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A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power

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Before becoming the world's most notorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea's Ministry for Propaganda and its film studios. Conceiving every movie made, he acted as producer and screenwriter. Despite this control, he was underwhelmed by the available talent and took drastic steps, ordering the kidnapping of Choi Eun-Hee (Madam Choi)-South Korea's most famous actress-and her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok, the country's most famous filmmaker.

Madam Choi vanished first. When Shin went to Hong Kong to investigate, he was attacked and woke up wrapped in plastic sheeting aboard a ship bound for North Korea. Madam Choi lived in isolated luxury, allowed only to attend the Dear Leader's dinner parties. Shin, meanwhile, tried to escape, was sent to prison camp, and "re-educated." After four years he cracked, pledging loyalty. Reunited with Choi at the first party he attends, it is announced that the couple will remarry and act as the Dear Leader's film advisors. Together they made seven films, in the process gaining Kim Jong-Il's trust. While pretending to research a film in Vienna, they flee to the U.S. embassy and are swept to safety.

A nonfiction thriller packed with tension, passion, and politics, author Paul Fischer's A Kim Jong-Il Production offers a rare glimpse into a secretive world, illuminating a fascinating chapter of North Korea's history that helps explain how it became the hermetically sealed, intensely stage-managed country it remains today.

353 pages, Hardcover

First published February 3, 2015

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About the author

Paul Fischer

2 books45 followers
PAUL FISCHER is the author of A Kim Jong-Il Production, published by Penguin in the UK and Macmillan in the US in 2015, and translated into fourteen languages. The book was nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award, longlisted for a Goodreads Choice Award for Best History & Biography, and chosen as one of the best books of 2015 by Library Journal, Hudson Booksellers, and NPR. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Independent, Guardian, The Narwhal, SyfyWire, and Bright Wall / Dark Room amongst others, and he has co-written horror films for Blumhouse and Hulu, including 2018’s The Body and 2019’s Pure. He produced the feature documentary Radioman, which was longlisted for a Grierson Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at the DOC NYC festival.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 697 reviews
Profile Image for Mara.
400 reviews281 followers
December 16, 2019
This book is a strong 3.5 stars, maybe even tilting toward 4. If you're interested in it, read it. It's fun, short, and fascinating. My star-docking is more of a content critique, but (attention spans being what they are these days) I wanted to get that out of the way.

Kim Jong-Il was not always “Dear Leader.” As a child, he was called “Yura.” Though he was the son of Kim Sung-Il , “The Great Leader” and founder of North Korea (aka Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK), it wasn't always a given that he would one day take his father's place. It's hard to parse the varying stories of his birth/ancestry (check out Time's Kim Family Tree if you're curious). Jong-Il was passionate about cinema from an early age, and when Sung-Il (taking a page from the Soviet playbook) formed the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Jong-Il soon made a natural and eager Cultural Arts Director.
Young Kim Jong-Il With Parents
As with almost all aspects of society after the Korean War, there was a race for supremacy in the film industries between the North and the South. Together, director Shin Sang-Ok and actress “Madam Choi” Eun-Hee were seemingly unstoppable.
Shin Sang-Ok Choi Eun-Hee Movies
Shin Films became a juggernaut—with the combination of Choi on screen, and Shin behind the camera, their films were met with acclaim in South Korea and abroad.
Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok
Shin and Choi (above as happy, young newlyweds) embodied the success of South Korean films. Few people (if any) would have been as acutely aware of this as Kim Jong-Il. His obsession with movies was so great that he set up Resource Operation No. 100 (a fancied-up term for what was essentially film piracy and dubbing at DPRK embassies across the world) so he could study the work of all the greats.

By the late 1970s, however, Choi, Shin, and Kim Jong-Il were confronting challenges in their respective lives. Though Choi had tried to ignore Shin's infidelities, the two divorced after Shin had a baby with a younger actress. Shin had a penchant for pushing the limits of what was considered acceptable in South Korea at the time. After ignoring the censorship board one time too many, the Office of Public Ethics revoked Shin's license to make films.
Kim Jong Il On Set 1979
Though the first films made in North Korea (e.g. Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl) were successful, with a quite literally captive audience of people who were exposed to no other media, Kim Jong-Il was not satisfied. Furthermore, given that the DPRK was a “closed country,” Jong-Il was effectively isolated from foreign talent.

Both Shin and Choi were essentially foiled by their desires to succeed and pursue their passions. Abductions/kidnappings across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) were by no means uncommon. Fishing boats were regular targets (which will come as no surprise to those who have read The Orphan Master's Son ), and many were skeptical as to whether or not South Korean “defectors” were truly acting under their own will.

Choi became a “guest of the Dear Leader” by way of Hong Kong in 1978, enticed by an opportunity to direct a film (which would help her to achieve her dreams for an acting school in South Korea). Though the two had divorced, Shin was concerned when his ex-wife went missing. He spoke out to the press about his suspicions of political conspiracy, and was also questioned as a suspect in Choi's disappearance.

Meanwhile, Shin was still trying to resurrect his company, and was having passport/visa problems. With nibbles, but no bites on various foreign deals for film distribution or directing opportunities, Shin was growing desperate and was running out of cash. When told that he would be able to get a South American passport in Hong Kong, he went for it, only to find himself traveling on the same freighter that had taken Choi to the People's Republic.

Though Shin and Choi were “special guests,” this did not save them from all of the horrors of North Korea's detention and reeducation camps, nor were they immediately reunited. The conditions of Shin's detainment were particularly bad—similar to those described both in The Orphan Master's Son and Escape From Camp 14.

