KIM JONG IL AND MOVIES
Kim Jong Il once said that if he hadn’t become a leader he would have liked to be a full time film critic or producer. When he was younger he often showed up in North Korean film studios and is said to have personally participated in the making of over 100 films. He received credits for producing more than a dozen films and musicals and wrote two books on film: “The Art of Cinema” and “Kim Jong Il on the Art of Opera”. To win the approval of his father he staged revolutionary musicals with titles like “Sea of Blood” and “Flower Girl”.
Kim Jong Il is said to have been fond of Hollywood musicals, movies with Rambo or Elizabeth Taylor, James Bond films, gory horror flicks, especially “Friday the 13th,” Westerns, action movies, Daffy Duck cartoons, Hong Kong action movies and Mel Gibson films. He reportedly watched the same movies repeatedly, stayed up with Hollywood action films into the wee hours. and had the latest Hollywood releases sent to him in diplomatic pouches from New York and Beijing. His personal collection is said to have included 20,000 videos and films, including all the films that won major Academy Awards. His film library is manned by a 250-person staff. Important meetings were filmed with noisy, 1930s-era Panaflex cameras under 1930s-era spotlights. Kim even established an underground circuit of bootleg films, as North Koreans weren’t allowed to watch most international releases. [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]
John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: “By 1978, Kim had become disgusted with his Mount Paektu Creative Group studio. Although the studio was run on the "monolithic guidance" of party groupthink, Kim told Shin he felt a "profound disappointment" with their work.” Kim's books “suggests that film-makers draw from real life, avoid creating unrealistic movies about "the colourful lives of flamboyant characters". And he reveals: "In the final analysis, a director who pins his hopes on finding a 'suitable actor' is taking a gamble in his creative work. And no director who relies on luck in creative work has ever achieved real success." [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
“In the 1960s, Kim Il-sung's propaganda machine had created Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl, films that, while regarded as tedious and crude by South Koreans, were products the North was quite proud of, and were based on revolutionary operas. Sea of Blood is a war hagiography that gives Kim Il-sung exaggerated credit for victories over Japan in the 1930s. Recently it was still being shown widely in North Korea. Like Titanic and its schmaltzy My Heart Will Go On, Sea of Blood produced a hit song: My Heart Will Remain Faithful.
"Films should contain musical masterpieces like these," Kim Jong-il writes in his book, "the fusion of noble ideas and burning passion." He spends most of the book entreating actors and directors, whom he compares to generals, to master their craft. How? Sheer party loyalty. "Actors must be ideologically prepared before acquiring high-level skills," he writes, recommending a kind of communist method acting. "No revolutionary actor has ever actually been a Japanese policeman or capitalist . . . To effectively embody the hateful enemy, the actor requires an ardent love of his class and a burning hostility towards the enemy."
A Russian reporter told U.S. News and World Report that "Kim Jong Il would come up to the film studio between 2 and 3 a.m...he would summon the actors and actresses and criticize their low level of revolutionary zeal and creative ability. Then he would insist on a rehearsal to improve their performances. These sessions always ended with a celebration...of 'the victory of the revolutionary spirit.' According to a Korean actor who attended one such celebration, it included singing and drinking and ended up with an orgy."
Book: “A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power” by Paul Fischer
The Flower Girl
Simon Fowler wrote in The Guardian: The best-known North Korean film would have to be The Flower Girl. Dubbed by the North Koreans themselves as an “immortal classic” along with 1968’s the Sea of Blood, the film purports to be based on the writings of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung, and was produced by a young upstart by the name of Kim Jong-il – North Korea’s late leader and Kim Il-Sung’s son. Kim Jong-il’s determination to modernise the film industry of North Korea is reportedly what catapulted the film-obsessed youngster into his father’s favour, and it led to a lifelong obsession. [Source: Simon Fowler, The Guardian, August 15, 2014]
“Set during the time of Japanese rule in the 1920/30s, The Flower Girl (1972) follows a young woman and her family as they are mistreated by their landlord. With an ever-increasing stream of bad luck befalling the family, the only thing that can save the family (and North Korea) is the deus ex machina of Kim Il-sung and his communist army who arrive on the scene in the final 10 minutes to right all the wrongs of society. Life is tough, the film seems to say, but at least it’s better than when the Japanese were here.
“The importance of The Flower Girl within the DPRK cannot be overestimated. The star, Hong Yong-hee, adorns the one won bank note in North Korea, and is revered as a national hero. Although not always an easy watch, those wanting to learn more about the average North Koreans’ sensibilities could do far worse than to watch this picturesque but tragic film.”
Choi Eun Hee and Shin Sang Ok: Kidnaped Actress and Movie Director
In 1978 well-known South Korean actress Choi Eun Hee and her husband filmmaker Shin Sang Ok were kidnaped on Kim Jong Il's orders and taken to North Korea, in part to beef up the North's film industry. Shin was shoved into a car in Hong Kong, a burlap bag was placed over his head and was smuggled by ship to North Korea. Choi had been snatched a few weeks earlier, also in Hong Kong and Shin was there looking for her. In a conversation secretly recorded by Choi, Kim Jong Il said, “I just said, ‘I need these two people, so bring them here,’ so my companions just carried out the operation.’”
Choi and Shin were first sent to a labor camp for re-education. Shin spent five years there and for a time after several escape attempts had to subsist on cornflour and grass. After Shin was released he was reunited with his wife and the couple was welcomed into Kim Jong Il’s inner circle and given Mercedes and US$3 million to make films. They made seven films, including “Pulgasari”, a North Korean take on Godzilla, now regarded as an international cult classic, and a film with North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. After eight years Choi and Shin escaped in Vienna in 1986 and turned over the secret tapes they made to South Korean intelligence. “What a wretched fate,” Shin said. “I hated communism, but I had to pretend to be devoted to it, to escape from this barren republic. It was lunacy...The North Koreans were all talented and good people, Just 200 or so were evil, and they were in charge.”
