A memoir: Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee and I


Film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee hold a press conference upon their escape from North Korea to the United States in 1986. / Korea Times file

Film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee hold a press conference upon their escape from North Korea to the United States in 1986. / Korea Times file

By An Hong-kyoon

My phone rang. The caller was the press officer at the Korean Embassy in Washington. “Mr. Shin Sang-ok and Ms. Choe Eun-hee are scheduled to hold a press conference. Our embassy wants you to act as their interpreter. Would you do it for us?”

Elated by the surprise request, I replied to him in one breath. “Of course I will.”

“The Watergate Hotel conference room at ten in the morning of the15th [May, 1986],” the press officer continued in a relaxed voice, obviously relieved that I had accepted his request. “More than a hundred American and foreign reporters are expected to attend the press conference.”

My thoughts ran back to the January, 1978 media report that Choe Eun-hee, whom her fans dubbed the “Liz Taylor of Korea,” mysteriously disappeared in Hong Kong. In July of the same year, her estranged husband and the renowned film director, Shin Sang-ok, disappeared, also last seen in Hong Kong. Several years passed and people learned that they were in North Korea, making movies for Kim Jong-il. Kim boasted that Shin and Choe came to North Korea on their own volition. In the mid-1980’s, Shin and Choe showed up in cities like London and Belgrade, and their words and demeanor appeared to attest, beyond question, their allegiance to Kim Jong-il.

Film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee pose as they enter South Korea in May 1989.

Then there was a bombshell. On March 13, 1986, the world learned that Shin and Choe had sought refuge in the American Embassy in Vienna, Austria. For over two months thereafter, people heard nothing.

Then came the May 12 call from the Korean Embassy. I could hardly believe my fortune. I would hear their story, tell the world their story, and above all, I would meet them in person.

Then the day arrived. I sat with the Shin couple in a small ante-room adjacent to the main hall. They were charming, but their smiles were stiff and wary. The subdued air was intensified by the presence of two white bodyguards towering behind them. I wondered momentarily if their press conference was voluntary.

As we entered the conference room, cameras flashed, and a large crowd of reporters rushed about, vying for better spots. Following a brief photo session, the conference began with many questions flying all at once. Shin gestured them to calm down. Choe would tell them her story first.

The couple appears on a Japanesemedia outlet in1984

She began by narrating the scene of her abduction. A group of men grabbed and placed her on a speed boat in Repulse Bay of Hong Kong. She screamed, “Where are you taking me?”

“To Kim Il-sung’s bosom!” one abductor shot back. She used the Korean word, Pum, a word that is reminiscent of the warm heart of a mother.

“Kim Il-sung’s what?” a reporter in the front row shouted.

Alarmed by the question, I repeated, “Kim’s bosom.” Suddenly a question flit through my head. “Does bosom refer only to female breasts?”

Choe continued, in minute detail, of her life in captivity in North Korea. In turn, Shin did the same as if to convince the world that, contrary to some rumors and Pyongyang’s claims, they had been taken to North Korea against their will.

People read stories on the couple’s escape from North Korea, which appeared in the Hankook Ilbo in 1986.
/ Korea Times

As the long narrations continued, the American reporters grew impatient. They wanted to hear about Kim Jong-il and what the Shin couple had thought of the North Korean dictator. If those reporters expected slanderous and quotable words from them about Kim Jong-il, they were disappointed. Shin and Choe did not attack the person of Kim. When pressed, Choe said Kim Jong-il was a man capable of committing “stupendous” acts. No reporter asked them if they feared Kim Jong-il’s reprisal. Or if they felt they were indebted to their captor for the generous treatment the evil man had bestowed on them.

The press conference lasted three hours. Two security guards reappeared from nowhere, and director Shin and Choe were hurried to a dark van. I hardly had time to say goodbye to them.

Seven months later, I received a Christmas card from them with a pleasant greeting. Although the card was postmarked Atlanta, Georgia, I later learned that the couple had actually been living in a townhouse all this while in Reston, VA, my own neighborhood.

Then there was a call from Shin on a spring day in 1988. They had decided to move to Hollywood to pursue film production careers in America. “Would you be available for dinner tomorrow?” He suggested a Chinese restaurant in our area.

When my wife and I arrived at the restaurant, Shin and Choe were already seated at a table far inside the spacious dining room, discreetly apart from other diners. Both looked bright and carefree. Their regained freedom had done wonders for the charming couple, letting their guard down finally.

