Students, diplomats, journalists and others who delve into study of North Korea very quickly encounter the story of the kidnapping of a South Korean actress and her director ex-husband in the 1970s — and their hair-raising escape in the mid-1980s.
While North Korea kidnapped dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in the 1970s from around Asia, the tale of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok is unique because their abduction was orchestrated by Kim Jong-Il. They got close to him during their time there and, after fleeing when he let them go to a film festival in Vienna, provided some of the first stories of Kim's extravagant lifestyle and mercurial ways.
At the time, Kim's father, Kim Il-Sung, led the country and the junior Kim was consolidating power with an eye toward taking control upon his father's death. And one of the ways Kim Jong-Il thought he could prove himself a worthy successor was to build North Korea's film industry into something that rivaled South Korea's and even Japan's.
Choi and Shin were briefly famous beyond the Korean Peninsula after their escape. And they wrote a Korean-language memoir in the 1990s.
Filmmaker Paul Fischer's new book, "A Kim Jong-Il Production," is the first in English to explore their dramatic tale and its sad toll on their lives. Choi, who is nearing 90 and still alive in South Korea, cooperated with Fischer, giving the book greater authority and insight.
"They had been famous together and poor together, adopted children and made films, rubbed shoulders with presidents and dictators, married, divorced, remarried, survived kidnapping and imprisonment," Fischer wrote.
They were divorced when they were taken, both snatched in Hong Kong eight months apart in 1978. The North Koreans kept them apart, Shin in a gulag for several years, until early 1983. On the night they reunited, Choi told Shin, "Darling, we have acted and directed the lives of others in films. From now, let's act and direct our lives ingeniously."
Shin directed movies for Kim, and Choi persuaded the eventual dictator that the couple could be trusted to travel abroad to show them at festivals.
Among the many twists for the couple is one that bedevils anyone who runs up against the Kim regime even today: that some people just don't believe it's as bad as it is. The most recent example of this phenomenon, though a minor one, could be seen when people didn't believe that North Korea could be responsible for hacking Sony Pictures.
After their memoir was published, Choi and Shin contended with many critics in South Korea who accused them of making up their ordeal.
Choi told Fischer, "People often invent the story they want to be true. But I want to say: I lived my life honestly."
Evan Ramstad, digital business editor for the Star Tribune, was Korea correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 2006 to 2013.