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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Actress kidnapped by North Korea dies at 91


A South Korean actress who was once kidnapped by the North’s agents on the orders of leader Kim Jong Un’s late father and forced to make movies for the regime has died aged 91, her family said. Choi Eun-hee was the South’s most famous actress for decades before being brazenly abducted by North Korean spies in Hong Kong in 1978 at the request of the North’s then leader-in-waiting Kim Jong Il, an avid film fan.

During her visit to Hong Kong to meet a potential investor in her arts school, she was reportedly lured onto a boat by her guide before being transferred against her will to a cargo ship destined for North Korea. Her husband Shin Sang-ok, a top director, was taken to the North soon after, although circumstances over his alleged abduction remain unclear.

Choi remained trapped in the North for eight years, where the two made more than 10 films together under the instruction of Kim Jong Il. In a 2011 interview, Choi said Kim “respected us as artists and fully supported us,” but that she could never forgive him for the “outrageous and unforgivable” kidnapping.

They were allowed to make “films with artistic values, instead of just propaganda films extolling the regime,” Choi said, but always longed for their freedom. During their ordeal, the couple travelled overseas extensively for movie production missions and to attend film festivals — always under heavy surveillance by the North’s agents.

Choi even won the best actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1985 for her role in “Salt” — a film about Korean guerrillas fighting against the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule. The couple — who had divorced in 1976, before their abductions — remarried during a trip to Hungary at Kim’s urging.

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But they finally staged a daring escape to the US embassy in Vienna after attending the Berlinale film festival in 1986, and sought asylum in the US due to fear for their personal security. The couple returned to the South in 1999 after spending more than a decade in the US. They remained married until Shin’s death in 2006.

Their dramatic life inspired several books and movies. Choi, who made her cinematic debut in 1942, had risen to stardom in the wake of the 1950-53 Korean War that sealed the division between the communist North and the capitalist South.

She was called the “queen” of South Korean cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s while appearing in more than 100 movies — many made by Shin. North Korea abducted hundreds of South Koreans under a state-sanctioned policy in the decades following the Korean War. Choi’s funeral will be held in Seoul on Thursday.