Most unknown playwrights have difficulty raising money to put on a show. But most don’t go so far as putting up their own kidney for collateral on a loan. But a man named Jung Sung-San — a defector from North Korea — did just that.
The musical he created — the “Yoduk Story” — portrays the real-life suffering of 200,000 North Koreans languishing in prison camps. It’s a mixture of music and misery, torture and truth — and it’s an example of how to drop an artistic nuclear bomb on an evil regime.
Tragically, Jung did not have to research the subject matter: He himself endured life in a North Korean gulag. His crime? Listening to a South Korean radio broadcast. Guards beat him unconscious and pushed bamboo sticks under his fingernails.
Jung escaped into China and made his way to South Korea, where he studied film and theater. It was there he learned his father had been murdered — a brutal payback for Jung’s own escape. In response, Jung began writing his musical.
The setting for “Yoduk Story” is a notorious real-life gulag of the same name. It’s the story of a dancer who is sent to prison after her father is accused of spying. The dancer becomes pregnant after being raped by a drunken prison guard. After the baby’s birth, the dancer and the guard fall in love. But when the warden finds out, the guard himself is thrown into prison.
Many of the characters in “Yoduk Story” are based on real people. For example, one man is locked up because he converts to Christianity — symbolic of thousands of North Koreans who suffer for their faith. Another inmate is a Japanese girl, who represents Japanese children who were abducted by North Korea.
After finishing “Yoduk Story,” Jung could not find investors. In desperation, he put up his own kidney as collateral to raise $20,000 from loan sharks. South Korean officials tried to shut down the play, fearful of offending the North. As rehearsals progressed, so did the anonymous threats. The musical finally debuted last March in Seoul. More than 75,000 have seen “Yoduk Story,” including high government officials. The depiction of soldiers torturing inmates have moved many to tears — including many former gulag victims. The creators of “Yoduk Story” are especially thrilled that so many young people are seeing it.
Jung is following in the literary steps of an American writer who exposed another human rights outrage: slavery. Some 150 years ago, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was also featured in plays. Stowe used her creative ability to train the moral imagination of her readers. She taught the message that all people are created in God’s image and are infinitely precious to Him. Jung is using the same strategy to shock the world out of its complacency over the victims of Kim Jong-Il.
“Yoduk Story” premieres in the United States later this week in Bethesda, Maryland. Information about tickets and how to support “Yoduk Story” are on our BreakPoint website. If the premiere is well attended, “Yoduk Story” may travel to other American cities.
The result just might be the toppling of a vicious regime — an overthrow fired by a musical that trains the moral imagination.
For further reading and information:
Learn more about “Yoduk Story.”
“Press Conference with Director and Cast of Yoduk Story, Sept. 29, at the National Press Club,” press release, 28 September 2006.
Kim Sue-Young, “Bush Invited to Musical on North’s Political Prisoners,” Korea Times, 22 September 2006.
Richard Spencer, “The Death Camps of N. Korea Inspire a Musical,” Telegraph (London), 16 March 2006.
Learn about the work of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and what you can do.