Yodok Story and the Bomb

Posted January 5, 2006

Categories: Art, Articles

The controversial musical Yodok Story played for three nights in the
Washington, DC area. I saw a performance only a couple days before
Pyongyang announced its nuclear test.

It might seem that these two events occupy the opposite ends of the
North Korean experience. The North Korean government has defied the
international community and tried to bully its way into the nuclear
club. In Yodok Story, a North Korean defector reveals the hidden truth
about the horrors inside North Korea and the indomitable spirit of the
government‘s victims.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Yodok Story writer and director
Jeong Song-san come from the same country yet live in two different
worlds. Still, their productions, one a bomb and the other a play,
have some surprising elements in common.

Yodok Story is certainly a strange musical. Dance numbers about
torture are not common on the American stage. Especially when the
subject matter is current rather than safely in the past like Les
Miserables, a musical about 19th-century poverty, prison, and war.

Jeong Song-san should be applauded for his perseverance in getting
Yodok Story produced. The musical format, while unusual, has a great
potential to educate a large audience about human rights violations in
North Korea.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think Yodok Story was a very good work of
art.

First of all, the plot is one-dimensional. The North Koreans are
cardboard characters who either believe in the State or have lost faith
in the State. The only characters that come alive are the ones who
have had experience of the outside world – of Jesus or rock and roll or
love in Spain. The prison camp is a hell of beatings, starvation, and
rape. This is all true, of course. But the depiction is a caricature
designed to evoke feelings of outrage and pity, not insight.

In fact, Yodok Story is similar to North Korean propaganda. Both
portray the world in “us and them” dichotomies. Both resort to cliches
-the good mother, the innocent child, the evil soldier–to move the
audience. Both exhort rather than explain. When all else fails, both
appeal to an all-knowing Father (God in Yodok Story, Kim Il Sung in
North Korean propaganda). The musical‘s hip soundtrack, the South
Korean dance styles, and the fancy sets dress up the same kind of heavy-
handed didacticism that is at the core of North Korean art and
politics.

The musical’s ending, meanwhile, is something straight out of a
hyperviolent Asian thriller. The improbable shootout that leaves all
the characters but one dead on the stage is an odd combination of
apocalyptic Christianity, hard-line politics, and unimaginative
scriptwriting. The only way to change North Korea, Yodok Story
suggests, is by wiping the slate clean. There can be no change from
within. Even the virtuous are somehow tainted. Only a cleansing
violence-like a Flood or the Rapture or a U.S. attack on Pyongyang-can
do the trick.

Which brings us back to the bomb. Pyongyang‘s recent nuclear test
was also an effective piece of propaganda. The North Korean government
wants to demonstrate that it has a credible deterrent and a stronger
bargaining position at the negotiating table. It, too, wants to exhort
an audience, to persuade other countries to negotiate and to persuade
North Korean citizens to support the government. The half-kiloton bomb
that went off was very likely a failure, but that didn’t stop Pyongyang
from celebrating its success. Propaganda is all about appearances, not
reality.

Although Yodok Story was, in my opinion, an artistic failure, the
crowd rose to its feet for a final round of applause at the performance
I attended. Their hearts were moved. I doubt that very many walked
out of the theater thinking any differently about human rights issues
or questions of morality. The play did not challenge; it merely
confirmed. But that is the function of propaganda: to bring us to our
feet and stop thinking.

Munhwa Ilbo, October 17, 2006

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