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Andrea Harner
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May 3, 2006

Shin Sang-Ok, Film Director and Abductee 1927 - 2006

Economist subscribers can read about this man's completely horrifying and fascinating life here. Others, see below.

Shin Sang-Ok

Apr 27th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Shin Sang-Ok, film director and abductee, died on April 11th, aged 79

ShinSangOk.jpg

VIEWERS of the movie �Team America: World Police� will have gathered that North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Il, is a mixed-up fellow. He may be brutal�he is depicted feeding Hans Blix, the former UN weapons inspector, to a shark�but he is also a sensitive, artistic soul. After murdering Mr Blix, he sings a sad song about how lonely it is being a psychotic despot. This was supposed to be outrageous satire. But, as Shin Sang-Ok could have told the directors, no fictionalised �Dear Leader� could be weirder, or nastier, than the real one.

Mr Shin was a South Korean movie director. In 1978, Mr Kim, a movie buff, had him kidnapped and whisked to the hermit kingdom to make its revolutionary film industry less awful.

Before then, Mr Shin was best known for giving South Korean audiences their first on-screen kiss. During the 1950s and 1960s he made dozens of films, several of which depicted Korean women's struggles against patriarchal convention. His favourite leading lady was his wife, the dazzling Choi Eun-Hee. In the 1970s Mr Shin's career waned, and it came to an abrupt halt when he upset South Korea's military government by complaining about censorship. His movie company was swiftly shut down.

Mr Kim, then the unacknowledged heir apparent to the world's first hereditary communist monarchy, saw his opportunity. First, he had Ms Choi lured to Hong Kong, kidnapped and shipped to a North Korean port. Ever the gentleman, he turned up at the dock to greet her. �Thank you for coming, Madame Choi,� he said, as if she were stepping off a cruise ship.

Although they had recently divorced, Mr Shin was naturally alarmed at his ex-wife's disappearance. He followed her trail to Hong Kong, where he too was abducted. In North Korea, he was put up in a comfortable guest house, but insisted on trying to escape. One day he borrowed a car, drove to a railway station, hid among crates of explosives and crept aboard a freight train. He was caught the next day, and soon found himself in a hellish prison camp.

Even there, however, he was protected from afar. When he tried to starve himself to death, officials force-fed him through a funnel. A guard told Mr Shin that he was the first attempted suicide he'd ever seen saved�so he must be very important.

After four years, Mr Shin won his release through a series of abjectly apologetic letters to Kim Jong Il and his father, President Kim Il Sung. He was brought to a dinner party in Pyongyang, the capital, and face-to-face with his ex-wife, who had not known until that moment that he was in North Korea. �Well, go ahead and hug each other. Why are you just standing there?� said the Dear Leader, who then suggested that they re-marry. They did as they were told.

At last, Mr Shin's talents could be put to good use. Mr Kim was worried that films produced in decadent, capitalist South Korea were better than those produced in the North. Perceptively, he explained to Mr Shin that this was because North Korean film workers knew the state would feed them regardless of the quality of their output. In the South, by contrast, actors and directors had to sweat to make films the public would pay to see. Mr Kim wasn't saying that there was anything wrong with socialism, of course, but he gave Mr Shin millions of dollars, a fancy marble-lined office and more artistic freedom than any North Korean director had ever enjoyed before.

Films fit for Cannes

Mr Kim did not want Mr Shin to make crude propaganda. Oh no. He wanted films that would win awards at international festivals. And although the tubby tyrant had previously argued, in his book �On the Art of Cinema�, that good movies should glorify the party, the system, his father and himself, he realised that this was not a fail-safe formula for wowing the judges at Cannes.

So he let Mr Shin shoot some watchable films, including �Pulgasari�, a Godzilla-inspired affair about a metal-eating monster who helped 14th-century peasants overthrow their feudal lords. The director and his wife were obliged to give a press conference explaining that they had willingly defected to North Korea, but otherwise they were treated far better than most of the Kim dynasty's hapless subjects. Mr Kim must have thought that was good enough to keep them loyal, for he allowed them to travel. As soon as they saw a chance to dodge their bodyguards, during a promotional trip to Vienna in 1986, they fled to the American embassy and sought asylum.

Mr Shin was at first reluctant to go home, for fear that South Korea's security police might disbelieve his fantastic tale and suspect him of communist sympathies. Fortunately, he and his wife had made, at mortal risk, clandestine tape recordings of conversations with Mr Kim. These, and the couple's memoirs, are among the most useful accounts we have of the secretive (and now probably nuclear-armed) Dear Leader's personality: charming, shrewd, quirky, malevolent.

Mr Shin continued to make films until shortly before he died. His last years were frail; he had a liver transplant in 2004. Ms Choi survived him, and his last film, about an old man with Alzheimer's, is yet to be released.



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