It's difficult to describe my impression of Kim Jong-Il based on this book. To say that he was well-intentioned seems naive, and it's impossible to imagine what the world looked like through his eyes given his bizarre upbringing. However one sees him, though, Kim Jong-Il was undeniably eager to earn the approval of Shin and Choi, and, in his own way, tried to make them happy (even re-marrying the couple in 1983, below).
Choi Kim Jong Il Shin 1983
The title of the book reflects Paul Fischer's ongoing depiction of Kim Jong-Il as the producer of his country and its narrative.
“Between the late 1960s and the end of his [Kim Jong Il's] life he created one vast stage production. He was the writer, director, and producer of the nation. He conceived his people’s roles, their devotion, their values; he wrote their dialogue and forced it upon them; he mapped out their entire character arcs, from birth to death, splicing them out of the picture if they broke type.”
Accordingly, there were ways in which “working” for Kim Jong-Il was familiar to Shin and Choi.
“Shin and Choi had both met men like Kim Jong-Il, on a smaller scale: talented but not quite talented enough, powerful, jealous, insecure, and boastful; with an overinflated sense of their own importance in the world, a short temper, and an obsessive need to micromanage. Kim was, they thought, the archetypal film producer.”
Likewise, for Shin especially, Jong-Il's unilateral power made his life easier. Need to blow up a train? Sure thing—sorry, you'll have to do it in one take, because it's a real, running train. However, lacking the incentives inherent in capitalism, the same could not be said of the cast and crew.
Kim Jong Il Pulgasari
So, did it work? Were Shin and Choi everything Kim Jong-Il ever dreamed of? In some ways, yes. Movies in North Korea did get better. The people of the DPRK began to share Jong-Il's enthusiasm for film (in part because the films became something more than pure glorifications of life in North Korea).

Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee, however, were not truly happy. Though they had many of the comforts of “the good life,” they were prisoners. Also, they were pawns in the propaganda game that got this whole thing started. Luckily for them, their roles as spokespeople for the DPRK required some of the trappings of freedom which proved crucial for their escape.
Shin and Choi 1989
Critical Review
While this was a fascinating story which seems well-researched (though I'm no expert), Fischer seemed a little overly determined to layer on all of the mystery and “weirdness” of North Korea and its leaders. While I'm not planning on overthrowing our democracy any time soon, I think that there's always value in trying to see things from other perspectives. One of the things I enjoyed about The Orphan Master's Son was its references to how America might look or be portrayed in North Korea — a land of “illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.”

I became acutely aware of this while reading Fischer's descriptions of the death and funeral rites of Kim Il-Sung.
“Kim Il-Sung’s body was embalmed and put on display for his people to see. The process involved removing all of the Supreme Leader’s organs before bathing his hollow corpse in a formaldehyde bath and injecting liters of chemical balsam, a cocktail of glycerine and potassium acetate, in his veins to keep his flesh lifelike and elastic. Finally makeup and lipstick were applied to Kim’s face to restore the illusion of youth.”
I'm no mortician, but that doesn't sound all that different from what goes on at open-casket funerals here in the U-S-of-A (I think it involves formaldehyde and methanol).
April 13, 2021

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I was inspired to buy A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION after I received and enjoyed an ARC of THE GREAT SUCCESSOR, a biography of Kim Jong-Il's youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un. In my review, I praised the author for her diligent research and the honest portrayal of the leader of a hostile nation, where I'm afraid the temptation is, far too often, to demonize. This is dangerous, because cartoonish portrayals of harmful individuals fail to acknowledge what we should all keep in mind: even people who commit harmful acts are people, like you and me, and the things that make them seem most human, even sympathetic, are precisely what make them so effective, and so dangerous. It's important to understand those nuances and keep them top of mind: not just for our own safety, but so we don't emulate those behaviors ourselves.

A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION is one of those "stranger than fiction" tales that reads like an airport thriller but is actually true. It is about the South Korean film director, Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, Choi Eun-Hee, and their kidnapping by DPRK officials. Why? Because Kim Jong-Il understood the importance of the legacy of pop culture and what it had to offer, and that in order to be memorable and leave his mark in his country, he would have to contribute something meaningful not just to his people, but also on an international level, as well.

After several escape attempts and even some prison time in the case of Shin Sang-Ok, they were coerced into compliance and ended up making a number of incredibly successful films in DPRK, some of which received international accolades. Perhaps the most famous is Pulgasari, which ironically was the mark of his decline as a film maker and has since received cult status as a "Z movie" on par with The Room and Trolls 2, and its Western remake, Galgameth, is no less heinous, with a character who looks like an extra from the Dinosaurs TV show. But the content he produced pleased Kim Jong-Il, who accorded them more and more freedoms until, finally, they were able to flee to a U.S. embassy where they received asylum.

Fischer does his best to portray Kim Jong-Il as a well-rounded person, who saw nothing wrong with killing those who wronged him (including the public execution of an indiscreet mistress), but genuinely wanted the admiration of his people, and would be self-effacing and abashed by public displays acknowledging his greatness. Shin and Choi, according to this biography, always wanted to escape, but it seems like they came to identify with their captor as well-- by necessity, yes, but also because he was capable of being charming when he wanted to be, even though he also could be cruel, and took care that they never felt too comfortable or at ease around them.

My heart really ached for Choi and Shin. Shin's chapters in the prison were nightmarish, and the descriptions of what happened to Choi during the Korean War and before were heart-rending. Her relationship with Shin should have been an oasis, but his affairs ended up breaking her heart. Ironically, their mutual imprisonment in North Korea ended up bringing the two of them back together and they even remarried-- first at Jong-Il's behest in a trumped-up PR event of a ceremony, but then on their own terms in Europe. It was heart-rending, how they found solace in each other, and it made sense why they got back together: nobody else could have understood their hardship, and I'm sure they found a comfort in the sympathy that arose from their shared tragedy.

The ending, sadly, isn't completely a happily-ever-after. There were plenty of individuals who believed that they lied about their kidnapping and were actual defectors. Their careers tanked. Choi could not find work as an elderly actress of color, and all of Shin's later attempt to direct were relative failures, including many Disney TV movies with abysmal ratings like the aforementioned Galgameth, and 3 Ninjas. I'm sure that was quite a blow, being one of the hallmarks of an era, only to end up doing kids' movies that nobody really liked.

I would recommend A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION to anyone who would like to get a nuanced history of the Korean war, North Korea, and Kim Jong-Il, as well as insight into a very strange true crime event from history that people still occasionally make references to to this day. It's definitely not happy reading, so I would save it for a day when you're in the right mental state, but if you can stomach the content, it's fascinating and eye-opening, and will definitely give you new insights into a very secretive nation and the storied history of a tragic couple.

