Prison camp musical finds humanity in a nightmare prison camOminous red flags flutter in the air as goose-stepping soldiers march before gaunt prisoners begging for their lives. Terror, starvation and sadistic logic hang in the air.
Cue the rock & roll music.
“Yoduk Story,” a stage musical about the horrors of a present-day North Korean concentration camp, opened to a full house on Tuesday. Three years in the making, the project is a labor of love by Jung Sung-san, a North Korean defector who persevered despite pressure from the South Korean government to tone down the content, and the withdrawal of spineless financial backers.
The musical is meant to be a Korean “Les Miserables,” said Mr. Jung, who believes that even the horrors of Yoduk camp can be made into a humanistic story. He also points to “Miss Saigon,” which renounced war in the context of war and revolution.
“The message I wish to deliver is respect for human dignity,” says Mr. Jung.
“Yoduk” combines the essence of a Broadway musical with North Korean propaganda stage shows. It has glamorous, old-fashioned North Korean-style female dancers as well as soldiers marching in formation.
Although the story is brutal, Mr. Jung avoids wallowing in the details of the sadism at Yoduk, which could repel theatergoers.
Instead, he weaves a story of love and betrayal, despair and hope backed with a “Stomp”-like performance and powerful rock & roll music. The result is remarkable, with thrilling numbers like “Hell of Yoduk Prison.” The vocal performances of Captain Lee Myung-soo (played by Lim Jae-cheong) are breathtakingly powerful.
The story involves a young actress named Gang Ryun-wha, who has a privileged life attending the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance. In a dramatic reversal of fortune that is typical in totalitarian countries, Ryun-wha’s entire family is shipped to the Yoduk camp for political prisoners after her father is accused of spying for the United States.
In Yoduk, Ryun-wha is raped by the warden and becomes pregnant. When he feels guilty and decides not to execute her and the baby, he in turn faces charges of treason. Later, he tries to help her escape, but is caught and executed.
The warden’s actions are driven by love for Ryun-wha, who inspires him by saying that “warm blood also runs in your veins.” But in real life, says Kim Young-sun, a 68-year-old defector who spent eight years in Yoduk, love is impossible there.
Ms. Kim said the musical included some things she never witnessed, such as a prisoner being branded with a hot iron. But having lost her son and both parents to the camp, she vouches that the suffering is well expressed by “Yoduk Story.”
“That is the way of life in Yoduk,” she said of the musical. “But it’s more horrible in reality. The mental stress and pressure on the prisoners was enormous.”
Ms. Kim choreographed the dance performance in the “Daughter of the Government” scene. “I wanted to make the world know what it is like being in Yoduk,” she said.
Ms. Kim’s life was strikingly similar to the life of Ryun-wha. She was a prominent dancer for the People’s Army Orchestra, who for unknown reasons was deported to Yoduk in 1970 with her parents and children. Her husband was sent to another camp in Hoeryeong.
The Yodok camp, is in a remote mountainous area of South Hamgyong province, and it is estimated to hold more than 40,000 people. Ms. Kim said the captives work from dusk till dark and are fed only salted corn. Those caught trying to escape are executed publically.
Eleven years after she was released, North Korean officials hinted that she was imprisoned for being an old friend of Song Hye-rim, a mistress of Kim Jong-il. Apparently, she was imprisoned to pre-empt the leaking of any information about the dictator’s personal life.
“They like to remind people that today’s loyal elite is tomorrow’s traitor. They are always looking for victims to make an example,” said Ms. Kim, who defected in 2003.
To make the musical faithful to its material, Mr. Jung interviewed many former prisoners like Ms. Kim. He also included lots of North Korean imagery and songs, which began to generate controversy. When a newspaper reported script details that included public stonings ― meant to inform the public about North Korean human rights atrocities ― the theater Mr. Jung had reserved refused to rent the space. Soon after, a couple of government officials “recommended” that Mr. Jung tone down the content, according to a Chosun Ilbo report, which the Unification Ministry has officially complained about to the Press Arbitration Commission. The South Korean government is often sensitive about offending North Korea, which it is trying to engage diplomatically.
The biggest blow came when investors, fearful of government reprisals, withdrew 300 million won ($307,660) in funding. To make up the difference, Mr. Jung sold virtually everything he owned. The Rafto Human Rights House of Norway also donated 150 million won, and the public donated 60 million won.
“I cannot pretend that there aren’t political elements in the musical. But I am not here to make a political statement,” Mr. Jung insists. “It is not to depict atrocities in the camp, but to appeal for forgiveness and tolerance [in general]”
What Mr. Jung has created should reach a wider audience than previous appeals, notes Park Jin, a Grand National Prty congressman at the opening show.
“So far, conservative groups have complained about human rights violations, but this hasn’t caught the attention of the public. A musical can more easily touch people’s hearts,” says Park.
Project "Eases the grief" of Northern memories
Jung Sung-san, 38, was born to a prominent family and lived in an upscale neighborhood of Pyongyang, where workers’ party officials are quartered. Mr. Jung’s grandfather was Education Minister in 1970s, and his father was one of 600 Supreme People’s Assembly members and worked as a mid-level official at an urban development office.
“My father was a devoted communist. He used to swear his loyalty in front of the photographs of the late Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il in our house,” Mr. Jung said.
Compared to his father’s model behavior, Mr. Jung himself was an outlaw, he says. He and his friends bribed government officials for personal favors and listened to banned South Korean radio broadcasts. Mr. Jung believes that his reckless behavior led to his arrest.
Mr. Jung attended the Pyongyang Drama and Movie College, where he had the privilege of watching foreign films. He was even an exchange student at Moscow State University’s film school where, he said, North Korean students were rarely allowed to leave the grounds.
In 1994 he got in trouble with North Korean authorities for listening to South Korean radio broadcasts while he was in the army. Following a detention for several months near Kaesong, he escaped in the middle of rainstorm and returned to Pyongyang only to find his house empty. His parents had been forcibly sent to Haesan, Hamgyong province. Mr. Jung boarded a train in search of them but they never met again. He crossed the Amnok River in October that year and arrived in South Korea in January 1995. “I still have nightmares after I talk about it,” he said.
Having received a formal education in filmmaking in North Korea, Mr. Jung was valued by South Korean entertainment companies. Mr. Jung entered Dongguk University in 1996, and began helping several film and television projects depict North Korean characters accurately. These included “Swiri” in 1998, “Joint Security Area” in 2000 and “Silmido” in 2003.
However, Mr. Jung’s involvement in television was an bad omen for his family in the North. In 2002, Mr. Jung learned that because of his new career, his father was beaten to death in a camp in Hoeryeong.
Making the musical was a way to “ease the grief suffered by my father’s spirit,” Mr. Jung said.
by Lim Jae-un
English subtitles provided. The show continues through April 2 at Seoul Kyoyuk Munhwa Hoekwan in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul. Shows are at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays; 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are 20,000 won to 80,000 won. For information, call (02) 552-9311-2 or visit www.yoduk.com.
Take subway line No. 3 to Yangjae station, exit 7, then transfer to shuttle bus No. 08. Or take regular buses to the aT Center.