The dictator who snagged me
When North Korea's film-loving despot Kim Jong-Il kidnapped South Korea's
leading director and his movie-star wife, the screen couple was plunged
into a saga even stranger and more dreadful than the "Godzilla"
knockoff they were forced to make.
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By John Gorenfeld
March 12, 2003 | "The task set before the cinema today is one
of contributing to people's development into true communists ... This
historic task requires, above all, a revolutionary transformation of
the practice of directing." -- Kim Jong Il's "On the Art of
the Cinema" (1973)
"What a wretched fate," Shin Sang-Ok, now 77, remembers thinking
after the meeting with the pudgy man in the gray Mao jacket. "I
hated communism, but I had to pretend to be devoted to it to escape
from this barren republic. It was lunacy."
Shin is a film director of legendary stature in his native country
-- the Orson Welles of South Korea. He modernized movies at a time when
people hungered for art, for escape, following the Korean War. He and
his wife, the well-known actress Choi Eun Hee, were among Seoul's celebrity
set. But in 1978, he ran afoul of the frequently repressive government
of Gen. Park Chung Hee, who closed his studio. After making at least
60 movies in 20 years, Shin's career appeared to be over.
What soon followed, according to Shin's memoir, "Kingdom of Kim,"
was an experience that revived his career in a most unbelievable way.
Shin and his wife were both kidnapped by North Korea's despot-in-training,
Kim Jong Il, who sought to create a film industry that would allow him
to sway a world audience to the righteousness of the Korea Workers'
Party. Shin would be his propagandist, Choi his star.
Shin, reticent to talk about his experiences to an American reporter,
instead allowed a representative to give Salon an English translation
of "Kingdom of Kim," which has only been released in his own
country in Korean. North Korean apparatchiks have tried to cast doubt
on Shin's story, claiming he willingly defected to North Korea and absconded
with millions. But Korea experts find Shin's story believable. Eric
Heginbotham, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is
one of many Kim-watchers who say it's consistent with what is known
about the regime. Pyongyang now admits it captured 11 Japanese citizens
in the late '70s and '80s to act as cultural advisors. Several died
in captivity, some in suicides. "The abduction cases from Japan
were a real eye-opener," Heginbotham says.
And one of the reporters who has met with the couple also says he has
no reason to doubt Shin. Don Oberdorfer, formerly of the Washington
Post and now a respected Korea scholar, says that of the many "questionable"
defectors he has interviewed over the years, these two seemed very trustworthy.
"I made it a practice not to repeat the various yarns about Kim
unless I felt confident from reliable sources they were true,"
he said. "This one I believed."
But it's certainly as fantastical as many of his movies. Shin writes
of being caught trying to escape, and spending four years in an all-male
prison camp as a result, left to assume his wife was dead. Then, just
as suddenly, he was brought into the inner sanctum of Kim Jong Il, the
would-be successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, who ruled the country
for nearly 50 years. Shin's talents would then officially fall to the
service of North Korea, and he would make seven movies before he and
his wife made a breathtaking escape in Vienna in 1986.
Not many have escaped to tell of the habits of the man who is now the
most dangerous dictator in the world -- armed with nuclear and chemical
weapons, and seemingly touched by madness. Shin's stories offer revealing
glimpses of the man now threatening to "destroy the world."
In fact, there is more than a passing resemblance between Kim and the
insatiable Pulgasari, the communist Godzilla rip-off that Shin, at Kim's
request, created for North Korean audiences, and which has become a
camp curiosity for monster movie aficionados.
Shin says that shortly after arriving in Pyongyang he made several
attempts to escape, and was punished with four years at Prison No. 6,
where he lived on a diet of grass, salt, rice and party indoctrination
-- "tasting bile all the time," he writes. "I experienced
the limits of human beings." All the while, he received no word
about his wife (who was held under house arrest) and so assumed the
Then, in 1983, they were both released, and before long, reunited at
a reception thrown by Kim Jong Il. Over soft drinks, the top party official
finally, incredibly, explained why they were there.
"The North's filmmakers are just doing perfunctory work. They
don't have any new ideas," Kim told the couple. "Their works
have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our
movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn't order them to portray
that kind of thing." The couple was stunned.
By 1978, Kim had become disgusted with his Mt. Paektu Creative Group,
a studio that, as explained in Kim's 1973 instruction manual, "On
the Art of the Cinema," was run on the "monolithic guidance"
of party groupthink and named after the mountain where, according to
state myth, a shooting star soared overhead, giving the universe's fiery
approval to the soil of Kim's birth. (Actually, he was born in Siberia.)
