‘Les Miserables’ of North Korea

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps not since Mel Brooks conceived “Springtime for Hitler” in the comedy “The Producers” has there been such an unlikely premise for a musical.

Chorus lines of goose-stepping soldiers and emaciated political prisoners will prance across the stage when “Yoduk Story,” a tear-jerker about a North Korean concentration camp whose name has the resonance of Auschwitz for some Koreans, opens here next month.

Among the catchy tunes that South Korean theatergoers might soon be humming are “If I Could Walk Freely” and “All I Want Is Rice.”


The tragedy of the divided peninsula is, not surprisingly, a familiar theme in South Korean popular culture. But the most successful offerings have been thrillers and spy flicks, an occasional shoot-'em-up war movie or a syrupy drama about separated families. Few have dared tackle the harsher realities of North Korea, such as starvation or human rights abuses.

And certainly not in the form of a musical.

“Yoduk Story” is the brainchild of Jung Sung San, a 37-year-old North Korean director who defected to the South in 1994. It hasn’t been easy bringing his labor of love to the stage. At one point, Jung was so short of money to pay the 80 members of the cast and crew that he pledged a kidney as collateral to borrow $20,000 from a loan shark. (He says he will have to donate the organ in April if he doesn’t pay back the loan.)

Two theaters refused to put the musical on their stages. Jung says he has received threatening anonymous telephone calls as well as official complaints from the South Korean government that the content could impair reconciliation efforts with North Korea.

“This government is not interested in hearing bad things about North Korea,” Jung said.

But the biggest problem for Jung might be South Korean audiences. The musicals that are popular here at the moment are lighter fare, most of them adaptations from Broadway. On the marquees are Korean-language versions of “Grease” and “The Producers,” in which an impresario trying to lose money decides that a musical about Adolf Hitler will be a sure-fire flop -- only to come up with an inadvertent hit.

“Koreans love musicals, but they come to enjoy themselves and to relax,” said Kim Jung Han, a New York-educated theater student who plays a North Korean guard in “Yoduk Story.”

“This one is kind of heavy.”

Director Jung rejects such downbeat thinking. He envisions “Yoduk Story” as a Korean version of “Les Miserables.”

“Even a dark and tragic story can be beautiful,” he said.

In fact, audiences might find it more reminiscent of “Jesus Christ Superstar” because of a Christ-like character who is one of the inmates in the prison camp, or even “Fiddler on the Roof,” because of the schmaltzy songs about uprooted and separated families. The score by South Korean composer Cha Kyong Chan includes one particularly mournful song that evokes the melody of “Sunrise, Sunset” as an old North Korean man laments lost family members.

Jung insists that he doesn’t expect “Yoduk Story” to be depressing to South Korean audiences.

“It will make them realize what happy lives they have here,” said the director, a slight, almost elfin man who wears his shoulder-length hair with blond streaks.

At a recent rehearsal in a mirrored basement studio, Jung sat in a black canvas director’s chair, pumping his knee impatiently as he watched dancers strut across the floor with red flags.

Occasionally he would bounce up, yelling one of the few English words he knows, “Stop, stop,” so that he could correct members of his all-South Korean cast on North Korean intonations and mannerisms.

Jung rolled his eyes at a group of young male actors dressed in slouchy T-shirts and jeans, posing awkwardly as North Korean prison guards.

“That’s not how you hold the gun. Like this,” he demonstrated.

“Yoduk Story” is not autobiographical, and Jung never served time in the concentration camp, which houses tens of thousands of people, many of them political prisoners. But as he tells it, he might easily have ended up there if not for a few twists of fate.

He grew up in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, a child of the elite. His father worked for a government company that imported bulletproof Mercedes-Benzes for the leadership, while the younger Jung attended the Pyongyang Drama and Movie College, where he had the rare privilege of watching foreign films. James Bond movies were his favorites.