Shin and Choi were had remarried in North Korea and made 17 films there. Choi and Shin later wrote a book called the "The True Story of Kim Jong Il" while under CIA protection. In the book the couple said Kim once had a party in which Choi was summoned in the middle of the night to entertain the guests. She said there were about 40 to 50 people and they looked as if they had partied all night. She was forced to drink and drank so much she passed out. She was awoken by the lips of a senior party official on her cheek. She slapped him and told him to get lost.
At the time of their escape in 1986 U.S. embassies in Europe had been advised to keep an eye out for Shin and Choi, and so they were prepared when the couple eluded their minders in Vienna and grabbed a taxi for the U.S. embassy.
Shin Sang Ok on His Kidnapping and Early Years in North Korea
John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: Shin's story is as fantastical as many of his movies. He writes of being caught trying to escape, and spending four years in an all-male prison camp as a result, left to assume that his wife was dead. Then, just as suddenly, he was brought into the inner sanctum of Kim Jong-il, the would-be successor to his father, Kim Il-sung, who ruled the country for nearly 50 years. Shin's talents then officially fell to the service of North Korea, and he made seven movies. There is more than a passing resemblance between Kim and the insatiable Pulgasari, the communist Godzilla rip-off that Shin, at Kim's request, created for North Korean audiences, which has become a camp curiosity for monster movie aficionados. [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
Shin says that shortly after arriving in Pyongyang, he made several attempts to escape, and was punished with four years at Prison No 6, where he lived on a diet of grass, salt, rice and party indoctrination - "tasting bile all the time," he writes. "I experienced the limits of human beings." Then, in 1983, he and his wife were released and reunited at a reception thrown by Kim Jong-il.
On their kidnapping Kim Jong Il “blamed misunderstandings by thoughtless officials for their unfriendly four-year North Korean welcome. He also apologised for taking so long to get back to them personally, saying it had been busy at the office. The idea came to Kim, he said, when he heard that Seoul's repressive, militaristic Park regime had closed down Shin Films. "I thought, 'I've got to bring him here'," he said. Infiltrating Shin Films with agents posing as business partners, Kim explained how he lured the two to Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. First Choi disappeared on a trip to discuss an acting job. Then, on the way to dinner one night, Shin had a sack filled with a chloroform-like substance pulled over his head. With that, Kim had imported the best film talent the peninsula had to offer.
Shin Sang Ok on Making Films in North Korea
John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: Over soft drinks at the 1983 party, Kim Jong Il “finally, incredibly, explained why they were there. "The North's film-makers are just doing perfunctory work. They don't have any new ideas," Kim told the couple. "Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn't order them to portray that kind of thing." The couple were stunned. [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
“Shin Films was back open for business - this time in Pyongyang. "Shall we make Mr Shin one of our regular guests?" Kim asked the crowd at a birthday party for one of his generals, after Shin's career, and life, was given its new lease. A lot of cognac was being drunk. The general in question was boasting that he could take Pusan in a week, tops. Military men marched in a circular review, saluting Kim. On stage, a bevy of young women jumped up and down screaming: "Long live the great leader!" Most jarring of all was when Kim shook his arm and pointed at the display of fawning, saying: "Mr Shin, all that is bogus. It's just pretence."
“This puzzling confession, Shin writes, lingered in his mind as he drove in a Mercedes to the new office of Shin Films. Soon he'd be entrusted with an annual pay cheque of US$3 million for personal or professional use, even as he formulated an escape plan. By following the advice for directors in On the Art of the Cinema - "Be loyal to the party and prove yourselves worthy of the trust it places in yourself" - he would hope for some opportunity to escape, maybe during a trip to an Eastern bloc film festival.
“Sometimes resigned to his stay, Shin took comfort in his increasing material well-being, and in making movies again. When it came to choosing subject matter, he told the Seoul Times in 2001 that there were "fewer restrictions than is commonly believed". He said he even introduced the first kiss to the military-centric North Korean cinema. All ideas, however, were approved by Kim Jong-il as arms of his ideology, and were developed in story conferences with him. The dictator wanted to make crossover movies that would simultaneously project a fearsome image to the world while somehow improving how North Korea was perceived.
“Shin was free to fly to east Berlin for location shots - though shadowed by ever-present escorts. He recalls walking past the U.S. embassy with his wife, who tugged at his sleeve and made a face suggesting they run for it. "What's the matter with you?" he hissed. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead." Besides, he was taking his new career seriously, and was eager to get work done. He even claims that in 1984 he was able to produce the finest film of his career: Runaway, the tragic story of a wandering Korean family of 1920s Manchuria coping with Japanese oppression and the dishonesty of their neighbours.
Hong Kil Dong: Shin’s Best North Korean Film
“Hong Kil Dong” is a film about a famous Korean folk hero made by Shin during his time in North Korea. Simon Fowler wrote in The Guardian: The production of The Flower Girl managed to go someway to modernising North Korean cinema, but it was the kidnap and imprisonment of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok that really changed the state of play. [Source: Simon Fowler, The Guardian, August 15, 2014]
“Shin’s output in North Korea was most notable for the Hong Kong-style kung fu epic Hong Kil Dong. Sometimes called the first North Korean film made purely for entertainment value, the action centres on the legendary Robin Hood-type character of Korean folk law, Hong Kil Dong.
