‘Jaw dropping’ secret tapes reveal late North Korean leader’s frustrations

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Secret recordings reveal North Korean leader's paranoia
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Secret tapes of Kim Jong Il were an intelligence windfall for the US

They could shed light on personality of his son and current leader Kim Jong Un

CNN  — 

A new documentary reveals secret audio tapes of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il talking openly about his frustrations with the country’s propaganda and film production.

He is heard speaking freely in a high-pitched voice, in tapes smuggled out of the country in the 1980s by two South Koreans who were kidnapped and held in North Korea.

“The Lovers and the Despot” tells the story of how actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok were seized by North Korean agents in 1978, and kept in North Korea for eight years, forced to make movies.

They made 17 films in captivity, ranging from tear-jerkers to thrillers.

With a hidden micro-casette recorder, they recorded some of their meetings with the movie-obsessed leader.

Experts say the tapes could even help shed light on Kim’s son, the inscrutable young leader who rules the country today: Kim Jong Un.


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Kim is heard apologizing to them for the kidnapping technique, promising money and resources for the film industry, and complaining about the quality of the movies his country has been producing.

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

He also finds his country’s filmmakers lacking, compared to those of his more-successful rivals to the South.

“We don’t have any films that get into film festivals. But in South Korea, they have better technology. They are like college students; we are just in nursery school. People here are so close minded.”

On a more personal note, according to Choi, he made fun of his diminutive stature when he first met her. “Look at me,” she said he told her. “Aren’t I small,” and then made a crude self-deprecating comparison.

At the time, Kim was head of the country’s ministry for culture and propaganda. Shin and Choi both described Kim as someone who micromanaged everything, according to Paul Fischer, who wrote a book about the kidnapping.

“Kim Jong Il was a film fanatic himself,” says Fischer.

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Insecure leader

Choi and Shin eventually slipped their North Korean minders during a trip to Europe and defected, eventually reaching the US.

But even before they did, they smuggled the audiotapes out during a previous trip, and an intermediary brought the recordings to the State Department in 1985.

“My jaw dropped,” said David Straub, a Korea specialist at the State Department at the time, who received the tapes and began listening to them.

“Hours and hours of recordings of Kim Jong Il speaking relatively freely would be an intelligence windfall for the American government, since we’d never heard him speak before, much less privately.”

Greg Scarlatoiu, of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said that the tapes showed that Kim was insecure about everything including the thing he loved most – movies – and this trait was likely shared by his youngest son Kim Jong Un.

“Just like his father before, this leader of North Korea must suffer from a complex of inferiority as well,” he said. “The insecurity was surely something that Kim Jong Un inherited.”