- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006


One by one, prisoners smear their faces with the blood of a fellow inmate executed for trying to escape from North Korea’s infamous gulag.

The scene is part of a new musical that opens here this week and is directed and choreographed by North Koreans who have emerged to tell the tale of the concentration camps for political prisoners in their Stalinist homeland.

“Paint your face with blood from the body. Never forget. Escape means death,” a camp guard sings in a menacing tone while brandishing the pistol he has just used to shoot the inmate who tried to break out.

“Yoduk Story,” the 150-minute musical staged in Seoul for a three-week run from yesterday, offers outsiders a rare glimpse into the hidden world of North Korea’s gulag.

In the dramatized play, life is cheap and hunger a constant agony. Guards rape and torture, while inmates starve and children hunt rats for food.

Pyongyang denies that such camps exist, but the United Nations says North Korea operates a vast gulag of camps for political prisoners, employing forced labor and torture.

Some 200,000 political prisoners still live in at least 10 concentration camps across North Korea, according to the U.S. State Department.

The musical is set in one of those camps, Yoduk, northeast of Pyongyang, where choreographer Kim Yong-sun, 69, a former North Korean army actor and dancer, once was held as a political prisoner.

“Yoduk Story is a work looking back on several years of my life full of painful tears in a barren land surrounded by barbed wire,” Mr. Kim said.

“This work of two hours or so is not equal to describing all the suffering we had in Yoduk. How could we describe things that even beasts would flinch at?”

Jung Sung-san, 37, the play’s writer and director, was sent to a different concentration camp in Sariwon, south of Pyongyang, in 1994 for listening to a banned South Korean broadcast.

“Beating people is a daily routine up there,” he recalls of his two-month internment before he managed to escape and eventually defect to South Korea in 1995.

Defectors are considered traitors by North Korea’s regime. Six years after his “betrayal,” Mr. Jung says his father was executed for the son’s crime in a prison camp in Hoeryong, near the Chinese border.

Mr. Jung says he wants his work to help boost awareness of rights abuses rampant in North Korean prison camps.

“I intend to show the deaths prisoners are commonly facing at such camps. North Korea’s authorities should no longer kill those people,” he says. “I will do all I can to get rid of these prison camps.”

If the musical succeeds in Seoul, he plans to take it abroad; he mentions Japan and the United States.

He says his plan for the musical has drawn disapproval from the Seoul government, which is seeking reconciliation with Pyongyang. Media reports here said the government, fearing upsetting Pyongyang, tried to shut down the project, but Mr. Jung denies that.

The Unification Ministry and the National Intelligence Service, both dealing with North Korean affairs, denied putting any pressure on the North Korean defectors.

However, Mr. Jung admits that sponsors were slow to back the project and that he offered one of his kidneys as collateral for a loan.

At a dress rehearsal on Tuesday, the theater in southern Seoul was at 60 percent capacity and the musical earned loud applause.

“This is an epoch-making presentation of human misery though art,” said Park Jin, a lawmaker of the main opposition Grand National Party, who watched the show.

He said he hoped the musical would inspire more artists to help raise the awareness of and help combat North Korean rights abuses.

South Korea is largely silent on rights abuses in North Korea because of concerns that Pyongyang could break off dialogue over the nuclear standoff.

Seoul abstained from voting on a U.N. General Assembly resolution adopted late last year expressing concern about lack of basic freedoms in North Korea.

North Korea says the resolution was based on lies concocted by the United States and other enemies of the Stalinist regime.

Yet defectors attending a human rights conference here in December testified about forced labor, torture and even death at a concentration camp.

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