“Born the illegitimate son of a nobleman, Hong’s jealous mother-in-law plots to have him killed by a group of bandits as he travels to a nearby town. Fortuitously saved by a devastatingly deadly kung fu monk who just so happens to be passing by, the young Hong goes on to train with the monk and use his newly acquired skills to defend local villagers from oppressive forces. With heaped spoonfuls of Shaw Brothers-inspired kung fu, the film is unlike the entire pantheon of North Korean cinema that had gone before it. This is a film that needs no historical context to be watched and most unusually for North Korean film, can quite easily be enjoyed.”
Purugasari : North Korean Godzilla
Pulgasari is arguably the most famous North Korean film. Made in 1985 and directed by Shin Sang-ok and Chong Gon Jo. The Godzilla-like film starred Chang Son Hui and Pak Sung Ho and featured special effects by Duk Ho Kim, supervised by a team led by Teruyoshi Nakano, from Japan's Toho Studios, the creators of Godzilla. The film was loosely based on the 14th century Koryo legend of the Bulgasari — a terrible monster that kept growing as it ate up more and more metal. Kim Jong Il was an admirer of Godzilla films He produced Pulgasari through Korean Film Studio [Source: Wikipedia]
According to IMDb, the basic plot of the film is this: In feudal Korea, the evil King becomes aware that there is a peasant rebellion being planned in the country. He steals all the iron farming tools and cooking pots from the people so that he may make weapons to fend off the peasant army. After he returns the property to the people, an old blacksmith is imprisoned and starved to death. His last creation is a tiny figurine of a monster- Pulgasari, a Godzilla-like creature that eats iron. The blood of his daughter brings the creature to life, and fights with the poor, starving peasants to overthrow the corrupt monarchy. [Source: Anonymous, IMDb]
John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: Pulgasari is a monster of the people. When the wicked king oppresses the people, a jailed blacksmith moulds a tiny character out of rice, declaring he will use the last spark of his creative power to bring the doll to life. As the farmers are starving under the king's rule, the doll, Pulgasari, eats iron and grows. The cherubic toddler Pulgasari soon becomes a horned beast whose clawed foot is the size of a person. [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
“Finally, Pulgasari leads the farmers' army in an assault on the king's fortress - and against thousands of North Korean military troops who were mobilised and dressed up as extras. Ultimately, the king uses his experimental anti-Pulgasari weapon, the lion gun. But the enterprising Pulgasari swallows the missile and shoots it back at his oppressors. Finally, the king is crushed beneath a huge falling column. Then the movie becomes curiously ambiguous. The beloved Pulgasari turns on his own people. Still hungry for iron after his victory, Pulgasari begins eating the people's tools. The confusing conclusion seems to find salvation in the spirit of the people.
“When the blacksmith's daughter tearfully pleads with Pulgasari to "go on a diet", he seems to find his conscience, and puzzlingly shatters into a million slow-motion rocks. Then, inexplicably, a glowing blue Pulgasari child is born, waddling out of the ocean. It's a terrifically bad movie. On one hand, Pulgasari is a cautionary tale about what happens when the people leave their fate in the hands of the monster, a capitalist by dint of his insatiable consumption of iron. But it is also tempting to read the monster as a metaphor for Kim Il-sung, hijacking the "people's revolution" to ultimately serve his purposes.”
Pulgasari was filmed in North Korea and Beijing with the help of Japanese filmakers hodwinked into coming to North Korea. John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: “Pulgasari owes much to Godzilla. Shin invited some monster-movie veterans from Japan to come to his studio, which had swelled to 700 employees, to help with the picture. When Kim guaranteed their safety, they came to work on Pulgasari, including Kempachiro Satsuma, the second actor to wear the Godzilla suit, who soon dressed up as the lumbering, google-eyed Pulgasari...And since this is a movie made under the guidelines of On the Art of the Cinema, there are seemingly endless shots of the people's folk dances. [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
Nick Romano wrote in Vanity Fair: “Said to be inspired by Japan’s The Return of Godzilla, Kim urged Shin to create a monster movie that would equally impress Westerners. Though Kim despised the Japanese, he set aside his pride and flew in the special-effects team of the original films, along with Kenpachiro Satsuma, the man inside the Godzilla suit. According to Satsuma, he and his crew members thought they had been hired for a film shooting in China when they landed in North Korea instead.” [Source: Nick Romano, Vanity Fair, April 6, 2015]
Paul Fischer, author of “A Kim Jong-il Production” told Vanity Fair: Kim Jong Il had “his idea of advancing the regime’'s purposes is to kidnap two South Korean filmmakers, trick some Japanese film crew members, drown them all in gifts and luxury, to play with rubber monster suits and make a Godzilla rip-off.”
“Fischer described the film as “unique and demented,” which speaks largely to its dueling ideologies; Kim saw the film as a metaphor for “the people’s struggle against greed, private wealth, and oppression,” Fischer wrote in his book, but included a dictatorial emperor character who, apparently unintentionally, mirrors Kim himself. For current, American viewers, the main takeaways are more about the film’s shoddy workmanship and camp value; it’s difficult to take the film seriously when the film from the 80s looks like it was made in the 60s, and the baby Pulgasari sounds like a rabid squeaky toy.