Kim told Shin he felt a "profound disappointment" with their
In the 1960s, Kim Il Sung's propaganda machine had created "Sea
of Blood" and "The Flower Girl," films that while regarded
as tedious and crude by South Koreans were products the North was quite
proud of, and were based on revolutionary operas. "Sea of Blood"
is a war hagiography that gives Kim Il Sung exaggerated credit for victories
over Japan in the 1930s. Recently it was still being shown widely, says
Columbia University professor Charles Armstrong, who calls it a tool
for reducing citizen unhappiness in the face of starvation. And like
"Titanic" and its schmaltzy "My Heart Will Go On,"
"Sea of Blood" produced a hit song: "My Heart Will Remain
"Films should contain musical masterpieces like these," Kim
Jong Il writes in his book: "the fusion of noble ideas and burning
passion." He spends most of the book entreating actors and directors,
whom he compares to generals, to master their craft. How? Sheer party
"Actors must be ideologically prepared before acquiring high level
skills," he writes, recommending a kind of Communist method acting.
"No revolutionary actor has ever actually been a Japanese policeman
or capitalist ... To effectively embody the hateful enemy, the actor
requires an ardent love of his class and a burning hostility towards
Kim's book also suggests that filmmakers draw from real life, avoid
creating unrealistic movies about "the colourful lives of flamboyant
characters," and reveals: "In the final analysis, a director
who pins his hopes on finding a 'suitable actor' is taking a gamble
in his creative work. And no director who relies on luck in creative
work has ever achieved real success."
During the same period, in South Korea, Shin Sang-Ok's studio, Shin
Films, had produced a number of box-office hits. He is best known for
a 1968 historical drama called "The Eunuch," about concubines
and emasculated servants unable to consummate their secret love. A popular
theme in Shin's films -- not unlike the Hollywood weepies of the 1950s
-- concerns the plight of women chaffing under the limits of society's
expectations, such as "The Evergreen Tree" (1961), in which
Choi played a reform-minded woman struggling against provincialism to
teach rural children how to read and write. "Though this film does
not directly express class consciousness, the dedication and faith in
the people might be the reason this movie was praised and used as a
textbook for acting in North Korea," writes Korean film critic
Kwak Hyun-Ja. At 17, Choi had run away from home to pursue her dream
of acting, eventually achieving renown in her country as the "Jewel
Ten years after writing that book, the playboy author of "On the
Art of the Cinema" sat across the glass table from Shin and Choi,
two real filmmakers. He blamed misunderstandings by thoughtless officials
for their unfriendly four-year North Korean welcome. He also apologized
for taking so long to get back to them personally, saying it had been
busy at the office.
The idea came to Kim, he said, when he heard that Seoul's repressive,
militaristic Park regime had closed down Shin Films. "I thought,
'I've got to bring him here,'" he said. Infiltrating Shin Films
with agents posing as business partners, Kim explained how he lured
the two to Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. First Choi disappeared on a trip
to discuss an acting job. Then, on the way to dinner one night, Shin
had a sack filled with a chloroform-like substance pulled over his head.
With that, Kim had imported the best film talent the peninsula had to
But Choi had come to the meeting with Kim prepared, according to her
husband's memoir. She had purchased a cassette recorder at a nearby
market for the party inner circle, and smuggled it past the guards of
Kim's lair. It lay in her handbag, and before it came to a stop, it
taped 45 minutes of the dictator laying out his plans for the two: to
serve as role models for his industry, and claim they came to the North
for the creative freedom. "It goes without saying," the leader
said, "that you must say your defection to the North was of your
own free will, and that the South's democracy is bogus."
To both Shin and Choi, the cassette of Kim's 45-minute talk was the
key to a safe return home -- but posed severe dangers as well. "It
was a matter of life or death," Shin said later, in an interview
with a South Korean magazine. They faced execution if the tape was found.
In North Korea, there are strict rules against recording or filming
the top leaders of the party. After the couple had been released, the
tapes were eventually broadcast and discussed in South Korea.
And without the tape, Shin said, "I could not dare to return to
[South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North.
If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own
and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence
to deny it."
But coming home was a long way away. For now, Shin Films was back open
for business -- this time in Pyongyang.
"The capitalist cinema, which promotes a few 'popular stars' to
curry favor with the audience, is in essence a reactionary art form
which reduces the stars to puppets and the film to a commodity. There
cannot be a genuine creative spirit, and the beautiful flower of art
cannot bloom ..." -- "On the Art of the Cinema"
"Shall we make Mr. Shin one of our regular guests?" Kim asked
the crowd at a birthday party for one of his generals, after Shin's
career, and life, was given its new lease. A lot of cognac was being
drunk. The general in question was boasting that he could take Pusan
in a week, tops. Military men marched in a circular review, saluting
Kim. On stage, a bevy of young women jumped up and down screaming, "Long
live the Great Leader!" Most jarring of all was when Kim shook
his arm and made this aside, pointing at the display of fawning: "Mr.
