Gulag horrors and showstoppers

By Christian Oliver
Published: April 17 2009 03:00 | Last updated: April 17 2009 03:00

On entering North Korea’s brutal gulags, inmates have to sign a declaration that they will never tell anyone what goes on there.

Jung Sung-san is one of the few men ever to get the chance to break that vow of silence and broadcast the hidden horrors of the reclusive communist dictatorship. He has chosen to do so through the surprising medium of stage musicals, delivering his message through toe-tapping tunes and exuberant dancing troupes.

Jung escaped to Seoul in 1994 and his first musical, Yoduk Story , opened in 2006. The power ballads were interspersed with unnervingly graphic depictions of rape, floggings and shootings inside an infamous penal camp. The lead characters all came to a sticky end.

“I wanted to shock South Koreans by letting them know that this is the truth,” he says at the rehearsals for this year’s extravaganza, Great Show , as the glamorous cast bursts into another feisty song-and-dance routine in front of the mirrors of the rehearsal room.

Great Show makes for jollier family viewing during an economic downturn that has pole-axed South Korea. Jung has branched out into romance and comedy to give a more human picture of ordinary North Koreans, who are often casually dismissed as brainwashed automata.

“South Koreans are totally indifferent towards North Korea and I want to change this sentiment,” says Jung. He craves a reunification of the peninsula but feels he might get more sympathy for his work abroad than in Seoul; he is in exploratory talks about taking the show to London.

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This year’s musical tells the tale of a young man on national service arrested for watching a contraband video of a South Korean pop singer, with whom he falls in love. He avoids the death penalty by accepting a mission to abduct her for the delectation of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader.

The plot is not as crazy as it sounds. Kim, a film buff and former official propagandist, did indeed kidnap one of South Korea’s top directors and his wife, a film star, in 1978. Jung says the plot was more directly inspired by a story he had heard of party officials who were jailed for getting hold of a South Korean pornographic movie. The South Korean videos and DVDs that are smuggled over the Chinese border into the North have had a profound effect on the country’s political mindset, forcing the North Korean government to redraft its catalogue of propaganda about its rich democratic neighbour. Pyongyang can no longer tell its people that the South is as poor as the North – it must now resort to accusing it of being a morally bankrupt Babylon.

Great Show ‘s plot also overlaps with Jung’s own story, as he was arrested for listening to a South Korean shortwave broadcast – officially, North Koreans can only buy radios set to the one approved state frequency. For more than two months, he was in a penal camp dubbed “Station of the Wolves” because all that could be heard was the howling of inmates. He escaped across the Chinese border after a van carrying him to another camp crashed on a road made slippery by heavy rains. “There were two men who were killed helping me escape,” he says, “and I am dedicating this show to them.”

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On arriving in Seoul, he went back to furthering his knowledge of cinema, which he had studied in Pyongyang. There he had been trained in the Soviet tradition, making a graduation film on coal miners trapped in a collapsed shaft who keep their spirits up by singing patriotic songs in honour of the country’s leaders.

Although North Korean black-market favourites now include Desperate Housewives and Mr Bean , Jung had seen no films from outside the socialist sphere before fleeing except for a few of Sean Connery’s outings as James Bond.

“Arriving in Seoul was a huge culture shock. It was like the difference between heaven and earth. Instead of just revolutionary songs, I could listen to pop, jazz and dance,” Jung says. However, his big problem was – and still is – money. Directing musicals initially appealed because they cost only a tenth of the price of a film to produce. Even so, the money needed was enormous for a refugee. When raising finance for Yoduk Story , he used one of his kidneys as collateral on a loan.

The musical was first performed during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, who was trying to pursue a “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North. This conciliatory stance from the government made it very difficult to find backers for a musical that was so critical of the North’s human rights record.

Nevertheless, the show had a successful run in South Korea, staging 100 performances in Seoul before going on tour to the US. There the Korean-language musical failed to fill the theatres, in spite of considerable media and political support.

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But Jung resented the way Yoduk Story became a political football in Seoul. Members of the conservative Grand National Party, opposed to Roh’s d├ętente with Pyongyang, made sure the media knew they were attending performances of the musical. Jung makes it clear that his shows receive no financial backing from any political group and that he depends exclusively on ticket sales.

In spite of his ordeals in the North, Jung expresses simmering frustration with the South – paradoxically, he fears that the unification he yearns for will destroy a certain innocence in his homeland: “There will be a flow of low-quality, capitalist culture pouring in.”

In one of the scenes in Great Show , the North Korean national serviceman arrives in the heart of Seoul on his kidnapping mission. He is dazed by the racing tides of preoccupied people, clutching their Starbucks coffees, texting and barking into their mobile phones. He cannot get anyone’s attention and loses his temper among the tetchy, hurried pedestrians.

“I really miss North Korea and I want to go back there one day. In South Korea you always have to be street-wise, a fox. You lose your purity – but whenever I meet defectors from the North, they still have that innocence to them.” Additional reporting by Song Jung-a . Performances of ‘Great Show’ continue until May 3 at the Goyang Aramnuri Theatre in Seoul, tel +82 2 1577 7766,

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