3.5 to 4 stars
Profile Image for DeB.
984 reviews246 followers
June 16, 2016
Speechless. Nearly wordless. I've been to Oz, but it's Mickey Mouse who rules as a god-like Sun-King, the subjects know their lines perfectly to exalt His Majesty but if they miss a word or don't smile perfectly for the camera it means trouble. Three generations will be sent to prisons with sadistic guards and wormy rice, if lucky, or the degenerate who betrayed the beautiful ruler will be executed publicly. Everyone believes that they are the most fortunate people in the world; they see movies which show the destitute,destructive, pillaging white faces of the capitalistic West Witches attacking their homeland. Absolute loyalty assures greatness, the adored father god Mickey guarantees it and he is the forever hero living in a golden palace.

Looney Toones. A country shaped on movie plots... Yeah, I do feel crazy.

The Hermit Kingdom. North Korea. A famous South Korean actress and her husband covertly kidnapped to expand the greatness of Kim Jong-IL's cinematic productions, used initially to promote propaganda to the isolated citizens, but now wanted to make profit, enhance status, show other countries how North Korea has evolved.

Maybe not SO speechless. My husband: "What is going on?", after hearing expletives, NO!, No-no-no, OMG, I can't believe it, Oh my oh my!

Korea once had had an emperor and had historically been the target and victim of encroaching nations, due to its strategic position. During WWII the Japanese captured and demoralized the country, but afterwards the USA and Soviets decided to split the country in half and act as stewards in its recovery. This led to the first Kim-IL (Sung), as dictator, to his appointed son Kim Jong-IL, and to the present Kim Jong-Un. Their mandate was always to reunite both Koreas, and led to the Korean War of 1950-1953.

After eight years of being hostages in North Korea, in various states of discomfort and luxury, Madame Choi and Director Shin gained the Great Ruler's trust sufficiently to travel to Vienna, lightly guarded. Three years of judicious flattery, movie making and careful observation led to their chance dash to freedom at the US Embassy, in 1986. "They were the first reliable witnesses of Kims' habits and behavior to make their way into the hands of the American national security agencies."

Paul Fischer has researched extensively and personally interviewed Madame Choi. The information in this book is staggering, though it seems to flow by as easily as humorous historical fiction at times. Along with bankrupting the country and engaging in criminal activity for financing their personal gain, the Kims' sociopathy is chilling when considering their ideology, known as "juche". To their people, they are meant to be the absolute, supreme Great Leader, who must not be questioned. Media has been their means of inculcating the population, and its capital city is its greatest stage.

In some ways, I felt as though I was spying on something unforgivably illicit which was terribly sad, disturbingly fascinating and psychologically twisted. To understand North Korea's psyche and entrapment would take more mind-bending than I hope to ever deal with, but A Kim Jong-IL Production has certainly illuminated its image.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,416 followers
February 21, 2015
This work of creative nonfiction will undoubtedly catch many Asia-watchers by surprise. Facts about North Korea are thin on the ground here in America, but this book blasts open a personal history of Kim Jong-Il with a canny, graceful, and wise commentary that seems far beyond what anyone else has been able to manage. It is an enormous feat of research, but more than that, it is so completely and compulsively readable that we are held captive.

It begins detailing the history of two individuals who were instrumental in the South Korean film industry in the 1940s and 50s. Before you ask how relevant that information is to us today, just remember that the author is a film producer who claims these early films have a cult following now, perhaps because of the Gangnam rage that has spread worldwide, and has opened a glimpse into a world never before considered worthy of serious study. We couldn’t have a better introduction to film in South Korea nor have we ever had a more detailed look at the North Korean film fanatic Kim Jong-Il, who kidnapped the two leading lights in the South Korean film industry to bolster his own propaganda machine.

The beautiful and talented South Korean film star Choi Eun-Hee was kidnapped first. Fischer compares her favorably to Marilyn Monroe (with whom she was photographed) in terms of star quality and stage presence. Choi's former husband, the film director and producer Shin Sang-Ok, was taken later, though because he’d tried to escape he was imprisoned in North Korea for a number of years. Eventually they were reunited in Pyongyang and began producing films for Kim Jong-Il’s ailing film industry. This book is partially based on their memoir of their time in captivity and their successful escape to the West.

Perhaps more importantly, we learn a huge amount about the Kim regimes. This material may be out there somewhere, in a hundred escape memoirs, spy reports, or academic papers but I have never seen so much information about Kim Jong-Il and North Korea in one place before. Besides all this great new information, the writing is absolutely first-rate, the story fantastic, and the immersion into film so well-informed that it seems like a trick.

Who is Paul Fischer and how does he know so much about North Korea? The Introduction and Afterword discuss sources, and mostly my concerns about veracity of content were allayed. It may just be possible that no one ever bothered before to gather together the dispersed information in just this way before. I just don’t know. Frankly, it is Fischer’s skill that is simply stunning, besides the vast trove of collected information about the Kim regime and North Korea. The writing is rich and coherent in a way writers only dream of, and the sections pass easily into one another while we readers are led deeper into the intricacies of film lore and the strange and frightening propaganda machine of Kim Jong-Il.

I have no idea whether or not Shin Sang-Ok and his wife Choi Eun-Hee were abducted or if they defected to North Korea. In my mind it is regrettable either way but not particularly relevant now. It is not what I focused on. I have heard some of the details of kidnapping, of prisons, of life in North Korea, but nothing like this detailed look north of the 38th parallel. This book has everything: grandeur, mystery, terror, and a fluency that makes this tremendous storytelling no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on.

This book must be labelled creative nonfiction because of the conversations recounted verbatim and the reconstructions of scenes so complete you would think Fischer 'produced' them. I don’t care. If one-fourth of the information in this is book is true we have made great headway in understanding and demystifying a completely obscure regime. You will recall the splash Truman Capote made with his fictional recreation of the nonfiction event he wrote about in In Cold Blood. Let’s call this in the same vein until we can verify, but remember this man Paul Fischer. He has burst on the literary scene with a truly stupefying and important offering. If he can make films the way he can write we are in for a real treat.

