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Rare tape recordings offer glimpse of late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il

The tapes were created as the result of an outlandish kidnapping ordered by Kim Jong-il before ascending to power.

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    Late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il waves goodbye to Chinese leaders during a 2010 visit to Beijing.
    AP/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service
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Tape recordings of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made in the 1980s by an actress who later went into exile in the United States have surfaced with the release of a new documentary, "The Lovers and the Despot."

The recordings of Mr. Jong-il, who at the time was being groomed for his ascent to power in 1994, reveal a man impatient with the complacency of his country’s upper tier and the low quality of its cultural production. And in bringing a mythical personage down to size, the tapes sit alongside a growing genre of media, especially photography, that seeks to depict everyday life in a country associated most immediately with its government’s brutality and bombast.

"Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots? There is nothing new about them," he complains in one of the tapes, according to CNN.

"We don't have any films that get into film festivals. But in South Korea, they have better technology. They are like college students; we are just in nursery school. People here are so close minded."

The tapes themselves emerge from an outlandish plot hatched by the young heir to give the industry a jolt: In 1978, he ordered intelligence agents to kidnap Choi Eun-hee, then a prominent actress in South Korea, and when her husband and fellow actor Shin Sang-ok went to look for her, they kidnapped him, too.

Jong-il, it seems, was something of a film fanatic, and anxious about how North Korea was seen in the eyes of the world. His idea, according to the Guardian, was for the two to make films that would be "a good example" of the country’s creative potential – and win kudos from international judges.

"Frankly speaking," says Jong-il in another tape, "the reason is that in the South, they work hard because they need to make money and feed themselves. It’s the result of blood, sweat and tears. But here, people are simply happy and comfortable. ... no one whips them onwards."

"Why there isn’t a single South Korean film at the Montreal film festival?. ... If we don’t catch up in the next 10 years, then frankly speaking, our film industry will fall behind. We may become the last," he says elsewhere.

Over the course of eight years, the captive actors produced some 17 films for the despot and earned his trust, to the point that they were permitted to travel to Eastern Europe to film and attend festivals. Meanwhile, they began secretly recording their meetings in preparation for their eventual escape, fearing that no foreign official would believe their story. In 1986, they defected to the US embassy in Vienna.

"This was kind of a wild story. My boss questioned me about how credible this was," David Straub, then an official on the US State Department’s Korea desk, 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."

Mr. Sang-ok, who died in 2006, settled in Los Angeles, where he worked as a director. Ms. Eun-hee, who resettled in Seoul, lent the tapes to British filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan for the film about the couple.

"She was like a grandmother bringing out some interesting photo albums. She is quite elderly now and her memory is getting hazy," Mr. Adam told the LA Times.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Choi Eun-hee as North Korean.]

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