Remember the hissy fit North Korea pitched over Seth Rogan’s cinematic turd fest The Interview? From their reaction, you’d think the famously repressive country had something against the silver screen. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. After Kim Jong-il died in 2011 (he was the one in jumpsuits) it came out that the former Dear Leader was a huge movie buff, with a dedicated smuggling system implemented just so he could watch western cinema. In his twenties, he was appointed Cultural Arts Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department. The Department started churning out movies, intended to inspire millions of citizens and cement the country’s supremacy in their minds.
The citizens ate it up. After all, they’d never seen movies before. How would they know the movies actually sucked? But Kim Jong-il knew and it tore him apart to be releasing such a substandard project. So he came up with a plan.
North Korea had never been squeamish about abducting foreigners. Women were kidnapped by agents posing as South Korean businessmen. Fishing boats were often boarded. Often times, people disappeared and no one ever knew what happened to them, and never suspected they were languishing on the other side of the Korean border. So when Kim Jong-il decided he needed movie experts, he simply ordered his soldiers to take them.
They took Choi Eun-hee first, a glamourous, award winning actress in South Korea. Lured to Hong Kong for a bogus production meeting, she was thrown on a ship that brought her to one of the Dear Leader’s palaces. She saw Kim Jong-il often, and he showered her with gifts and compliments, trying to make her forget that she was a prisoner
Her ex-husband, celebrated South Korean director Shin Sang-ok had a harder time. He spent some time locked up, and after a failed escape attempt he was moved to one of the infamous prison camps, where inmates are tortured and starved. After 4 years Kim Jong-Il organized a public reunion for the couple (who did not know the other was in North Korea) and told them his plan. They were going to revitalize North Korean cinema.
The couple made melodramas, love stories (the first movie shown in North Korea that depicted romantic love, not the love a citizen has for the Motherland) and one particularly crazy Godzilla rip-off.
They slyly managed to get the point across to North Koreans that the rest of the world was different from what they’ve been taught (if all capitalist countries were supposed to be hell holes, then why did they have such tall buildings and rich-looking citizens?). It wasn’t all bad for Shin and Choi. The couple reconciled and also enjoyed having a surprising amount of creative freedom in the industry.
But they never gave up hope they could leave. Kim Jong-il had given them permission to leave the country to go to film festivals. To show how prosperous North Korea was, he even gave them gold watches to show off, which were confiscated as soon as the festival was over. Scared of getting caught, it took the couple years to shake their guards and ask for asylum, but they finally did, to the apparent shock of Kim Jong-Il who thought they were having a great time.
This book is bananas. I’m still not sure how much of it is true, because Fischer is pretty lazy with his sourcing. He also has a tendency to make things more dramatic, as if this story weren’t crazy enough. But I don’t care. It all still sounds totally plausible and honestly, it’s still not even the third weirdest thing I’ve read about this country. Fans of real-life-is-crazier-than-fiction accounts, or just fans of good stories should pick up a Kim Jong-Il Production.