Springtime for Kim Jong Il - gulags of Korea put on stage

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The Independent Online

It's possibly the oddest musical since a Mel Brooks's character pitched "Springtime for Hitler". Its director had to use his own kidney as collateral to have it made. And its hit song is "All I want is rice!"

Nevertheless, Yoduk Story hit the stage in Seoul last night to give an all-singing, all-dancing vision of life in the gulags of North Korea.

The creation of Jung Sung-San, a North Korean refugee-turned-director, it is named after a real-life prison camp, and provides an irony-free take on life in a country almost devoid of human rights.

In an attempt to see his creation performed, Mr Jung, 37, dealt with a hostile government in South Korea, a shortfall in funding, which has forced him to pledge his kidney against the cost of a loan, and the knowledge that he may have caused the death of his father, who is the inspiration behind the musical, which has just begun its run in the South Korean capital.

Mr Jung's father was executed in a prison camp, following the defection of his son in 1995. Under North Korean law, family members are punished for the crimes of their relatives.

"Before they killed my father, the people who ordered his death told him, 'you are dying because of your son. There are bound to be informers here, let him know,' defectors later told me." Mr Jung says news of his father's death was the turning point in his directionless life in Seoul.

With a soaring score and stirring melodies, the plot centres on an actress who is imprisoned for the "crimes" of her father.

The musical makes allusions to the cult of personality in the Communist state, to North Korea's desperate food shortages and the widespread abuse of human rights.

It is the second time Yoduk has been brought to world attention after another defector, Kang Chol-Hwan, gave a graphic account of his 10 years there in his book The Aquariums of Pyongyang.

The musical also draws on the experience of the show's choreographer, the North Korean defector Kim Young-Soon, who was also imprisoned at Yoduk, but was never told what "crime" she had committed.

She suspects that it may have been because she was one of the very few North Koreans who became aware that a classmate at dancing school had become the mistress of Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean leader.

"I had tears of blood stored up which cannot be contained in two hours of theatre," she said.

In stark contrast to the past, Seoul has a policy of engagement with North Korea. It is wary of upsetting the Communist country, which is current locked in a standoff with the international community over its nuclear weapons programme. As a result of the controversy, financial backers and a theatre which had pledged to stage the musical withdrew their support and despite donations from well-wishers and other North Korean defectors, it was not enough.

To meet the shortfall, Mr Jung has staked his kidney against a $20,000 (£11,500) loan to see the musical staged. He says the money is due to be repaid, or the kidney donated after the show's three-week run.

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