South Korean film star once kidnapped by the North

Choi Eun Hee was kidnapped in 1978 by North Korean agents on the orders of the late leader Kim Jong Il and forced to make movies for the regime.
Choi Eun Hee was kidnapped in 1978 by North Korean agents on the orders of the late leader Kim Jong Il and forced to make movies for the regime.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL • Choi Eun Hee, a South Korean actress who was once kidnapped by the North's agents on the orders of the late leader Kim Jong Il in Cold War-style intrigue and forced to make movies for the regime, died on Monday, her family said. She was 91.

Her eldest son, director Shin Jeong Gyun, was quoted as telling Yonhap News Agency that she died when she was in hospital for kidney dialysis.

Choi was the South's movie star before being brazenly abducted by North Korean spies in Hong Kong in 1978 at the request of then leader-in-waiting Kim, an avid film fan.

While visiting Hong Kong to meet a potential investor in her arts school, she was reported to have been lured onto a boat by her guide before being transferred against her will to a cargo ship destined for North Korea.

She was sedated, kept drugged and unfed for eight days before arriving in the North.

Her former husband Shin Sang Ok, a top film director, was taken to the North soon after, although circumstances of his abduction remain unclear.

Kim, who ruled the North from 1994 until his death in 2011, was bent on using his captives to make films that could compete on the international stage.

Choi remained trapped in the North for eight years, where she and Shin made more than 10 films together under Kim's watch.

She would later describe a complex relationship with a captor who "respected us as artists and fully supported us", but whom she could never forgive for the "outrageous and unforgivable" kidnapping, according to a 2011 interview.

They were allowed to make "films with artistic values, instead of just propaganda films extolling the regime", but they always longed for their freedom, she said.

Kim spared no expense when it came to their movies. For one action sequence involving a train crash, he provided a real locomotive loaded with dynamite, while for another film requiring windy conditions, he ordered a helicopter to hover overhead.

In another interview, Choi described how Kim attempted to lift her spirits at a dinner shortly after her arrival in the North.

"I was in utter despair back then and he tried to cheer me up, saying, 'Look at me, Ms Choi. Don't I look like a short fat dwarf?'" she told The Dong-A Ilbo, a major newspaper in Seoul. "I couldn't help laughing at that moment."

Kim had a personal film archive containing 15,000 movies from around the world, according to Shin's memoir.

His collection included "300 South Korean movies with detailed descriptions of the production year, stars and names of all production staff", Shin wrote.

During their ordeal, the couple travelled overseas extensively for movie production and to attend film festivals - always under heavy surveillance by the North's agents.

Choi even won a Best Actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1985 for Salt, a film about Korean guerrillas fighting the 1910 to 1945 Japanese colonial rule.

The couple - who had divorced in 1976, before their abductions - remarried during a trip to Hungary at Kim's urging.

But Choi later recounted how, during her time in the North, she cried every night at the thought that "none of this would have happened if I was not an actress".

"Kim Jong Il offered me all kinds of generosity and royal treatment, but I could not erase the resentment towards him," she wrote in her memoir.

The couple finally escaped to the United States embassy in Vienna after attending the Berlin International Film Festival in 1986. A Japanese reporter smuggled them by taxi to outside the embassy gates before they made a dash for it.

"I still have nightmares of being chased after by North Korean agents," Choi said in a 2015 interview. "When I arrived at the US embassy in Austria and was told, 'Welcome to the West', I burst into tears. I couldn't stop crying."

The couple sought asylum in the US due to fears for their safety, before returning to South Korea in 1999. They remained married until Shin's death in 2006. Their dramatic life inspired several books and movies.

Choi, who made her cinematic debut in 1942, rose to stardom in the wake of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, which sealed the division between the communist North and the capitalist South.

She was called the "queen" of South Korean cinema from the 1950s to 1970s and appeared in more than 100 movies - many made by Shin.

She is survived by two sons and two daughters, Yonhap said. The funeral will be held in Seoul tomorrow.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2018, with the headline 'South Korean film star once kidnapped by the North'. Print Edition | Subscribe