“Sorry we had to wait for so long to meet you again,” Shin began apologetically. “We had to ponder about our future, what to do, where to live, and how.” He paused for a moment. “American friends had suggested we live in seclusion ― in retirement, and I almost decided to do just that. I thought of painting.” He paused again. “But Choe yeosa thought otherwise.” Yeosa is a Korean term for “lady” or “Madame.” I got the hint: she wanted to be addressed as yeosa, signifying her independence. “Choe yeosa insisted that we stay in America and make movies, and I agreed.” Shin smiled at his lovely wife. I thought it was more on the part of Choe yeosa who had engineered their bold escape from the North.

Shin said he knew the Korean people would wonder why he and his wife would choose America for home. “Of course we love Korea and want to go home, and our fans want us to come home.” But he said, “We are not comfortable with the Korean authorities. Shortly after we had sought refuge in the American Embassy, the Seoul government said it would leniently embrace us back to Korea. Leniency for what? We were taken to North Korea by force, and the South Korean government had the nerve to treat us as if we were North Korean collaborators.” Shin spoke calmly, but his indignation was scarcely concealed.

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In an even tone, Shin continued. “We are not safe in South Korea. North Korean agents roam the streets of Seoul at will. Kim Jong-il once boasted to us that he could bring anyone he requested to Pyongyang from Seoul.” With a deep sigh, he said, “And Kim Jong-il has set millions of dollars on our heads.”

There was a pause as we munched sweet-and sour pork. Shin turned his head toward his wife. “Choe yeosa, when I saw you for the first time in Pyongyang at Kim Jong-il’s party, I thought you had completely sold your soul out to the little, bushy-haired dictator. You behaved so fresh with him.”

“Are you kidding?” Choe mischievously retorted. “People don’t call me Korea’s best actress for nothing.” We all laughed together.

I turned to her. “Madame Choe, I saw you for the first time in Daegu during the Korean War. You were playing Ophelia on stage.”

“Oh, you did?. I was a green novice then, and I hardly knew what I was playing. I had a role in Death of a Salesman, and I had no idea what mortgage meant in the script.”

While travelling in Eastern Europe, Choe continued, they had come across a tiny Catholic church. “We entered it and got married…with a solemn ceremony.”

“Over my objection,” Shin quipped, “I don’t believe in such formalities.” He looked at her with a smile that betrayed his ritualistic adherence to his creed.

The conversation turned to their plan for Hollywood. Shin had a lifelong dream to produce an epic movie on Genghis Kahn. One of his proposed desert battle scenes would employ over 3,000 horses, a record in motion picture history. He had written the script based on Aaoki Okami ― The Blue Wolf ― authored by Yasushi Inoue of Japan.

“Sitting up straight in the prison cells, I went over the script hundreds of times in my head, writing and polishing it mentally. The North Korean jailers had laughed at me when I requested a pen and paper.”

Shin was inspired by a character in the story, Quryang, a maiden warrior who, risking her life, withstood Genghis Khan’s attempt to take her by force. She triumphed when the Great Khan begged her for her love.

Over dessert, Shin abruptly asked me if I was familiar with General Dean. I told him I knew who the general was. Shin said his first project in Hollywood would be General Dean’s story, the anti-hero hero commanding general of the ill-fated U.S. 24th Infantry Division, that was smashed by columns of the North Korean Army in Daejeon.

Retreating soldiers reported that General Dean was last seen at a city crossroads with a bazooka on his shoulder¸ facing an approaching enemy tank. He then disappeared for many months. President Truman awarded him a medal of honor in absentia. In December, 1951, the world learned that the general had been held as a POW in the North. He returned home to a hero’s welcome after the armistice. He denied he was a hero.

“There is little information about his captivity in North Korea,” Shin said.

Oh, yes, I replied. General Dean had written an autobiography. I would find a copy, I promised Shin. I also told him that the current commanding general of the U.S. forces in Korea was an old acquaintance of mine. I had first met him in 1958 when he served in Korea as a green platoon leader. He is now a full general. He would gladly provide us with all the resources and assistance ― foot soldiers, tanks and bazookas. Shin’s face lit up with excitement.

It appeared that the move would be Shin’s way of returning the favor to the American establishment which had embraced Shin and Choe since their dash to the American Embassy in Vienna and were now providing a refuge from Kim Jong-il.

