Director puts young defectors in the limelight

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Director puts young defectors in the limelight

On a recent afternoon in the cultural hall of a local department store, about 28 teenagers serenaded an audience numbering around 300.

They were on the last song of a performance titled “Dream,” when a few patrons actually broke into tears.

Admittedly, the show is intense. It revolves around the life of a young North Korean defector who is forced to stay in hiding in China and at the same time, find a way to care for her sick mother.

But perhaps more moving for the audience was the fact that the cast members themselves are all young defectors who put their lives at risk in hopes of starting over with their families in the South.

The teens attend the alternative Georeul School in Seoul, and just two months ago, none of them had even seen a musical, much less participated in one - that is, until Lee Dong-hoon came into the picture.

Since 2012, the 38-year-old director of planning for the civic group Action of United Korea has actively coordinated sporting events, cultural events and even a campaign to use the arts as a means for Korean unification.

He first met the Georeul students in November during a unification-themed table-tennis event.

“When I saw the children playing and laughing, I could see that they had the potential to become musical performers,” Lee said.

The students were skeptical, however, and resistant at first.

“When I would make suggestions, they would always say ‘no,’ or ‘I can’t,’” he said. “They had no goals and reacted negatively to everything.”

Lee knew then that he wanted to help, so he volunteered for the school’s talent festival and visited campus every day two weeks prior to the show.

He choreographed dancing and singing routines for the students along with members of Ewha Womans University’s student dance club, and slowly but surely, the teens began to come around.

As a result, they were able to successfully pull off a clean group dance performance during the festival, and that excitement spurred them to put their energy toward putting on a full-length musical performance.

The musical was written by Korean-American director Caroline Kwon and tells the story of a teenage North Korean defector who works as a street vendor in China in an effort to feed her ill mother, but she eventually learns to chase her dreams and attend an art school.

“The story is about a young girl who had to live in hiding even in China after escaping [the regime],” Lee said. “It’s a similar narrative for many young North Korean defectors.”

Jang Ok-heum, 16, who plays the protagonist, said she could relate to the story of the young girl, Younghee.

Lee added that since the students put on the musical, they have found a new sense of purpose.

He plans to show their journey through a documentary that he will present during the Busan Peace Film Festival next month.

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