Shin, all that is bogus. It's just pretense."
This puzzling confession, Shin writes, lingered in his mind as he drove
in a Mercedes to the new office of Shin Films. Soon he'd be entrusted
with an annual paycheck of $3 million for personal or professional use,
even as he formulated an escape plan. By following the advice for directors
in "On the Art of the Cinema" -- "BE LOYAL TO THE PARTY
AND PROVE YOURSELVES WORTHY OF THE TRUST IT PLACES IN YOURSELF"
-- he would hope for some opportunity to escape, maybe during a trip
to an Eastern Bloc film festival.
Sometimes resigned to his stay, Shin took comfort in his increasing
material well-being, and in making movies again. When it came to choosing
subject matter, he told the Seoul Times in 2001 that there were "fewer
restrictions than is commonly believed." He said he even introduced
the first kiss to the military-centric North Korean cinema.
All ideas, however, were approved by Kim Jong Il as arms of his ideology,
and were developed in story conferences with him. The dictator wanted
to make crossover movies that would simultaneously project a fearsome
image to the world while somehow improving how North Korea was perceived.
He wouldn't listen when Shin told him that shrill, anti-Japanese movies
would not find widespread appeal.
Shin was free to fly to East Berlin for location shots -- though shadowed
by ever-present escorts. He recalls walking past the U.S. Embassy with
his wife, who tugged at his sleeve and made a face suggesting they run
"What's the matter with you?" he hissed. "I will not
make an attempt unless it's one hundred percent certain. If they caught
us, we'd be dead."
Besides, he was taking his new career seriously, and was eager to get
work done. He even claims that in 1984 he was able to produce the finest
film of his career: "Runaway," the tragic story of a wandering
Korean family of 1920s Manchuria, coping with Japanese oppression and
the dishonesty of their neighbors.
After that, however, came a very different kind of movie. Loosely based
on a legend of the 14th century Koryo monarchy, "Pulgasari"
owes much to "Godzilla." He invited some monster-movie veterans
from Japan to come to his studio, which had swelled to 700 employees,
to help with the picture. When Kim guaranteed their safety, they came
to work on "Pulgasari," including Kempachiro Satsuma, the
second actor to wear the Godzilla suit, who soon dressed up as the lumbering,
google-eyed Pulgasari, who scatters imperialists to the winds but also
finds time to help carry the people's firewood.
[To view a 45 second video clip of "Pulgasari," please click
here. It is available through ADV Films.]
Pulgasari, in fact, is definitely a monster of the people. When the
wicked king oppresses the people, a jailed blacksmith molds a tiny character
out of rice, declaring he will use the last spark of his creative power
to bring the doll to life.
As the farmers are starving under the king's rule, the doll, Pulgasari,
eats iron and grows. The cherubic toddler Pulgasari soon grows into
a horned beast whose clawed foot is the size of a person. And since
this is a movie made under the guidelines of "On the Art of the
Cinema," there are seemingly endless shots of the peoples' folk
dances. During these, Pulgasari can be seen brooding on the outskirts
of the festivities, relaxing against a hill and looking ridiculous.
Finally, Pulgasari leads the farmers' army in an assault on the king's
fortress -- and against thousands of North Korean military troops who
were mobilized and dressed up as extras. Ultimately, the king uses his
experimental anti-Pulgasari weapon, the Lion Gun. (It's hard not to
think "nuke" when the hammy villain delights in his new acquisition.)
But the enterprising Pulgasari swallows the missile and shoots it back
at his oppressors. Finally, the king is crushed beneath a huge falling
Then the movie becomes curiously ambiguous. The beloved Pulgasari turns
on his own people. Still hungry for iron after his victory, Pulgasari
begins eating the people's tools. The confusing conclusion seems to
find salvation in the spirit of the people. When the blacksmith's daughter
tearfully pleads with Pulgasari to "go on a diet," he seems
to find his conscience, and puzzlingly shatters into a million slow-motion
rocks. Then, inexplicably, a glowing blue Pulgasari child is born, waddling
out of the ocean. It's a terrifically bad movie.
The movie can be read in two ways. On one hand, it is a cautionary
tale about what happens when the people leave their fate in the hands
of the monster, a capitalist by dint of his insatiable consumption of
iron. But it is also tempting to read the monster as a metaphor for
Kim Il Sung, hijacking the "people's revolution" to ultimately
serve his purposes. Wondered a fan at StompTokyo.com, "Were these,
as some commentators have speculated, Shin's attempt at subversive editorializing
on the conditions in the country?" Now, of course, "Pulgasari,"
approved and funded by North Korea's even more dangerously unstable
current leader, seems eerily prophetic.
