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From Spotlights of North Korea to Dim Lights of Seoul

Actress in Pyongyang's inner circle now runs a low-rent bar in the south. She cites the humiliation, but says she's come a long way.

March 07, 2004|Sang-Hun Choe | Associated Press Writer

SEOUL — Before she defected, Joo Sun Young was one of North Korea's rare "Class-One" actresses, handpicked to play the coveted role of the regime leader's wife and "mother" of all North Koreans.

Today, she sells beer and sings songs for drunken South Korean businessmen at a low-rent Seoul bar. The crowd knows that she once performed for North Korea's inner circle, which is in part why they like hollering for her to fill their glasses.

"I sometimes feel humiliated at how my life has been downgraded. But I thank my customers for coming to my place. This is my life. I have come a long way," she said.

Her journey from Pyongyang's spotlights to back-street Seoul's dim lights mirrors the dreams and fears of many who flee the totalitarian north.

Joo was a 16-year-old violin student in 1981 when Communist Party talent scouts came to her high school in the northeastern town of Kyongsong and took her away. She was handed a baggy military uniform and told that she was joining the military.

Reminiscent of the screenings of maidens for the ancient kings, party officials inspected "every inch" of her body for imperfections. She didn't mind. "I was proud and excited that the party chose me," Joo said.

For six years, she served in the Pyongyang Garrison Command's esteemed performing arts troupe -- and was allowed to visit her parents only once. Joo got a powerful boost when Kim Jong Il, son and heir of then-President Kim Il Sung, handed her the "Class-One" title, reserved for the few actors portraying members of the Kim family. The job was so sacred that she was barred from other roles.

Kim Jong Il was the patron saint of the North Korean film industry, a tool in fostering the family personality cult. Joo still speaks of him in admiring tones.

"He brought renaissance to the North Korean movie industry," she said. "The story goes that he started wearing his sunglasses because he stayed up so many nights, sparing no effort to develop the movie industry and improve the people's lives and, as a result, his eyes were always bloodshot."

Joo's best-known film was the 1983 epic "Far and Away from the Command Post," in which she played Kim Jong Suk, Kim Il Sung's wife, as a young guerrilla fighting Japanese colonialists.

In one scene, the future first lady leads a pack of rebels through a blizzard to Kim Il Sung's command post. The peasant soldiers rush to be hugged by the man they call the Great Leader, but she stands back, sobbing.

"My heart was bursting with emotions," Joo said. "The very name, voice, picture and even thought of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il made my eyes well up with tears of adoration in those days. Even today, when I recite the lines, my heart reflexively fills with emotions."

The real Kim Jong Suk married Kim Il Sung in 1940 at age 18. She gave birth to Kim Jong Il in 1942, but died seven years later while giving birth to his sister. She died before Joo was born. But Joo says she met father and son a few times. Kim Jong Il gave her a signed calligraphy that said: "Be a model for Korean women!" "It became my family treasure," she said.

Joo's exalted life changed after Kim Il Sung died in 1994, famine struck North Korea and actresses scattered to find new jobs. By then, she was married with a son and daughter. To earn extra cash, she overstayed a travel visa to China in 2000 to run a border town coffee shop.

Twice she was deported, but bribed North Korean guards to let her back into China. Finally, a South Korean government agent in China realized who she was and arranged her flight to Seoul in January 2003.

In August, she borrowed $60,000 from a bank to open her bar. She hired two North Korean women who, like her, left children behind. Her background is her attraction, and she entertains customers with nonpolitical South and North Korean ditties, including the popular "Women Are Flowers."

"I am doing very well," she said, "but some customers insult me when they don't like our food and say, 'Is this what you give your men in the North?' I wonder whether they know people are starving in the North."

She's 39 now, and dreams of running a hotel and living to see the reunification of the Koreas and of her family -- parents, husband, 15-year-old son and 12-year daughter.

"I want to be a rich businesswoman," Joo said. "I concentrate on work not to think about my children, but when I see delicious food, I can't help crying. I wonder whether my children are not starving." There are no phone or mail links between the Koreas.

In the meantime, she attends acting school, hoping that TV work will help her business.

"In the North, every line is grandiloquent and exhortatory, such as 'Comrades, if we stop our struggle here, we will only please the American imperialists!' " she said. "Here, everything is about love. I am learning to tone down my North Korean accent and express tender love properly. But it feels awkward."

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