by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Globe and Mail Review Section

After a day at the office leading their countries to war or peace, even world leaders find time for a hobby or two. US President George W. Bush likes running and collecting baseballs. Known for his relentless energy since his teenager years, he is apparently as fast as a whippet and has struggled to find suitable running mates to keep up with him. Tony Blair, on the other hand, likes a spot of tennis and strumming old Beatles numbers on his guitar, remembering Cool Britannia.

However there is one leader who has perhaps let his hobbying runaway with him. The bouffant haired North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is, as it turns out, an American movie fanatic with a personal collection of over 20,000 videotapes and DVDs, including 'The Godfather', ‘Rambo’, all the James Bond films and the complete collection of Daffy Duck. (Described as a paranoid and vain cognac-guzzling hypochondriac with a penchant for blondes, one can’t help but wonder whether a guest-star appearance for Kim Jong-il in an episode of Baywatch would have soothed tensions over today’s nuclear chess game.)

The new millennium’s Dr. Strangelove, Kim is a such devotee of the moving image that he wrote his first book on film theory in 1973. Entitled 'On the Art of Film' it soon became the new authoritative guidebook to North Korean filmmaking. As Minister of Propaganda and Agitation under his father’s rule in the late seventies he also headed the country’s Special Forces and Secret Police. With a tighter grip than a maniacal Hollywood movie mogul, Mr. Jong-il looked to overhaul the North’s flagging movie industry. The last hit at the North Korean box office had been in the 1960s with 'The Flower Girl', a winning blend of war scenes and folk dancing based on revolutionary operas. Perhaps after one inebriated evening watching too many Bond films, Kim orchestrated a fiendish plan that would solve his problems that would turn into one of the most bizarre stories in filmmaking history.

In 1978, South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok, once the prince of the industry with more than 300 films under his belt, was axed by studio boss General Park Chung Hee. Under immediate instructions from Kim, North Korean agents infiltrated the struggling Shin studios in Seoul posing as potential business partners. Kim then lured Shin and his wife, the starlet actress Choe Eun-hoi to Hong Kong on a lavish business trip. Within a couple of days both were kidnapped in cleverly synchronized but separate incidences, drugged and smuggled aboard fishing vessels to the North. Without arousing suspicion Kim had imported the best film talent the peninsula had to offer.

In his recently published book 'Our Escape Doesn't Stop Yet', Shin tells of his days in North Korea starting with the first few weeks when made a number of unsuccessful attempts to escape before being imprisoned at North Korea’s Prison No. 6, where he spent the next four years on a diet of rice and re-education. Meanwhile he was unaware Choe was under house arrest at one of Kim Jong-il’s summerhouses where she would be visited by Kim himself, bestowing lavish western clothes and cosmetics. It wasn’t until 1983 that the abducted couple was reunited at a gala dinner. Forced to hold their emotions in check, Kim blamed misunderstandings for the couple’s four-year separation, before telling them his aspirations for the North Korean film industry. Shin would direct, Kim would produce and the Choe would star in a new wave of North Korean cinema. Kim had liked Shin’s early work especially the weepier ones in the fifties like the memorable My Mother and the Lodger and the historical drama classic, Eunuch. Indeed watching classics such as these had provided Kim with the idea for the abduction of Shin and his leading lady.

For the next few years, Shin and his wife secretly plotted escape despite their opulent lifestyle. Entrusted with a new film studio, luxurious accommodation and a budget of $3 million a year for personal and professional use, Shin Sang-ok and Kim Jong-il made seven movies together between 1983 and 1986. The two would regularly meet and watch American movies with the company of a bottle of Hennessey and box of cigars and talk film. 'The Conqueror', a terrible film with John Wayne as Genghis Khan repeatedly came up as a remake possibility. They had already made a spin off of Robin Hood and liked the experience of orchestrating hundreds of extras. The production of perhaps the partnership’s most memorable film, 'Pulgasari', used, however, that it made Cecil B. DeMille’s 'Ben Hur' look like a high school play.

The production crew of Pulgasari numbered 700 studio employees alone. A cross between 'Godzilla' and those much loved revolutionary operas, producer Kim Jong-il spared no expense, even hiring advisors and special effects experts from Japan, long with Kempachiro Satsuma, the second actor in history to star in the Godzilla suit. With a plot more bizarre than the final season of Dallas, the monster Pulgasari leads the people to overthrow a king, swallows missiles, kills hundreds of soldiers, then turns against the people, until a small girl tells Pulgasari to stop, at which the monster explodes into a million pieces before reemerging as a glowing blue child waddling out of the ocean. I know what you’re thinking. You can’t find a quality plot like that anymore.

Whatever Shin thought the movie, he and his wife were by now more motivated than ever to escape. Their chance came when in 1986 when they were sent to Austria to meet with a distribution company to release a Shin and Kim collaboration, tilted appropriately Runaway. As the trip approached, the couple hatched their plan of escape and smuggled a message to a film critic friend in Japan – code named, of course, “X” - notifying him of their intentions.

In Vienna, Shin and Choe, shadowed by the secret police chaperones, met their Japanese contact for lunch. Later, on their way to the meeting with the film distributors, Shin and his wife convinced the North Korean agents to follow in separate taxi. Tipping the taxi driver $100 they outran the North Korean agents and made a break for the American Embassy.

"We got to a crossroads where we were supposed to turn left. Our minders' car was following us about 30 meters behind, but several other cars had got in between them and us….We tried to run as fast as we could, but it felt like we were in some sort of slow motion movie," Mr. Shin said. "Finally we burst through the embassy's doors and asked for asylum."

Their escape had been like a scene out of a Tom Clancy thriller and they smuggled out tape-recorded conversations with Kim Jong-il himself to boot. Choe had bought a tape recorder in a market away from the eyes of any followers some years earlier and secretly recorded meetings between her husband, herself and ‘The Dear Leader”. So illuminating were these recordings detailing Kim’s video collection, his likes and dislikes, that after being combed by Western intelligence, they were aired on South Korean radio to the delighted amusement of listeners.

Kim was determined not to be phased by the loss of his No. 1 director and leading lady. As he carried on writing and producing, more stories began to surface of his favorite actors escaping and defecting to the south. In 1999 Kim Hae-young, one of the leader’s leading starlets escaped and provided information to the south on Kim’s habits and frequent visits to film sets where he would see that actors learn their craft according to his book’s guidelines. "Actors must be ideologically prepared before acquiring high-level skills…to effectively embody the hateful enemy, the actor requires an ardent love of his class and a burning hostility towards the enemy."

He even goes so far as to post his artistic instructions on billboards giving guidance to his filmmakers. One such placard outside the Revolutionary Museum of the Ministry of Culture on the outskirts of Pyongyang reads, "Make more cartoons."

Kim Jong-il’s son, now about 30 years old, was apprehended in 2001 at Tokyo’s Narita airport as he tried to use a fake Dominican passport. He wasn’t on a mission abroad to engage in espionage or sell military secrets – he just wanted to visit Disneyland. Like his cartoon-loving father, the younger Kim had grown up dreaming of seeing Mickey and his friends one day.

He was expelled from Japan and returned to North Korea via China, and whether the incident was a catalyst for the release last year of Japanese citizens from North Korea is anyone’s guess. Like a cross between Elmer Fud and Don Corleone, Kim Jong-il keeps the world guessing as to his true intentions. As talks unfold on his country’s nuclear capabilities, it may be a while before we hear the end to this strange tale, with “That’s all folks!!”

Special to the Globe and Mail