Yoduk Story: A Roundup, Not a Review

I expected to hate it, because until last night, I’ve never not hated a musical. Actually, it held my interest and entertained me for three entire hours, and this from a man who is officially diagnosed with ADD. At times, I was quite moved, and I saw plenty of people in the audience crying. I didn’t “enjoy” it, any more than I “enjoyed” Schindler’s List. This wasn’t “Schindler’s List,” but it looked like good art to me, and a credible, professional-looking production that brought the nascent development of a dissident North Korean culture a great step forward. But then, I don’t even trust my own opinions, because I went for reasons that were political, not artistic. As I said before, I’m not a theater critic. If you are, then I encourage you to see it for yourself.

My main interest was in audience size and reaction, and in whether the production would look professional. “Yoduk Story” passed those tests comfortably.

The subtitles were flawless — no Konglish — in large part because of a last-minute emergency intervention by LiNK. None of the singers blew any notes, all seemed pretty good in my non-expert opinion, and one really stood out for her excellence (again, never been to or desired to go to a musical in my entire life). The dancing seemed fine to me — nobody fell down, and that pretty much exhausts my critical qualifications. The sets looked great, although the statue of Kim Jong Il at the beginning looked dorky, which is, as they say, inebbitable. No wonder I’ve never seen a picture of a Kim Jong Il statue, even in North Korea. One of the opening numbers, apparently based on a real North Korean propaganda song, reminded me a bit of the “Pennsylvania Polka.” But things got moving quickly, and it kept me riveted. And again, that’s saying a lot in my case.

One commenter called this a propaganda spectacle for the religious right. Propaganda? Well, duh. Religious? Personally, I don’t think “my people” would have found the Christianity to be too heavy-handed. One of the main characters — with the very interesting name Lee Tae-Shik — had defected to the South, converted to Christianity, come back to see his parents, and gotten himself caught. There’s nothing about the character’s religion that clashes with reality — there are supposedly plenty of Christians in those camps, and ignoring the influence of Christianity would have been as unrealistic as ignoring sex, family loyalty, or hunger (Yoduk Story didn’t ignore those either; sex was another theme that came up repeatedly). There was one scene that appeared to depict Buddhist worship. The scene where the title character was born did feature “Amazing Grace” in the background, and that was arguably gratuitous (I wonder if Mr. Jung, the producer, knows the story behind the song). Naturally, I ran weeping to the lobby and blackberried $10,000 to the Robert Schuller Ministries, because any time I smoke crack or hear a hymn, I lose my free will and powers of reason.

The house was not packed, but it was between two-thirds and three-quarters full. The cheap and semi-cheap seats were almost packed. The expensive seats up front were about half full. I have some pictures on one of those disposable cameras, and if they turn out, I’ll post them. I suspect the production will be able to cover its expenses. The hall was very, very large. Crowds will probably be smaller tonight, but I know that some people are waiting for Friday.

Who was there? Most seemed to be there because of their political or religious affiliations. The Korean churches appear to have met their quotas and then some. There were plenty of non-ethnic Koreans, too. The expensive seats were largely occupied by establishment types, mainly conservative and Republican heavyweights: Ambassador Alexander Vershbow (very friendly and approachable, and he struck me as churlishly proud that the North Koreans don’t like him), Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless, Amb. Jay Lefkowitz (also friendly and approachable, and he might even talk to us on the blog). The South Korean Embassy sent its very polished number two diplo. I also got the chance to meet Marcus Noland, someone I’ve wanted to meet for some time.

When the production ended, there was a lot of love in the room, and a long standing ovation. The producer and choreographer should have just graciously accepted both and stepped behind the curtain; instead, both gave short speeches that were perfectly fine, but which were mood-killers.

The sourest note was that I didn’t see a single token liberal, Democrat, or “progressive” in the entire group. Unlike the Freedom House Conference in July 2005, I am saddened to report that liberals were clearly underrepresented, if not unrepresented. There’s certainly a wing of liberalism that objectively focuses its compassion where oppression and suffering are greatest, but he’s currently running as an independent to save his Senate seat in Connecticut. I think that brand of liberalism that’s re-branded itself as “progressive” — meaning they’re running on promises to bust the steel trust? — had gone, en masse, to Wolf Trap to see an all-Yemeni cast perform “Gitmo Story,” featuring such witty Brechtian scorchers as “Too Fat for My Jumpsuit” and “Satan’s Own Lap Dancer.” How to tug their heartstrings? Well, George W. Bush could send Rummy over to Pyongyang to toast Kim Jong Il, sign a SOFA/aid package, and station a squadron of F-16’s at Wonsan. If that doesn’t do it, Cheney could buy an offshore oil concession and get KBR a no-bid contract to feed the gulag inmates.

