Book Review: A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer

A Kim Jong-Il Production

If, like me, you enjoyed the movie ‘The Interview’ and learning more about North Korea, you’ll like this book too. Before reading this book, I’d wondered what “production” the title was referring to. I now understand it to be “North Korea: A Kim Jong-Il Production”, i.e. what is presented to North Koreans and to the world is essentially what its leader(s) wants it to be, just a representation of an idea and not reality.

Author Benjamin Wallace describes this book as “unputdownable”, which is possibly the highest honor one can give to any book. I am inclined to agree with him, except for the fact that I’ve watched the movie which gave me more laughs. And the power of movies is also the reason why we have this book today…

Apparently, (the late) Kim Jong-Il was fascinated with movies (and especially the foreign ones) and wanting to harness the power of film for propaganda, kidnapped a famous South Korean director (Shin Sang-Ok) and his star actress (Shin’s ex-wife, Choi Eun-Hee) so he could force commission them to make movies to rival Hollywood and inspire the North Korean people too. Note too that North Korea has a history of using kidnapping as a political tool, so these two people are not the only ones who have been abducted.

And here’s an interesting nugget of information – Kim Jong-Il was given a Russian name when he was born: Yurei Ilsenovitch Kim, or in short, Yura (which I have to say sounds pretty cute. LOL) He later combined his mother’s and father’s first names, Jong-Suk and Il-Sung to get ‘Jong-Il’, and this name gave him that ‘legitimacy’ he craved as a ruler.

As for his South Korean abductees, director Shin Sang-Ok definitely got the shorter end of the stick, especially after he tried to escape but failed (read this book for all the heart-stopping action!)

Author Paul Fischer wrote that “For almost two years he (Shin) had lived in brutal, meaningless captivity” – Thrown into a solitary cell, he could not sleep until the guard gave his permission. He had to sit up at attention with his back straight and with his hands on his knees, looking straight ahead with his eyes wide open, and not moving his head and hands. Meals were likely a mixture of corn and beans, sprinkled with rice.

This came to be known as the torture position: Sitting for 16 hours a day looking at the wardens and prison bars. Choi’s description of him when they were reunited indicated the sorry state the once-famous director was in: “he had lost weight, his ankles were swollen and misshapen, his face covered in psoriasis from months spent sitting in a dark cell, and his skin riddled with sores and ringworm scars.”

Because the torture position sounds too horrible for anyone to have lived through, I’m not entirely convinced that Shin survived this daily 16-hour mental and physical torment for over 2 years. Hmm. Read this book and form your own opinion about this. However, author Paul Fischer reiterates at the end of the book that he had done all the fact-checking and corroboration of sources as is humanly possible. So… fact or fiction? You decide.

Other interesting North Korea trivia:

1) The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) was famous for its “Korean barbecue” in which a detainee was strung up by his wrists and ankles and hung over a bonfire until he confessed. Confess or be cooked! 😀

2) Jong-Il had the use of many cars, his personal bulletproof train which ran on its own exclusive tracks, his own cruise ship, and even had his own ostrich farm!

3) Jong-Il allowed Shin and Choi to experience what they would call “luxury filmmaking”, in which nothing was refused them. When they needed a fan to simulate wind, Jong-Il sent them a helicopter. When they requested fake snow in the middle of spring, Jong-Il flew the entire crew to the top of Mount Paekdu. When they planned a scene with thousands of extras, Jong-Il put at their service the entire military. And when Shin needed special-effects scale models to achieve a shot of an exploding train, Jong-Il ordered an actual, functioning train to be delivered to the set, loaded to the brim with explosives.

4) Where the money came from: drug trade, insurance fraud, trading in nuclear secrets, etc (@_@)

If you’ve always been fascinated by this country because we know so little about it, and whose leaders are often described as being heroic and legendary figures, you’ll really enjoy this 339-page about North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, a dictator who led a most interesting life. Read the book for the juicy and scandalous details. 😀

This hardcover edition retails at S$44.81 (before GST).