Northern Exposure

International Edition

A musical set in a concentration camp? Even Lim Jae Chung, the 33-year-old South Korean actor starring in the production, admits it's a tough sell. He plays a camp warden who rapes and impregnates a young female prisoner in "Yoduk Story," a musical about North Korea's gulag, showing in Seoul. "This musical is neither funny nor light," Lim says during a break from rehearsals. "It's heavy. But it has a message of love and forgiveness powerful enough to touch southern youth."

They are not easy to reach. The majority of South Koreans evince a vague sense of good will toward their cousins in the North, and few know or care much about the actual conditions under Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime. That's partly because the center-left administration of President Roh Moo Hyun has been aggressively pursuing reconciliation with Pyongyang--even if that means downplaying the regime's human-rights abuses. "I suspect this is going to give the [Roh] government some heartburn," says John Hoog, a former U.S. diplomat who now edits an English-language newspaper in Seoul.

In fact, "Yoduk Story" says less about conditions in Kim Jong Il's kingdom than it does about the tortured state of North-South relations. It was written and directed by Jung Sung San, a defector from the North. Raised as the privileged son of a high-ranking Communist Party official, he began rebelling at an early age; his fate was sealed during his stint in the North Korean Army, when he was caught listening to South Korean radio. Initially sentenced to 13 years in the camps, he managed to escape and eventually made it to South Korea in 1995.

Like most defectors, he struggled to make ends meet. Then he found out that his parents and siblings had been executed in retaliation for his escape. "I tried to commit suicide," he says. But he had a religious epiphany and decided to write a story about a North Korean woman who lands in the camps. She is at first abused, but ultimately forgives her captors--though she doesn't survive the experience. "I originally hated North Korea, but as I wrote, the message became one of forgiveness and reconciliation," he says. "By forgiving we can become united."

The cast and crew, composed of both former northerners and southerners, mark an unprecedented creative collaboration. "Our generation doesn't know much about North Korea," says Choi Yun Jung, 27, an actress born and raised in the South who performs the play's central role. Behind her, young male dancers pirouette with bayoneted Kalashnikovs. "We know a lot about the U.S. and other Western countries. But we were indifferent to North Korea." "Yoduk Story" will no doubt change that.