Showing of Pulgasari
John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: “When the movie was delivered to Kim, he saw it as a great victory. Trucks pulled up to Shin Films to unload pheasants, deer and wild geese for the movie crew to feast on. [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
Nick Romano wrote in Vanity Fair: Despite its many visible flaws, Pulgasari was a hit in North Korea, and Kim thought it a masterpiece. For Shin and Choi, it was the film that saved their lives. Allowed to travel to Vienna on a business trip, the pair escaped to the U.S. embassy. Kim retaliated by dropping Shin’s name from the credits of his films, labeling him a traitor, and ordering all his films, including Pulgasari, to be banned from theaters, according to Fischer’s book. (Pulgasari is still not shown in North Korea theaters, though it has likely made the rounds as a bootleg DVD or illegal download.) [Source: Nick Romano, Vanity Fair, April 6, 2015]
Gorenfeld wrote: “The monster movie was not seen outside the country until 1998 when, amid a dawning feeling of openness in North Korean, relations with the rest of Asia, another Japanese critic campaigned for its release - as an important work deserving more attention, and a source of box-office dollars for the North's disastrous economy. It bombed. In Seoul, a total of about 1,000 people saw it during its limited release.”
Later it became a sort of cult classic. According to Romano: “It would be many years before Pulgasari developed a fan base through limited circulation. ADV Films, a U.S. anime distribution company, released a VHS copy in 2001. Since then, underground and indie theaters have continuously hosted screenings. In the past couple of years alone, the Projection Booth Cinema in Canada, Columbia University’s Liberty in North Korea group in N.Y.C., and The Cuban bar in Bristol, United Kingdom have witnessed its magic. You can even watch the whole thing on YouTube.”
Shin’s Last Film and Escape from North Korea
John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: “Genghis Khan, or more specifically, John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the notoriously awful The Conqueror, was the inspiration for Shin's last collaboration with Kim. Shin had long wanted to make an authentically Mongolian or at least Asian version. [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
“In Kim Jong-il he found a producer who shared his enthusiasm for the subject of invading hordes. They agreed that this follow-up to Pulgasari would make a good export, even if it didn't meet with the approval of Kim's father as a tool for thought control.
“Plans were made for a joint venture with a company in Austria to distribute the film. Soon, Kim trusted the director to travel to western Europe for a business meeting. As a trip to Vienna approached, Shin writes, a plan began to form. They had no doubts about wanting to leave their comfortable lifestyle.
"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," he writes. Then they boarded a plane for Vienna, never to return to North Korea. During the trip, Shin and Choi were able to escape with the help of a Japanese movie critic friend. Meeting him for lunch, they fled by taxi to the American embassy, shaking off one of Kim's agents in another taxi.
After Choi Eun Hee’s and Shin Sang Ok’ Escape from North Korea
After their release they were debriefed by the South Korean intelligence services, but to this day many doubt their version of events. The couple insist they were forced to pledge allegiance both publicly and privately to communism during captivity, but for many in the South any pledge of allegiance to the North is unforgivable. [Source: Chavala Madlena, The Guardian, October 3, 2016; Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2016]
After escaping, the couple gave numerous interviews to intelligence agencies and the media, and wrote books about their experiences. Their strange saga is also the subject of a well-received book, “A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power,” by Paul Fischer, released in 2015. After defecting to the United States, the couple, settled in Los Angeles. Working under the pseudonym Simon Sheen, Shin worked as a director on the “Three Ninjas” films. He died in 2006 and Choi resettled in Seoul.
John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: “North Korean apparatchiks have tried to cast doubt on Shin's story, claiming he willingly defected to North Korea and absconded with millions. But Korea experts find Shin's story believable. Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, is one of many Kim-watchers who say it's consistent with what is known about the regime. Pyongyang now admits it captured 11 Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and 1980s to act as cultural advisers. Several died in captivity, some in suicides.” [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
Psychoanalysis of Kim Jong Il’s Based on His Passion for Movies
“Kim Jong Il was a young guy who knew only Communist Korea, who thought with money and power people would stay there. He thought money could fix anything,” told the New Yorker, adding: 'Kim Jong Il tries to understand capitalism through movies. James Bond was a favourite and he liked Rambo also, and Friday the 13th and Hong Kong action movies. But he doesn't know what fiction is. He looks at these movies as if they were records of reality.' [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]
Professor Jerrold Post wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Kim’s film obsession raises some questions: To what degree is his view of the West shaped by Hollywood? To what degree have the movies he loves influenced his actions? And finally, is he now writing, directing and starring in some grand epic he thinks of as “North Korea: the Movie”? Like Saddam Hussein, Kim is said to be a huge fan of “The Godfather,” which explains much about his leadership style. But in other ways too, he seems to be living his life and running his country more along Hollywood plot lines than traditional ways of living and governing. Take the way Kim set out to build a North Korean film industry. In 1978, rather than sending emissaries to study filmmaking in other countries, he simply arranged for the kidnapping of Choi Eun Hee and her husband. [Source: Jerrold Post, Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs and Director of the Political Psychology Program at the George Washington University, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2003]
“Over the last three decades, first as a political personality profiler and psychiatrist for the CIA, and I have developed hundreds of political personality profiles of world leaders. The two where I found the greatest gap between myth and reality were with Kim and his father, Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first leader. Why? In part, because the myths were largely constructed by Kim Jong Il, with his love of cinematic sweep. As director of the Propaganda and Agitation Bureau, Kim Jong Il was, at 30, responsible not only for creating the cult of personality that surrounded his father, “Great Leader,” but also for creating his own persona as “Dear Leader,” Kim Il Sung’s chosen successor. No detail was too great or small to alter.
“Consider, for example, the circumstances of Kim Jong Il’s birth. In truth, Kim was born under difficult circumstances in 1942, on a guerrilla base in the Soviet Union. But in his official biography, the birth of Kim Jong Il is described in rather more heroic terms. ‘The world history has not recorded such a son of guerrillas who was born between brilliant commanders of guerrillas in Mt. Paekdu, the sacred mountain of the nation. So Kim Jong Il’s birth is said to be an unprecedented birth out of a remarkable family. Therefore … Kim Jong Il’s birth itself is great and he was born with the mission of savior.”
