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First Act, Last Laugh

Update:   New information (see comments) suggests that the Chosun Ilbo may have considerably  exaggerated the success of  “Yodok Story;” the government also looks to be backing away from denying that it put pressure on producers and investors.

Update 2 (8/06): I withhold final judgment, but the preponderence of reports I’ve heard go like this: plenty of empty seats at the first curtain call, but the seats tended to fill up to nearly full with the late arrival of ticketholders.

Original Post:   In one of the great ironies of this young year, “Yodok Story” has had a splendid opening because of the very people who tried keep it from seeing its first opening act. The Chosun Ilbo reports that many shows are sold out, and that the play’s Web site has crashed from the overflowing traffic (though OFK/TKL readers have known for weeks that the site has labored under what we will call technical “challenges”).

A month after the fact, the government finally got around to denying reports that it tried to intimidate “Yodok Story” producers into watering down the atrocity stories in the script, or that it had a hand in pressuring some investors to pull out of the production. Director Chung Seong-San also claims that someone threatened his life. Soon afterward, a flood of media attention attracted new investors, donors, and the interest of theataah-goers.

Whoever attempted to stop “Yodok Story” failed miserably. Not only did the play get most of its publicity from its enemies free of charge, so did the cause those enemies tried to conceal from the world’s attention. The latest of many Western news sources to describe “Yodok Story” is the BBC, which covered opening-night reaction by the audience whose reaction is the most telling: other defectors. In the process, the BBC tells its readers those defectors’ stories, and about the people who didn’t live to tell their own.


Robert Koehler picks up some good commentary from a Korean blogger and a poet from the North, but otherwise, it pains me to say, missed the point widely. His focus on who was in the audience — as opposed to the subject matter on stage — brought him perilously close to giving us a thinking person’s answer to an Oscar night “worst dressed” list. There’s no arguing with Robert’s assertion that the paleocon politicans in attendance had mixed motives. I have enough fingers on one hand to count all of the sincere politicians in South Korea without even putting down my beer. (He makes a stronger point when it comes to Hwang Jang Yop, however; after all the people Hwang probably sent to die in Yodok before his defection, he still aspires to political leadership and claims that Juche is “misunderstood.” On the other hand, Hwang contributed money, so they can’t very well keep him out.)  As it happens, I’m not being a great fan of Park Geun-Hye or her entourage myself, and I’ve been a consistent critic of their bouts of authoritarianism against people whose views I despise. Yet I still applaud them for recognizing the moral rightness and political appeal of demanding the closure of concentration camps in their own country, and I don’t see how those two points are mutually exclusive. What kind of nation Korea wants to be — free or slave, united or divided, righteous or mercenary — is an issue that deserves a place at the very center of Korea’s national debate. Ditto Lee Myung-Bak, another politician of whom I’ve never been especially fond. Their mixed records on promoting freedom are certainly less shocking than the fact that certain former human rights activists were conspicuously absent from the gallery.

What’s more, I respectfully disagree with how Robert characterizes, even dismisses, the allegations of government censorship:

This was no doubt helped by the Chosun Ilbo, which lent what we’ll call an extremely sympathetic ear to “Yodok Story” director Jung Sung-san’s claims that his musical was the victim of pressure from the South Korean government, which he said feared his show would upset Pyongyang. 

Robert’s link goes to a post which refers to a Chosun Ilbo story that actually reported this back in February:

South Korean government agencies are demanding changes to the story, which they say dwells too heavily on the negative aspects of the camp, according to producers

Emphasis mine. Thus, we presumably have at least two producers and one director telling the reporter that there was government pressure, which is to say nothing of the investors who pulled out, or the “key member[] of the production team” who quit. In fact, Chung’s story is that —

“After reading our script, government officials demanded that we change part of the story, saying it’s too much,” Chung said. “I got a phone call, I don’t know if it was a government official, saying ‘It’s so easy to get you. You will be punished.'” 

Again, emphasis mine. (The part of Chung’s story I tend to have real trouble with is the part about his kidney. Fwiw, a well-connected acquaintance passes along the unconfirmed rumor that a Norwegian investor paid off the kidney loan, and you can take at the face value at which I offer it. And as I will explain in closing, it’s all completely beside the point.)

I’m certainly not in a position to vouch for Chung or the Chosun Ilbo’s reporter. I wasn’t there. I agree that it’s certainly good journalism to report that the government denied the story. That said, a denial from the (anti-) Unification Ministry doesn’t move the needle on my truth meter.

I have little regard for any denial by the (anti-) Unification Ministry when it comes to denials that it runs interference for North Korea. Only last week, the papers appear to have caught the Ministry telling a little white lie about an “expression of regret” to North Korea over South Korean press reports that described South Korean abductees as, well, “abductees.” Journalists reported that the Ministry tried to coerce or massage the journalists’ choice of words to avoid giving offense to Kim Jong Il. As a result, the journalists walked away en masse.

Robert goes even further, alleging that critics of the government have come dangerously close to slandering the government internationally.” OK, assume for argument’s sake that these allegations are all made up. Slander includes “defam[ing] and damag[ing] another’s reputation,” which I take to mean that the South Korean government is really some sort of maligned paragon of free expression. Consider that defense in light of a recent report by South Korea’s own National Human Rights Commission, in which nearly one in five defectors claimed that the South Korean government pressured them to keep quiet about what they saw in North Korea. And of course, the stories of this government trying to censor press coverage critical of North Korea are very old news by now.

Chung also reported some anonymous death threats, which past practice suggests probably came from the usual suspects — pro-Pyongyang thugs who always seem to have a good head start on the police, even after their dirty work is done. The Southern cadres of the Ministry of Public Security have had quite a presence in Seoul recently, including:

Chung has been telling about these threats since at least last November, and by February, someone was still being pressured/threatened by someone. Under those circumstances, the government had a duty to provide some meaningful protection.


Where have we taken this discussion, then? Away from where it properly belongs: the merits of the indictment that “Yodok Story” presents. I suppose I should set a macro on my keyboard to repeat the obvious fact that you can’t definitively verify what the North Koreans would kill you for trying to tell the world. I’m not a great believer in presumptively denying undisputed, facially credible, and mightily important charges against those who are obviously keeping some very awful secrets.

It pains me to have taken this long to ask the questions that really matter: Do guards in the North Korean gulag arbitrarily execute prisoners? Rape female inmates? Kill “racially impure” babies? Starve and torture with abandon? Keep kids in the camps? Intentionally create the conditions in which thousands die every year?  Gas a few of them, just to see how much longer the parents take to gasp out their last breaths than their kids? The evidence for those charges is compelling, though Pyongyang is always free to help Seoul deny them by letting us have a look at the evidence. And everyone, including me, is pissing about ad hominem minutiae? As opposed to the question of whether humanity has a conscience . . . or the will to follow it? In my book, that dwarfs who’s running for what and who’s earned the right to talk about this.

We should all be talking about this.

And thanks to “Yodok Story,” more of us are.


  1. Wow what a difference a week (and publicity)makes! When I went last Wednesday I guessed the theater was 25% occupied, max. People who paid for 20,000 won seats freely made their way down to the more expensive seats after the intermission. The Korean language ‘Choson Ilbo’ today reports that the show will have it’s second showing beginning April 17 and that some of the shows are already sold out.


  2. Another possibility, given your comment, is that the Chosun report is b.s. What do you think about that?


  3. Yeah it’s crap. I got my wife to call today and ask about the availability of seats for the performances before and adter April 17 and there are many seats available.
    A friend of mine who went before I did also said that most of the theatre was empty when he went.



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