A South Korean film icon who spent eight years as a prisoner of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has died at the age of 91.
Choi Eun-hee was born in 1926 and started her career on stage before landing her first film role in the 1947 wartime drama A New Oath.
For the next 20 years, she delighted audiences in a string of award-winning melodramas, romances and historical epics, many of them directed by her husband, Shin Sang-ok
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Beloved by millions of South Korean cinemagoers, the star also had one particular fan whose admiration would upend her life - North Korean dictator and avid cinephile Kim Jong Il.
In January 1978, Choi, who had recently divorced Shin, flew to Hong Kong to meet a “producer” - in reality a North Korean agent. As she arrived at the meeting, she was “grabbed by two men, bundled into a speedboat and injected with a sedative, waking up aboard a freighter bound for North Korea”, says the South China Morning Post.
Meanwhile, Shin had travelled to Hong Kong to find out what had happened to his ex-wife, where he too was kidnapped by Pyongyang agents.
After two years of “re-education” in a North Korean prison, Shin was brought to Kim and his mission was revealed: he and Choi were to lend their talents to revamping the regime’s stiff and stale cinematic output.
Between 1983 and 1985, the pair - who also agreed to remarry on Kim’s “recommendation” - ran a studio which made 17 films for Kim, “ranging from tear-jerkers to thrillers”, says CNN.
In one of the more surreal moments of her captivity, in 1985 Choi received the award for best actress at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival for a role in one of the films she had made for Kim.
Finally, in 1986, the pair were allowed to attend a film festival in Vienna, where they successfully eluded their regime minders and fled to safety.
They took with them illicit recordings of their meetings with Kim. Shin “knew early on that his story would probably not be believed unless he had proof”, says Nerdist - a hunch which proved to be correct, as “some in South Korea still insist” that the abduction was really a willing defection.
Treated with suspicion by some of his fellow South Koreans, the pair spent much of the 1990s in the US - where Shin directed the 3 Ninjas film series - before returning to South Korea after being assured that the authorities would not consider them defectors. Choi retired from the film business, but later wrote an autobiography recounting her time in North Korea.
Their remarkable story was told in a 2015 English-language biography by Paul Fischer entitled A Kim Jong-Il Production, and in the 2016 documentary The Lovers and the Despot.
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