North Korea

Kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il

Into the heart of DPRKness

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A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, by Paul Fischer, Flatiron Books, 339 p., $27.99

Reading a book about North Korea is like reading a story out of Oz. The ways people act, the way society is organized, the things that are presented as truth: All strain Western credulity. Add the fact that American reporting is often too credulous about the country—they're going to nuke Austin!—and it becomes even more difficult to strain fact from fiction, propaganda from mythology, and deceit from misunderstanding.

Though North Korea's population numbers close to 25 million, only a few hundred of those people are allowed access to the Internet. The Kim regime intentionally seeks to keep the nation "protected" from corrupting foreign ideas. This forced ignorance makes it far easier to claim, say, that Pyongyang cold noodles are mimicked worldwide, or that the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, North Korea's founder, is the most admired man in the world. If the typical resident of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) went online, he would find more than a few surprises. For one, Kim Jong-Il is far better known in the United States than his father (akin to a foreigner knowing of Nancy Sinatra but not Frank). Second, he'd see that "listicles" exist, many devoted to crazy facts about North Korea.

Many of these "facts" are reported correctly. It is true, for example, that North Korean propagandists claim that Kim Jong-Il causes the weather to change. But many are misreported. Kim Jong-Il did not claim to have "invented" the hamburger so much as having introduced the food to North Korea—technically true in a totalitarian dictatorship, where everything must meet the Dear Leader's approval. Nor does the DPRK maintain that Kim Jong-Il wrote over a thousand books while he was in college. If that were the case, they would surely all be in print there. What their literature describes is that he authored more than 1,400 "treatises, talks, speeches, and letters." What at first sounds absurd due to its bombast becomes absurd due to its banality, as if writing the equivalent of one email a day is something to boast of.

And yes, the Pyongyang regime did claim that Kim Jong-Il could "shrink time." But this simply means that he can read a report, listen to a speech, and answer questions all at once. In other words, the Dear Leader is capable of multitasking, and is apparently uniquely blessed as such in the entire nation. As with most North Korean anecdotes, one laughs at the idea until one begins to read between the lines. Then comes the unsettling realization that it is perfectly possible that virtually no one in the country is supposed to multitask. The holy masses are actually cogs in the state machine, being assigned one job and one job only. The entrepreneur who wears many hats is all but extinct in the juche nation. The line between humor and horror is razor-thin in the worst nation on earth.

One of these perennial listicle "facts" forms the basis of A Kim Jong-Il Production, a new book by the film producer Paul Fischer. Many Americans have heard that "Kim Jong-Il kidnapped a South Korean actress and director to film a communist Godzilla movie." That statement is at best half-true, as Fischer explains in skilled detail. The film, Pulgasari, wasn't a "Godzilla" movie per se. And it was the last in a series of films made by the kidnapped artists, the story of which is far more interesting than any of the movies themselves.

In the late 1960s, when Kim Il-Sung still reigned in North Korea, Kim Jong-Il was cutting his teeth in the Workers' Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department. His reinvention of the DPRK's movie industry is one cultural achievement that is actually demonstrably true. It helped, of course, that his father was an absolute dictator who could have any competitors killed.

Despite North Korea's ultranationalism, which frequently veers toward a pure isolationism, the country has consistently sought international recognition and validation. Pyongyang's landmark Tower of the Juche Idea proudly displays plaques allegedly donated by such nations as Gambia, Mauritius, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). Pyongyang's propaganda boasts that international forums on juche "have been hosted by a number of countries like Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Peru, Madagascar and Malta." One suspects that the anonymous state author would have preferred to include, say, Russia and Canada.

One of the best ways to receive international acclaim is through the arts. But since North Korean cinema was exclusively devoted to glorifying the Great Leader and urging the masses to further the revolution, its export appeal was necessarily limited. By the time Kim Jong-Il was running the literal show, North Korea was regarded as somewhat of an embarrassment or an irrelevance even within the Communist bloc. So if the local talent wouldn't do, the Dear Leader would simply import foreign know-how—and since this is North Korea, "import" here meant "kidnap." If Korea is one nation riven in two by U.S. imperialism, then taking Koreans from the wicked South and bringing them to the North is simply repatriating them to safety…right?

