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Audiences in Seoul face the music about North Korea

– 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.”

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.

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.”

“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.”

North Korean guards, they say, beat women into having abortions, often killing the woman as well, or they murder the baby at birth.

“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.”

‘They don’t teach about it in school.’

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.”