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Musical Tackles Life in North Korean Prison Camp

The opening scene from <em>Yodok Story</em>.
Louisa Lim, NPR
The opening scene from Yodok Story.
Jung Sung-san, a former North Korean prisoner, directed <em>Yodok Story</em>. He used his kidney as collateral to take out a loan to produce the musical.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Jung Sung-san, a former North Korean prisoner, directed Yodok Story. He used his kidney as collateral to take out a loan to produce the musical.
Choreographer Kim Young-sun, 70, spent eight and a half years in Yodok in the 1970s. Before being arrested, she had been a dancer.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Choreographer Kim Young-sun, 70, spent eight and a half years in Yodok in the 1970s. Before being arrested, she had been a dancer.

A new show that has opened in Seoul, South Korea, Yodok Story, takes on an unlikely topic for a musical: prison camps in Stalinist North Korea. The director and choreographer are North Korean -- and both were once prisoners in the vast gulag system that holds an estimated 200,000 people.

As the curtain rises, female soldiers in jackboots march forward, wielding flags emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. This is the first sign that Yodok Story is no ordinary musical. Despite its jaunty opening rhythms, the play charts one family's downfall in Stalinist North Korea: The father was a government minister, his daughter a famous revolutionary dancer.

Yet they run afoul of the revolution. The father is accused of being a South Korean and American spy, and the whole family is sent to Yodok prison camp.

"I can't believe I'm here. I'm a daughter of the government," the dancer sings as the guards whip other inmates. Her psychological shock draws on the real-life experience of Kim Young-sun, the show's 70-year-old choreographer. She also was a dancer at the time of her arrest in 1970.

"When you go to Yodok prison camp, you don't know the reason because there is no trial," Kim says. She spent eight and a half years at the camp and later found out she'd been imprisoned for knowing too much about the personal lives of North Korean leaders.

The show's director Jung Sung-san, 37, also spent time inside North Korea's prisons: three months in Sariwon camp.

Jung was a soldier when he was arrested. His crime? "I was caught listening to South Korean radio reports about the death of our leader Kim Il-sung," he recalls.

The musical's depiction of camp life is underscored by violence and brutality.

In one scene, the inmates turn on one of their own and threaten to kill him because he betrayed the revolution. The musical's story includes rape, maiming and summary execution. But choreographer Kim says the reality of life and death for families inside the vast prison camps is much worse.

"I lost my parents and I lost my son as well. My son drowned. When I heard I about it, I ran about 10 kilometers home, but all I saw was his dead body. My parents starved to death. When I think about such things, what is described in the musical is nothing."

Director Jung says his father was stoned to death in a prison camp, and that motivated him to press ahead with this musical. But it's been difficult. He says the South Korean government has pressured him not to produce the show. It's attempting reconciliation with the North and is avoiding publicizing the horrors of the regime.

One of the companies funding Yodok Story backed out in November 2005 because it was afraid of the South Korean government. Jung took out a loan, using his kidney as collateral. "If I can pay them back by April, my kidney will not be removed," he says.

South Korean officials insist Jung Sung-san has the right to free speech.

The musical has been an eye-opener, even for the cast.

"We had not heard about the prison camps," actor Kim Sung-dong says. "There's no way for us to find out. The South Korean media is selective about what they tell the public, so there are no opportunities for us to find these things out."

Choreographer Kim Young-sun says she doesn't understand why the world doesn't seem to care.

"Why is it that in North Korea there is a disaster going on, and no one knows about it? Through this art, I want people to know the reality of these prison camps. And the reality of North Korea's prison camps is that they are worse than Auschwitz."

This musical tackles the weighty themes of life and death, good and evil, ideological fervor and human love. And it ends with a Christian message of forgiveness and redemption, accompanied by the Lord's Prayer in Korean. The director now wants to take the show to the United States. "This is my mission," he says. "I need to tell the world the truth."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.