10 People Who Have Tasted Fame In North Korea
North Korea is probably the strangest country in the world. There seems to be little time for entertainment. Almost all energy is directed towards how to best serve Kim Jong-un and the country as a whole. So, how does a worker bee achieve celebrity status or any kind of individualised fame? There’s no blueprint. The process often seems bizarrely random. Case in point—the following ten people that made it big in North Korea.
#10. Hyon Song-wol – The Factory-Loving Pop Sensation
Hyon Song-wol is one of the most prominent North Korean pop singers. She is believed to have had a friendship with Kim Jong-un in her youth that may have aided her rise to fame.
Song-wol’s greatest hit is entitled A Girl in the Saddle of a Steed, which has been internationally ridiculed under the erroneous title of Excellent Horse-Like Lady. It’s a bouncy pop tune with genuine kitsch appeal, championing the mechanization of Korean women. Okay, it actually becomes pretty depressing the more you think about it.
It tells the story of a North Korean textile factory worker, played by Song-wol in the music video. She dashes across the factory floor, performing various menial tasks, smiling brightly. The lyrics compare the North Korean textile industry to a horse that must be controlled and guided by Song-wol, and her factory worker colleagues.
Rough translations of the song include the lines, “They say I am a virgin on a stallion, / Mounting a stallion my Dear Leader gave me. / All my life I will live to uphold his name!”
In 2013, it was reported by South Korean media that she had been executed for making pornographic films. However, she made a public appearance in 2014, proving the claims to be nonsense.
#9. Dennis Rodman – Basketball Extraordinaire
Whatever the Supreme Leader loves is also loved by the North Korean people. Kim Jong-un is believed to have a longstanding affection for the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il was also a huge fan of the Bulls and had invited Michael Jordan to visit North Korea—to no avail. In fact, Rodman’s trip came out of another unfruitful negotiation with Jordan.
It was actually Vice that set up the trip for an episode of their HBO series. Rodman, substituting for Jordan, was the first American to publicly meet with Kim Jong-un.
Since then, he’s believed to have visited the country at least four times—most recently in June of 2017, wearing a t-shirt advertising PotCoin. It’s a cryptocurrency used for the trade of legalized marijuana.
Legalized in certain U.S. states, that is. The legality of the drug in North Korea is far less clear. Some media outlets have reported that consumption of marijuana is turned a blind eye to. Others have expressed strong doubt that the drug is openly used, considering how oppressive the regime is and how quick they are to find reasons for punishment.
Regardless, Rodman’s so beloved by Kim Jong-un (and therefore all North Koreans) that he appears to have carte blanche.
#8. Ri Chun-hee – The Most Trusted Newswoman
The Korean Central Television company is the sole source of television news in North Korea. Naturally, the activity of the Supreme Leader and his government are of paramount importance to every North Korean. Ri Chun-hee has reported on their goings-on since 1971. Although she retired from everyday duties as chief newsreader in 2012, to this day, no one is more respected in the field than her.
She has been a crucial cog in the Kim Dynasty’s propaganda machine. Her readings, lathered with histrionics, prompt the general public when to be elated, when to be devastated, and when to be angry. To the outside world, her voice has become synonymous with the absurdity of the country’s activities.
Chun-hee still makes the occasional television appearance. It’s usually only when there are significant national events, such as successful missile tests. It’s believed Kim Jong-un himself insists on her usage—trusting no one else to deliver state sanctioned jingoism with such manipulative brilliance.
#7. James Joseph Dresnok – U.S. Army Defector Turned Actor
Before James Joseph Dresnok made his fame in North Korea, he was a Private in the U.S. Army. He was sent to South Korea, where he kept watch at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. There, a discovery was made that he had forged signatures on paperwork that allowed him to leave the base for a night.
On August 15th, 1962, fearing a court martial, Dresnok decided to run across a minefield into North Korea. He was eventually housed with three other U.S. military defectors and made to star in various propaganda films. They also made trips back to the Korean border, where they were instructed to gush about North Korea’s greatness through a loudspeaker, in order to encourage other soldiers to defect.