Walking toward the parking lot, Shin told me that after settling in Hollywood, he and Choe would travel to Seoul. They had to appear before a court and settle their legal case. After all, they had been in North Korea and had helped Kim Jong-il make movies in clear violation of the South Korean National Security Law. All had been pre-arranged, Shin said, and they would be given Korean passports, signifying their complete freedom at last. Nothing would then hamper their future, nothing, he appeared to reaffirm himself.

Waving at their automobile as they drove off, I wondered what Hollywood looked like.

In the late Fall of 1988, Shin wrote me a letter. He and Choe had settled in a Los Angeles suburb. I noticed that Shin signed his name Sheen Sang-okk. I later learned that the new name spelling had been advised by certain U.S. intelligence officials as a security measure.

Several months later, I wrote Shin that I had discovered where General Dean’s son, William, Jr., a retired Army colonel, lived.

In the spring of 1989, Shin and I met Colonel Dean at a hotel restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. He was an unassuming gentleman with a ready smile. He listened carefully to my account of Shin’s captivity in North Korea. While I had no way of fathoming his thoughts, he surely would have thought of his own father’s incarceration in the North as a POW. Colonel Dean was delighted with Shin’s plan to produce his father’s story, and was happy to transfer the copyright of his father’s book. We all shook hands and parted. A contract would be drafted and signed in due time.

The following month, Korean media reported that Shin and Choe had arrived at Kimpo Airport in Seoul to a tumultuous welcome by his fans. Customs inspectors found in their possession a large amount of material on the Korean War.

“They are for General Dean’s story,” I assured myself.

Then in the late fall of the year, I learned from a newspaper account that Shin, in Korea at the time, had announced a plan to produce a new film, Mayumi, in Korea. There was no mention about General Dean’s story. I was puzzled at first. Why the change of heart? Betrayal! I thought.

“Mayumi” was a code name for a young North Korean female terrorist who blew up Korean airliner in midair over the Indian Ocean. Again, what prompted Shin to change his plan? I could only speculate: a certain powerful element, most likely a South Korean intelligence establishment whose wishes Shin was not in a position to resist was behind it, and with ample funds. Eventually, Mayumi was produced. It turned out to be a box-office dud in Korea and overseas.

Another year passed. In September of 1990, I received a fax from Shin. A wealthy Japanese businessman had promised to invest in the production of The Blue Wolf: the Genghis Khan Story. “Please join me,” he wrote. “I know how to make movies but I know nothing about America. And you have a passion for the arts and a knack for motion pictures. I would expect you to run the office American style.”

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Without a second thought, I told my wife that I was going to Hollywood. “You are crazy,” she cried out. I packed up and headed for Dulles Airport. My wife, behind the wheel, did not say much.

Shin and Choe lived in a small but attractive house in Beverly Hills. Its front yard was full of roses. An elderly maid, whom the Shins had brought from Korea, moved around like a family matriarch. There were two adorable children playing. They seemed to be deeply attached to the maid. They were the offspring of one Oh Su-mi, once Shin’s actress lover. The maid had raised the two toddlers while their father, Shin, spent eight years in North Korea. Choe was now their surrogate mother, and the children looked at their “stepmother” bashfully.

Shin delegated to me the power to sign bank checks for the office, a sure sign that he trusted me. But when I requested an employment contract, Shin declined. “We work together with an honor-bound trust, not by a signed paper.” That was not a good sign. I suggested that we retain a law firm, a public accountant, and a PR firm. Shin objected on the grounds that we did not have legal problems, we did not have any income presently, and a PR firm would be expensive. I told him that that was the “American way” to run a business. He did not answer. I took it as his acquiescence and retained a law firm, and so on. Shin instructed me to deny health coverage for office employees, but I did arrange coverage for them. If there were signs of discord between us, I did not sense it at that time.

Shin was a reticent, secretive person. He shared little with me about himself, his intentions, and what he expected of me. I wondered if this was his personality, or the result of the trials he had suffered in North Korea. He kept me in the dark about the details of his production plans. He shared little information with me about his Japanese patron and the investment the latter had promised.

Yet at certain unguarded moments, he told me revealing things. He considered North Korea a haven for film makers. Kim Jong-il provided everything, money, cast and staff, location sites, even a cargo train to blow up, and a helicopter to fly over to create snow-storm scenes. Above all, one did not have to worry about the prospect of box-office success. An audience would be mobilized, and told when to cheer.

