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North Korea: Drugging and kidnapping film-stars, and the few who escape hell.

North Korea: Drugging and kidnapping film-stars, and the few who escape hell.

Right, today I'm going to be reviewing North Korea.  The spots every tourist should hit, where to eat and, of course, when and where to find the best military parades.

Of course not.

Originally, I had intentions of drawing your attention to a page on Youtube the sets out to expose some of the differences between South Korean and Western culture - often with very humourous results.  As a piece on it's own it would have actually been a little light, and instead I'll be folding it into a larger article about South Korean culture and media as a whole.

What set me off on a totally different course was listening to an episode of NPR's "This American Life" ( a documentary series that usually covers a number of stories each week on the same topic.  Despite the name the podcast is not limited to stories about America or Americans - but I think they've got to the point where re-branding probably isn't an option.  Every episode contains at least one story you were really glad you heard, whether it be touching or funny or just plain weird.  If you don't know who NPR are (National Public Radio - free to air entertainment and news) - they're the guys who make Serial.  If you need a comparison they're basically the US version of BBC radio, and as a British person I'm hard-wired to love the BBC - so I also love NPR by default.

This latest episode in the feed is a repost of one originally released last year ( - on the topic of "Same Bed, Different Dreams".  We start with a short tale of air-flight attendants who have to sleep together, even if they hate each other, in tiny beds in shifts on long-haul flights (did you know they have beds up in the ceiling, above the luggage compartments?  Me neither) due to lack of room.

The main story, however, is a famous one, but perhaps one you've not come across before because of when it happened, 1978.  It keeps popping up in articles in magazines, books and on the internet (it's one I've heard and read many times) but this podcast has something extra and extraordinary which means it merits a listen even if you know this tale.  We'll get to this later.

Choi Eun-hee, then 52, was, as the podcast puts it, Asia's version of Elizabeth Taylor; once a great, young beauty and still incredibly popular.  

Choi Eun-hee in her hey-day.

On a day like any other she found herself kidnapped.  Organised crime, ransoming her off? Some peculiar terrorist cell with an agenda and wanting publicity?  No.

When she found herself at her destination she was herself greeted by a man with a beaming smile - absolutely thrilled to see her.

It was Kim Jong-il, supreme leader of North Korea.  And he was a big fan. (I realise that "supreme leader" should probably be capitalised, but I choose not to).

Not just a big fan of the lovely Choi Eun-hee, though - films in general.  He had a massive operation that obtained just about every cinema-released movie in the world and dubbed them into Korean so he could watch them.  His private collection and cinema were state-of-the-art.

His great disappointment though, he explained, was that North Korean films themselves were so bad.  The film-makers had no drive to create, because the state would always provide for them; whether they produced good or bad work.  And it was all bad.

Choi Eun-hee was here for something special.  She was here to help him make better films.

You couldn't make this up.  It's too crazy.

For a few years nothing happened though, which was odd.  Instead she was paraded at parties and social events and... kept there.  Until a very special party several years later.  A guest of honour in the room - much clapping - Choi Eun-hee had little interest in looking to see what flunky of Kim Jong-il's had entered the room.

Who it was, however, was her ex-husband, Shin Sang-ok.

He had been kidnapped shortly after she had.  He had, initially, been kept in very agreeable living conditions; but several attempted escapes saw him put in prison - where he stayed until the authorities thought they had broken him.  And then he was introduced to privileged North-Korean society, and his ex-wife.

There's more to the story, but I'd largely just be recounting it when listening to the podcast tells it so much better.  It's a complicated tale that even the podcast has to abbreviate.  His career - a once prolific film maker - often directing his then wife and extremely successful, had been on the wane in the South.  

A large part of him liked being there in North Korea - he had his own film studio now, unlimited budgets - he later talked of much of that time with great affection.  It was an affection she never shared - the only thing she fell in love with during this time again was him, and they re-married (at Kim Jong-il's initial suggestion - but their marriage lasted after their escape and until his death, years later).

The couple in earlier times.

A reason to listen to this podcast rather than, say, read an article about it or a book (though it's a fascinating story and perhaps you should do this too to get the full details) is that they became trusted by the regime.  As such they were allowed to shop in a special supermarket where the elite were able to get their hands on all sorts of things the general populace didn't even know existed.  They bought a tape-recorder.  They wanted proof of where they'd been and who had been holding them.  I'd read versions of this before, but the recordings are something else - they make things real; give an idea of just how much of a lapdog you had to be in order to survive in this place.

We hear snippets of conversations -  Kim Jong-il - holding forth.  The people at these parties and dinners, and our couple, pretending to laugh at his jokes; finding the things he says fascinating.  You don't need to know the language to recognise pretense and fear and these things are here in spades.  It's extraordinary.

So trusted were they that they were eventually allowed to attend a film-festival in Venice to accompany one of their films.  They gave their government minders the slip and raced to the American Embassy, where they told their unbelievable story.

1989, after the escape - image, property of the BBC.

Generally this is a fantastic podcast, but this in particular is something that really rewards a listen.  Drugged kidnappings, prisons, whispered escape plans, re-kindled passions, divided loyalties, fear - you should listen.

It was impossible of me to bring your attention to this story without also briefly bringing your attention to this book.

Written by Barbara Demick and Published by Spiegel & Grau

The book primarily is told through the stories of six people who eventually managed to escape North Korea.  Their stories are compiled from a number of interviews Barbara Demick conducted separately with them.  One follows the tale of one woman, and fervent Party supporter, who slowly sees her world deteriorate around her.  The factory where she works, open shorter and shorter hours as time goes on - due to the lack of electricity; rations becoming scarce and illegal bartering becoming a thing the general populace had to turn to in order to survive.  Another, in some ways the most compelling story, is about a young, comparatively rebellious, woman.  The world around them gets harder, but she falls in love with a young man and they meet at night, secretly, during the power-blackouts.  There is some beauty and romance amongst the hardship.

It's a remarkable book.  The tales of people being pushed to the edge and then some of them snapping and trying to find a way out is nerve-jangling stuff.  It's something everyone should read.

At the end of the book Demick explains the reasons for why she presented her book, six tales interwoven, in the way she did.

 While at university she studied under Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey whose novel Hiroshima is presented in the same way - and she judged this as being an efficient way of presenting the experiences she was hearing about, while also being a way of paying some recognition to her former teacher and his work.

Hiroshima tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped there toward the end of World War II.  It's out of copy-write now and easy to find on the internet.  It's also an essential, if uncomfortable, read.  

But it does us good to occasionally remind ourselves of the world and the difficulties in it that we couldn't ever, possibly, imagine.  And of how resilience and the human-spirit can overcome these things.

Jack Ince


How have I never heard this?: The Telescopes - You Set My Soul (1992)

How have I never heard this?: The Telescopes - You Set My Soul (1992)

Dormant podcasts you need to listen to - Adam's Buxton's Big Mixtape

Dormant podcasts you need to listen to - Adam's Buxton's Big Mixtape