From 1978 to 1981, North Korea produced a 20-part war film called Unsung Heroes. Dresnok played Dr. Kelton—an American with ties to arms manufacturing, who wanted the Korean War to continue indefinitely so he could profit. Contrary to the character, the role made Dresnok even more sympathetic with the North Korean people and properly established his celebrity status.
In 2017, Dresnok’s sons appeared on North Korean television to share news of their father’s passing. Naturally, they rounded things off by praising Kim Jong-un and declaring that America better calm down with the fire and fury talk, or, “We will not miss the opportunity and wipe the land of the U.S. from the earth forever.” Good to keep it all in perspective.
#6. Antonio Inoki – The Wrestling Diplomat
Antonio Inoki is as famous in the Far East as Hulk Hogan is in America. He is also the founder of the second-largest wrestling company in the world, New Japan Pro Wrestling.
During his tenure as New Japan bossman, he would often co-promote with the now-defunct American outfit World Championship Wrestling. In 1995, they held two combined shows in North Korea. The event was known locally as the Pyongyang International Sports and Culture Festival for Peace and globally marketed under the catchier name of Collision in Korea.
Day 2 of the event was the most attended wrestling show of all time, officially reported to have drawn 190,000 people. This number is likely inflated—a tactic often used by American promoters, as well. It’s wrestling, after all.
Muhammad Ali was in attendance, as a guest of honor. He watched on as Inoki (who he fought in 1976) wrestled Ric Flair in the main event. Inoki won the match, sending the North Korean crowd home happy.
Inoki is an active politician in Japan and is believed to have made over 30 diplomatic excursions to North Korea. In fact, he was suspended from the National Diet (Japan’s legislature) in 2009 for making an unauthorized trip.
Perhaps Inoki’s greatest diplomatic accomplishment resulted from a trip he made to Iraq, shortly before the outbreak of the Gulf War. Over 100 Japanese people had been taken hostage by Saddam Hussein. They were all released a few days after another of Inoki’s wrestling “peace festivals” was held in Baghdad.
#5. Song Hye-rim – Film Star And Mistress To Kim Jong-il
In the 1960s, Song Hye-rim was one of the few true stars of North Korean cinema. Her body of work included a film called The Road I Found, which had such a wide distribution that it ended up being shown on East German television in 1970.
Unfortunately, her career, as well as her entire existence has been scrubbed from North Korean history. She was Kim Jong-il’s mistress and the mother of Kim Jong-nam—who died at Kuala Lumpur Airport, after being exposed to a nerve agent.
Jong-nam had been a source of embarrassment to the Kim family pretty much from birth. His grandfather Kim Il-sung was kept unaware of his existence until he was four years old. Both Jong-nam and Hye-rim were strongly encouraged to live the rest of their lives out of the public eye.
Hye-rim’s health deteriorated in the early 80s, leading her to make multiple trips to Moscow to receive medical care. She eventually succumbed to breast cancer on May 17th, 2002.
#4. Kim Jong-hun – Once Loved, Now Reviled National Football Team Manager
Kim Jong-hun is a retired North Korean footballer, who played as a defender for the Pyongyang based April 25 Sports Club. His greatest success came after his playing career had ended, as the manager of the North Korean national team.
In 2009, North Korea under (Jong-hun’s management) qualified for the FIFA World Cup. It was the first time they would compete in the tournament since 1966. There, they had beaten Italy and reached the Quarter Finals, so Jong-hun and his men had pretty big shoes to fill.
Live sports broadcasts are a big no-no in North Korea. It’s hard to protect an image of North Korean superiority if citizens can see their sporting heroes get routinely destroyed.
In their opening match of the 2010 World Cup, North Korea (then ranked 105th in the world) put in an impressive display against Brazil (ranked first), managing to score a goal before eventually losing 2-1.
It was a result that pleased North Korean officials to such an extent that they decided to broadcast the team’s next game live, for the first time ever. The entire country was wrapped up in Jong-hun inspired World Cup fever.
