The Korea Herald


Legendary actress Choi Eun-hee dies aged 91

By Hong Dam-young

Published : April 17, 2018 - 09:31

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Legendary actress Choi Eun-hee, one of Korea’s leading classic film stars, died at the age of 91 Monday.

According to local media reports, Choi passed away Monday afternoon when she went to hospital for kidney dialysis. She had been suffering from a kidney condition for years.

Choi was widely known for being a doyenne of the Korean cinema in the 60s and 70s, but her life off the screen has been far more tumultuous and dramatic than a movie, including an abduction by North Korean agents, reunion with her ex-husband -- the famed director Shin Sang-ok in North Korea -- and their escape to freedom eight years later.

Born on Nov. 20, 1926 in Gwang-ju, Gyeonggi Province, the actress made her silver screen debut with “A New Oath” in 1947. With films such as “A Sun of Night” in 1948 and “Yearning for Home” in 1949, she became widely known as one of the “troika” of leading actresses of the time, along with Kim Ji-mee and Um Aeng-ran. She also led the Shin Film company with her husband and director Shin Sang-ok.

Late Shin Sang-ok, left, and late Choi Eun-hee (Yonhap) Late Shin Sang-ok, left, and late Choi Eun-hee (Yonhap)

The vicissitudes in Choi‘s life came in 1978, when Choi was kidnapped to North Korea by a North Korean secret agent while on a business trip in Hong Kong. Later that year, Shin, by then divorced from Choi, was also abducted by the North while on a personal crusade to find Choi. In the North, the divorced couple reunited under the orchestration of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, a film buff who is reported to have ordered the abductions with a plan to make the pair vanguard for North Korean Communist cinema.

With Kim’s support, Choi and Shin together made a total of 17 films including “Pulgasari” and “Salt.” Choi earned the best actress award with “Salt” at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival in 1985, becoming the first Korean to claim an award at an overseas film festival.

In 1986, the couple defected from the North while on a trip to Vienna, seeking political asylum at the United States Embassy. After more than 10 years in exile, the couple finally returned to South Korea in 1999.

Back at home, she headed a theatre troupe in 2001 and produced the musical “Crazy for You” in 2002.

Choi’s legacy includes several film awards -- including the Lifetime Achievement Award at the fifth Korean Film Awards in 2006 and the 47th Grand Bell Awards in 2010. In 2016, the Sundance Film Festival screened a documentary about Choi and Shin’s time in North Korea “The Lovers And the Despot,” directed by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan.Choi wrote an autobiography “Confessions of Choi Eun-hee” in 2007 in which she gave an account of her years in Pyongyang. Shin passed away April 11, 2006. Choi is survived by two sons and two daughters.

By Hong Dam-young (