Prison to Playhouse: Director Hopes To Bring N. Korean Exposé to U.S.

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

To get "Yoduk Story" produced, the director had to put his kidney up for collateral.

Fortunately for Jung Sung San , South Koreans liked the idea of a musical about the horrors of North Korea's prisons. He raised the money and now has a hit in Seoul that he is hoping to bring to the National Theatre.

Yoduk, also known as Yodok, is a prison 70 miles northeast of Pyongyang, and the musical is a story of forbidden love. An officer gets drunk and rapes an inmate -- an imprisoned famous actress. A baby is born and an affection grows between the officer and the actress. When the chief warden finds out, the officer is also put in prison. The couple is killed in the end.

The 37-year-old director entered North Korea's cruel gulag himself in 1994, arrested for listening to a South Korean radio broadcast when he was a soldier. He describes being beaten unconscious with a thick wooden handle, then dragged off to a facility he said was known as the "Station of Wolves." Once inside its walls, all one hears is the continuous howling of prisoners. He said pointed bamboo sticks were thrust under his nails, which were then washed with salt water.

He escaped after 2 1/2 months while being moved from one detention center to another when the van he was in flipped on a slippery road in torrential rainstorms.

He ran for a day and, under the cover of darkness, escaped through the woods across the Chinese border, he said. He ran into a river, then into a thicket of woods. He was discovered by a hunter who fed him and gave him money to make his way to Hong Kong. He huddled between two huge tires of a truck and attached himself to its axle.

"I was so frightened. Rocks were flipping all around me, and I did not know whether to jump off or not. It took almost four hours before we pulled into Hong Kong. When I tumbled to the ground, people who were there started clapping," he said. There he asked for asylum to South Korea and eventually made it to Seoul.

He worked odd jobs. He washed dishes, cars and cadavers to make a living. He panhandled in the streets, making money by exposing a leg injury he suffered when guards shot him during his escape. He sold food from a cart.

Eventually he worked at Samsung electronics, drumming up customers outside Seoul's nightclubs to make enough money to enroll at Dongkook University in 1996. In 2001, he learned his parents had died in a prison camp. "I went into a downward spiral and thought of committing suicide," he said. By then Jung, who had studied film and theater in North Korea, had written plays and television dramas about the harem of the country's leader, Kim Jong Il . South Korean refugees told Jung his father was beaten in front of hundreds of spectators in an auditorium as punishment.

After he had written "Yoduk Story", he could not find investors. He put up his kidney as collateral to raise the first $20,000 from loan sharks, who told him to pay $30,000 by April 2006 if he wanted to keep both kidneys. He did.

At first Korean officials tried to block his project because of Seoul's "sunshine policy" of engagement with Pyongyang. People from the secret service came around asking questions. But when a journalist he befriended wrote about his crusade, South Koreans started donating money for the project. He raised $100,000. The musical made its debut on March 15 and "everything went crazy," he said. His 40 cast members and 30-man crew are exhausted.

Former prime minister Hoi Chang Lee came to see the musical, as did former president Kim Young Sam . Myung Park Lee , who was then mayor of Seoul, followed and the rest is history.

More than 75,000 have seen the show, Yung said Sunday over lemonade at T.G.I. Friday's. Jung said it is easy to understand his production's success.

"People like it because it is true. This is what is currently occurring in North Korea," he said. He said he is hoping the musical will be staged at the National Theatre here with English subtitles. "When I first started making it, I knew I wanted to bring it to the United States, because America is a country that values life."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company