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Drama in real life

For Yoduk Story's director and crew the stage is both the stuff of dreams and of deadly reality for those stuck in North Korea's prison camps

Issue: "Double trouble," Oct. 21, 2006

To write Yoduk Story, a sorrowful musical about a North Korean prison camp, Jung Sun San drew from his own sorrows as an accused traitor and defector. The director of the new production lost his own parents, suffered torture, and eventually wound up a homeless man in China.

The story follows the travails of prison camp inmates, earning it comparisons to Broadway's long-running Les Misérables, and centers on an actress and political prisoner raped by the prison's chief. When she becomes pregnant, he later relents and tries to help mother and newborn escape.

In an unusual alliance for the theater world, backing from U.S. human-rights groups such as Freedom House and the Defense Forum Foundation brought the production to Washington this month. The troupe will also appear in Los Angeles Oct. 19-22.

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Few in South Korea wanted to back a production that exposed the North's brutality and its prison camp system, whose current population is 200,000. It countered Seoul's conciliatory "Sunshine Policy" toward Pyongyang-a policy that largely landed in the dustbin last week after North Korea launched an underground nuclear test in violation of UN resolutions and international treaties.

Even in its opening scenes, Yoduk Story violates the South's security law by displaying portraits of former leader Kim Il Sung and both a portrait and statue of son and current head of state Kim Jong Il.

At one point, Jung was so cash-strapped while putting the production together in Seoul, he tagged loan sharks and took a $20,000 loan on his kidney to stage the play. Only when a journalist friend wrote about the musical did South Koreans begin donating to its production. The musical opened in Seoul in March, and the troupe has since performed 99 times in South Korea. Jung, meanwhile, repaid the loan shark and kept his kidney.

After such a long and tortuous journey, Jung sees this month's U.S. premiere as something of a miracle. While Jung hopes to do a wider tour of the United States, he prays the musical will ultimately help his suffering countrymen.

Yoduk Story does not at the outset condemn Kim's regime-it is first a tale of forbidden love-but Jung is not afraid to lob criticisms at Pyongyang on or off stage. He came to Washington, he said, "to send a message from the political center of the world to Kim Jong Il to stop killing people."

Memories are still painful for the 37-year-old Jung, who often dismisses questions about his past with, "It's a long story." He grew up in Pyongyang, training at its Theater and Film School and at Russia's National Film University. In 1994, after the death of Kim Il Sung, the military sent him to the demilitarized zone to rally troops in official mourning for the "Great Leader."

In a radio dispatch room one day, Jung fell asleep listening to a prohibited South Korean broadcast. When he awoke, he found his partner had disappeared and betrayed him to their superiors. Soon Jung found himself on trial, facing a stack of evidence against him "as tall as me," he said, about 5 feet.

Pronouncing him guilty, authorities sent him to a prison camp for soldiers. As in most such cases of supposed political betrayal, the punishment also engulfed Jung's family. His siblings (he is the youngest of five children) were forced to divorce their spouses and were banished from Pyongyang to North Korea's rural regions.

During 2-1/2 months of imprisonment, guards beat Jung and stuck sharp bamboo sticks under his fingernails, then washed them with salt water. Jung soon managed to escape: While officials transported him to another camp, their vehicle overturned and Jung fled. Back in Pyongyang, friends smuggled him a military uniform that allowed him to travel northward to the Chinese border. He ran into police, who chased him as he crossed over and shot him in the leg. Once across, Jung passed out.

For almost a year, he fought to survive. A Korean in China helped him travel to Beijing, where he scraped along by begging. On the streets, he picked at his bullet wound to make it worse in order to collect more money. He pretended to be a deaf-mute so locals would not recognize him as a Korean. He also did odd jobs, washing cars and dishes. Eventually, he made his way to Hong Kong, where he applied to South Korea for asylum. By 1995, he was in Seoul.

Over the next years, Jung studied film production at Dangkook University in South Korea. Like his gunshot wound, his hatred of the North's new leader, Kim Jong Il, festered. Before his idea for a musical, Jung nurtured an entirely different concept for film. "When it was a movie, the script was called 'The Curse of the Sun,'" he told WORLD. "It was a very artistic project, almost like a fantasy where the lost souls killed in camps attack Kim Jong Il." He had to abandon the idea when he found little backing.

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