I listened to the Random House Audio production of this book, read beautifully by Stephen Park. I have ordered the print edition to look it over more carefully. As I say, books like this don’t come along very often. To think this was a debut that took about two years to put together is extraordinary.

Feb 21, 2015

Paul Fischer answers a few questions on my blog. WGBH Forum Institute filmed his reading at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA and a link to the YouTube video is here.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews14 followers
April 20, 2015

Read by Stephen Park

Description: Before becoming the world’s most notorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea’s Ministry for Propaganda and its film studios. Conceiving every movie made, he acted as producer and screenwriter. Despite this control, he was underwhelmed by the available talent and took drastic steps, ordering the kidnapping of Choi Eun-Hee (Madam Choi)—South Korea’s most famous actress—and her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok, the country’s most famous filmmaker.

Madam Choi vanished first. When Shin went to Hong Kong to investigate, he was attacked and woke up wrapped in plastic sheeting aboard a ship bound for North Korea. Madam Choi lived in isolated luxury, allowed only to attend the Dear Leader’s dinner parties. Shin, meanwhile, tried to escape, was sent to prison camp, and "re-educated." After four years he cracked, pledging loyalty. Reunited with Choi at the first party he attends, it is announced that the couple will remarry and act as the Dear Leader’s film advisors. Together they made seven films, in the process gaining Kim Jong-Il’s trust. While pretending to research a film in Vienna, they flee to the U.S. embassy and are swept to safety.

A nonfiction thriller packed with tension, passion, and politics, A Kim Jong-Il Production offers a rare glimpse into a secretive world, illuminating a fascinating chapter of North Korea’s history that helps explain how it became the hermetically sealed, intensely stage-managed country it remains today.

Hypnotising, you couldn't make this up. I liked that Fischer gives us western films that were popular as it helps to keep the time periods in context. Fully recommended if you don't mind sitting with eyes and mouth in perfect 'O's for the time it takes to go from cover to cover.

This cult of personality thing should have been weeded out of human affairs millenia ago, it really isn't healthy, and yet is persists in figures such as Putin, David Miscavige, Kim Jong un etc

There is a dearth of Kim Jong-Il film-making pictures in Google, so every review will be playing with this handful available and the images will become stale pretty quick.

Guardian 2013: The producer from hell

Profile Image for Melinda.
1,020 reviews
January 5, 2015

Impeccably researched, riveting details of a brazen abduction of prominent South Korean film artists by North Korea’s megalomaniac Kim Jong-Il.

Kim Jong-Il decides film production will bring him acclaim world wide, he orchestrates the abduction of South Korean film industry’s Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee. By sharing the couples story, Fischer allows entrance into inner North Korea. Through the abduction of Shin Sang-0k and Choi Eun-Hee we realize how intricate and nefarious North Korea operated under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-Il. Prison conditions beyond harsh, the educating of youth, the treatment of citizens all exposed. I found the unpredictable and absurd behavior of Kim Jong-Il while under the influence or entertaining downright hilarious, he is unbelievably self-absorbed and power hungry. Luckily Shin Sang-0k and Choi Eun-Hee played the role of their lives and outsmarted Kim Jong-Il. I was astounded by the bevy of abductions committed by North Korea, people from all nations at risk.

Shin Sang-0k and Choi Eun-Hee endured much, not nearly as a horrific ordeal as others, nonetheless grueling. Their plight makes for an engrossing page turning story. You find yourself appalled by the audacity of this isolated communist nation and its narcissist dictator. This story feels like a movie, it’s too absurd to believe but with North Korea anything is truly possible with their thinking and antics.

Fischer scores high with research and writing. A wonderful view of North Korea from the inside out. Quite a page turner of a story. Unbelievable story but it’s very true. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,649 reviews291 followers
April 30, 2015
I was aware that North Korea kidnapped English and Japanese language teachers to train its spies, but these late 1970's high profile abductions were only vague in my memory. Through Paul Fischer's gripping narrative you see not only the story of Choi Eun Hee and Shin Sang Ok , but also, how North Korea is run at the very top. The book piqued my interest in the "The Interview", which I saw last night.

South Korea's most famous actress and most heralded director/producer were abducted at the behest of Kim Jong Il the son of the then Premier, Kim Il Song. It is Jong Il and his staff who created the North Korean "brands", particularly those of his father ("Great Leader") and himself ("Dear Leader"). They orchestrated the big parades and the imagery we in the west come to associate with North Korea. In the book you see the author's view that the "...modern North Korean state ... is a performance production, a display production of its own..." (p.62).

The propaganda that Jong Il cleverly used to pave the way for his ascendance to the premiership (along with pushing aside and discrediting his uncles and other possible candidates) was a product of his interest in film. The films he and his staff created are described as formulaic: extolling the Great Leader; depicting outsiders as vile; glorifying the suffering of the people; fueling paranoia, etc. A fan of western cinema, Jong Il had a library which as described may be one of the most complete in the world. Since only he could see these films, only he knew how far behind his country was in film production. To remedy this, clever ruses were constructed to abduct this famous team.

Choi and Shin are amazing. Shin suffers the consequences of his two escape attempts and Choi endures boredom, gaudy pageantry and lives a false existence. Once Shin "repents" of his ways, the author shows their contribution to film in North Korea and how, with the country's economic decline (the famine is only a few years away) plans were made to market films abroad. These plans, cleverly laid and beautifully acted out by the couple brought them to their freedom.

This is a "can't put it down" book. This glimpse of the "hermit kingdom" squares with other portrayals in books such as Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and The World Is Bigger Now: An American Journalist's Release from Captivity in North Korea . . . A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness and the films such as "The Interview" and The Red Chapel (.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_...). The flashy cover belies the seriousness of the work.

Profile Image for F.R..
Author 30 books201 followers
May 5, 2016
You probably read about this in the newspapers. An ultra-strange story of how famed South Korean actress, Choi-Eun-hee and her husband, the film director Shin Sang-ok, were kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il and the North Korean regime, held for eight years and forced to make movies. It’s a tale of international espionage, skulduggery, defections, escape attempts and naked propaganda. This is a story of bizarre intrigue which is much more Fleming than le Carré, although I think even Ian Fleming would have thought some of the plot twists a bit out there.