Needless to say, the absence of that movement from this production and from most of the activism on this issue exposes some hypocrisy in the objectivity of their concern about human rights. I’ve concluded that this issue is never going to be truly bipartisan, because it lacks a key element of progressive appeal: self-loathing.


  1. Joshua, I finally got around to reading this review. I’m glad that the English ‘subtitles’ were flawless. My wife and I were worried about that since the folks on this side of the extra big pond didn’t seem to believe us when we told them that the English was scarcely English at times.

    We got to see Yoduk Story almost by accident. Min Young-bin, founder and president of YBM/Si-sa, sent us tickets because he and my father-in-law are childhood friends from North Korea and thus have strong connections not only to each other but also to memories of the North.

    I was impressed by the power of the performance even though I found the basic storyline unbelievable … but, well, North Korea is an unbelievable place anyway. The overt Christian parts didn’t bother me (of course), but I can imagine that some folks might react against the strong religious aspect, including the prayers that God come not to South Korea only but to North Korea as well. This is the sort of thing that has some people squirming in their seats.

    Do you know how the performances are doing in terms of attendance? Is the troupe already touring the country?

    Jeffery Hodges

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  2. Jeffery, They did a stripped-down performance at a church in New York, which was well attended (so I am told), and will go to L.A. next. I don’t know how they did the other 2 nights in Washington, but there was a good crowd the first night. I also understand that they will make their money back.

    Should also add that in addition to LiNK, two volunteers with the North Korean Freedom Coalition worked on it all night. It was apparently a multi-stage process. More frustrating was the fact that apparently someone was trying, unsuccessfully, to reach me to ask help, and I would of course have a post and asked for others to help. For some reason, the calls didn’t get through.

    Thanks for your coment.


  3. I’m not surprised that the correcting work was a last-minute effort. Korean projects usually come down to the wire and require last-minute adjustments. The whole culture seems to work this way. Koreans accept this, but the faillure of Koreans to plan ahead and to do quality control at earlier stages in a process drives us Westerners mad.

    I hope that Yoduk Story meets with success. It certainly ought to find success among the evangelical Christian community in America, but I don’t know how interested American evangelicals are in North Korean issues.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *


  4. I’m an American and saw Yoduk Story twice. So, I want to comment on one set of observations made by the reviewer:

    “One commenter called this a propaganda spectacle for the religious right. Propaganda? Well, duh. Religious? Personally, I don’t think ‘my people’ would have found the Christianity to be too heavy-handed.”

    This wasn’t just propaganda, it was SUPER propaganda, just like Stalinist North Korean “revolutionary opera” in reverse.

    As for the religiousness, WOW, this was just overwhelming: characters, iconography, moralizing, motifs, songs, themes, etc.

    I really think this distorted what good have been a good story. Religious persecution doesn’t need to be presented religiously.

    Frankly, I am not surprised that so many right-wingers in SK and the US have jumped on the Yoduk Story bandwagon.

    One US conservative even called the play a “cultural nuclear bomb.” Now those are pretty scary words, if you ask me.

    More dramas should be written about Stalinist North Korea. Something in the genre of Dramatic Realism will be great.

    Yoduk Story is just too ideological, too religious, and too black-and-white to be ranked as great art, in my opinion.


  5. That is what I love about the contemporary West and education.

    North Korea’s atrocities are more palatable than something tainted with Christianity….

    What about Buddhism? Would that have made it easier to stomach? If the people in the camps were Buddhist monks being tortured for their faith?

    You know that South Korean movie – Spring, Winter, Summer, Fall, and Spring Again — damn! that was almost an enjoyable movie………but all that Buddhist icongraphy…..

    And Yoduk Story. Why was it so black and white? There must have been some side we could have pulled out from the guards and Kim Jong Il’s regime….. The world’s not black and white….