- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The creative force behind “Yoduk Story” has finally made his dream to bring the musical to America come true.

As a North Korean defector to South Korea, Jung Sung-sam wrote and directed “Yoduk Story” on behalf of the thousands of North Koreans who have been imprisoned, tortured and killed in detention camps.

The musical was staged in South Korea earlier this year to great acclaim, “striking a chord” there, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Donald Kirk reported, “by offering a shocking glimpse into a system many South Koreans scarcely know and often ignore.”

The play about love, torture and survival in the Yoduk camp lays bare one of North Korea’s most horrendous political prisons, located 70 miles northeast of the capital city of Pyongyang. According to the U.S. State Department estimate, 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners are being held there.

The musical is the story of a female inmate and an officer who rapes her, initially based on testimonies by three North Korean defectors, one of whom had spent time in Yoduk.

Mr. Jung, 37, says what is seen on the stage can’t be compared to the reality North Korean people have to face every day of their lives.

His own story is horrible enough.

Born in Pyongyang, the youngest child in a prosperous family of eight, the playwright’s father was a car dealer during the regime of Kim Il-Sung (the father of current ruler Kim Jong-iI), who imported Mercedes-Benz automobiles for top officials.

In 1994, Mr. Jung was arrested for listening to a South Korean radio broadcast, most of which he says he didn’t take seriously. “It was KBS (the Korean Broadcasting System), and I just couldn’t believe what I listening to, because I learned each family in South Korea had a color television and a car.”

Mr. Jung was imprisoned and interrogated by North Korean security agents demanding to know if he was a spy for the South Korean government. He suffered savage tortures and beatings.

One day while he was being transported to another location, his bus flipped on the road and he was able to escape. When he finally managed to make it back to his home, he discovered that the house had been flattened.

His aunt, who accused him of ruining the entire family, told him that his parents had been sent to a detention camp. In North Korea, Mr. Jung notes, listening to South Korean radio is regarded as betrayal of the regime for which the accused and all his family members are imprisoned and severely punished.

Mr. Jung set out to find his parents, but he was constantly in danger of being spotted by the police. Finally, he managed to escape over the border into China. From there, he traveled to Mongolia, Russia, Hong Kong, and finally South Korea in 1996.

In North Korea he had studied film to become a movie director; that led to his enrollment in a university in Seoul to study film again. Eventually he found a writing job at KBS.

After he heard that the execution of his father had been announced publicly in North Korea, he was inspired to produce a movie to disseminate the truth about the regime. He began writing scripts and raised some production money, but the amount required stalled the effort. Finally, he decided to produce a musical instead.

Mr. Jung nearly abandoned work after his major sponsor backed out due to pressure from the South Korean government — largely because South Korea’s current “sunshine” policy curries favor with its northern neighbor by providing economic aid to the Kim Jong-iI regime. Political activities that might upset the status quo are quashed.

His theater date was canceled and he received anonymous calls warning him to abandon the project. A dump truck also crashed into the building where he had his office, he says.

Mr. Jung finally overcame his obstacles when he sold one of his kidneys to raise collateral for the production.

He never hesitated in his decision. “They killed my father, and I wasn’t just going to just drop it. So I had to sell my kidney,” Mr. Jung calmly says.

His first shows weren’t popular, but word of mouth and media coverage attracted attention from prominent figures, including former South Korean President Kim Young-sam and Seoul Mayor Myungbak Lee. After that, word spread quickly and every show sold out.

There have been 99 performances to date. Tonight’s opening at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda — where it continues through Friday — will mark the 100th.

Mr. Jung says he had planned from the beginning to bring the show to the U.S., hence the advance preparation of English surtitles.

“I wanted to perform it here in the capital of America, the capital of world politics …,” he says, “so people can hear about the horror that occurs in North Korea.”

WHAT: “Yoduk Story”

WHERE: The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda

WHEN: Today through Friday at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to $80

PHONE: 301/581-5100

WEB: https://www.strathmore.org/eventstickets/ calendar.asp

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