Paul Fischer relates it in a charming, breezy style, which works well at this intersection of the bright lights of show-business and an ultra-hard secret service of a dictator. But the style doesn’t trivialise the content, indeed it makes those passages where we delve into life in North Korea have an even harsher slap – for example, the hardships and drudgery the average North Korean; or the fact that North Korea’s largest prison camp is bigger than the city of Los Angeles (and the various tortures which take place within). This is a story told for entertainment and Fischer makes it as entertaining as possible, but he pointedly refuses to ignore the grim realities.

Kim Jong-Il himself comes across as something of a paradox – yes, he is your standard overgrown spoilt child, and the point is made late in the book that in his egotistical, capricious, short-tempered, demanding way, he was just like the other film producers Choi-Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok knew – but he also struck me as a man who lived inside a bubble of his own creating. The hermit kingdom he and his father ran kept the outside world away from its populous to preserve the mystique that they were living in the greatest country on Earth. North Koreans were for a long time unaware of the luxuries which existed as a matter of course elsewhere, but Kim Jong-Il was a man who actually consumed mass-media from that outside world and knew that wasn’t the case, yet he seemed to believe in the bubble anyway.

A fascinating book, an excellent book, a book I’d thoroughly recommend. It makes me want to go out and track down some of the films of Shin Sang-ok, and the performances of Choi-Eun-hee, just to see what all the fuss was about.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books403 followers
April 6, 2017
What do Americans know about North Korea? For even the best-informed among us, the answer is, sadly, not much. What we know, or at least have been persuaded to believe, comes largely from the testimony of the small but growing community of North Korean refugees. Their experiences contributed to the revelations in three remarkable recent books: a work of nonfiction, Barbara Deming’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; a captivating, Pulitzer-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson; and Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden, a Washington Post reporter’s account of one survivor’s story that has recently been called into question. Now here comes a new entry on the shelf based on the amazing experiences of two famous South Koreans, Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee, who were kidnapped at the behest of a young Kim Jong-Il and held captive for nearly a decade to build the North Korean film industry.

Shin, once South Korea’s leading filmmaker, and Choi, the famous leading lady in many of his movies, had been married but separated for several years when Choi was spirited off to Pyongyang by North Korean agents. Shin was caught in the same trap in Hong Kong soon afterwards. She accepted her fate from the outset; he rebelled, and twice tried to escape, which landed him in the North Korean gulag for several almost unbearable years. Then, suddenly, Kim, at that time the heir apparent to his father, Kim Il-Sung, the “Great Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” reunited the pair and elevated them into the directors of his film industry, giving them virtual carte blanche to create films that would bring his country to the attention of the world’s leading filmmakers. Their increasing success, which gave them ever more freedom of action, eventually provided them with an opportunity to escape to the West.

Their story, exhaustively researched, confirmed, and documented by Paul Fischer, should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that what they’ve said is true. Still, ironically, there are many in South Korea who refuse to believe them. Despite overwhelming evidence of the truth of their account, some insist that the kidnappings were staged to permit the pair to defect to the North.

Barbara Deming and Adam Johnson have done a superb job documenting the travails of the North Korean people, and especially the unspeakable horror of the gulag erected to keep the Kim dynasty in power. Fischer confirms their accounts. (So does Harden, despite the aspects of his reporting that his subject has recently recanted.) However, what is most memorable about A Kim Jong-Il Production, is the story that emerges about the rise of the “Dear Leader” who succeeded his father from obscurity to the throne. The younger Kim, we learn, was primarily responsible for building the cult of personality around his father — through public spectacle, artful and consistent propaganda, and, yes, film. It was Jong-Il who manipulated his entire nation into the mindless hero-worship that persists to this day under his son and successor.

A Kim Jong-Il Production is a worthy addition to the tiny collection of popular books that illuminate the darkness of North Korea. It’s also a great read.
Profile Image for Emma.
4 reviews13 followers
August 15, 2015
The Kim Jong-Il Production is a short, but captivating account of the 1980's kidnapping of a south Korean filmmaker and his (ex-) wife - a prominent actress - by direct orders of 'dear Leader' and future dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Cities made of cardboard cut-outs, starving people proudly proclaiming, that there are no starving people in North Korea, and a symbolic double rainbow announcing the birth of a Korean messiah, who wasn't born that day:
North Korea is all about the stories told by its government. Their edicts decide, what is real, and what is not, and the stories they tell have the power to change past and present - something young Kim Jong-Il realised early in his career.

Making use of his passion for, and extensive knowledge of international movies, Jong-Il took the post as Minister of Propaganda and managed not only to revolutionize North Korean cinema, but also to change his status, from 'written-off' son, to his fathers official successor and next dictator of North Korea - abducting a prominent Director and a star-actress from South Korea in the process.

So, it is only fitting, that with cintematography and 'storytelling' the leading motif in the history of Kim Jong-Ils rise to power, the story itsself should be presented as a gripping tale, rather than a dry retelling of the events.
Fischer's book does that perfectly: while making use of solely verifyable facts and sources, and only rarely indulging in speculation, he weaves the victims stories and witness accounts into a compelling narrative, that kept me fascinated to the last page.
Yet, Fischer still manages to stay mostly unobtrusive and neutral in his descriptions, which not only makes for a pleasant reading experience, but also serves to highlight the horrors and absurdities of the Kim regime, instead of watering them down with overly sentimental language.

The author details an intimate history, not only of the fate of the South Korean abductees, but also of the Kim's themselves, focussing not so much on political events (but of course, providing necessary information where appropriate), but on the stories surrounding father Kim Il-sung and son Kim Jong-Il, and thus making his work easily accessible, even to readers not overly familliar with recent Korean history.

All in all a very interesting and entertaining book.

