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Drama in real life

"Drama in real life" Continued...

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

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.

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