Officials have refused to see it, government-controlled TV has given it scant coverage, and its director and backers say they faced intimidation. Nonetheless, a new musical about love, torture, and survival in a North Korean prison camp has struck a chord here by offering a shocking glimpse into a system many South Koreans scarcely know and often ignore.
"Yoduk Story" takes its name from one of six major camps believed to hold some 200,000 political prisoners. The musical revolves around a dancer whose family winds up in Yoduk after falling from official grace. A cast of 40, including a chorus in prison garb and military uniforms, depicts an ill-fated love affair between the dancer and the camp's commander, who is condemned for the liaison. By the end, nearly everyone is killed except for their son, who is spirited to China.
"Please go to South Korea and tell the world about what it is like here," says the child, as the curtain descends to a standing ovation.
Telling the world "what it is like" motivated the director, a North Korean refugee, to press on with the production in the face of funding problems and a government that remains extremely uncomfortable with criticism of its northern neighbor.
Officials called asking the show not to go on, says director Jung Sung San, who escaped to China after leaping from a truck carrying him to prison in 1994. He had been sentenced to 13 years in jail for listening to South Korean music. "We got anonymous calls telling us not to do it. We toned it down and revised it a lot."
Prospects for the show dimmed in December when, according to Mr. Jung and others involved in the production, the original donors backed out under pressure, and the theater where it was to open refused to stage it.
Jung pulls out a frayed piece of paper marked with his thumbprint in blood, showing that he was willing to put up a kidney as collateral for a $20,000 loan. He's not sure he could have legally gone through with the gesture, but it convinced donors to come forth with half a million dollars.
The show finally opened March 15, after finding a new home at the Seoul Educational and Cultural Center, far from the center of town, but still spacious and modern enough to mount the production. The show's original run will wrap up this weekend, though it may be extended or play in other cities.
Jung flashes a fiery smile as he talks about trying to get the show staged overseas and made into a film here. "We know the actual situation in North Korea is 10 times worse," he says, who learned that his father was stoned to death in a public execution five years ago. "This is just like leaking the surface of a watermelon" - a Korean expression.
The reason for the government's nervousness about the show is that it counters the policy of avoiding any criticism of North Korea while pursuing reconciliation, trade, investment, and reunions of millions of families divided by the Korean War.
Government officials refuse to confirm or deny charges of pressure to ban the show. For the record, they say they have not seen it and are not interested in doing so.
Conservatives, however, have been lauding the work. The conservative Chosun Ilbo, Korea's largest-selling daily, has been unreserved in its praise, calling it "broad enough in its conception to appeal to everyone, especially the young."
Also giving the show a boost are conservative politicians who would like to make human rights in North Korea a part of their challenge to the government in next year's presidential election.
"People should know we continue to fight for betterment of human rights in North Korea," says Park Geun Hye, daughter of the dictatorial ruler Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in 1979, and a possible presidential candidate.
"There's no freedom, no democracy, and no human rights in North Korea," says Kim Young Sam, a conservative who was was Korea's president from 1993-1998. Unless the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is overthrown, he says, "there's no perfect peace on the Korean peninsula."
With endorsements from such figures, word has spread rapidly not only of the show's content but also of its broad artistic appeal in a society that soaks up its own brand of pop music, known as K-pop. The show also reflects influences from such musical portrayals of social tragedy as "Les Misérables" and "Miss Saigon," though unlike these Broadway mega-hits, the graphic scenes of misery depict a nearby, current reality.
"The difference between South and North Korea is heaven and hell," says Hwang Jang Yeop, the onetime secretary of North Korea's Workers Party, who defected to South Korea in 1997. "Life in a North Korean prison is much worse than shown here."
Some defectors have questioned the realism of the love affair between a prison and the camp commander, as well as the birth of their child.
North Korean guards, they say, beat women into having abortions, often killing the woman as well, or they murder the baby at birth. As for an affair with a camp commander, there's no evidence of any such case.
If the story line deviates from reality, however, Koo Jung Hwa, who helped raise funds to produce the show here, believes it's getting across a greater truth that has eluded young people in the South.
"So many young people are coming here to see this," she says. "By performing this kind of show, not only in Korea but we hope worldwide, we really help the people in North Korea who've been suffering from human rights abuses."
The show resonates among increasing numbers of South Koreans, young and old, even though it's on a limited run at a secondary theater that accommodates at best only a thousand spectators.
"Most Koreans should see this show and recognize what is happening," says Yoon Yong Ju, doing volunteer work in the theater when not at his regular job with a construction company. "Our young generation does not know how severe is the human rights situation in North Korea. They don't teach about it in school."
The choreographer, Kim Young Soon, who spent more than eight years in Yoduk after her husband disappeared, cannot understand why South Korea's leaders treat North Korea so charitably.
"We should send them flowers, not rice," she says, denouncing the government's emergency shipment of hundreds of thousands of tons of rice and fertilizer to the North.
"The government officials and party members eat the rice, and 200,000 prisoners get nothing," she says.
Ms. Kim, who like the heroine of the show was a dancer, might have gone on choreographing North Korea's state dance shows had she not been sent to prison.
"Why doesn't the South Korean government want to harm the North Korean regime?" Ms. Kim asks rhetorically. "I don't understand why."