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Korean musical casts light on prison camps

SEOUL -- Soldiers dance across the stage calling for death to traitors in a South Korean musical that brings an unlikely subject under the theatrical spotlight: prison camps in communist North Korea.

''Yoduk Story" has drawn attention -- as well as alleged threats demanding the show's cancellation -- even before this month's scheduled premiere. The show's theme is especially sensitive here because South Korea's government, seeking to reconcile with its longtime foe, has lately avoided talking about the horrors of the North Korean regime.

The musical tells the tragic love story of a female inmate and a prison guard and is set in Yodok, the more common spelling of the musical's ''Yoduk" and site of an actual camp about 70 miles northeast of Pyongyang.

The story may sound implausible, but its author and director, 38-year-old Jung Sung San, is a defector from North Korea who says his father was killed in a prison camp.

''Yoduk Story" offers a glimpse into a gulag which the US State Department estimates holds up to 200,000 political prisoners.

According to a group run by a prominent defector, many North Korean prisoners are forced to toil for over 15 hours a day, survive on just 12-17 ounces of corn and salt, and die from malnutrition, pneumonia, or tuberculosis.

The author-director told the Associated Press in an interview that he wanted to highlight human rights in North Korea ''through the lives of people who die miserably for crimes that are not really crimes."

''There are still so many people dying in North Korea's prison camps," said Jung, who defected to the South in 1995 after escaping from a camp where he had been sent for secretly listening to South Korean broadcasts.

Getting his message out was harder than he expected.

Some investors pulled out of the project, and a theater where the musical was to be staged canceled at the last minute. To finance the play, Jung says, he even had to offer his left kidney as collateral for a black-market loan of $20,600. He says he will have to give up the organ if he can't pay up by next month.

He said the biggest obstacle came from South Korean government officials, who he claims threatened to cancel the show and demanded changes in its depiction of North Korean life.

The government denies it. ''We have called all related government offices, but confirmed no official made contacts" with Jung, said Cho Yong-sik, an official at the Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korean affairs. ''A performance is an expression of art and we have no reason to interfere."

Still, the criticism of Kim Jong Il's regime hits a nerve for the South Korean government, which is regularly accused by activists of keeping silent for the sake of detente.

Jung said he began writing the musical when he heard his father was beaten to death in public at a prison camp in 2001 for his son's work in South Korea on movie scripts and plays critical of North Korea's leadership.

He says he first tried to cut his wrists, and still has the scars, but came to realize that his father's death represented something beyond his personal mourning.

''It wasn't simply my sorrow, but the sorrow of the Korean people," he said. ''I felt a sense of duty that I should help eradicate this pain, this sorrow."

Jung said he was sentenced in 1994 to 13 years in prison for listening to South Korean radio broadcasts, but the truck moving him to a prison overturned and he managed to escape, making his way to South Korea via China.

''Yoduk Story" features genuine North Korean songs and choreography by another defector who was a professional dancer in North Korea.

Through the life of the female character Kang Ryon Hwa -- a renowned dancer jailed after her father is accused of spying -- the story also illustrates the stark contrast between the extravagant lives of the North's elite class and the harsh conditions prisoners face.

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