What do Americans know about North Korea? For even the best-informed among us, the answer is, sadly, not much. What we know, or at least have been persuaded to believe, comes largely from the testimony of the small but growing community of North Korean refugees. Their experiences contributed to the revelations in three remarkable recent books: Barbara Deming’s Nothing to Envy, a captivating, nonfiction Pulitzer finalist; Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son; and Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, a Washington Post reporter’s account of one survivor’s story (details of which have recently been called into question).
Now here comes a new entry on the shelf based on the amazing experiences of two famous South Koreans, Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee, who were kidnapped at the behest of a young film buff named Kim Jong-Il and held captive for nearly a decade to build the North Korean film industry. That film buff later became North Korea’s Great Leader.
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 (2015) 366 pages ★★★★☆
The film buff who became North Korea’s “Great Leader”
Shin, once South Korea’s leading filmmaker, and Choi, the famous leading lady in many of his movies, had been married but separated for several years when Choi was spirited off to Pyongyang by North Korean agents. Shin was caught in the same trap in Hong Kong soon afterwards. She accepted her fate from the outset; he rebelled, and twice tried to escape, which landed him in the North Korean gulag for several almost unbearable years.
Then, suddenly, Kim, at that time the heir apparent to his father, Kim Il-Sung, the “Great Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” reunited the pair and elevated them into the directors of his film industry, giving them virtual carte blanche to create films that would bring his country to the attention of the world’s leading filmmakers. Their increasing success, which gave them ever more freedom of action, eventually provided them with an opportunity to escape to the West.
A controversial account
Their story, exhaustively researched, confirmed, and documented by Paul Fischer, should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that what they’ve said is true. Still, ironically, there are many in South Korea who refuse to believe them. Despite overwhelming evidence of the truth of their account, some insist that the kidnappings were staged to permit the pair to defect to the North.
North Korea’s “Great Leader” built a cult of personality around his father
Barbara Deming and Adam Johnson have done a superb job documenting the travails of the North Korean people, and especially the unspeakable horror of the gulag erected to keep the Kim dynasty in power. Fischer confirms their accounts. (So does Harden, despite the aspects of his reporting that his subject has recently recanted.) However, what is most memorable about A Kim Jong-Il Production, is the story that emerges about the rise of the “Great Leader” who succeeded his father from obscurity to the throne. The younger Kim, we learn, was primarily responsible for building the cult of personality around his father — through public spectacle, artful and consistent propaganda, and, yes, film. It was Jong-Il who manipulated his entire nation into the mindless hero-worship that persists to this day under his son and successor.
A Kim Jong-Il Production is a worthy addition to the tiny collection of popular books that illuminate the darkness of North Korea. It’s also a great read.
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