How Kim Jong-Il Kidnapped Two Of The Biggest Names In The South Korean Film Industry

In a tale almost too strange to be true, a North Korean autocrat kidnapped a couple and forced them to make movies in the 1970s. This is the true story of how Kim Jong-il took a famous South Korean movie star couple and kidnapped them, and the movies they made while captured.

Vanity Fair reports that Kim Jong-il believed movies were a perfect vehicle for pro-North Korea propaganda. Actress Choi Eun-Hie (sometimes spelled Choi Eun-hee) had an extensive acting resume — she starred in 87 films between 1949 and 1985 (via IMDb). By the time she was kidnapped in 1978, she was a big-name actress with tons of acting experience (via The Korea Times).

She was kidnapped from South Korea by the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, for that exact reason, according to CNN. He was a film buff who loved her movies. Choi says that he actually told her she was his favorite actress. Kim wanted her to make lots and lots of movies for North Korea, in order to revive their movie industry.

Horrible prison conditions

Actress Choi Eun-Hie and director Shin Sang Ok originally married in the mid-1950s, but they split up when Shin cheated on Choi with another actress, as Korea JoongAng Daily reports. Regardless, when Choi was kidnapped, her ex-husband, Shin Sang Ok, began searching for her. That was just what North Korean leader Kim Jong-il wanted, because Shin was a pretty famous name in the film industry, too. Starting in 1952, Shin made dozens of movies, sometimes directing four or five per year (via IMDb).

When Shin went after Choi in North Korea in 1978, he was captured. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to a men's prison camp. As The New York Times reports, Shin refused to make any movies during the first half of his time in prison, because he did not want to create government propaganda. Shin says he suffered mightily for the refusal (via The Guardian). He spent four years in a men's prison without Choi, not knowing if she was dead or alive. The conditions in the men's prison camp were horrific — Shin says he ate mainly rice, salt, and grass during his stay there. He was subjected to constant attempts at party indoctrination. As Shin later revealed, he really hated communism, but in order to survive, he had to pretend to go along with Kim's wishes. As for Choi, she said in an interview that she was terrified of being chased by North Korean agents, a fear that never left her (per Korea JoongAng Daily). 

Released from prison, but not free

Vanity Fair reports that Choi was imprisoned in better conditions than her ex-husband ("pampered imprisonment"), but they both realized there would be no escape unless they committed to the communist party.

But then one day, Kim just let Shin and Choi go, saying Shin could film whatever he felt like creating, reports the The New York Times. It was 1983, and Kim hosted a grand party (per The Guardian). He invited Choi and Shin, and explained to them that he didn't care for the blandness of other North Korean movies, and thought the actor and director could improve on the art form. Kim even apologized for the past four years of imprisonment, saying he hadn't freed them sooner because he was a little busy. 

The duo ended up making 17 movies in North Korea, per CNN. They both have praised Kim's production on their films, saying that he gave them ample funds to create the flicks. Per The Guardian, Kim gave them a generous $3 million annual salary, but he also required that Shin run all his ideas by him just to make sure they followed party ideology. He controlled other parts of their lives, too: though the couple were also divorced by that time, Kim Jong-il insisted they remarry, reports The Korea Times.

Choi and Shin escape to America

Perhaps the most famous film they created was a campy monster movie called "Pulgasari," which has gained cult status and is still shown in some U.S. movie theaters today (via Vanity Fair). Kim Jong-il was apparently a huge fan of the movie, too. The New York Times reports that Shin claimed he made his best movie, "Runaway," during his time in North Korea. 

"Pulgasari" was actually the reason that the two managed to escape. They had already tried to flee twice, but they were caught and returned to North Korea (via The Korea Times). Shin and Choi only escaped their movie-loving captor after eight years (via CNN). They were allowed to travel in moderation, with permission from Kim, and they were given a business opportunity in Vienna related to "Pulgasari," Vanity Fair reports. They quickly sought help from the U.S. embassy there, and moved to the United States in 1989, where he created the "3 Ninjas" films for Disney. Shin and Choi returned to South Korea in 1994.

Apparently, Kim Jong-il absolutely loved "Pulgasari," at first, despite the movie's flaws. But he was furious about the couple's escape, and banned "Pulgasari" and all of Shin's other movies from North Korea forever. (For those who are curious, the movie is available in its entirety, with English subtitles, on YouTube.) Kim also dropped Shin's name from the movie's credits, declaring him a traitor. With the monster movie as Shin and Choi's legacy, the story of their kidnapping transformed North Korean cinema forever.