After the Korean War, Shin Sang-Ok had been the first South Korean director to receive international acclaim. Choi Eun-Hee, his wife and muse, became one of South Korea's most famous actresses. But by the 1970s, both were becoming has-beens. As their careers foundered, so did their marriage, which terminated after Shin got his mistress pregnant.

It is unclear whether Kim Jong-Il saw this as an opening. But the North Koreans were soon luring Choi to Hong Kong by promising her the opportunity to run an acting school there. Told she would be meeting an important contact, Choi was driven to a beach, where several men overpowered her and dragged her aboard a small white motor skiff. Informing her that "we are now going to the bosom of General Kim Il-Sung," she was then transferred to as freighter headed to the DPRK. As Michael Breen so presciently put it in his 2004 book Kim Jong-Il, "In a scene that will no doubt one day feature in a movie, for it highlights so vividly the extent to which North Korea is in moral outer space, Kim Jong-il himself turned up at the dock to meet the kidnapped celebrity off the boat."

The group Human Rights in North Korea has an entire study, Taken!, covering DPRK abductions. It is unclear how many of these kidnappings have taken place, but there may have been more than 180,000 (including war captives). These are the stories of lives reduced to old blurry photographs, later matched with an errant eyewitness sighting. These captives are assigned new names and identities, hidden away in a foreign capital, their lives as close to a phantom's as humanly possible. They serve as foreign-language professors for North Korean spies, among other roles.

In Choi's case, she was effectively placed under house arrest in a wooded cabin with a state-provided companion, unclear on why she was in North Korea. Soon Shin was likewise captured and brought, separately, to the DPRK. More aggressive than she in his escape attempts, he was eventually sentenced to a prison term.

It is impossible to describe the state of dreamlike timelessness that exists in North Korea. Take the case of U.S. soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, who defected into the DPRK in 1965 and regretted it almost immediately. His memoir describes his "forty-year in imprisonment in North Korea" in a mere 120 pages. In other words, he averages just three pages a year to describe a society completely foreign to the American experience in every way.

Shin was forced to sit cross-legged in captivity for 16 hours a day, his "daily regime for two and a half years." So too was Choi "moved back to Tongbuk-Ri, where she spent another year, resuming her endless rounds of sightseeing and ideological lessons." So little of note occurs that a year can pass in a single sentence.

Eventually Kim Jong-Il reunited Choi and Shin, unilaterally declaring the couple remarried. Now the couple had to gain Kim Jong-Il's confidence over a period of years by elevating the North Korea film industry, hoping that one day they would be able to step foot on the far side of the Iron Curtain and flee his clutches. (Spoiler alert: They eventually escaped.) The Dear Leader's insistence that no one is to be trusted at any time, that people can lie to you for years only to betray you, turned out to be precisely right—and in this case, obviously justified.

Many DPRK apologists accuse the couple of having defected willingly to revive their flagging careers. So it is with any North Korean story. We can only fill in blanks retroactively. We can be sure that the DPRK was behind the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 because a senior official slipped decades later, complaining that North Korea was labeled a state sponsor of terrorism despite not having done it since then. Similarly, we know that such kidnappings occurred because Kim Jong-Il publicly apologized for them to Japan's prime minister.

At the end of the past year North Korea was famously accused of hacking into Sony in an act of vengeance for the film The Interview. While denying responsibility, they simultaneously praised the hackers and threatened nuclear war—a statement that can be read as obviously true (why deny a lesser act while acknowledging your willingness to commit a greater one?) and as obviously false (methinks the leader doth protest too much). I have high-level sources who tell me that the attack absolutely could not have come from North Korea, and I have high-level sources who tell me that it absolutely did. In the end, one is left looking at the events as one looks at everything else that comes out of the DPRK: If one must eat the dishes served from Pyongyang, they must be taken with more than a grain of salt. 