I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the mindset of the North Korean regime, the personality of Kim Jong-Il and his father, or Korean cinema.
This is also a great book for those with a casual interest in North Korea, but very little prior knowledge, who appreciate a thrilling and true story to pull them along.
Profile Image for Emma.
604 reviews77 followers
March 22, 2015
So the compelling page-turniness of this book ends up winning it four stars, even though its style detracts from the whole, somewhat. This *is* an amazing story, but insomniacally reviewing it at 3am on the GR iphone app means I can't hide spoilers, so I won't summarise the plot so much here. I've come off reading Barbara Demick's heartbreaking work on N Korea, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and a big part of me wanted this book to be a bit less rollicking, a bit less fun, because the situation in NK is no joke. But Paul Fischer has done (I suspect - there are no footnotes, annoyingly) his research really well, and there are lots of useful general NK sections that give context about things like the camps (gulags, essentially), NK history, as well as some excellent background on contemporaneous Asian cinema, which I just are up. The story itself is absolutely wild, too. But this book came across much pulpier than was necessary, with some stilted, cliched language at times and frequent rather awkward dialogue reconstructions. I think he'd have done better to stick with a more objective tone, while keeping his language accessible. And citing his resources regularly - there were plenty of times I wanted to know where the tidbit he just gave me came from. I also read Adam Johnson's wonderful novel The Orphan Master's Son set in NK and I think it skilfully draws on some of this same material. Johnson is a better writer. But I'm underselling this book; it's fascinating, and if you're interested in NK, film production stories, or just an absolutely unique page-turner of a non-fiction story, I'd have to recommend it. It's Fischer's first book, and he seems a serious guy, hopefully he's confident enough to avoid sensationalist techniques in his next book, which if it's about films, I will totes read.
Profile Image for MacK.
597 reviews194 followers
June 30, 2015
Let's be honest: North Korea is hilarious. There are few targets more ripe for mockery than the pudgy, egomaniacal, loose cannons who insist on personal beatification, and are every bit as likely to announce the presence of unicorns as they are to host a game of one-on-one with Dennis Rodman.

The surreal and absurdist state has long been ripe for mockery, which is why it's so impressive to read Fischer's brutally frank contextualizing of it. For every "Team America: World Police" reference you care to make there's an account of starvation, desperation and fear in common people that make Kim Jong-Il look like the a-hole they call him. For every Seth Rogen and Tina Fey splash of satire that creeps into your head, there's an accounting for how pervasive the North's propaganda culture became and how easy it is to maintain a corrupt regime from a position of unquestioned power.

In examining the propaganda culture, Fisher tries to bring out the story of the South Korean film luminaries abducted by Kim Jong-Il in the 70s and turned into symbols of the glorious regime in the 80s, before their daring escape. This smaller, more intimate thread is occasionally lost in the grand scale of North Korea's institutional absurdity. Much as I love film it's hard to track director Shin Sang Ok's vision and influences when the Kim clan is proclaiming rainbow glory and throwing cognac fueled fiestas. The abduction story is strongest when reflecting on actress Choi Eun Hee and the gender politics that left her marginalized both in the North and the South.

Faced with the dire circumstances of kidnap, imprisonment, torture, and political paranoia jokes and movie making trade secrets are harder to appreciate. North Korea is still funny, but it'll be easier to laugh when the Kim family finally falls.
Profile Image for Grumpus.
498 reviews245 followers
March 10, 2015
This is too unbelievable to be true . . . yet it is.

I never knew that Kim Jong-Il was the leading film maker in North Korea. He was a movie fanatic who wanted international recognition for North Korean films so much that he had his henchmen abduct the leading South Korean actress of her time and a little later, the leading South Korean filmmaker, her husband.

The story of their lives before meeting and marrying in South Korea along with their careers are wonderfully detailed. The book takes on a James Bond feel as the stories of their abductions are described—all cloak and daggery. The hardships experienced during their captivity until they agreed to make films for Kim Jong-Il are harrowing, especially for the husband. Until they agreed to play by Jong-Il's rules and make films (they had the freedom to do much of what they wanted), neither knew of the other’s existence in North Korea.

How both were able to fool Jong-Il by making films and acting as party members all the while looking for an opportunity to make their escape to the West, is stressful to read. The consequences for getting caught is beyond savage as described in a particularly gruesome incident involving the former leading actress from the North. I cannot imagine having to live daily life on the edge like these people did along with the rest of the North Korean population. No one is to be trusted even family.

In the end,
453 reviews2 followers
December 28, 2014
This was a very interesting read. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't already known a lot of about the strange culture that is North Korea. If you haven't seen Lisa Ling's documentary on N. Korea (on Netflix), you must see to believe. This book told of Kim-Jong-Il kidnapping the most famous movie couple (he a director and she a movie star) of South Korea to help him enhance his dream of building a movie empire in N. Korea! Yes, that was his most pressing problem as most of N. Korea starved.
Profile Image for Joe.
89 reviews10 followers
August 15, 2014
This is the frightfully true story of how the film obsessed dictator's son, Kim Jong-Il, kidnapped South Korea's greatest director and his movie star ex-wife so as to male the communist nations movie industry a force to be reckoned with. An unforgettable read filled with car chases, prison camps, and preposterous plot twists that would seem unforgivably unbelievable were it to occur on the silver screen. Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction!!!!

Profile Image for Christopher Myrick.
64 reviews7 followers
February 23, 2015
I thought I would never need to read another escape North Korea story (after Barbara Demmick's "Nothing to Envy", Kang Chol-hwan's "Aquariums of Pyongyang", Blaine Harden's "Escape From Camp 14", Jang Jin-sung's "Dear Leader", etc...) but this one is exemplary in its access to the Dear Leader and its focus on a particularly odd bit of NK, specifically Jong-il's passion for cinema. Engrossing and touching, with a love story that is both brutal and quirky.
Profile Image for Stacia.
834 reviews103 followers
March 26, 2016
3.5 to 4 stars.

A fascinating (& sometimes depressing) look at the cult of personality & power of propaganda & film in North Korea, largely based around the 1970s kidnappings of two of South Korea's most famous movie personalities, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. A unique glimpse into a hermit nation.

