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.
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.
Jung also worked on a series of plays and a TV drama about Kim's harem. Pyongyang retaliated, he learned in 2001, by publicly executing Jung's father. He also learned that the execution drove his mother insane. He now believes she too is dead.
His father's death shattered Jung. Believing himself responsible, he said he "wandered emotionally" and attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. Eventually, however, he began attending a church where "he held on to the pastor and began to sob and cry." Soon he became a Christian.
Sometimes, he says, he still wakes up in the night, crying, thinking of his father, who was executed for Jung's crimes. But his spiritual transformation has transformed Jung's work. "Before I was constantly saying Kim Jong Il must die, and from there it changed into forgiveness, resolution [and] conciliation," he said. For Jung, that meant shifting from dark film to stage musical, where the characters forgive each other and abandon revenge.
In spite of those themes, the production dismayed Seoul's government. Security officials warned Jung not to stage the musical, and they pressured theaters not to show it. Jung said he also received anonymous, threatening phone calls. "I fear that the South Korean government fears Yoduk Story because it appears to oppose the current flow of North Korea--South Korea relations," he said in an interview prior to the North's nuclear test.
The musical (in Korean with English subtitles on screens) opens with accomplished actress Ryun-Hwa Kang receiving a medal for her propaganda work, and joyfully singing that she is a "daughter" of the Communist government. When authorities accuse her father of spying, they throw her whole family into Yoduk prison camp.
More commonly translated "Yodok," the camp in real life sits in South Hamgyong Province, some 70 miles northeast of Pyongyang. According to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, it is likely the North's best-documented prison camp, since it releases some prisoners back into the general population. A 10-foot-high barbed-wire fence surrounds the camp, patrolled by dogs and some 1,000 guards toting rifles and hand grenades.
Three of Yoduk Story's writers spent years at the prison camp, including the production's 71-year-old choreographer, Kim Young Soon, a professional dancer who spent eight years at Yoduk. Ryun-Hwa Kang's character is loosely based on Kim.
In the musical, when Kang reaches Yoduk, the prison chief Myung-Soo Lee rapes her in a drunken rage. When she becomes pregnant, it means certain death for her son and punishment for Lee for sleeping with a "traitor." At first he resents her, but Kang's gentleness and newborn son win his love, and he organizes their escape. But the story has no fairy-tale ending.
Other characters are carefully crafted prison types: a Japanese abductee, a South Korean POW, an attempted defector, and even a woman who failed to save a portrait of Kim Il Sung when escaping her burning home.
Christian themes and imagery also abound. The camp's flogging post is a large cross at center stage. Baby Yoduk is born to strains of "Amazing Grace." Redemption comes from long-haired Christ-figure Tae-Sik Lee, an eccentric who loves rock music and is imprisoned for trying to sneak his family into South Korea. He sings Psalm 23 and the Lord's Prayer and eventually is executed on Myung-Soo's behalf for claiming to be the baby's father.
At curtain call on opening night in Washington, Jung walked out and introduced choreographer Kim. "I've lost my parents, my husband, and my child to the concentration camps of North Korea," she told the audience. "This is the life of North Koreans."
And that is where comparisons to Les Mis end. Victor Hugo fictionalized an 1832 French revolt now distant for most audiences. But Yoduk prison-and its prisoners-remain chilling fact.