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.