In North Korea, over 200,000 men, women and children languish in Nazi-style concentration camps. As “class enemies,” most have been indicted for strange and mysterious crimes—being suspected of having “unclean thoughts” or allowing dust to gather on the picture of Kim Jong-il which every home must display can both lead to class enemy status.
In an effort to “destroy the seeds” of class enemies, and to instill a sense of terror in the populace, up to three generations of an offender’s family may be imprisoned—most, even young children, will never leave. Of the five camps, only one, Yodok, occasionally releases prisoners, after they have sustained sufficient punishment and brainwashing.
Against all odds, a few Yodok survivors have escaped North Korea and made their way to freedom in prosperous South Korea. In YODOK STORIES, acclaimed Polish documentary maker Andrzej Fidyk brings their stories and the well-kept secret of the camps to light.
From the beginning, Fidyk encountered several obstacles to revealing the horrors of the camps. First—how to make a film about camps you cannot film? Second—how to get survivors who have spent their entire lives under a repressive and silencing regime to open up and share their experiences? And third—how to make their stories known and accessible to a wide audience?
Fidyk found his answer in a unique collaboration with Jung Sung San, an accomplished theater director and Yodok survivor living in South Korea. Working with a group of six other survivors, Jung writes and produces a Broadway-style musical based on life in the camps. As one by one, members of the group courageously reveal their stories, Fidyk’s camera is rolling, recording the bone chilling interviews that will eventually inform the play. Fidyk also turns his camera on rehearsals, choreography, set and costume design, chronicling the controversial production up to its grand staging.
Among the survivors featured in YODOK STORIES are some unexpected characters. A former concentration camp guard, who found himself imprisoned after his father criticized the government and then committed suicide, speaks matter-of-factly about beating prisoners for entertainment. During the play’s rehearsals, the former guard shows actors how to properly use torture devices. A former elite personal bodyguard of Kim Jong-il, imprisoned for trying to defect, provides insight into the regime and its systematic cruelty.
In the camps, the survivors tell us, there is no medical treatment and no education for the children. Rape and torture are everyday occurrences. Bodies are maimed by severe beatings and frostbite. To elude starvation, inmates eat whatever they can find—a rat is considered a luxury. As one survivor observes, over a short time, prisoners become like animals. Most will die within a few years of their imprisonment.
A box office success, the musical production ultimately proves heroic as the defectors confront the horror of their collective memories, and ongoing death threats from not-so-distant North Korea. Participants must also live with the fact that the freedoms they enjoy today have resulted in punishment and imprisonment for loved ones back home, and, in the case of Jung’s own father, death by public stoning.
In the end, YODOK STORIES reveals the survivors’ strength and determination to testify against a murderous regime. And, as the musical tour de force is realized, viewers are reminded of the enduring potential for art and inspiration to rise from the depths of human suffering.