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  1. Last night Botard linked to this saying that it was an honest report of a SoConz advocating mandatory church attendance.

    However the 2nd sentence of the article:

    While debating a bill on allowing people to bring concealed weapons into public buildings, State Sen. Sylvia Allen criticized the legislation’s opponents by maintaining that individual souls ? not guns ? are the real source of gun violence. “Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday,”

    Shows the context of her comment and that it was most likely a flippant response to the hoplophobes animism.

    Which got me thinking about the parallel between the response to gun violence and rape. Proggies advocate the equivalent of coerced church attendance to deal with sexual harrassment and rape – mandatory ‘training’ and calls for teaching men not to rape.

    1. She was clearly being sarcastic, but Bo has difficulty understanding basic human interactions, so it’s unsurprising he couldn’t tell.

      1. Bo has difficulty understanding basic human interactions

        There’s a name for that mental condition. And it is treatable if the victim can admit to himself what the problem is.

        Aspergers

      2. She was clearly being sarcastic, but Bo has difficulty understanding basic human interactions, so it’s unsurprising he couldn’t tell.

        I don’t think so.

        Bodor is a brazenly dishonest. Assuming he read it, he knew exactly what she meant and just went with the headline misrepresentation because he’s a progressive concern troll who was never honest.

        Stormy Dragon is definitely prog leaning and a concern troll, but I suspect he’s sincere; Bodor showed long ago he doesn’t give a shit about the truth. He doesn’t argue irrelevant minutia to pointless absurdity because he’s Aspie (like some believe), he does it because he’s a prog troll who is here to disrupt and derail discussions and to play the “I proved one word of your point wrong therefore your entire argument is disproved” game that progs love.

    2. Is there something wrong with teaching people not to commit crimes?!

      1. There’s something wrong in basing your safety on the theory you can be 100% effective in preventing crime by doing so.

  2. OT: Josh Gelernter says Southerners should no longer honor the Confederacy. Instead, they should honor the Southern Unionists who fought in the Northern armies.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/…..ce=twitter

    1. If I say that Josh Gelernter should kiss my ass Bo is going to think that means I honor the Confederacy and/or the values of the Confederacy.

      Subtle concepts escape Proggies.

    2. Why not honor the numerous blacks who fought for the Confederacy? In a way it would be like celebrating the way blacks practically vote as a bloc for the Democratic Party today. It would make about the same amount of sense.

      1. No one ever says a word about the free blacks that owned slaves.

  3. The concept of artists who make a living from art seems quite antiquated, so at least in SF, we get doo-gooders who want to help ‘artists’, and I presume have some idea of what that might mean. Other than a slacker hanging around a coffee shop with an etch-a-sketch, that is.
    Anyhow, a couple has decided to set up spaces for ‘artists’ in a relatively cheap part of town:

    “DoReMi: Creating an arts oasis in a forbiddingly costly city”
    […]
    “Their concept: offer space at a rent that is drastically below market rate in hopes that they will lose money or ? best-case scenario ? break even.”
    http://www.sfchronicle.com/ent…..ate-result

    Most of it is behind the paywall, but in the dead tree version, the writer was gushing about how this is a totally new, untried concept that only artist/visionaries could conceive!
    The writer could have gone to the accounting dept in the newspaper and been disabused of the notion; to those not wowed by etch-a-sketch creations, it’s called ‘going out of business’.

    1. Shreveport and Lafayette, Louisiana did the same thing 20 years ago.

      1. Went out of business?!
        (sorry…)

        1. No. They propped themselves up with the money they stole from people using traffic cams.

      2. Yeah, NYC has had this for decades. Guess who’s paying for it?

          1. It’s ALWAYS Hitler!

    2. So it’s like traditional patronage except that the patron doesn’t get any work from the artist?

    3. I had an argument once with a communist (“Not a Stalinist!”) who said the State should support all artists, and only artists are qualified to say what is art and who is an artist.