“But if Kim Jong Il has created a grand birth for himself, he has nevertheless found it difficult to fill the shoes he fashioned for his charismatic father. In contrast with his father, Kim Jong Il was not a guerrilla fighter, not a nation builder, not the creator of his nation’s ideology. Perhaps it is to avoid facing his own monumental failure of leadership that Kim has retreated into a cinema-style fantasy world. His country is starving — some 2 million people have already died of hunger. Yet at the same time Kim calls on his people to sacrifice in pursuit of the twin goals of reunification and juche (self-reliance), he denies himself nothing, living in a seven-story Pyongyang pleasure palace. He recruits comely teenage virgins with fair complexions each July for “joy brigades” to provide “relaxation” for his senior officers.
“It may be that Kim doesn’t fully grasp the dire conditions of his people. When he goes out for “surprise” inspections of villages, there is generally enough advance notice that the “set” can be “dressed,” with food, clothing and other necessities to present an upbeat picture... Kim Jong Il “seems to think he’s starring in “Gunfight at the OK Corral”? Only instead of six-guns, Kim is aiming nuclear warheads. Kim’s technique for extracting money from his neighbors and the West seems straight out of the classic Peter Sellers’ movie, “The Mouse That Roared.” This mouse, however, has a fighting force of 1.2 million troops, 70 percent of whom are massed at the border. He also has a nuke or two, with the ability to rapidly expand his nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong Il Tapes
Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer Magazine: “When Shin and his wife escaped from North Korea they carried with them secretly made recordings of private conversations with Kim Jong Il. On the tapes, Kim readily acknowledges that North Korea's brand of socialism is flawed; that its technology is at a 'kindergarten level'; that its people lack enterprise and motivation because they are given none of the individual incentives that competition thrives on; and that anyone else in North Korea who said any of these things would be considered an ideological deviant, and purged. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]
On making the first tape, John Gorenfeld wrote for Salon.com: According to Shin’s memoir, Choi “had purchased a cassette recorder at a nearby market for the party inner circle, and smuggled it past the guards of Kim's lair. It lay in her handbag, and before it came to a stop, it taped 45 minutes of the dictator laying out his plans for the two: to serve as role models for his industry, and claim they came to the North for the creative freedom. To both Shin and Choi, the cassette of Kim's 45-minute talk was the key to a safe return home - but posed severe dangers as well. "It was a matter of life or death," Shin said later, in an interview with a South Korean magazine. They faced execution if the tape was found. In North Korea, there are strict rules against recording or filming the top leaders of the party.” [Source: John Gorenfeld, Salon.com,The Guardian, April 4, 2003]
After a fresh batch of tapes was featured in the documentary film “The Lovers and the Despot.” Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The voice on the tape recording is squeaky and excitable, the speaker using such a strong dialect that it is difficult even for native Korean speakers to understand. What comes across is that the man speaking in a rapid clip is anxious about his own shortcomings, and his country’s. The speaker, in fact, is Kim Jong Il.Tape recordings of him from the 1980s are featured in a new [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2016]
“Shin feared rightfully that nobody would believe this outlandish story, so he and Choi secretly taped Kim Jong Il. With a microrecorder stashed in Choi’s purse, they captured Kim, who was then in charge of the film industry, pouring out his insecurities about how his country lagged behind capitalist rival South Korea.: The couple obtained the tape recorder in captivity and wanted to show they were being held against their will.
“During a trip to Budapest, Shin turned over some of his tape recordings to a Japanese film critic who was an old friend and instructed him to give them to family. Those tapes eventually made their way to a family friend who lived in New Jersey, who brought them to the State Department. At first, the U.S. government was skeptical that the voice on the tapes could be Kim Jong Il’s. Although Kim was already known to be the heir apparent to North Korea and was a well-known figure, he was a famous recluse who seldom spoke in public, apparently disliking the sound of his own voice. Western intelligence didn’t have a recording of his voice to which to compare.
“This was kind of a wild story. My boss questioned me about how credible this was,” David Straub, a North Korea expert, who as a junior officer on the Korea desk first received the tapes, told the Los Angeles Times “Presumably, we had our Korean native speakers, psychological experts and linguists analyze the tapes, and the U.S. government presumably judged them to be credible.”
“It was the first time anyone in the U.S. government, as far as I know, had heard his [Kim’s] voice, besides a couple of words during a public address,” Straub told The Guardian. The tapes were invaluable for intelligence, he added. They were “a chance to asses how logical he was, an insight into his temperament. Kim Jong-il was sane and rational in his own way.” [Source: Chavala Madlena, The Guardian, October 3, 2016]
“Shin had already smuggled some of the tapes out of the country in 1985" while still in captivity. “Despite being closely chaperoned during all foreign trips during his captivity, Shin was able to pass the recordings to a former friend and film critic during a chance meeting in Budapest. He also conveyed the message that he was being held against his will.”
Kim Jong Il on Film
Kim Jong Il wrote in “On the Art of the Cinema” (1973): "The task set before the cinema today is one of contributing to people's development into true communists... This historic task requires, above all, a revolutionary transformation of the practice of directing."