Painfully, North Korea ended up losing their next match to Portugal 7-0, confusing the TV audience who had been told how great Jong-hun and his team were. No more live broadcasts were made.
It was reported that, as a result of the loss, Kim Jong-hun was forced to perform hard labour on a construction site. This followed a long-winded tribunal, where it’s believed sports commentator Ri Dong-kyu systematically broke down each member of the national team’s failings.
#3. Moranbong Band – The “North Korean Spice Girls”
Moranbong Band consists of over 20 people and its line-up is ever-changing, so we concede it’s a bit of a cheat entry. We believe they’re definitely worthy of a place on the list, as a collective entity, simply because of their overwhelming popularity in North Korea.
In Western media (with clickability on the mind), the band is often referred to as North Korea’s Spice Girls, owing to fact that the group is women only. They were formed directly as an attempt by Kim Jong-un to modernize North Korean creative output—often sporting short skirts and unconventional hairstyles. However, since their initial explosion onto the North Korean pop scene, their appearances have been greatly toned down.
One of their biggest early hits is called Let’s Study. It has all the funky pop charm of a Eurovision song and includes memorable, easy to learn lines such as: “Let’s study, let’s study, let’s study / For the benefit of our country!”
#2. Choi Eun-hee – The Kidnapped South Korean Film Star
Choi Eun-hee was a very well-known and respected actress in South Korea whom Kim Jong-il was a big fan of. He desperately wanted to establish a North Korean film industry, in order to convey to the rest of the world the cultural depth of his country. Unfortunately, Eun-hee didn’t seem too keen on coming willingly. In 1972, Kim Jong-il decided to simply kidnap her.
Apart from the kidnapped-don’t-run-or-we’ll-hurt-you stuff, Kim Jong-il treated Eun-hee well and housed her in a luxury villa. She states that one of the first things that Kim Jong-il said to her was an icebreaker about his height, to the effect of, “Small as a midget’s turd, aren’t I?”
The films that Eun-hee helped make for Kim Jong-il are, for the most part, not good. No doubt, the countless creative restrictions played a huge part in the final products’ mediocrity. Within the heap, however, is a genuinely pioneering film. It’s a love story, appropriately titled Love, Love, My Love. It boasts the first on-screen kiss in North Korean cinema history.
Eun-hee managed to escape with her husband in 1986.
#1. Shin Sang-ok – The Kidnapped South Korean Director
That husband we just mentioned? This guy.
He was a critically acclaimed director in South Korea. Choi Eun-hee had often been his leading lady.
They had been divorced for several years, as a result of Shin Sang-ok cheating on Eun-hee. Nevertheless, Sang-ok was sufficiently worried by Eun-hee’s disappearance that he felt the need to directly investigate. He too was kidnapped while retracing her steps.
Initially, Sang-ok was treated with the same level of respect shown to Eun-hee. That was stripped away after he twice attempted to escape. The result was two years of imprisonment. He was not freed until Kim Jong-il and his men were convinced he’d remain loyal to North Korea.
Following Sang-ok’s release, a dinner party was arranged in Pyongyang. Here, the director first met with Kim Jong-il. Eun-hee was also brought there. She had no idea that Sang-ok had been kidnapped. At the behest of Kim Jong-il, the couple remarried and remained so following their escape.
Sang-ok directed all the films that Eun-hee was involved with, including a Gozilla rip-off called Pulgasari. It is by far the most talked about film from his North Korean period.
Though the two had wanted to escape for many years, they were concerned that no one would believe their story and they would be punished for defection. Thus, they secretly taped the meetings they had with Kim Jong-il—hiding a recorder in Choi Eun-hee’s purse. In one such recording, the leader explains how Sang-ok’s two-year prison ordeal was just a big misunderstanding. It’s a preposterously inaccurate statement to make but really not worth arguing over.
Finally, conditions for escape were met while attending a film festival in Vienna. When their guards were distracted, the couple snuck out of their hotel room and into a taxi. It took them to the American Embassy and lasting freedom.