      “OK, I’m gonna draw circles on walls and call it art; I am an artist; pay up!”

      “That’s not art!”

      “I’m the artist and I say its art, and you’re not an artist and have no say in the matter.”

      And so on. She literally could not see the discrepancy. I think that was my first experience with that kind of thinking.

      1. “I think that was my first experience with that kind of thinking.”

        I’m sure you’re sorry it wasn’t the last.

        1. I don’t remember my second experience, but it sure couldn’t have been as jolting.

          I still can’t comprehend how people can think this way. It reminds me of that Alice in Wonderland character, I think, who claimed to hold any number of conflicting ideas in his head at once. But these people cannot see even that far.

      2. I knew someone like that. I started writing things down for our conversations. It was good in that it shut her up, but the walls got punched and I almost got punched. It was clear that punching was the equivalent of her “arguments” all along.

      3. But would she be willing to pay out of her own pocket for one of my real feces on photo of Marx’s face “sculpture” pieces?

        1. Faeces ? la faces

        2. Ici ne suis pas un faece.

          (And I don’t have to parlais quibecois)

          1. Sorry, I only read and write make believe French.

      4. Was this communist perched in your bathroom mirror? You probably pwned that bitch good.

    4. Meh, Seattle is becoming one giant “art-space” with subsidized rent and bike lanes. All subsidized by, well, I think pretty much me.

      1. Get out while you still can, young man.

  4. What a coincidence. I just finished watching Team America again.

  5. Hi,

    From reading the comments I observe that some people are upset that they have to live in incredibly prosperous and beautiful cities populated by people who aren’t quite yet ready to sell the town to geeks who like to program on their iPod. Thankfully it’s a free country so, you know, you can move to the Bible Belt where you can shoot (and, increasingly, get shot by) an assault rifle and die of Type 2 diabetes.

    Can I play Devil’s Advocate with the writer of this piece? How many people have been killed by the U.S. Army compared to the army of the DRPK? Threatening nuclear war makes you a rogue state? I have to laugh at that one considering the country I live in.

    1. Luckily, you are free to move to Venezuela and enjoy all of the price controlled fruits of socialist policies there.
      P.S. bring your own TP.

      1. Nah. Too hot. I’m working on emigrating to Copenhagen– you know, to enjoy denmark’s superior quality of life, universal health care, cradle-to-grave social security, beautiful parks, and employment security.

        1. american socialist|3.29.15 @ 3:48PM|#
          …”I’m working on emigrating to Copenhagen”…

          Good. Leave. The sum total of the US IQ will show a noticeable jump.

          1. He better hurry up – Denmark is likely to run out of other people’s money faster than the US.

        2. Cool. But in order to be a real socialist, make sure you don’t use any technology that was invented under the evil incentives of the free market system. Here is a pretty exhaustive list of danish inventions that you are free to use, without being a total fucking hypocrite: http://denmark.dk/en/meet-the-…..nventions/

    2. american socialist|3.29.15 @ 3:19PM|#
      “Hi,”
      Hi, asshole!

      “From reading the comments I observe that some people are upset that they have to live in incredibly prosperous and beautiful cities populated by people who aren’t quite yet ready to sell the town to geeks who like to program on their iPod.”
      From reading your comments, I observe that you’re a lying limy piece of shit. Is that clear?

      1. AmSock is a Brit?

        1. Missed the “s”; where’s that edit key?

    3. Shouldn’t you be murdering some enemies of the people or something, you disgusting piece of shit? Fuck you and fuck your whore mother for not aborting you like she should have.

  6. Yeah, the DRPK is one crazy place.

    I thought comments were supposed to be on topic and related to the article but, yet, here the comments are about the 2nd amendment, zoning regulations and how it sucks to live in Seattle and San Francisco. Is it free association day here on reason.com? That’s so cool!