But in 1994, his passion for foreign culture landed him in trouble. He was caught listening to South Korean radio broadcasts in violation of the law and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

“They always want somebody from the elite to make an example of,” Jung said.

Jung says he escaped when the truck transporting him to prison overturned in a rainstorm, and eventually made it across the border to China and then to South Korea. In Seoul he was involved in a variety of enterprises. He authored a book, “The Unpolluted Sex of Pyongyang,” about the contrast between North Korea’s outward prudishness and secretive prostitution for the elites; wrote a couple of scripts; and advised South Korean filmmakers on how to make their North Korean characters more believable.

Most of the films he worked on depicted North Koreans in a vaguely positive light -- the best-known being “Joint Security Area,” about Korean soldiers serving on opposite sides of the demilitarized zone who become friends.

Although a defector, he was not particularly opposed to the North Korean regime. That changed in 2002, Jung says, when he got word that his father had been executed. He believes his father was killed not only for his son’s defection, but for a television show Jung worked on that featured a North Korean defector.

“I became more serious after that,” Jung said. He began researching human rights abuses in North Korea, interviewing former political prisoners, and conceived the idea for “Yoduk Story.”

“This musical is a way of getting the grief out for my father’s death,” he said.

The plot of “Yoduk Story” revolves around a prominent actress in Pyongyang who falls from political grace after her father meets with his South Korean brother, whom he hasn’t seen since the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korean law makes such contacts illegal and allows for entire families to be punished for the offenses of one member. And so the actress is seized in the middle of a rehearsal and shipped off with her father to Yoduk.

There, she is imprisoned with someone who burned a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and other political reprobates. At the end, she is raped by a guard, becomes pregnant and hangs herself.

The story is fictional, but entirely plausible, North Korean defectors say.

About half a dozen Yoduk survivors live in South Korea, most of whom Jung interviewed before writing the script.

Among them is Kim Young Sun, a 68-year-old defector who serves as dance instructor for the production. A lithe, elegant woman who glides effortlessly across the rehearsal floor in tiny slippered feet, Kim spent the better part of the 1970s in Yoduk with her young children.

Much like the fictional actress of the musical, she was a member of the Pyongyang elite who found herself deported to Yoduk. The former dancer never knew her exact offense but suspected she was targeted because she was a classmate of Kim Jong Il’s mistress and had firsthand knowledge of the secretive relationship.

“They like to remind people that today’s loyal elite is tomorrow’s traitor. They are always looking for people to make an example,” said Kim, taking a cup of tea after rehearsal.

The prison camp, more commonly spelled Yodok, is in a remote, mountainous area of South Hamgyong province and is believed to have housed more than 40,000 people at one time, according to “The Hidden Gulag,” a report by the U.S. Committee on Human Rights.

Kim says the prison camp is exactly as it is depicted in the musical, except that she never heard of a rape or a suicide. (“You couldn’t commit suicide because your family would be punished for it afterward,” she said.) In fact, she said that the first few rehearsals made her cry -- especially a scene where a boy is shot to death, because it reminded her of the death at the camp of one of her sons, who accidentally drowned in a river.

“There is no exaggeration or lies,” she said. “That is the way it is at Yoduk, although in real life, of course, it is more shocking.”

Theater student Kim, playing the North Korean guard, said he knew nothing of the North’s gulag before landing the part.

“My generation doesn’t know much about the Korean War or about North Korea,” Kim said. “I knew that North Koreans were poor and didn’t have a lot of food, but I didn’t understand the pressure they were under.”

Jung’s ambition as an artist is to use popular culture to rectify those lapses in South Korean awareness. His next project is a film critiquing the lack of religion in North Korea.

In the film “Red Angels,” some South Koreans send Christmas presents across the DMZ by helium balloon to North Korean children. The film centers on a North Korean boy who finds one of the gifts -- a Santa robot.

Like “Yoduk Story,” the film does not have a happy ending.