Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Play's premise: a death camp, but with dancing

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 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 vision 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 stage. Jung says he has received threatening 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.

Jung said 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 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 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.

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.

Although a defector, he was not particularly opposed to the North Korean regime. That changed in 2002, Jung said, when he got word that his father had been executed in North Korea. He said he believes his father was killed not only for his defection, but for a television show he 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 of 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 actor in Pyongyang who falls from political grace after her father meets with his South Korean brother, whom he hasn't seen since the 1950-1953 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 actor 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.

The prison camp, more commonly spelled Yodok, is in a remote, mountainous area of South Hamgyoung 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.

Jung's ambition as an artist is to use popular culture to rectify 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.