“You know,” he once said over lunch, “I chiseled my name on the wall of my cell just to mark that I was there.” I recalled a scene from The Count of Monte Cristo. “I hope they don’t raze the prison.”

Shin remarked with an impish smile.

“When I went overseas, my minders wanted me to bring them gifts. The souvenir items most craved were sunglasses. I wondered if those bastard comrades wanted to look like Kim Jong-il.”

In mid-November of 1990, Shin and I traveled to Calgary, Canada, to look for location sites for a cavalry battle scene for Genghis Khan. The final cavalry charge scene of Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa of Japan was previously shot in the open field of Calgary. “Kagemusha” meant “a body double” for a warlord. Calgary, however, was dropped because, besides its cost estimates, its topography hardly resembled that of the Great Steppes of Central Asia.

Mongolia, seemingly the best location site for The Blue Wolf, was out of the question. The Mongolian government would not allow a motion picture about its greatest khan drift one inch from its official history. Quyrang, the khan’s warrior-lover did not exist in the orthodox Mongol history as The Blue Wolf script portrayed her.

In the spring of the same year, Shin flew to Tokyo to confer with his Japanese investor. He looked content when he returned. One day soon after, Shin told me with a straight face. “I chose Natasha Kinski for Quyrang’s role.” He continued, “And I want you to go to Italy and meet with Sophia Loren. Tell her we need her for the role of Genghis Khan’s mother.”

I was dumbstruck. The task Shin purported to assign me was nothing like asking a movie star for an autograph. “Is this man serious?” I thought to myself. Did this man make a hollow commitment in order to placate his Japanese patron? To my relief, Shin never brought up the subject again.

Then Shin said he wanted to explore Tajikistan for locations. It was one of such occasions when the director spelled out brilliant ideas as if in passing. Besides the cost factor, the Central Asian region provided an excellent environment. After all, Genghis Khan and his horde rampaged and conquered the desert and steppes of Central Asia. In early 1991, the mysterious and closed land was wide open, thanks to Gorbachev’s perestroika.

I called the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC and spoke with a representative of Sovexporfilm, the Russian state corporation charged with film trade. Through his good offices, his Moscow headquarters sent a letter of invitation for Shin, Choe and me. The Soviet Consulate in DC quickly issued us our visas. Russians were eager to do business with the capitalist world.

Choe, however, was not allowed to go. Her fervent desire to travel together with Shin to Russia had been quashed by the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles. Why was anyone’s guess.

I traveled to Moscow on February 9, 1991 and met with Boris, a lawyer from Sovexportfilm, who was our contact man and escort throughout our travels in the Soviet Union.

The following day, Shin arrived at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. He was one of the last passengers to show up at the waiting area. Wearing a pair of sunglasses and a hat tipped way down, he walked in our direction quietly. Shin and I sat down on a corner bench while Boris went outside to hail a taxi. Shin, his head bowed down, did not stir. My heart started to pound faster and faster. What could I do if North Korean agents and their KGB comrades surrounded us? There was prize money on Shin’s head, and North Korea had been in the Soviet orbit until recently.

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I noticed a tall and well-built Asian man in a long and loose trench coat and wearing a hunting cap walking briskly toward us. My heart froze. Shin remained motionless. I stood up. The man handed me his business card: First Secretary J.H. Choi, Embassy, the Republic of Korea. “Welcome to Moscow. Our ambassador would be happy to meet with you tomorrow.” He walked away. He looked like a core intelligence officer.

The following day, the first South Korean ambassador to Russia, and my high school classmate, greeted us cordially, but Shin appeared distant to our host. Meeting alone with me in his office, First Secretary Choi stressed that I stay in touch with him wherever Shin and I traveled. “Nothing to worry,” he assured me. When we parted, Shin failed to bow back to Choi.

Our two-day meeting with the executives of Sovexportfilm was pleasant and productive. They appeared sincere and eager to do business with us. Their figures for all the logistic support for our film was less than one-third that of Calgary’s. One executive suggested in jest that a Red Army cavalry regiment could be mobilized for combat scenes. Shin nonchalantly answered he would study the offer.

During a tea break, Shin asked if a replica of the best actress prize for the 1985 Moscow film festival could be made. The award Choe had won for her role in the North Korean film Salt had to be left behind in Pyongyang when they fled to the West. He was told that that could not be done.

