North Korean Director Plans Prison-Camp Stage Musical

2005-11-23
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Fleeing North Koreans, painted by a teenage defector. Image: Jang Kil-soo

SEOUL—A North Korean movie director who defected to the South is scrambling to finance a stage musical set against the inhuman backdrop of a Stalinist-style gulag.

Named after the prison camp in which his father was persecuted, Jung Sung-san’s “Yodok Story” aims to bring the harsh and chilling reality of life as a political prisoner in North Korea to a wider audience, including the English-speaking world.

Defiant in the face of death threats

“I think it’s inhumane that the North Korean regime kills and abuses people for committing crimes that are not even considered crimes under normal circumstances,” Jung told RFA’s Korean service.

“I desperately want to bring the musical to other countries, especially the United States, to awaken those people who ignore the human rights situation,” he said.

I think it’s inhumane that the North Korean regime kills and abuses people for committing crimes that are not even considered crimes under normal circumstances,

Set in the notorious No. 15 prison camp in Yodok, South Hamgyung province, the production—now in rehearsal with a total of 70 cast and crew—has already garnered a number of threatening messages to Jung’s mobile phone.

But death threats won’t deter Jung, who served three months in a labor camp himself for listening to South Korean radio broadcasts.

“I think the production must happen because people have the right to know, and I would like to raise awareness of the situation. I get threatened and some people even threaten to murder me, but I am confident that I can make the musical,” he said.

The play's the thing

“When I was caught in 1994 on account of listening to South Korean radio programs, I was imprisoned for only three months. While I was being escorted from the prison, I was able to escape because the escort vehicle was turned over. I feel sorry and even guilty for those who had to be in the prison for a long time,” he added.

Jung, who has already directed two successful movies in South Korea, said he settled on a musical show because it would be cheaper than funding a feature-length motion picture. Even so, finding funding has proven difficult.

He acknowledged a debt to a recently published book by defector Kang Chul-hwan about his time in the Yodok prison camp, entitled The Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 Years in the North Korean Gulag .

'Very talented' stars

I desperately want to bring the musical to other countries, especially the United States, to awaken those people who ignore the human rights situation,

“The musical that I am working on right now is not my personal work. Rather, it is being made with all the wishes of North Korean defectors for increasing awareness of the human rights situation of North Koreans,” he said.

“Therefore, if the performance is successful in South Korea, we would like to perform in Europe and the United States,” he said.

High production costs mean Jung is currently kept busy trying to find investors, however.

North Korean defectors are known to have contributed 25 million won (U.S.$25,000), Free North Korea’s director Kim Sung-min has donated 5 million won (U.S.$5000), while high-level defector Hwang Jang-yup has also contributed to the production, Jung said.

“We cast very talented musical stars. Among the cast, Kim Young-soon, who was a political prisoner in North Korea for more than 15 years, makes a cameo appearance in the musical,” Jung told RFA reporter Myeong Hwa Jang.

Jung hopes “Yodok Story” will open in Seoul on April 15, anniversary of the birth of the late supreme leader Kim Il-sung and a major national holiday in the North.

Original reporting in Korean by Jang Myeong-Hwa. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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