A North Korean defector is staging a musical in South Korea, depicting what he says is a realistic display of the cruelty found in a Northern prison camp. The show is a jarring contrast to South Korea's official policy of silence about human rights in the North, and, the South Korean government would rather it not be staged.
The opening scene of this evening's rehearsal calls to mind the pageantry of a North Korean party rally. But satirical song lyrics warn that the ruling communist party is always watching - and that those who betray the regime will die.
The several dozen performers are rehearsing the musical entitled "Yoduk Story" - named after the prison camp where human rights organizations say entire North Korean families are sent for even minor political crimes.
The story's main character is Kang Ryun Wha, a North Korean dancer who is sent to Yoduk camp after being falsely accused of spying. She is later tortured and raped by prison guards, against a dark, operatic background of cruelty, starvation, and despair.
Writer and director Sung Jeong San made films in the North before defecting to South Korea 11 years ago. He says the story, although fictional, is a realistic depiction of actual North Korean experiences.
Sung says South Korean audiences need to think about the grim realities of the North. He says many in the South are distracted by their wealth, and forget how much people in the North suffer at the hands of the government.
To be sure, young South Koreans are not used to seeing such a stark depiction of North Korea. Since a historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung six years ago, popular sentiments have been directed in the opposite direction. Several successful films and a major mobile phone advertising campaign have depicted North Korea as a warm but distant relative.
South Korea is seeking reconciliation with the North, and discourages public discourse on Pyongyang's human rights record. Sung says he has been harassed over the phone by South Korean government officials, who have tried to prevent the production from going forward.
Far from being discouraged, Sung says the harassment has strengthened his dedication to the project. He says he responded to financial difficulties facing the show by signing over one of his kidneys as collateral for a loan. He says plans are underway for an eventual film version.
Actor Lim Jae-chung portrays the chief guard at Yoduk, whose love for one of the inmates eventually turns him into a prisoner as well. He says the story has opened his eyes about the North.
Lim says young Koreans do not have the memory about North Korea that their parents and grandparents have. He admits he very seldom thought about the conditions in the North before taking part in the show - and says he hopes other South Koreans who see the show will experience the same change in awareness.
The emotional subject matter, combined with fatigue, takes its toll on the actors, some of whom are in tears by the end of the evening's rehearsal. Murals on the rehearsal room wall remind them to keep their spirits up and work hard. One banner calls on actors to help the show become Korea's version of "Les Miserables," which depicted the misery of the common people in pre-revolutionary France.
Despite official displeasure, "Yoduk Story" is due to open here in the South Korean capital on March 15.