Nonetheless, when the movie was delivered to Kim, he saw it as a great
victory. Trucks pulled up to Shin Films to unload pheasants, deer and
wild geese for the movie crew to feast on. Word came from Pyongyang
-- "The Dear Comrade Leader was delighted with Pulgasari"
-- and many of the workers were moved to tears at the praise.
"The feelings must be continually built up into the decisive moment
for action is reached, and they can be brought to a head. Only in this
way is it possible to generate powerful dramatic tension and emotional
excitement. If the emotions ... do not come to a head at the right moment,
they will fail to make any impression on the audience, because they
will lack credibility." -- "On the Art of the Cinema"
Genghis Khan, or more specifically, John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the
notoriously awful "The Conqueror," was the inspiration for
Shin's last collaboration with Kim. ("The Conqueror," meanwhile,
had its own grim nuclear coda: During filming in Utah, winds blew radiation
onto the set from nearby nuclear bomb testing grounds. Many of the cast
and crew -- including Wayne -- may have contracted cancer as a result.)
"I was sickened at seeing that movie," Shin Sang-Ok said
in 1999. "I did not like American actors appearing in the movie
with mustaches attached beneath their big noses." He had long wanted
to make an authentically Mongolian or at least Asian version. In Kim
Jong Il he found a producer who shared his enthusiasm for the subject
of invading hordes. They agreed that this follow-up to "Pulgasari"
would make a good export, even if it didn't meet with the approval of
Kim's father as a tool for thought control. As Heginbotham puts it:
"By all accounts, [Kim] enjoys movies that his people certainly
would never be allowed to watch."
Shin convinced Kim that the film would have more marketability if distributed
by a European country, rather than unfashionable North Korea. So plans
were made for a joint venture with a company in Austria. Soon, Kim would
trust the director to travel to Western Europe for a business meeting.
As a trip to Vienna approached, Shin writes, a plan began to form.
They had no doubts about wanting to leave their comfortable lifestyle.
"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies
while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony,"
he writes. Then they boarded a plane for Vienna, never to return.
The next month, the New York Times reported that two South Korean film
legends had emerged in Baltimore to meet with American reporters, relating
"a story they found more bizarre than a screenplay." Shin
and Choi first turned up at an American Embassy in Vienna. During a
business trip, they'd been able to escape with the help of a Japanese
movie critic friend of theirs -- who has only been identified in his
report by a codename, "K." Meeting him for lunch, they fled
by taxi to the American Embassy, shaking off one of Kim's agents in
After the embarrassing escape of his star propagandists, Kim Jong Il
shelved "Pulgasari" and every other Shin film. The monster
movie was not seen outside the country until 1998, when, amid a dawning
feeling of openness in North Korean relations with the rest of Asia,
another Japanese critic campaigned for its release -- as an important
work deserving of more attention, and a source of box-office dollars
for the North's disastrous economy. It bombed. In Seoul, a total of
about 1,000 people saw it during its limited release.
Shin Sang-Ok remains controversial. At the Pusan International Film
Festival in 2001, a screening was planned for his favorite work, "Runaway."
But the public prosecutor of Seoul halted the showing by invoking South
Korea's harsh National Security Law, which bans any action that could
benefit the North.
Shin has worked hard to dispel any impression that he remains friends
with his ex-executive producer. In an open letter to the South Korean
president following the Sept. 11 attacks, he wrote that his first reaction
to the World Trade Center collapse was that it was in Kim Jong Il's
nature to do the same to Seoul. Protesting a thawing in relations, and
contending that Kim had not changed, he warned against being fooled
by the North Korean leader. "It is inevitable that North Korea
will collapse," he wrote. "Then how will it end? In a suicidal
Kim Jong Il continues to issue bold words of guidance to his filmmakers.
His words are reprinted on a gigantic placard outside the Revolutionary
Museum of the Ministry of Culture on the outskirts of Pyongyang. One
says, "MAKE MORE CARTOONS." Nearby is an enormous statue of
Kim's father, surrounded by filmmakers and a gargantuan movie camera.
His export hopes continually dashed, Kim Jong Il still finds a way
to make about 60 films a year. He invites potential distributors to
screenings in Pyongyang, the BBC reports, only to be told that the material
he's pitched just won't appeal to Western sensibilities. Now, having
kicked weapons inspectors out of his country, and engaging in a dangerous
game of chicken with the West, he seems to have given up hope that he
can sway anyone through the art of cinema. And that, ultimately, might
prove an ominous sign of things to come.
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About the writer
John Gorenfeld, creator of the Robot Rock Critic, writes for Flak Magazine.