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Putting a spotlight on torture

A musical about North Korea uses song and dance to counter atrocity. It packs in audiences in four Los Angeles performances.

October 23, 2006|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

A musical about life in a North Korean concentration camp that features heartbreaking lyrics, such as, "In my dreams I can still see my starving brothers and sisters," drew standing-room-only crowds brought in by the busload during its four-night Los Angeles run, which ended Sunday.

When an unexpected snag only a few days before its opening meant the show could not be performed at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Hancock Park, a coalition of local Korean American churches scrambled to find a new venue. The churches then decided to offer free admission. Hundreds of people each night were turned away.

"The North Korea issues, with their gulags, imprisonment and torture, are very important topics in the hearts of Korean Americans," said Sam Kim, a spokesman for the church coalition. "A lot of people are coming in sympathy for what's happening and also because there is no cover charge."

"Yoduk Story," created by Jung Sung San, who grew up in an elite family in the North's capital of Pyongyang before escaping in 1994 to South Korea, hopes his musical will bring attention to numerous concentration camps the totalitarian regime operates, which have been documented by human rights groups with satellite photographs and interviews with defectors who served in them.

"The atrocities of Hitler are happening now," Jung says.

He also hopes the production will avenge the death of his father, who was executed for Jung's defection, a common pattern in North Korea, where family members often pay a price for relatives' infractions.

The fictional story is loosely based on the experience of the show's dance director, Kim Yung Soon, 68, who was imprisoned nine years in the Yoduk camp, where her husband, son, father and brother perished. At the end of the performance, she appears on stage to tell the audience that what's happening "is all real" at Yoduk, where starving prisoners toil in coal mines and farms and are shot if caught trying to escape.

"Yoduk Story" opened in March in South Korea, where more than 100,000 people have seen it. To finance the production, Jung said, he offered his left kidney on the black market in South Korea as collateral to borrow $20,000 from a loan shark.

A play would have been too boring, Jung said, so he added musical numbers to perk it up. The show is reminiscent of "Les Miserables," with singing and dancing to balance the macabre shootings and other atrocities. The story centers on an actress in Pyongyang whose father meets his South Korean brother, whom he hasn't seen since the Korean War divided the peninsula. The actress is then banished to Yoduk for her father's action.

Jung and the South Korean cast members had their hands full after arriving in Los Angeles. Less than a week before the opening, they learned that their planned venue, the Scottish Rite Auditorium, had been closed by court order after a prolonged battle with local residents over traffic and noise. The Korean Church Coalition, which was sponsoring the musical, had already sold 4,000 tickets at up to $80 apiece.

When the churches could not find another theater for the troupe, they decided to present "Yoduk Story" at Holy Hill Community Church near downtown Los Angeles. The church has 1,500 seats, 200 fewer than the Scottish Rite; the stage is about a fifth the size and there is no curtain.

The Korean churches refunded the ticket money and decided to offer the show free, underwriting the $300,000 cost and hoping that donations at the performances would offset some of their costs.

Kwan S. Oh, a deacon at Bethel Korean Church in Irvine, believes it was a good move. He said he wants second-generation Korean Americans "to know what we're talking about in North Korea," he said. Maybe the last-minute shuffling "was God's way of making it so that everybody could come for free."

Because scores were turned away from the packed auditorium Thursday night, people began lining up outside the church with picnic lunches about 2 p.m. Friday in hopes of getting a good seat. On Saturday night, organizers set up an outdoor screen so 200 people could watch by closed-circuit television.

Jung's message appeared to get through to many people.

Kwang Kim, 31, of Downey said that even though he served with the U.S. Army at a base in South Korea, he didn't realize the extent of abuses in the North. "It brought home the actual reality," he said.

That kind of reaction makes it all worth it for Jung, who at the end of each performance prays in memory of his late father: "Father, today I tried to save many souls."

Jung urges Americans to look beyond the ongoing nuclear testing -- he says the attention only makes North Korean leader Kim Jong Il look more powerful in the eyes of his own brainwashed people -- and focus more on correcting the human rights abuses in North Korea, which he says will be more effective in destabilizing the regime

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