Books

Paul Fischer
A Kim Jong-il Production

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, famously worshipped the movies. Of the thousands of Western films smuggled into the Hermit Kingdom for his enjoyment alone, James Bond resonated with him the most. 

Not only, like Bond, did the dictator lust for fast cars, booze and beautiful women, but he also ordered a spate of kidnappings in the 1970s – straight out of a film script. Snatched off beaches, bundled into body bags and rowed out to sea, foreign citizens were cajoled into teaching language to North Korean spies. Most high profile of Kim’s abductees was the South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband, renowned director Shin Sang-ok. 

London-based film producer and author Paul Fischer’s gripping account describes Choi and Shin’s kidnappings and subsequent eight years in the North. Both were taken, separately, in 1978 during trips to Hong Kong, winding up as Kim’s “guests”. For years, neither had any idea the other was there. 

Choi was invited to lavish dinners hosted by Kim. She was put up in a luxuriously kitsch villa, later described as “Las Vegas-meets-Vladivostok”, and submitted to re-education. In her gilded cage, constantly watched, she battled loneliness and grief for her children. 

Shin, meanwhile, was thrown into prison after twice trying to escape. For two-and-a-half years he was made to sit in the “torture position” – legs crossed, back straight, forbidden to move or speak – for 16 hours a day. Anyone else would have been executed. But Shin was kept alive: Kim had a very specific plan for him. 

Only foreign expertise could inject energy into the staid North Korean film industry. Finally reunited, and cowed into collaborating, Shin and Choi made the North’s first martial arts film and shot the country’s first on-screen kiss. Shin directed the now cult classic monster movie Pulgasari in 1985. A year later, the pair escaped in Vienna, fleeing to the US embassy by taxi, their watchers chasing them in a car. 

Scholars might be put off by the lack of source attribution, so crucial for telling a true story in a novelistic style. Still, it makes for addictive reading. Fischer writes with flourish, portraying Shin, Choi and Kim with nuance while raising the tempo with hair-raising plot turns. Above all, North Korea is exposed as a country in a state of constant performance with just one director at its helm: Kim Jong-il, and now his son, Kim Jong-un.  EA

Viking, 368pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "Paul Fischer, A Kim Jong-il Production ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: EA