In regard to what he said in the Choi and Shin tapes, Chavala Madlena wrote in The Guardian: “Kim Jong-il was exasperated by his compatriots’ lack of drive and creativity, and bizarrely fulminated against excessive ideology and dogma in North Korean films. Kim feared his country was being held back by lack of contact with the outside world, which was making his people too self-satisfied for their own good, the documentary tapes show. [Source: Chavala Madlena, The Guardian, October 3, 2016]
“The film-mad dictator urged the couple to show the people of North Korea “a good example through your creative films”, admitting that his country’s efforts had been “useless”. “When I watch our films [...] they are all dogmatic. Why do our films always have the same ideological stories? Why are there so many crying scenes?”
At one point the conversation turns to international film festivals. Kim asks: “Why there isn’t a single South Korean film at the Montreal film festival?”Shin replies: “They didn’t get through to the shortlist… I don’t even want to watch them. They drive me crazy. They just copy Japanese films.” Choi adds: “Honey, you used to do the same thing.”
In the tapes Kim said: 1) “We don’t have any films that get into film festivals.” 2) “In South Korea, they have better technology. They are like college students and we are just in nursery schools.” In the tapes, Kim also confesses that he had ordered Shin and Choi to be kidnapped so that they could make movies for him. “I asked my advisor, who’s the best director in the south? He said that his name is Shin.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2016]
Choi Eun Hee, Shin Sang Ok and Kim Jong Il
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Much of what the world has learned about Kim Jong Il’s personality came from Shin and Choi. Psychological profilers puzzled over Kim Jong Il’s tendency to make self-deprecating remarks. Fancying himself a cineaste, Kim was more obsessed with Shin, his idol. In their recorded conversations, it sounds like it is the captive, not the dictator, who holds the power in the relationship. “The man loves me and does everything he can for me so I can’t possibly betray him,’’ Shin whispered in another tape he made of himself speaking to his Japanese friend. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2016]
“Later, Kim apologized to Shin for the mistreatment he endured from the agents who kidnapped him, and for the fact that the couple were kept apart for four years. “I didn’t tell them about my plan to use you and collaborate with you. I just said bring them to me.” Shin gradually earned Kim Jong Il’s “trust to the point that he allowed them to travel to Eastern Europe, then still part of the Soviet block, to shoot films and attend film festivals. In 1986, the pair escaped to the U.S. embassy in Vienna.
Chavala Madlena wrote in The Guardian Kim’s “appeal to Shin and Choi to inject some creativity into North Korean film-making is in stark contrast with state propaganda from the time, which paints North Korea as a glorious socialist utopia. At time Kim is also heard to be almost deferential towards the director, “not only because Shin was older but also because he admires him and was a great fan”, Cannan adds. [Source: Chavala Madlena, The Guardian, October 3, 2016]
“The celebrity couple slowly earned the dictator’s trust and, managed to escape during a trip to Austria to promote North Korean films in 1986, taking their secret recordings with them. However, the tapes offer new insight into the kidnapping, and reveal how they were briefed by Kim on how to behave when they were sent to film festivals overseas. Before a trip to Moscow in 1985Kim is heard to say: “Don’t say you were forced to come here. Say you came willingly. You wanted to make films here because there’s no freedom in the South.” Shin replies: “Look, I’m the one sticking with you. I’m not going anywhere until I’ve finished my masterpieces. But you know that!”
Lovers and Despots Documentary
The documentary 'The Lovers and the Despot' tells the story reveals the story of Choi and Shin and their kidnapping by and relationship with Kim Jong Il. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “British filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan stumbled on a gold mine when they secured Choi’s agreement to assist with their film projects. Although transcripts of some of the tapes had been published in Korean, Choi gave the filmmakers bags full of poorly labeled, jumbled audiotapes. “She was like a grandmother bringing out some interesting photo albums. She is quite elderly now and her memory is getting hazy,” said Adam in a telephone interview. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2016]
“The filmmakers believe she cooperated because many South Koreans doubted the kidnapping story, believing that Shin had arranged the defection to escape financial problems in South Korea. Listening to the tapes with a translator, the filmmakers were amazed to find that Kim Jong Il was as fixated with their profession as they were. “Here is a man who is being groomed to be the leader of the country,” said Cannan. “It is just bizarre to hear him talking about the enemy and how they have to outdo each other by getting into film festivals.”
Chavala Madlena wrote in The Guardian: “Adam and Cannan spent hours trawling through the tapes, which also reveal that the trio’s relationship was not as clear cut as that of a tyrannical captor and his submissive captives.“From their very first meeting it is clear that is Kim setting the tone,” said Adam, but “at times it feels like they’re getting on as friends. They have shared ambitions and an obsession with cinema.” [Source: Chavala Madlena, The Guardian, October 3, 2016]
“Translating the hours of the micro-cassette tapes was no easy task, Cannan explained. The sound was muffled because Choi had hidden the recorder in her handbag, and Kim’s accent was difficult to decipher. “He was hard to understand, very fast... he used a lot of older words, like an older version of Korean … we went through several stages of translation.”
Kim Jong Il in American Movies, Blogs and Television
‘Team America: World Police’ — “I’m So Ronery”: Before targeting Mormons in their Tony Award–winning musical, Book of Mormon, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone made their hilarious 2004 political satire, Team America: World Police. Shot entirely with marionettes, the movie centered on a global police force known as “Team America,” that attempted to stop an evil terrorist plot orchestrated by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, the despondent dictator sings the ballad, “I’m So Ronery,” including lines like: “I'm the smartest most crever most physicarry fit / But nobody else seems to rearize it.” [Source: Marlow Stern. The Daily Beast, December 19, 2011]
‘The Simpsons’ — The Kim Jong-il Musical: The premiere episode of The Simpsons’ 23rd season centered on an ex-CIA agent, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, who later reveals that he was once “in a North Korean prison being forced to write a musical about Kim Jong-il with a car battery hooked up to my nipples.” The musical was called Being Short Is No Hindrance to Greatness.
