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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 5 March, 2003, 10:27 GMT
Kidnapped by North Korea
By Mike Thomson
BBC Today correspondent

Not many people can claim to have spent much time with the enigmatic North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.

But South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, Choe Eun-hui, have that dubious distinction.

Film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, Choe Eun-hui
The couple lived in Kim Jong-il's summerhouse
They not only knew him well but spent several years living in his summerhouse. They were not his friends or house guests - they were his prisoners.

Choe Eun-hui, an actress now in her late 60s, was the first to arrive after being kidnapped in Hong Kong by Kim Jong-il's secret agents in 1978.

The memories of that traumatic event still haunt her today.

"I was really terrified. It was so frightening," she said.

"I was in such a worried state I couldn't eat or drink anything for ages. Finally I fainted and later learnt that they had injected me with some sort of sedative."

She was taken to Hong Kong's docks, bundled aboard and taken on an eight-day trip to Pyongyang.

Her husband immediately flew from Seoul to Hong Kong to look for his wife, and was himself kidnapped soon after.

"Someone suddenly pulled a sack over my head and I couldn't see anything or breathe properly," he said.

Private film-maker

It was not long before the reason for their kidnapping was made clear.

"Kim Jong-il later confessed to me that the reason he kidnapped my wife first was because he wanted me to come and make films for him," Shin Sang-ok said.

Kim Jong-il is film mad. Soon after the couple arrived in Pyongyang he took them for a private tour of his film library, which holds more than 15,000 movies.

Keen to add to them, he placed $2.5m into an Austrian bank account and told Mr Shin that the money would be available for him to make "good" films.

I was very unhappy. I did think of suicide but then I thought of my family and how much this would hurt them
Choe Eun-hui
Initially the director was not sure what the North Korean leader meant by a "good" film, until he took note of what he watched most often. Top of the list was Rambo, followed by Friday the Thirteenth and all the James Bond movies.

Over the next two years Mr Shin made more than 20 films, many of them propaganda tales commissioned by the man himself.

Meanwhile his wife was given a large room in the leader's scenic summerhouse overlooking the river.

In a series of charm offensives Kim Jong-il went out of his way to make her feel welcome by bringing her piles of expensive clothes and Western cosmetics.

Re-education classes

But life in Pyongyang was not all film-making and ball gowns.

Shin Sang-ok was sentenced to long terms in prison after twice trying to escape. There he received re-education classes designed to teach him the error of his ways.

Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il later confessed... he wanted me to come and make films for him
Shin Sang-ok

"I was jailed for about five years, but I didn't know at the time that it would land up being that long," he said.

"If I had known from the start I would rather have been dead. During this time I was very, very depressed. They expected brainwashing to change me."

His wife was also ordered to attend re-education classes. She was forced to study North Korea's "glorious" revolution and later made to sit exams on the subject.

"I was very unhappy. I did think of suicide but then I thought of my family and how much this would hurt them. It was an awful time," she said.

Escape

Finally, in 1986, the couple were given permission to travel abroad together for the first time since their arrival in North Korea eight years earlier.

They went to a film festival in Vienna heavily chaperoned by a team of North Korean minders, but managed to persuade their guards to travel in a taxi behind as they headed for the festival hall.

"We got to a crossroads where we were supposed to turn left for the festival. Our minders' car was following us about 30 metres behind, but several other cars had got in between them and us. So we told our driver to turn right instead, towards the United States Embassy," said Choe Eun-hui.

Seconds later the car behind realised that something was wrong and radioed the taxi that the Shins were in and asked their driver to tell them which way he had gone.

The couple quickly handed him a sizeable tip and lied that they had gone in the opposite direction.

Soon they arrived at the US embassy but could not find anywhere to stop outside, and the couple had to get out down the road.

"We tried to run as fast as we could, but it felt like we were in some sort of slow motion movie," Mr Shin said.

"Finally we burst through the embassy's doors and asked for asylum."

On hearing the news, Kim Jong-il became convinced that the couple had been kidnapped by the Americans, and sent them a message offering to help them get them back to Pyongyang.

It was an offer they could happily refuse.




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