Wherefore art thou, Roh Mi-o?
Mr. Kim is a North Korean defector and a stage actor ― who plays a North Korean. When the young thespian arrived in the South in 2002, he didn’t know a thing about Daehangno, the central Seoul neighborhood that’s synonymous with “theater.” Now he’s part of it.
Well, a small part of it.
Mr. Kim has a supporting role as a friend of the main character in “Romeo & Juliet of DMZ,” a Korean rock musical adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Instead of “Romeo,” for instance, the lead is Roh Mi-o, the son of the North’s General Roh, and then there’s Ju Ri-a, the daughter of the South’s Chairman Ju.
“I’m not acting for people who have to be there, like in North Korea, but for people who paid their own money for the performance,” he said. “I feel like I have a great responsibility to them.”
Mr. Kim has long had his sights on the theater. His father was a music teacher and trumpet player, and his mother was a chorus singer and stage actress in the military. When he was much younger, the path seemed wide open: his family had good communist credentials.
But when his aunt crossed into China, that road to stardom was suddenly strewn with obstacles. His father was fired from the school and his mother was dismissed from the Korena Workers Party. The sudden disappearance of his family’s communist credentials meant that Mr. Kim couldn’t join the army. In the North, if you don’t do military service, you can’t do anything valuable later on, he explained.
The neighbors started to spy on the family.
“I didn’t realize that we were being watched,” Mr. Kim said, “until one day they knew what we had for dinner.”
Some were literally putting their ears to the doors to listen in on the family’s conversations. “One night I opened the door and someone ran away. It’s not like the high-tech wire-tapping they do here.”
In 1999, Mr. Kim and his mother crossed the Tumen for a short visit with his aunt. It was then that Mr. Kim found out what to him was a shocking secret: South Korea is more developed and wealthier than the North. Once he realized the truth, putting up with the North’s lies seemed impossible.
“I started to doubt everything I had been told,” he said, “I didn’t know what was true and what was a lie.”
By June 2001, he, his mother and sister were ready to leave North Korea. They had no certain destination: anywhere, they thought, would be better. His father, though, refused to go, saying he could not betray his country.
Crossing the river was easy. Since he often went fishing in the river, Mr. Kim didn’t look out of place heading across it. Three days after their escape, however, his sister was caught and returned to the North.
Life in the North, though, was still marred by lies and deceit. He once again crossed the river in January 2002. Only 15 days later, he was caught trying to meet his sister by the river and arrested by the North Korean authorities. He was sent to jail for a month, along with his father, who was being punished for “not properly educating his son.”
Undaunted, Mr. Kim tried a third time, finally making it to South Korea with the help of a Southern pastor. His mother was already here; his sister came a few months later. The three now live in Seoul.
He hasn’t heard any news of his father since last December. “A North Korean who visited China told me that he’s working at a factory,” Mr. Kim said.
Like many defectors, Mr. Kim has found that while life in the South may be more luxurious, it isn’t necessarily easy. He went back to high school (his North Korean high school education wasn’t up to par), but quit after six months. A string of part-time jobs then followed: waiter, window framer, office temp. Discrimination was everywhere.
“Because I don’t understand a lot of South Korean culture, some people looked down on me, like one guy at the restaurant I worked at kept ordering me around and making me do all the chores,” Mr. Kim said. “I don’t understand why people are like that. Aren’t we one people?”
So were Montagues and Capulets. Mr. Kim’s experiences made him the perfect addition to the cast of “Romeo & Juliet of DMZ,” in which North and South Koreans live together in a “peace zone” as a preliminary step toward unification.
Ryu Joon-sik, the director of the play, said he wanted to work with real North Korean actors, but that the Unification Ministry turned down his request.
Mr. Ryu then decided to hire defectors. Five people auditioned for roles, but only Mr. Kim was given a part. The task of teaching Southerners to speak like Northerners fell on his shoulders ― and those of his mother, who recorded every line in the story on tape. Because Mr. Kim had few speaking lines, he could spend time helping other actors practice their intonation. (Lee Gyeong-min, who plays Roh Mi-o’s cousin, Byeon Bo-ro, is said to have the best fake North Korean accent.)
Everything had to be properly “Korean,” with fusion music that includes the haegeum (Korean fiddle), daegeum (wooden flute) and janggu (double-headed drum).
Both Mr. Lee and Mr. Kim live in the theater office. Mr. Kim works out and rehearses for three hours every morning, doing abdominal breathing, shouting, singing and martial arts. Late at night, after performances, he practices whatever parts he feels need work and then walks around Daehangno putting up posters. He says he sleeps about five hours a day.
The hard work pays off during the play’s fight scenes; Mr. Kim moves like an action star, performing 360-degree spins in mid-air. He said he learned taekwondo at school and other martial arts from his father and when he was in China.
“My first experience on the stage? I don’t even remember how I made it through,” Kim said. “[It was like a dream,] and when the show was finished, I woke up.”
by Park Sung-ha
“Romeo & Juliet of DMZ” runs through Dec. 11 at Theater 1 in Daehangno. At Hyehwa station, subway line No. 4, Exit 1, walk straight about 20 meters (66 feet) toward the Lucky Mart. Theater 1 is in basement level 2 of the building. Shows run weekdays at 7:30 p.m. and on weekends at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets cost 12,000 won ($12), 20,000 won, 35,000 won and 50,000 won. For more information, call (02) 3676-7777, or visit www.ticketlink.co.kr or ticket.interpark.com.