‘30 Rock’ – "Everything Sunny All the Time Always": In the 22nd episode of the fifth season of NBC’s 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is shocked to discover that his wife, Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks), has been captured by the North Korean government, re-educated, and forced to star in a propaganda video opposite “dear leader” Kim Jong-il (comedienne Margaret Cho). At one point, Avery delivers a news report on the U.S. featuring a rather recognizable despot as the weather man, “Johnny Mountains.”
“Kim Jong-il Looking At Things”: This blog began on Oct. 26, 2010, and features a collection of photos of diminutive North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, sporting his standard big-rim sunglasses, bouffant hairdo, and a selection of eye-catching jumpsuits, checking out everything from sausages to assembly lines. It’s surprisingly hilarious — and addictive. kimjongillookingatthings.tumblr.com
‘Family Guy’ — Dictator Pool Party: In the 18th episode in the second season of Fox’s animated series, Family Guy, absent-minded patriarch Peter Griffin learns that his house isn’t a part of the United States. So naturally, he declares his home to be a new state — “Petoria” — and, after annexing Joe Swanson’s pool, flaunts his diplomatic immunity by hosting a dictator pool party. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il can be seen standing in the pool — which Peter names “Joehio” — along with then Cuban President Fidel Castro.
‘South Park’ — Kim Jong-il and the ‘Legion of Doom’ Before Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone parodied North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in the South Park episode “Krazy Kripples,” which aired during the show’s seventh season. When Christopher Reeve becomes a megalomaniacal supervillain after consuming fetuses used for stem cell research, he forms a “Legion of Doom” made up of several villains, including Saddam Hussein and, yes, Kim.
Kid Notorious — ‘Kim Jong-il Must Die’: Though the animated series Kid Notorious aired for only nine weeks on Comedy Central, beginning in October 2003, it later ran for many years on the U.K. version of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The show, an absurdist satire, centered on Hollywood megaproducer Robert Evans (voiced by Evans himself), and in the episode “Kim Jong-il Must Die” Evans is recruited by Donald Rumsfeld to assassinate the North Korean dictator. However, Evans becomes conflicted when he learns that Kim actually is the greatest director of romantic comedy films he’s ever seen.
MADtv — ‘The Kim Jong-il Show’ Feat. Donald Trump: This recurring skit on the Fox sketch comedy show MADtv featured Kim Jong-il (played by Bobby Lee) as the host of a late-night talk show that was mandatory on state television. Whenever an audience member didn’t laugh at one of the North Korean dictator’s lame jokes, Kim tells the person that he’ll have them shot. In this episode, the diminutive leader goes head-to-head with Donald Trump (Frank Caliendo).
Sprite — Parody Commercial: Earlier this year, Sprite released a commercial in Israel titled “Sprite Revolution” as part of the soft drink’s “Feel the Freshness” ad campaign. The commercial seems to parody Kim Jong-il’s North Korean dictatorship, as the leader takes one gulp of the drink and screams, “CAN YOU FEEL IT?” And the tagline for the commercial is: “Sprite believes that everyone has a refreshing side … even the world’s toughest dictators.”
E-Harmony Ad Feat. Kim Jong-il: This hilarious parody features the North Korean dictator in a commercial for the dating website E-Harmony. In front of the cameras, Kim is all lovey-dovey with his Internet match, but behind the scenes, he isn’t very happy with her performance and claims, “You say I’m a bad English person-speaker? I am five-year champion Spelling Bee of North Korea!”
Kim Jong-il’s Professional Look-Alike: Talk about a bizarre way to make a living. South Korean actor Kim Young-sik portrayed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in numerous plays and movies for a number of years, and his act includes echoing the Dear Leader’s opinion on nuclear testing. Apparently, the actor is even available for “events and children’s parties,” if you really hate your kids.
MADtv — P. Diddy feat. Kim Jong-il, ‘Bomb, Bomb, Bomb’: The Fox sketch comedy show MADtv seemed to poke fun at Kim Jong-il the most. In this sketch parodying the B2K music video for Bump, Bump, Bump, P. Diddy (Aries Spears) and Kim Jong-il (Bobby Lee) perform their less erotic version, entitled Bomb, Bomb, Bomb. Directed by Jerry Bruckheimer, the song features Kim singing — between pelvic thrusts — “I’ve got solid gold Mercedes / And lots of tall, blonde ladies / So I get laid.”
‘Captain Korea’: Made by 7SL Productions, this amateur trailer parodies the recent Hollywood blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger, choosing to center on an injured soldier who volunteers for a secret project that turns him into Captain Korea, the first Korean superhero, who helps aid in the war against a superhuman version of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.
Team America: World Police
Kim Jong Il — or at least a puppet version of him — was the villain in “Team America: World Police,” a 2004 film with Thunderbirds-style puppets made by the creators of South Park. It took in more than US$51-million worldwide and depicts Kim Jong-il as an out-of-touch and faintly ludicrous dictator with a poor grasp of English. [Source: Ian Vandaelle, National Post, December 20, 2011]
Marlow Stern wrote in The Daily Beast: “Shot entirely with marionettes, the movie centered on a global police force known as “Team America,” that attempted to stop an evil terrorist plot orchestrated by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, the despondent dictator sings the ballad, “I’m So Ronery,” including lines like: “I'm the smartest most crever most physicarry fit / But nobody else seems to rearize it.”
