Bizarre. It's hard to write about North Korea without using that word. By now, we've heard so much about the cultlike devotion to the late Kim Jong-il (and now his son, Kim Jong-un), dictators whose starving citizens are forced to listen to propaganda pumped through home speakers propped above portraits of the country's leader, that we move to the next overheard bizarre North Korea story without blinking an eye. A Kim Jong-il Production is a recently published book filled with accumulated details that illuminate a strange-but-true tale, one that might be difficult to accept if a reader lacked previous knowledge of North Korea's history. Even knowing quite a bit about the country I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.
The stars of the story are Shin Sang-ok, a well-known South Korean filmmaker; Choi Eun-hee, his film star wife; and the aforementioned Kim Jong-il, whose rise to the country's highest post started with his role masterminding the Ministry of Propaganda, which included the country's filmmaking division. Jong-il was a massive film buff who had collected thousands of movies from around the world and kept them in a secure bunker, for his eyes only. When North Korea's economy started to dry up, he decided that exporting motion pictures was a way to bring revenue into the country. This is where the story's weirdness begins.
Jong-il's plan involved kidnapping Sang-ok and Eun-hee, bringing them to North Korea and forcing them make films for the glory of the country. And believe it or not, he succeeded. The book gives us a litany of North Korean kidnappings in the 1970s - their heyday - of which Sang-ok and Eun-hee were but two victims. While Eun-hee found it best to play along, Sang-ok tried multiple escapes, which eventually landed him years in some very harsh prisons. After his "reeducation", Sang-ok decided to play along and make movies for North Korea, a role which gave him unpredecedented freedom and produced movies like North Korea had never been able to create on its own.
This book does a great job providing the history of North Korea and Jong-il and building up suspense towards Sang-ok and Eun-hee's eventual - **spoiler alert** - escape to the West after eight years. Following their getaway, many questioned their account and wondered if they had voluntarily gone to North Korea in order to resurrect careers that had run aground in South Korea, despite much evidence that the kidnapping did indeed happen. While leaving a number of great South Korean films (and even some highly regarded North Korean ones) Sang-ok's post North Korea career was spent in the US creating the likes of the Disney Channel rerun fodder, 3 Ninjas, before he eventually returned to South Korea.
This book was the essence of readable history and once the story got rolling I found it difficult to put down until I found out how the couple would make their getaway. Fischer does a great job of telling a story with only a limited number of available resources about their North Korea stay. I also found myself fascinated by Jong-il's quirks, charms and obsessions. If you're looking for a little bit of bizarre (there's that word again) post-Cold War history then this book should definitely be added to your "to-read" list.
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