Musical Tackles Life in North Korean Prison Camp A new show that has opened in 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.
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Musical Tackles Life in North Korean Prison Camp

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Musical Tackles Life in North Korean Prison Camp

Musical Tackles Life in North Korean Prison Camp

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. A theater director in South Korea has come up with an unlikely topic for a musical. Yodok Story, which just opened in Seoul, takes on the topic of the prison camps in Stalinist North Korea. It's estimated that those camps hold 200,000 people accused of political crimes.

The show's director and choreographer are North Korean. And both had first-hand experience of the horrors that they've put into song and dance. NPR's Louisa Lim was in the audience.

(Soundbite of music)

LOUISA LIM reporting:

As the curtain rises, female soldiers in jackboots march forward. We're the great soldiers of the general, they sing, as they wield flags emblazoned with the hammer and the 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 fall afoul of the revolution.

Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign Language Spoken)

LIM: You are a South Korean spy, an American spy, soldiers accused the father. And the whole family is sent off to Yodok prison camp.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: It's a land of despair, a prison of hell which kills the soul, the prisoners sing. They're hunched in gray clothes, slouching through the gates as the guards tote machine guns.

(Soundbite from Yodok Story performance)

I can't believe I'm here. I'm a daughter of the government, the dancer sings as the guards whip the other inmates. Her psychological shock draws on the real-life experience of the show's 70-year-old choreographer, Kim Young-sun, who was herself a dancer when she was arrested in 1970.

Ms. KIM YOUNG-SUN (Choreographer, Yodok Story): (Through Translator): When you go to Yodok prison camp, you don't know the reason because there is no trial. I was in Yodok Prison Camp for eight and a half years.

LIM: She later found out that she'd been imprisoned for knowing too much about the personal lives of North Korean leaders.

The show's director, 37-year-old Jung Sung-san also spent time inside the country's gulags.

Mr. JUNG SUNG-SAN (Director, Yodok Story): (Through Translator) I was in Sariwon Prison Camp for three months. I was a soldier when I was arrested. And I was arrested because I was caught listening to South Korean radio reports about the death of our leader Kim Il-sung.

(Soundbite of music)

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

(Soundbite of musical)

LIM: In this 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 Il-sung says the reality of life and death for families inside the vast prison camps is much worse.

Ms. IL-SUNG: (Through Translator): 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.

LIM: Director Jung Sung-san 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 he's been pressured by the South Korean government. It's attempting reconciliation with the North and is avoiding publicizing the horrors of the regime.

Mr. SUNG-SAN: (Through Translator): Sometimes they call me and threaten me and say removing you is nothing for us. One of the companies funding us backed out last November because it was afraid of the South Korean Government. So that it was very difficult for us. I did not have any money to rent out the theaters, so I decided to take out a loan using my kidney as collateral. If I can pay them back by April, my kidney will not be removed.

LIM: South Korean officials insist Jung Sung-san has the right to free speech. The musical has been eye opener even for the cast.

Mr. KIM SUNG-DONG (Actor, Yodok Story): (Foreign Language Spoken)

LIM: We had not heard about the prison camps, actor Kim Sung-dong tells me. 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.

There was a possible sense of shock among the audience after the end of the show.

Unidentified Female#1: I think it is very shocking to people in South Korea. Many people do not know about this kind of story. So it can change the way of thinking of South Korea.

Unidentified Male#1: So many Koreans do not know the reality of North Korea. But this story expressed the reality.

LIM: An estimated 200,000 people are jailed inside North Korea's gulag of prison camps. Choreographer Kim Il-sung, recalling her own experience as a prisoner of Kon Yang(ph), says she doesn't understand why the world doesn't seem to care.

Ms. IL-SUNG: (Through Translator) 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.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: 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.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul, South Korea.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You can see photos and hear a song from Yodok Story at our website

(Soundbite of music)

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