Summer Reading on Abductions I: Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong Il Production

A must read for those interested in the history of North Korea.
June 15, 2016 7:00 AM

Marc Noland and I are not alone; North Korea induces morbid fascination among an array of scholars and journalists, with the more bizarre elements of the regime naturally garnering the most attention. At the top of the bizarre is North Korea’s history of abductions and at the top of the abductions list has to be the case of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok. Shin was one of the most distinguished South Korean filmmakers of his generation, managing to produce both exquisite social drama and cinematic pulp fiction (see our consideration of Korean films of the 1950s here). Choi was his wife and a glamorous star. Both cavorted with the political elite, including Park Chung Hee himself, and had roller coaster lives even before being abducted by North Korea during separate trips to Hong Kong. From 1978 until 1986, when they managed to escape through Europe, the two not only lived under effective house arrest but Shin directed seven films for which Kim Jong Il was effectively the executive producer.

Paul Fischer, himself an independent film producer, has done the extraordinary service of mining Choi’s and Shin’s memoirs—never translated into English—and combining them with a wealth of complementary material to place their story in context; the book is appropriately titled A Kim Jong Il Production. As with so much North Korean, it would be virtually impossible to make up such a story line. But for the purposes of this blog what is most interesting is the insight Fischer’s account provides into the North Korean political system. In Through-the-Looking Glass fashion, Choi and Shin ended up the toast of Pyongyang’s political elite—under the direction of Kim Jong Il—just as they had been in the South. Needless to say, that social world was—to extend the metaphor—Alice in Wonderland.

There is little question that Kim Jong Il personally directed the abduction of Choi and Shin for the purpose of revitalizing the North Korean film industry, which had evolved into his pet project starting in the 1970s. By a chance of timing, both Choi and Shin were at crises points in their South Korean careers when they were abducted, and much of the psychological drama of the book centers on how they adapt to their captivity. While clearly plotting their escape from the beginning, they are also handed a new lease on life. Kim Jong Il effectively places his movie studio at their disposal, with an extraordinary budget and even surprising latitude in introducing a new look to North Korean film. To be sure, the plots were still burdened by ideological baggage. But Fischer shows how Shin was able to push the edge of the envelope due to Kim Jong Il’s preoccupation with the appeal of film, not only at home—where Shin’s films drew rapturous North Korean crowds—but in the international file community to which Kim Jr. actually aspired to play a cameo.

The glimpse into the North Korean elite—replete with smuggled audio tapes of Kim Jong Il himself—is of particular interest because of the likely continuity into the Kim Jong Un era. The first thing of note is the utter decadence of the system: the construction of a network of palaces and getaways for Kim Jong Il during the 1970s, luxury consumption, cognac-soaked parties, and the notorious pleasure squads of young women also effectively abducted from across the country.

Film itself provides an example. The regime spent millions on purchasing films from abroad and subtitling them into Korean for Kim Jong Il’s consumption, while breaking up the work so that the subtitlers never really got the full picture of what they were doing. The entire collection of an estimated 20,000 films was housed in a dedicated archive that virtually no one could use. The book also details the lavish budgets dedicated to Shin’s productions, including foreign exchange expended on access to Soviet bloc film studios where some of his films were shot.

The second theme to emerge is the utter cynicism of Kim Jong Il himself with respect to the over-the-top leader-centered political order he was in the process of constructing, an order which Fischer portrays as the larger “Kim Jong Il production.” Serious research such as B.R. Myers' North Korea's Juche Myth rightly looks at the content of this new order on its own terms. But it is hard to walk away from Fischer’s account without thinking about ideological production in a completely different way: as little more than a grandiose movie script emanating from a petty tyrant with extraordinary power. As Fischer puts it in a devastating take-down, “Shin and Choi had both met men like Kim Jong Il before, on a smaller scale: talented, but not quite talented enough, powerful, jealous, insecure and boastful; with an overinflated sense of their own importance in the worlds, a short temper and an obsessive need to micromanage. Kim was, they thought, the archetypal film producer.”

Social scientists pour over institutions and appointments to try to divine how the North Korean system works. But if the system is leaderist and personalist, the underlying order might have more to do with court politics and sheer whim than we acknowledge, particularly during the decade prior to his death when Kim Il Sung was gradually ceding power to his son. To what extent are we seeing a similar new order under construction at the present?

Unfortunately, Kim Jong Il was a film producer wielding a horse whip. Despite the desire to lure Shin and Choi to cooperate, and his own cynicism, the couple was effectively under house arrest where they were compelled into mind-numbing ideological study of the works of Kim Il Sung. Dear Leader was perfectly willing to deposit Shin into the penal system for a couple of years as a result of an escape attempt, where his experiences with abuse and torture parallel those we have heard from other defectors. Cruelty was pervasive, even among those with access to the court; breeding uncertainty was a core feature of power. In a short chapter, Fischer details the rise and fall of North Korean film star Woo In Hee, who reached the pinnacle of the social order but was ultimately executed publicly in front of the entire film industry staff of the country for a set of personal indiscretions.

If any hopeful conclusion emerges from Fischer’s extraordinary narrative, it is the capacity of the truly powerful to overestimate their appeal. From the start, Kim Jong Il appeared to believe that he had turned Choi and Shin; to be sure, they might not buy into every ideological detail, but that was their own private joke. In fact, the two never gave up their desire to escape, despite evidence of Stockholm syndrome along the way. If that were a metaphor for the long-suffering North Korean people, could the current leadership be similarly betrayed by its own people? 

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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