Thursday, March 16, 2006

North Korea: The Musical

Raising awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea is important work. Spreading the message is central to fostering support and prompting people to action. From this perspective it may be thought that, as the old saying goes, any publicity is good publicity. But is this really true? Is it possible to undermine a serious message because of the medium through which the message is sent?

"Yoduk Story" a musical about a North Korean gulag has opened in South Korea. The controversial nature of the topic initially ran foul of South Korean officialdom. The musical also generally didn't truck with government policy of trying not to aggravate the North Korean regime. The South Korean officials noted that the play "dwells too heavily on the negative aspects of the camp". Although it is not easy to guess what positive aspects of the camp might exist that could be highlighted as well. Fortunately common sense and respect for freedom of speech won the day.

The story covers the imprisonment of a dancer and subsequent horrors faced once in the camp. The dancer is sent there because her father is accused of spying. I don't want to give the story away but it seems that rape, maiming and death are all involved. I am unaware if musicals have guidance ratings but this one sound like a PG or even MA for sure.

This is not the first musical to focus on a serious topic. Earlier works have looked at dark issues including "Oliver!'s homeless orphans in Dickensian London, or The Sound of Music's Von Trapp family harmonizing its way out of Nazi-occupied Austria." But when we think of Oliver it is not usually the tragedy of poverty, homelessness and advances in the social welfare systems that come to mind. It is more likely the larrikin antics of the Artful Dodger. After viewing the Sound of Music one is more likely to walk away with an image of whiskers on kittens than be outraged at Nazi Germany. It is difficult to take a topic seriously when the characters burst into a toe-tapping song and dance routine.

That is not to say that a musical about North Korea is not a good idea. It is an odd idea, but not a bad one. The musical is reportedly a tear-jerker which may indicate that it refrains from a more upbeat ending than some musicals. Although, Jung [the director] insists that he doesn't expect "Yoduk Story" to be depressing to South Korean audiences. "It will make them realize what happy lives they have here." I'm not absolutely sure what the point of that message would be. The ol' 'you think you got it bad, look at these suckers' message always seemed rather pointless to me. People are generally too selfish to think in such relative terms.

It will be interesting to see how it is actually received in South Korea. As a campaign tool in the struggle to raise awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea it will surely be an interesting case study. Maybe it will spark a new line of docu-musicals for the future: morbidly depressing stories told through the medium of song.

It also strikes me that if the musical's program includes information not just on the actors but also the real story which they are portraying and information on steps they can take or groups they can contact would be a practical step.

US-Korea FTA Update

Extra to the piece I did before about the US-Korea FTA: The Yangban has written a piece on the potential difficulties in finding an agreement on the Gaesong Industrial Park. And Dram Man gives an Economic History 101 piece to put the free trade idea in perspective. The title is labeled Part One so we can expect further fascinating instalments from him on this topic. Can't wait!

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui