News Stories

Life Like a Spy Movie

South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choe Eun-hui have lived a life that sounds like a spy movie. They spent years as prisoners of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Choe was kidnapped in Hong Kong by secret agents in 1978. She says, "I was in such a worried state I couldn't eat or drink anything for ages. Finally I fainted and later learned that they had injected me with some sort of sedative." She was smuggled aboard a ship and taken to Pyongyang. Her husband flew from Seoul to Hong Kong to look for his her, and was also kidnapped. He says, "Someone suddenly pulled a sack over my head and I couldn't see anything or breathe properly. Kim Jong-il later confessed to me that the reason he kidnapped my wife first was because he wanted me to come and make films for him."

Soon after the couple arrived in Pyongyang, Kim took them for a private tour of his film library, which has more than 15,000 movies. He put money into an Austrian bank account and told Shin he could use it to make "good" films. Shin wasn't sure what he meant at first, but then found out that Kim likes Rambo, followed by Friday the Thirteenth and all the James Bond movies. Over the next two years, Shin made more than 20 films, many of them propaganda. Meanwhile, Kim wooed his wife with expensive clothes and Western cosmetics.

Shin Sang-ok was sentenced to long terms in prison for trying to escape, where he was forced to take re-education classes. He says, "I was jailed for about five years, but I didn't know at the time that it would end up being that long. If I had known from the start I would rather have been dead. During this time I was very, very depressed. They expected brainwashing to change me."

His wife was also forced to take classes. She says, "I did think of suicide but then I thought of my family and how much this would hurt them. It was an awful time." Finally, in 1986, they were given permission to travel abroad together for the first time since their arrival in North Korea eight years before. They went to a film festival in Vienna heavily guarded by a team of North Koreans, but managed to persuade their guards to travel in a taxi behind them. "We got to a crossroads where we were supposed to turn left for the festival. Our minders' car was following us about [about 100 feet] behind, but several other cars had got in between them and us. So we told our driver to turn right instead, towards the United States Embassy," says Choe.

Seconds later, the car behind realized something was wrong and radioed their taxi and asked the driver to tell them which way he'd gone. The couple quickly handed him a large tip to convince him to say they'd gone in the opposite direction. When they reached the embassy, they couldn't figure out what to do next. "We tried to run as fast as we could, but it felt like we were in some sort of slow motion movie," Shin says. "Finally we burst through the embassy's doors and asked for asylum."

Kim Jong-il couldn't believe they'd want to leave. He was convinced they?d been kidnapped by the Americans, and sent them a message offering to help them get them back to North Korea. Are all dictators crazy?

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