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A famous movie couple from South Korea was kidnapped by North Korea and forced to make films

Goran Blazeski

Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee were South Korea’s golden couple, the luminous stars in a vintage era for South Korea’s cinema.

Shin, who started his career as an assistant production designer on Choi In-kyu’s Viva freedom, was a famous South Korean film director, and Choi was one of the biggest movie stars for about 20 years in South Korea.

In the late 1950s to ’70s, she starred in numerous features directed by her husband Shin Sang-ok.

Things were going well for their family since they were very successful in their jobs.

Alternate poster to Viva Freedom. Shin worked as an assistant production designer on the film
Alternate poster to Viva Freedom. Shin worked as an assistant production designer on the film

Shin Sang-ok was known as the “Prince of Korean Cinema” and he received the country’s top honor for an artist – Gold Crown Cultural Medal.

The pair were a film industry power couple until the 1970s,` when Choi was about 50-years-old and her career started to slide.

Shin’s films started to flop because South Koreans started changing their taste in film.

Their marriage started to fall apart when Shin Sang-ok had an affair that produced an illegitimate child.

Eventually, the couple divorced after 22 years of marriage.

But even the divorce didn’t change their luck. Shin faced bankruptcy and Choi Eun-hee stopped acting, but someone had a plan for both of them.

Kim Jong-Il, the son of Great Marshal Kim Il-Sung, who was frustrated by the low quality of the North Korean film production, wanted his country to become a global force in the world of cinema and decided to do something that is hard to imagine.

He arranged for the two biggest film stars in South Korea to be separately kidnapped in order to force them to make movies in North Korea, hoping his country’s films could become more mainstream and entertaining.

In 1978, Choi Eun-hee received an invitation to meet a producer who claimed to have a studio in Hong Kong and offered her a huge fee to direct a film.

She contacted her ex-husband and told him about the project, but he found the offer very strange and he was suspicious.

Choi Eun-hee wrote off her ex-husband’s suspicions as jealousy and on January the 11th, 1978, she boarded a flight from South Korea to Hong Kong.

Within days, she was captive on a boat. The first part of Kim Jong-Il’s plan was accomplished.

Idealized portrait of Kim Jong-il. Photo Credit
Idealized portrait of Kim Jong-il. Photo Credit

Shin Sang-ok reported his wife missing and he went to Hong Kong hoping that he would find her.

He did find her, but in North Korea. He was kidnapped too. He spent four years in prison before he was taken to a party where he noticed his ex-wife standing in the crowd.

The two embraced at the suggestion of Kim Jung-il. After a long time, the couple was reunited again.

Still in love, they became a couple again and agreed that in time, they would escape.

The couple was introduced as “guests” of the dictator and they eventually produced seven North Korean films.

Among them was the first North Korean martial arts action movie and a monster movie based on Godzilla.

It took them 9 years to gain Kim Jong-il’s trust and eventually they convinced him to let them go in Europe to collect funding for the films and show the world just how creative and powerful North Korea really was.

Accompanied by North Korean bodyguards, they went to Viena.

They managed to convince their bodyguards that they had arranged an interview with a Japanese journalist and that the article in the Japanese newspaper would show the world their creative independence.

Mural at the Pyongyang Film Studio. Photo Credit
Mural at the Pyongyang Film Studio. Photo Credit

The journalist, named Akira Enoki, was actually their friend and was the man who would help them to escape.

The front desk called them a taxi and they somehow managed to escape their bodyguards and, together with Akira Enoki, they arrived at the US Embassy. Shin and Choi were free again.

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They were taken to America and Shin Sang-ok made a few more movies for Disney before they returned to South Korea in their old age.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News