and he was taken to a North Korean prison camp. Torture and violence became part of his daily routine for over two years. Shin suffered greatly until February 23, 1983 when he was released from the camp. Barely two weeks later he was the guest of honour at a party hosted by the very man responsible for his kidnap.
It was at this party that Shin and Choi, who had divorced in 1976, were re-introduced to each other by Kim Jong-Il. At first, Choi did not recognise her ex-husband: he was gaunt and had been visibly injured in the prison camp. They reconnected cautiously in the following hours, both trying to sound out whether the other had succumbed to totalitarian brainwashing. They soon discovered that they shared the desire to flee from North Korea and in their villa, surrounded by armed guards and under constant surveillance, the kidnapped artists began dreaming of freedom.
Both were unaware that Kim Jong-Il had a very different plan for their future. As one of the only North Koreans permitted to watch foreign films, Kim Jong-Il knew that his country was years behind in cinematography. As a self-proclaimed expert, Kim Jong-Il could not allow his nation to produce movies that were anything but magnificent. He was obsessed with film and believed Shin and Choi were masters of their craft. In terms of fame, Shin was regarded as the Steven Spielberg to Choi’s Elizabeth Taylor. Kim Jong-Il, the all-powerful fan-boy, kidnapped his favourite artists to make movies that would put North Korea on the cinematic map.
The couple, who were remarried at Kim Jong-Il’s recommendation, realised that the only way to escape from their captor’s clutches would involve going along with his plans. If they were to be allowed to film abroad, Shin and Choi knew that they needed to be trusted completely. Only then could they eventually attempt to flee. For his part, Kim Jong-Il understood that in order to make great films, he needed to loosen his stranglehold on Shin and Choi, and he eventually agreed to let the couple film parts of their movies in Europe.
Their first film was shot in Prague under heavy supervision, and its release was a momentous occasion in North Korea. Under the country’s strict cinematic laws, no films were permitted to be made abroad. For the first time many people were able to see the world beyond their nation’s borders. The artistic leeway given to Shin Sang-ok was unparalleled. It was this freedom that allowed the kidnapped South Korean artists to create cinema that captured the imagination of thousands of North Koreans. Viewers were enthralled by images of foreign architecture and western fashions. These scenes stirred something inside many North Koreans. They had been indoctrinated to believe that they were living in the most beautiful, prosperous place on earth, yet the silver screen showed them the unfiltered truth. For many people, these scenes provided a temporary escape from an all-controlling dictatorship, which had denied them the world. Future defectors would cite their experience in the cinema as one of the reasons for deserting Kim Jong-Il’s regime.
In his meetings with Shin and Choi, Kim Jong-Il told them that if asked why they came to North Korea they should respond by claiming it was for ‘artistic freedom’. At first this seems painfully ironic, but for Shin, his time in North Korea really was an opportunity for true creative expression. The producer, whose career had come to an end in South Korea, saw his capture as a chance to make the films he had always dreamed of – with his wife and Kim Jong-Il by his side. The dictator was every director’s ideal co-producer: no expense was spared. When Shin asked to blow up a model train, he was instead given a real train – nothing was too extravagant for Kim Jong-Il in his pursuit to perfect North Korean cinema.
On March 12, 1986, Shin and Choi finally escaped while working in Vienna. The couple had made a total of seven movies during their eight years in North Korea. In this time they convinced Kim Jong-Il that they fully supported him and his ideology. He trusted them, and in this trust the two artists finally saw their opportunity to flee.
To us, cinema rarely represents anything more than a brief break from our own lives. A way to escape daily routine and delight in stories of heroism, foolishness or romance.
We forget that cinema can almost literally bring people into an entirely different world. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the story of the tortured and imprisoned filmmakers who, during captivity, managed to find artistic fulfillment and give a glimpse of hope and a sense of freedom to North Koreans.
Read the full essay on newcritique.co.uk
Hannah Streck is a writer, translator and social psychologist who has worked at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the Office for National Statistics. She holds an MA (Hons) in Psychology from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in Social and Cultural Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science.