Secret recordings by a kidnapped celeb couple reveal much about Kim Jong Il and North Korea

The voice on the tape recording is squeaky and excitable, the speaker using such a strong dialect that it is difficult even for native Korean speakers to understand. What comes across is that the man speaking in a rapid clip is anxious about his own shortcomings, and his country’s.

The speaker, in fact, is Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea from 1994 to 2011. Tape recordings of him from the 1980s are featured in a new documentary, “The Lovers and the Despot.” Although Kim died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un, the tapes provide rare insight into the psyche of the North Korean regime, both its audaciousness and its insecurity.

It is one of the strangest stories out of a strange country: In 1978, the South Korean film actress Choi Eun-hee was kidnapped during a business trip to Hong Kong and brought to Pyongyang on the orders of Kim Jong Il. When her former husband, Shin Sang-ok, a leading film director, went to look for her, he was captured as well. Reunited, they were coerced to make movies for Kim Jong Il, gradually earning his trust to the point that he allowed them to travel to Eastern Europe, then still part of the Soviet block, to shoot films and attend film festivals. In 1986, the pair escaped to the U.S. embassy in Vienna.

Shin feared rightfully that nobody would believe this outlandish story, so he and Choi secretly taped Kim Jong Il. With a microrecorder stashed in Choi’s purse, they captured Kim, who was then in charge of the film industry, pouring out his insecurities about how his country lagged behind capitalist rival South Korea.

“Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots? There is nothing new about them. ...

We don’t have any films that get into film festivals.

In South Korea, they have better technology. They are like college students and we are just in nursery schools.”

In the tapes, Kim also confesses that he had ordered the couple to be kidnapped so that they could make movies for him.

“I asked my advisor, who’s the best director in the south? He said that his name is Shin.”

Later, Kim apologized to Shin for the mistreatment he endured from the agents who kidnapped him, and for the fact that the couple were kept apart for four years.

“I didn’t tell them about my plan to use you and collaborate with you. I just said bring them to me.”

During a trip to Budapest, Shin turned over some of his tape recordings to a Japanese film critic who was an old friend and instructed him to give them to family. Those tapes eventually made their way to a family friend who lived in New Jersey, who brought them to the State Department.

At first, the U.S. government was skeptical that the voice on the tapes could be Kim Jong Il’s. Although Kim was already known to be the heir apparent to North Korea and was a well-known figure, he was a famous recluse who seldom spoke in public, apparently disliking the sound of his own voice. Western intelligence didn’t have a recording of his voice to which to compare.

“This was kind of a wild story. My boss questioned me about how credible this was,” said David Straub, a North Korea expert, who as a junior officer on the Korea desk first received the tapes. “Presumably, we had our Korean native speakers, psychological experts and linguists analyze the tapes, and the U.S. government presumably judged them to be credible.”

According to Straub, the U.S. government had advised embassies in Europe to keep an eye out for Shin and Choi, and so they were prepared when the pair eluded their minders on a trip to Vienna and grabbed a taxi for the U.S. embassy.

After escaping, the couple gave numerous interviews to intelligence agencies and the media, and wrote books about their experiences. Their strange saga is also the subject of a well-received book, “A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power,” by Paul Fischer, released last year.

Much of what the world has learned about Kim Jong Il’s personality came from Shin and Choi. Psychological profilers puzzled over Kim Jong Il’s tendency to make self-deprecating remarks. “Small as a midget’s turd, aren’t I?” he once said to Choi.

Fancying himself a cineaste, Kim was more obsessed with Shin, his idol. In their recorded conversations, it sounds like it is the captive, not the dictator, who holds the power in the relationship.

“The man loves me and does everything he can for me so I can’t possibly betray him,’’ Shin whispered in another tape he made of himself speaking to his Japanese friend.

Shin and Choi made 17 films in North Korea. After defecting to the United States, the couple, who had remarried in North Korea, settled in Los Angeles. Working under the pseudonym Simon Sheen, Shin worked as a director on the “Three Ninjas” films. He died in 2006 and Choi resettled in Seoul.

British filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan stumbled on a gold mine when they secured Choi’s agreement to assist with their film projects. Although transcripts of some of the tapes had been published in Korean, Choi gave the filmmakers bags full of poorly labeled, jumbled audiotapes.

“She was like a grandmother bringing out some interesting photo albums. She is quite elderly now and her memory is getting hazy,” said Adam in a telephone interview.

The filmmakers believe she cooperated because many South Koreans doubted the kidnapping story, believing that Shin had arranged the defection to escape financial problems in South Korea.

Listening to the tapes with a translator, the filmmakers were amazed to find that Kim Jong Il was as fixated with their profession as they were.

“Here is a man who is being groomed to be the leader of the country,” said Cannan. “It is just bizarre to hear him talking about the enemy and how they have to outdo each other by getting into film festivals."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarbaraDemick

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