The plot according to IMDb: The North American counter-terrorism force Team America attacks a group of terrorists in Paris. Later, the leader of the organization, Spottswoode, invites the famous Broadway actor Gary Johnston to join his world police and work undercover in Cairo, infiltrating a terrorist organization in the hope they will disclose their plan of destroying the world. Team America destroy the cell of terrorists, but then the Panama Canal is attacked by the criminals as a payback. Gary feels responsible for the death of many innocents and leaves the counter-terrorism organization. When the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, joins a group of pacifist actors and actresses with the intention of using weapons of massive destruction, Team America tries to avoid the destruction of the world. [Source: Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, IMDb]
Looking Like Kim Jong Il as a Gig Job
A Seoul businessman has portrayed the North's Kim Jong Il in movies and in live appearances. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “After he passed his 40th birthday,Kim Young-sik looked in the mirror and brooded over his evolving appearance. His cheeks were sagging into a jowl, his hairline creeping up his temples and his beltline disappearing under a protruding belly. When the South Korean businessman put on an oversize pair of sunglasses at a family gathering soon afterward, his sister-in-law remarked immediately on the uncanny resemblance. "Ha, ha, ha. You look just like Kim Jong Il," she said. So what could otherwise have turned into a midlife crisis has instead spawned a new career as one of the preeminent impersonators of the eccentric North Korean leader. Kim Jong Il — with his bouffant hairdo and rotund physique — is a sufficiently iconic figure that plausible look-alikes are always in demand. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2006]
“The North Korean leader played by Kim Young-sik is a more benign figure, almost a lovable, pot-bellied dictator. Among recent gigs, the impersonator appeared last year in a Japanese television serial and in a music video with the South Korean rapper Psy. He flew to Beirut to shoot a commercial aired in Arab countries in which the Kim Jong Il character vies with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for a bar of chocolate. (Kim wins.)
"I am a natural," boasted the 56-year-old Kim Young-sik. Although he is nine years younger than the original, they are the same height — about 5-foot-3 — and similarly pudgy around the middle. "I didn't have to perm my hair. I didn't need plastic surgery. Even my family name, Kim, didn't have to be changed." In real life, however, the impersonator is a modest man who lives in a working-class neighborhood of Seoul behind his cluttered shop, which makes business cards and the name chops favored here for stamping official documents. Unlike the real Kim Jong Il, he doesn't drink. He has a self-effacing manner, graciously serving guests iced coffee and sandwiches. Before he discovered his talent for impersonating Kim Jong Il, he had never traveled outside South Korea.
“As a child, Kim fantasized about being a performer. But coming from a poor family of farmers, he didn't dare to try. His big break came in 1995, after he spotted an advertisement for an actor to play the North Korean dictator while flipping through the movie section of a newspaper. He sent in a photograph of himself but forgot to include his phone number. The casting director had to call the police to track him down. Beating out 120 other look-alikes, he got the part in the political thriller "The Rose of Sharon Blooms Again." In the film, based on a best-selling novel of the same name, the Kim Jong Il figure is a nationalist hero who uses his nuclear weapons as a deterrent to prevent a Japanese invasion of South Korea.
“The actor suggests that it is impossible to impersonate without identifying and that his acting stints have given him a certain sympathy for the fellow. "Sometimes, I feel like I am Kim Jong Il," the impersonator said. If nothing else, Kim is a convincing double. Studying photographs and television footage, he perfected Kim Jong Il's carriage and distinctive way of standing with his hands clasped behind his back, belly boldly protruding. He has down pat the tightly controlled Queen Elizabeth-style wave so emblematic of heads of state. In hopes of getting more speaking parts, he is working now on his Pyongyang accent.
“Kim invested the proceeds of his Japanese television gig in a new wardrobe. He had a tailor copy Kim Jong Il's suits — including his favorite olive-drab fatigues. He bought two pairs of platform shoes, just like those worn by the real "Dear Leader."Around his neighborhood, Kim is a celebrity. He often wears his full Kim Jong Il regalia to the store, attracting double-takes from customers and passersby. "Hiya 'Chairman,' " people call out on the street, using Kim Jong Il's formal title as chairman of the National Defense Commission. (His father, the late Kim Il Sung, remains in name North Korea's president, despite his death in 1994.)
“Kim says that he would love to do a Hollywood movie but would decline "for any amount of money if it was a role derogatory to North Korea." So for the time being, Kim remains a small-time impersonator, doing low-paying gigs. "People will ask me to come to the 70th birthday party of their father so he can get his picture taken with the chairman. I usually don't make enough for the carfare," Kim said. And he dreams of the day when he would get a summons to Pyongyang from Kim Jong Il saying, "Little Brother, come and see me."”
After the death of the real Kim Jong Il in 2011, Afp reported: “But it's not always easy playing the role of a man who presided over a deadly famine, locked tens of thousands of his own people up in prison camps and tested a nuclear bomb. "Some people curse at me and call me 'dictator', but those who know me wave and shout 'Kim Jong-Il!'. Then I would wave back at them and show them some of Kim's moves," he said. Keeping up appearances takes some work. He perms his hair every three months and before Kim's death closely followed changes in his look and demeanour, even going on a diet when the late leader lost weight following a 2008 stroke. "Back when Kim Jong-Il was young, I used to use hairspray, but after he got old and started to lose hair, I didn't have to do anything." He has four different suits made in the style of the late ruler along with five pairs of platform shoes. "Before, I used to wear the outfits almost everyday, but now I just wear them once in a while and when I'm invited to be Kim Jong-Il at an event. It's a shame I won't be able to wear them anymore," impersonator Kim said. [Source: Daniel Rook, AFP, December 30, 2011]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, The Telegraph, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021