Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

VOICES FROM EXILE : Panoptic Perspectives

Reflections on Yodok Stories 

Directed by Andrzej Fidyk. Released South Korea 2008

Christopher Richardson

Art and power have an uneasy relationship. Whether now revered, like Michelangelo, or reviled, like Leni Riefenstahl, many of the greatest artists in history created for the glory of Caesar, Pope, King, or Fuhrer. Their works have roused people to worship, or called them to war. Today, most states rely on the tropes of advertising for propaganda, or “public service announcements” as they are usually called; yet the North Koreans are traditionalists. As both General and artist, Kim Jong Il oversaw the production of thousands of films, songs, paintings, and stories. In treatises, such as On The Art of the Cinema, he unashamedly championed the connection between art and power for the advancement of the revolution. Under Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung, artists and performers were elevated like soldiers to heroes of the republic, but only if they adhered to the conventions of the courtly style. In that sense, North Korea resembles the feudal kingdoms of pre-modern Korea more than any of its former Marxist-Leninst allies. Until the recent advent of DVD and USB smuggling, these were the only arts a North Korean could expect to encounter.

Yet for just as long as art has reinforced power, so has it challenged and exposed its ideational hegemony. The South Korean film, The King and the Clown, brilliantly captures how this occurred even under the Chosun Kings. As Hamlet would have it, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” For every artist whose career has advanced under the patronage of power, another risked life and reputation to present alternatives to the narratives of the state, whether through graffiti, subversive songs, paintings, or plays. But in North Korea, where social life is characterized by almost all-prevailing surveillance and control, such examples are rare. As far as we know, there is nothing so grand as a North Korean equivalent to the Belarus Free Theatre. For now, the next best thing is the art of exile, created by those who have left the state behind. Yodok Stories, first staged in 2006, is perhaps the most famous such example.

Even today, the phenomenon of North Korean defection remains rare, rarer still when Yodok Stories entered production. Its genesis was during the era of South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy”, the governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun seeking reconciliation with Pyongyang, sometimes at the expense of defectors who felt their stories marginalized in the name of expediency. In other words, this was a story crying out to be told: a concentration camp, in the early 21st Century, in the heart of East Asia. Although the idea for the musical came from Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Fidyk, its strength comes from the creative participation of so many North Koreans. Yodok Stories is a powerful corrective to the stereotype of defectors as passive victims, or welfare dependent castaways. Behind-the-scenes footage reveals individuals of incredible passion and courage, a far cry from the clichéd image of North Koreans as stunted automatons, waiting to receive orders from above.

Although the bombast, blood and thunder of Yodok Stories might initially seem bizarre, or kitsch, to Western audiences, the musical powerfully evokes the aesthetic of North Korean arts, notably the revolutionary operas The Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl. Such operas seek to arouse patriotic emotion, reminding North Koreans of the glory days of revolution, when they defied Japanese occupation and won independence under Kim Il Sung. Yodok Stories drags that aesthetic into the present, showing how bankrupt has become this vision of an idealized past, whilst re-claiming a popular North Korean medium for real lives lived in the present.

Even so, I’ll admit, when I first saw Yodok Stories I was afraid the medium of musical theatre would prove an obstacle to seriousness. Yet Jung Sung San has created something less like The Producers, and more like Les Miserables. Of course, like Les Miserables, one’s ability to connect with the material partially relies upon the ability to accept the reduction of historical memory to archetypes, and personally harrowing experiences to show-tunes. Whether “reduced” is the right word depends entirely upon one’s feelings towards musical theatre in general, and the vexed relationship between art and real-life. Perhaps distilled is a better word. Yet these are complex burdens to place on a musical achieving precisely what it sets out to do, and a documentary that captures a moment in time when the North Korean community in exile started to find its voice. There are more than 24 million North Koreans alive today, and at least as many stories. Both at home and abroad, it is time they were told.

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