Our first stop was Alma Ata, present day Almaty, of Kazakhstan. The city had a large ethnic Korean community. Obviously pre-warned by the South Korean embassy, several leaders of the Korean community came to our hotel to pay a courtesy call to Shin. They identified themselves with South Korea and praised Shin for his heroic escape from the North.

Our next destination was Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the famed hub of the ancient tea trade along the silk road. During the flight, I struck up a conversation with an Uzbek who sat next to me. When he heard the purpose of my trip, his expression turned incredulous. “Genghis Khan of all people, why?” he asked me. “You know, he burnt down our city in 1219. His soldiers killed our noblemen by breaking their spines by bending them backward.” He grew angrier. “Do you know what that evil khan and his hordes left behind? Ashes and their semen in the wombs of our women.” He turned his back on me.

Rhaman, the director of Vatan Film Studio greeted us in the Tashkent airport. Vatan was the best-known film producer in the region. We toured his studio, huge but run down. Its warehouse was full of art work, film sets, and props, mostly of bows and armors. Shin again did not say much, and he showed little interest in what he was seeing. Strange, I thought.

In the evening, Rhaman took us to an ethnic Korean festival entitled Transit, a musical that portrayed the story of ethnic Koreans being forcibly removed from the Soviet Far East to Central Asia in the mid-1930s. When an MC announced Shin’s presence, many people flocked to greet him. Elderly women hugged him. Shin was their hero, and he personified the image of their ancestral home called Korea. He tranquilized the nostalgia of the Korean diaspora.

The following day, Rhaman drove us eastward near the Afghan border to trace the routes that Genghis Khan’s Mongol horsemen had rampaged. Suddenly, Boris shook Rhaman’s shoulder. “Hey, we are in Kyrgyzstan. We have no visas to enter here.” Rhaman did not flinch and kept on driving. He couldn’t care less about what the Kremlin said. Moscow’s grip on its citizens was apparently waning fast. Indeed, the Soviet Union would fall half a year later.

Soon, the snow-covered Tian Shan Mountain range came into view. The Mongol’s ancestral spirits dwelled on the summits. Its sheer majesty humbled me. We all got out of the car and sipped the ice-cold water from the stream at the bottom of the steep-walled valley. Shin remained in the car, his head bowed and pensive. What was he thinking? I wondered.

In Bukhara, we saw gigantic mud-brick walls. A good location site for a cavalry assault, Rhaman suggested to Shin. Shin smiled back meekly. In town, we visited a timeworn mosque mantled in a rich patina of age. “This mosque,” intoned a village elder, “was saved from the Mongol invaders. We buried it underground before they came.” We were told, ad nauseam, of the Mongol atrocities in Urgenchi, Khiwa and other towns we visited. The Great Khan certainly was not popular in this part of the world.

Back at Vatan Film Studio in Tashkent, Rhaman and Boris wanted to hear from Shin. Would there be a contract for the production of The Blue Wolf? Shin was noncommittal. I was not surprised by his reaction. Throughout the trip, Shin remained aloof to the mission he had set out for. He acted more like a bored tourist.

We flew from Moscow to Tokyo and met with the Japanese investor. Shin told his patron that the trip to Russia had been highly productive. He had found excellent location spots and had nearly reached a contract agreement with the Russians.

The Japanese investor did not seem convinced.

Back in the Hollywood office, my misgivings about Shin and his intentions deepened. A disturbing thought lingered in my mind: Was Shin genuinely serious about producing The Blue Wolf film? Yes, at least in the beginning, I concluded. He envisioned producing a Hollywood epic. He fondly talked about Elia Kazan, John Ford, and Robert Wise. He liked to be compared with Akira Kurosawa. He believed his Genghis Khan was his raison d’etre. It deserved an Oscar.

However, his dream ended as just that, a dream. The funds he was promised shrank rapidly as Japan’s economic bubble burst. He discovered that the sheer scale of his imagined production outweighed his ability.

Shin was angry and disheartened, but his ego was too big to forsake his dream. So he kept on acting, literally acting. He was in denial about pursuing a phantom objective.

I decided that there would be no The Blue Wolf, ever. One day in mid-May, 1991, I tendered my resignation to Shin. He replied that he would not stop me from leaving.

I packed and returned home to Virginia.

Taehwa Market in Ulsan is flooded after typhoon Chaba struck the region, Wednesday. The typhoon caused five deaths with one person missing, as well as property damage on Jeju Island and southern coastal areas. Yonhap

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