    Mitsubishi is
    My favorite kind of car
    A sandwich is fun

    1. We don’t like to follow your rules.

    2. You could always, you know, fuck off if you don’t like that threads drift here.

      You wouldn’t be missed.

  7. Emigrating to Denmark are you? So how are your classes in Dannish going? Or did you think they would allow you to be a resident without the ability to speak, read, and write the local language?

    Excuse me for assuming that you might actually think anything.

    1. Are you saying other countries don’t throw their welcoming arms open to immigrants who are incapable of speaking, reading, and writing their own local languages? Sounds like they really are better than us after all. At least a lot smarter.

  8. Has North Korean language noticeably diverged already from standard Korean, as would be expected in such a condition of isolation?

    1. Yes

      According to a Ministry of Unification official, a South Korean can immediately recognize a North Korean by their speech. The official also stated that North Koreans avoid anglicisms but use communist political jargon unfamiliar to South Koreans, while a North Korean often understands approximately 60% of a South Korean.[1]

  9. “Add the fact that American reporting is often too credulous about the country?they’re going to nuke Austin!”

  10. Start working from home! Great job for students, stay-at-home moms or anyone needing an extra income… You only need a computer and a reliable internet connection… Make $90 hourly and up to $12000 a month by following link at the bottom and signing up… You can have your first check by the end of this week………………

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  11. I guess our communist buddy ran off when its attempts at intellectual discourse followed its own lead into the toilet.

    It always brings me mirth to find yet another prog affecting European connections – only to strike their colors as being as provincially-minded and monolingual as any backwoods hick they claim superiority over.

    1. My internet must be defective since I missed the part in the article where one could make any connection between the wacky world of the Kims and the “prog” bugbear that afflicts the Great Randian Minds of California and the Pacific Northwest. It must be there since the comments section in an article about North Korea is all about how shitty their city council is.

      I came up empty when I searched for evidence that any prominent Democrat, Leftist intellectual or progressive thinks it would be a good idea to try out Juche in the U.S. I’m a sucker for white elephants, so I then searched for any *not* prominent Democrat, Leftist intellectual, or progressive that thinks North Korea is an worthy example. I came up with this fascinating example… http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09…..at-70.html

      1. North Korea is Communist and therefore stands for living wages, guaranteed housing, enforced equality and many other positive rights for the “collective” good (at the expense of the individual good). These are the same things leftist want, just most are too stupid to realize the socialism/communism ideological similarity (congrats to you for putting it together).

        Like all communist and socialist countries this plan turned into a totalitarian shit hole so now leftists blame some right wing wrecker for it all going to shit once because they can’t face the fact that their ideas inevitably always lead to authoritarian shitholes.

        1. Or maybe libertarians have a clear problem with confirmation bias and don’t read or travel tosocialist countries that have high minimum wages, essentially no problems with homelessness, and high levels of taxation on rich people that promote economic equality.

          I’ve travelled extensively in Western Europe and scandanavia. My takeaway is that those countries all have higher standards of living than the United States. It would be good for people making arguments about economic libertarianism if data actually supported their arguments. But what we are left with in 70 years of postwar experience in the 1st world is that people living in countries with well- financed public sectors and progressive tax systems live better than their counterparts that don’t have these things.

          1. So you have “travelled extensively” to various countries of your dreams but are not willing to actually make the jump to move to one, learn the language, and become a resident. Hmm, could that be because you see the downsides to living in a ,”socialist paradise “? What’sa matter? Taxes too high for ya?

  12. So you are admitting that emigrating to Denmark was just something you pulled out of your ass…

  13. …the follow-on to which is that you are a provincial progressive who understands little that happens beyond the borders of the city where you pay taxes

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  15. I don’t understand all the hate for Kim Jong Il, when he was the most libertarian world leader of the 20th century. North Korea was his private property which he inherited from his father, and the people who lived there were his employees. He basically ruled the country with less UN/External Government influence than any world leader in the 20th century, and unlike the hItler/Mussolini’s of this world, he didn’t go invading other countries. Who are we to tell him what to do with is private property?

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