North Korea's dictator, the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, likes to keep a close tab on his favourite actresses. Some would say too close. Last week, the 26-year-old film star Kim Hae-young defected to South Korea, the latest in a string of intriguing defections.
Kim Jong-il is a film buff who has issued directives on how actors should perform. The actress in question belonged to the Pyongyang film studio and had appeared in seven recent productions. The studio receives regular visits from Kim Jong-il, and his artistic "instructions" are displayed on huge billboards there. Actors, the Dear Leader has said, have "a noble duty to appear before people and educate them". To do their job more effectively, "they should be beautiful both ideologically and physically."
In his personal life, Kim Jong-il is believed to have paid close attention to physical beauty in the acting profession. His first wife, Sung Hae-rim, was a film actress who, according to one story, was talent-spotted by Mr Kim when she was already married to a senior official. She was rumoured to have defected two years ago.
Another Korean star, Choi Kye Ok, a friend of Ms Sung, was also a favourite of the Dear Leader. He once told her that she made a better impression than anyone else on the stage. Her husband, a Korean diplomat, defected last year.
Ms Choi was best known for her leading roles in The Flower Girl and other North Korean "revolutionary operas". These extremely long works have all received personal guidance from Kim Jong-il or his father, the late Kim Il-sung.
It has even been suggested by adulatory North Korean media that the Dear Leader wrote The Flower Girl himself. This tells the tale of a peasant girl in the feudal past who sold flowers to support her oppressed family. The landlord beat her mother to death and blinded her little sister. Eventually the heroine "awakes to class consciousness." Instead of selling flowers, she embraces "the red flowers of the revolution" and helps to "liquidate" the landlord and his family.
In a bizarre episode in the 1980s, a South Korean film director and his wife spent several years in Pyongyang under Kim Jong-il's patronage. Later they turned up in the South saying that they had been abducted by the North Koreans. They also gave details of their patron's less than revolutionary film tastes. He was said to have a vast library of western classics, including musicals and cowboy films.
Kim Jong-il's instructions to the acting profession range from the general to the specific. He tells them how to laugh, how to cry, and how to be good citizens at home.
He also sets high standards in method acting. An actor who is going to play a football player, he has ordained, "should actually become a football player himself and run sweating across the pitch to kick the ball."
"The actor's job", the Great Leader concludes, "is by no means an easy one." Perhaps that is why some fail to match up to their revolutionary task -- and are tempted to defect.