Smash-Hit North Korean Gulag Musical Opens in U.S.

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Scene from "Yoduk Story". Photo:

WASHINGTON—A North Korean movie director who defected to the South has fufilled his dream of producing a stage musical set against the inhuman backdrop of a Stalinist-style gulag—and bringing it to an international audience.

Named after the prison camp in which his father was persecuted, Jung Sung-san’s “Yoduk Story” has received support and backing from a number of overseas rights groups focused on North Korea.

Together, they hope to focus political minds in Washington and Seoul on the horrors committed by the isolated regime.

"You've witnessed the pain of North Koreans tonight," Jung told a packed theater at the show's U.S. premiere in suburban Maryland, near the U.S. capital.

'Not just a show'

Human rights are being atrociously obliterated in North Korea.

"You've saved them. Today's musical is not just a show, but the tears and anguish of our North Koreans."


“Human rights are being atrociously obliterated in North Korea...In order to enlighten people everywhere on the human rights abuses perpetrated by Kim Jung Il’s regime, I hope that the musical will show not only in South Korea, but also overseas, especially in the United States,” Jung said as he prepared to take the show to its Seoul debut in late 2005.

That wish was fulfilled Wednesday when “Yoduk Story” opened for a three-night run at the Strathmore theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, on the outskirts of the U.S. capital.

Among the guests on the opening night were around 20 officials of the Bush administration, including former top White House aide Jay Lefkowitz, who gave a speech before the show began.

"Human rights violation on the scale that we see in North Korea can be hard to fully grasp in the mind," Lefkowitz told the audience.

The opening night seemed to go down well with theater-goers.

Heart-rending performances

While working on the musical, I’ve browsed the Internet and read books on North Korean concentration camps, and realized that this was an entirely different world, inconceivable for us.

"I don't think this is an art piece; however, the actors' performance was powerful and heart-rending," one audience member from South Korea told RFA's Korean service.

"In particular, I was most impressed with the scene depicting the killed boy travelling into the country of dream after his death."

Jung said he chose to set the story in Yoduk, the most notorious of all North Korean gulags, because his father, formerly a high ranking Workers’ Party official, was publicly executed at such a concentration camp in 2002.

Dubbed the “Les Miserables” of North Korea, “Yoduk Story” first opened in Seoul in March, where it sold more than 100,000 tickets in the first 6 months to become the third most popular musical nationwide.

Director Jung received anonymous death threats and faced considerable pressure by South Korean government officials to water down his tearjerker of a script, which defectors say is an accurate portrayal of prison camp life.

But the play also won considerable financial backing from other defectors, although at one point Jung pledged a kidney as loan collateral to enable the show to go on.

Top officials attended

The show’s passage across the Pacific Ocean has been greatly eased by the participation of a coalition of U.S.-based human rights and faith-based organizations.

Many of these groups have been active in North Korea for many years and were the political force behind the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

Yoon Jeong Choi, the South Korean actress who plays the show’s main character Kang Ryun Hwa, said the script marked a turning point in her understanding of human rights abuses in the North, which are seldom talked about in the South.

“I used to think that North Korean prisoner camps were just a bit worse than South Korean prisons,” she told RFA.

“While working on the musical, I’ve browsed the Internet and read books on North Korean concentration camps, and realized that this was an entirely different world, inconceivable for us.”

Other cast members reported a similar experience.

“While I had initially intended to participate only as an actor, later I came to realize that we had a mission to bring hope and joy to the tormented and desperate people of North Korea,” said Jae Chung Lim, a South Korean actor who plays Myong Soo Lee, the guard who falls in love with Kang Ryun Hwa.

Original reporting in Korean by Jinhee L. Bonny. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Additional reporting and translation by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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