Truth surely is stranger than fiction.
Profile Image for Cav.
660 reviews90 followers
September 1, 2020
This one caught me by surprise. It was extremely well-written, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A Kim Jong-Il Production is the story of the 1978 kidnapping of famous South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee.
The Cast :
Taken by agents of Kim Jong-il, they were abducted by the North to produce films at the behest of The Dear Leader and further DPRK's propagandist aims, as well as establish national prestige for the DPRK's fledgling film industry.
The story is quite incredible, and the book covers it all. Author Paul Fischer writes about the careers of both Shin and Choi, the events leading up to and including their kidnappings, their imprisonments, the films they made together, and the eventual conclusion of their saga.
Although this was taken from the book's description, it is a spoiler, so I have covered it. to check out the synopsis of their incredible saga.
Fischer also adds some interesting historical context here. He covers a brief modern political history of the Korean peninsula, including the war in 1950 that would ultimately divide the nation at the 38th parallel with the heavily fortified and ironically named Demilitarized Zone .
Fischer also tells the reader about the DPRK's creation myths: the birth of Kim Jong-il on the top of Mount Paektu, and his divine ordinance.
A Kim Jong-Il Production also has some great writing about the miserable conditions of everyday life in the DPRK, as well as their infamous prison camps.
There is an excellent quote near the end of the book in the Epilogue, where Fischer talks about a historic picture of Choi with American actress Marylin Monroe:
"There is a picture of Madame Choi and Marilyn Monroe, taken in Seoul in 1954 during a post–Korean War goodwill tour by various Hollywood stars.
Choi and Monroe were the exact same age, both born in 1926. They started their careers at roughly the same time; Choi’s first on-screen credit is dated 1947, Monroe’s 1948. When that photograph was taken, Marilyn was in her prime, fresh off Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, with The Seven Year Itch and that famous billowing white dress just a few months away. Choi was years from her most iconic roles, newly married to Shin Sang-Ok, and just emerging from the trauma—rape, abuse, abduction—that she had endured during the war. And yet looking at that photograph, even with Monroe’s iconic face, her hair, her lips, already burned into your consciousness, you would be hard-pressed to tell who is the bigger star, who more draws the eye. Monroe is in a bomber jacket, laughing, eyes half-closed; but even she is looking at Choi, who is smiling but whose eyes have a sharp steeliness. Nothing about her accepts that she is the token Korean picked for a photo opportunity alongside the Hollywood goddess. She is the star.
Eight years after that picture was taken, Marilyn Monroe was dead.
Today, sixty years later, Choi—having suffered scandal, divorce, kidnapping, exile, and widowhood—is still alive, and in her culture no less iconic."
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested. The story is incredible, the writing was excellent, and the book was very informative as well.
An easy 5-star rating for this one.
Profile Image for Nancy.
932 reviews38 followers
September 8, 2018
Finished: 08.09.2018
Genre: non-fiction
Rating: D
Shin and Choi were kidnapped and forced to make movies for Kim Jong-il
He hoped that the couple's presence could help North Korea's film industry compete on the international stage. After eight years they were able to escape.
I'm taking the high-road with this one..
If you can't say anything good about the book.....keep quiet.
Profile Image for Jason.
Author 20 books65 followers
January 8, 2016
It's tempting to laugh when you think of Kim Jong-Il, history's tackiest dictator. This gaudy, strange little man with that awful haircut and those silly glasses and all the bizarre myths about double rainbows and actual unicorns. The picture of Jong-Il is at this point that sad, singing puppet in Team America. But laughter ignores the brutality, the totalitarianism and the absolute evil of a man who was also one of history's cruelest dictators. It also ignores the ways Jong-Il's utter incompetence created a country ravaged by famine and without basic services whose population is ignorant of an outside world where virtually everyone has a better life.

This book, a true story of Jong-Il's kidnapping of a famous South Korean actress and her director husband, nicely balances humor and pathos. Yes, according to this book, North Korea is every bit as insane as we suspect, but it's also every bit as horrific as we fear. The true story here is amazing and well told here even if it sometimes seems too unbelievable to be possible (I have little doubt that it is true). In the process of relating the events of kidnapping and escape, Fischer successfully retells the history of postwar Korea(s), of the Kim dynasty and of a fledgling and woefully inept film industry. Far from propaganda, Fischer doesn't hesitate in showing the negative side of South Korea in the years after the war and, by extension, of the US, the Soviet Union and China.

While this isn't as essential as Barbara Demick's journalistic work Nothing to Envy or as eloquent as Adam Johnson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Orphan Master's Son, it's an intriguing story that would work well even without its impressive research and writing. It also subtly and effectively makes the case that North Korea remains a global humanitarian crisis rather than just a state ruled by an evil despot.
Profile Image for Dominic.
72 reviews26 followers
July 22, 2017

THE GOOD: What's there not to love about this book? I primarily read about North Korea because, as an anthropology graduate, I love to learn about different cultures. Especially ones that are so extremely unique such as this one (which, as sociopolitical experts keep telling us, won't be able to stick around that much longer.... but who knows. They've been saying that forever). So I was pleasantly surprised to learn about all kinds of stuff I didn't previously know about Kim Jong-Il and the North Korean regime.

Not only do you learn about how the government runs society in North Korea, but you also get one hell of a story to go with that as well. A true story so exciting that could have been made into a movie (just don't ask Kim Jong-Un to direct it). It's also incredible to think about the two people who were kidnapped and how it helped shape the rest of their lives....

THE BAD: You get to learn about the human right woes that have plagued this country since it's creation. Not necessarily bad to learn about, but not always pleasant to read about.

THE UGLY: Some people argue that facts have been changed or made-up in order to create a more entertaining book.
Profile Image for Brandon Forsyth.
891 reviews146 followers
December 2, 2014
A highly enjoyable look at an aspect of North Korea you rarely hear about: its culture. Kim Jong-Il's ambition for North Korean film and its uses as political indoctrination are fascinating, and Fischer does a good job of comparing and contrasting both North and South Korea's film and political scenes, and how interrelated they are. I knew Jong-Il was a movie buff, but hearing about the lengths he went to in order to procure new films for his collection is astonishing. I think you can fault the book when it reaches to tell the story of Kim Jong-Il from his perspective, and for a lack of critical fact-checking of Shin and Choi's narrative, but a good part of that is due to the challenges of writing about North Korea, which Fischer acknowledges in the afterword. A highly compelling read.
Profile Image for Meaghan Odell.
60 reviews12 followers
February 18, 2016
This book kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time! I read it in three long sittings as the facts can be quite dense. However, they are strung together in a way that is enthralling through every chapter. This true story is recorded down like an action-packed adventure--though the kidnappings of both Choi and Shin are both heartbreaking and terrifying. Highly recommended for those who have an interest in the Koreas and the legacy of the Kim family to the north.
Profile Image for Jo.
456 reviews2 followers
March 15, 2016
What a great story! Very readable, very interesting. I am weirdly obsessed with reading about North Korea. My only question was how much of this was really added by the author, as much of the book was based on a single source (the memoir of the director and actress), and Fischer didn't really shape the story at all. The asides to the main plot weren't skillfully woven into it, though they did provide helpful context.
Profile Image for Andrea.
435 reviews152 followers
August 6, 2017
Fantastic recounting of the lives of an actress and a director, who lived through the war, stardom, horrific kidnapping, dramatic escape, and struggle to get their voices heard. It could easily be mistaken for the blockbuster creation of one of its narrators, if only it wasn't so painfully true. Recommended to anyone interested in North Korean history, or well-written investigative journalism.
Profile Image for Loring Wirbel.
292 reviews82 followers
April 22, 2015
Once we dispense with the notion that Paul Fischer is any kind of professional investigative journalist with some deep insight into recent DPRK history, we can appreciate his talents in the film industry, and his adept ability to tell a very odd tale. In fact, the only reason this book warrants three rather than four stars is due to the eclectic nature of the tale being told. Fischer released this book at a time when many serious, probing works on North Korea under Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un were released (not to mention at a time when the furor over the Seth Rogen movie The Interview has scarcely subsided).

For a story teller, however, Fischer has done his homework and some important legwork just short of visiting North Korea itself - most significantly, he got an interview with the elderly and frail Choi Eun-Ee in 2013. Let other books dive deeply into the bizarre nature of the juche state. Fischer just wants to relate one particular story of the dozens possible from South Koreans who were kidnapped to the North, particularly in the decade of the 1970s.

While we all know the terror of a totalitarian cultist state (more horrifying in its outright weirdness than any simple Stalinism), this is not a book to learn encyclopedic details of repression, nor to kindle our outrage at the Kim dynasty. But it is a book that attempts to paint, in broad strokes, a picture of living under the personality cult of juche. As Fischer understands, we should not see DPRK as merely a dynastic royal regime of the Kims, nor as a brutal centralized socialist state that never got past a Khmer Rouge-like stasis of ruralism. Rather, the Kims manufactured an immaculate-conception personality cult to explain the rise of the nation, one that insisted its population see life under the Great Leader and Dear Leader as the perfection of society on the planet. Fischer is correct in painting the creation of this imaginary state as largely the work of Kim Jong-Il, not his father Kim Il-Sung, who was a traditional Stalinist for the most part. He also recognizes that the nature of the 24/7 Internet, and the impact of DVDs smuggled into the DPRK, assures that there is no longer any way for Kim Jong-Un to bullshit his people into thinking they live in a beautiful paternalist state.

Despite the horrific treatment of enemies of the state, Fischer does not try to paint Kim Jong-Il as a monster, but as an odd lover of film and historical representation who ends up believing the lies of the state. He can justify kidnapping the leading film moguls Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Ee, not only to better the DPRK, but because any person in their right mind (according to Kim Il-Sung) would much rather live in North Korea than anywhere else. Repeat a fairly tale enough times, and it becomes your reality.

While Choi comes off as a strong woman, Shin is painted as vain and self-centered, though he becomes resourceful during his years in captivity. His work in both South and North Korea is held up to scrutiny but given kudos by Fischer when the films deserved it, and panned when the works do not.

The odd and unsatisfying way the book ends is largely the result of the denouement of the story. Once the couple defected in Vienna, they told their story to the press and were quickly whisked to a CIA safe house. Shin learned that at age 60, he could not make it as a filmmaker in either the U.S. or South Korea. To add insult to injury, most South Koreans did not believe large portions of the stories told by Shin and Choi. As the saying goes, the book ends not with a bang but with a whimper, and a sad one at that.

What makes A Kim Jong-Il Production worth reading among the host of more detailed books about North Korea is its humanity, its humor, and the unusual tale it tells. Fischer has woven the personal and the universal into a tale that gives insight into the DPRK and largely rings true.
Profile Image for April.
216 reviews6 followers
June 23, 2015
When I heard a brief snippet about Shin and Choi's incredible story of being kidnapped by Kim Jong Il on This American Life I knew I would want to read the book. I have never been incredibly interested in North Korea, it's dictators, or it's history before except to say to myself "Huh, that guy in North Korea is my age and just inherited a dictatorship. He sounds like an asshole." I've seen an interesting Frontline documentary on Netflix about North Korea and watched the terrible comedy The Dictator but that's been the extent of my knowledge or interest in all things relating to North Korea.

But there was something just so incredibly weird about the whole story (The guy is in charge of an entire country, actually more than in charge, he IS the entire country. A god, the supreme leader to his people and he's obsessed with a silly thing like movies? Why?)

So I jumped in and quickly became obsessed myself with North Korea. For the past week I have been thinking about it constantly, spending entirely too much time looking at google maps, watching random documentaries about it on youtube, and just wondering what it must be like to be a citizen there. I couldn't stop thinking about how incredible it was that there was a place that I really had never given two shits about before that is basically a real life 1984. And amongst all of the individual stories that are playing out and have played out, the kidnapping of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok is surely just one of them. Probably not even close to the weirdest one. But, the tale of how it happened, what they were doing there (the answer to my previous question of why was answered when I learned how films are used so heavily as a propaganda tool in that country) and how they escaped is so fascinating and readable. This is probably the best book I've read this year so far.
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