Having spent nearly a decade living in South Korea, I naturally became quite interested in its next-door neighbour, that darkly mysterious, forbidden country: North Korea. I became fascinated by the contrast between all that grossly monumental architecture dedicated to its leadership and the reality of a population so utterly deprived—of food, of freedom of expression, freedom of movement, access to basic healthcare, electricity, the Internet; you name it. And whenever the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, feels like rattling his sabres and putting on a massive display of military might, I am similarly both awed and disturbed by those images of thousands of goose-stepping soldiers marching through Pyongyang’s central square, a sight made all the more sinister by the regiments of robotic-looking onlookers, all cheering and shouting en masse. And in 2011, when Kim Jong Il died, I was transfixed by the images of the nearly competitive outpouring of public grief broadcast on the news. How very frightening it all seemed, for here was an entire population turned into puppets: made to cry, march, dance, or assemble upon command. To not do so, of course, would not only risk one’s own life, but it would have grave consequences for one’s entire family and generations to come. So when I heard of a forthcoming collection of short stories written by a North Korean dissident still living in that country—something that would shed light on the true reality of the lives of these people—I knew I needed to snatch it up as soon as it came out in English.
Written between 1989 and 1997, the seven stories contained in The Accusation by Bandi (a pseudonym that means “firefly” in Korean) may not exactly live up to the usual kinds of expectations we often apply to new works of fiction. The writing, for instance, is a little clunky in places, and of course there’s the ineffable something that invariably gets lost in translation. Some of these stories, at times, suffer from a somewhat convoluted form of storytelling, while others possess a few errors and inconsistences. But these are mere quibbles in the case of Bandi’s book, for The Accusation is nonetheless a fascinating read. In fact, part of the lure lies in the somewhat old-fashioned quality of the writing (which of course speaks volumes in itself); indeed, there’s something Chekhovian about Bandi’s work, both in style and the kinds of characters who populate its pages. Representing a broad spectrum of society, we have stories told, on the one hand, from the perspective of the lowly miner in some far-flung, remote province, all the way up to members of the Pyongyang elite on the other; stories told from the points of view of both men and women, children and the elderly. Throughout his collection, Bandi exudes an enormous amount of empathy for all his characters, as well as a hugely unrestrained hatred for the regime that oppresses them, all the while underscoring the absurdity of the lives his fellow North Koreans are forced to live as a result.
In “Record of a Defection,” for example, Lee Il-cheol is an inventor in a factory. He is known as a highly intelligent man but was denied higher education in his youth because of the so-called “sins of his father”: showing reluctance to hand over farmland when collectivization was originally introduced in North Korea. So when Il-cheol discovers a package of contraceptives his wife had hidden away, he (mistakenly) interprets this to mean she doesn’t want to have children with a “black dog” like himself. And when Myung-ok, his wife, is shown a classified document about her husband, she learns that he is labelled a “hostile element”—again, not because of anything he had actually done, but because of his father’s “erring” ways. This “stain” even affects their nephew: a boy who goes from being an outstanding student in elementary school to a social outcast when he enters Boy Scouts and stricter measures are applied. Membership to the Party would be the only way for Il-cheol to be absolved of this label, which of course is impossible, unless his wife is willing to grant sexual favours to the local Party secretary, and even then it’s uncertain.
Similarly, in “City of Specters”—one of the best stories in the collection—Gyeong-hee lives in Pyongyang (where only the elite of North Korean society can live); and because her father was killed in action during the Korean War, he is considered a “martyr,” a place of honour that awards descendants a certain amount of privilege that Gyeong-hee naively believes will grant her immunity from the same strictures imposed upon the rest of society. So when her two-year-old son grows afraid of the enormous paintings of Karl Marx and Kim Il-sung just outside their window, she thinks nothing of keeping the curtains closed to prevent her son from crying. But when the neighbours complain (it’s a society, we quickly learn, in which everyone is spying on everyone else) and the local Party secretary investigates, Gyeong-hee is told that the closed curtains might be perceived as a code to nearby spies (!) and is let off with a warning. Not long after, however, when National Day celebrations arrive and loudspeakers summon the entire city to assemble in its central square—“No exceptions!”—Gyeong-hee again closes the curtains and stays home to take care of her sick child. Her smug complacency turns out to be an irrevocable error.
Family background is also central to the story “The Red Mushroom.” Inshik was once a promising young man living in Pyongyang with a bright future ahead of him. But when it’s discovered that his brother-in-law, “previously assumed to have been killed by a bomb during the turmoil of the Korean War, had in fact crossed over to the South, Inshik became tarred with the brush of those who ‘falsified history,’ and was sent down from Pyongyang in order to ‘have the proper revolutionary ideals instilled in him.’” In this remote province he is assigned the task of managing a bean paste factory, but when the famine of the early 90’s begins to take hold of the country and there are no beans with which to make paste, he is ordered to clear 400-pyeong of forest and plant new crops, a task he fails to complete when heavy rains wash away the soil and a member of his team dies from eating a poisonous mushroom. As a result, Inshik—an honest, caring, and sincere man—is marched into a stadium, put on trial, and charged with sedition.
Other absurdities abound. In “Pandemonium,” Mrs. Oh and her husband are bringing their granddaughter home to their house to allow their daughter, who’s expecting her second child, to focus on taking care of herself. But the road and rails lines in the area have all been shut down because Kim Il-sung is passing through the region. Hours go by and the train station grows increasingly crowded and riotous as people run out of food and patience. Mrs. Oh decides she will walk to her brother’s house to bring a bear’s gallbladder to her daughter to help her regain her strength after she delivers her baby. But when sea, railroad, and deserted highway all seem to converge, Mrs. Oh has no choice but to walk on the shoulder and in plain sight, and it is at this moment that a convoy of black vehicles approaches. She tries to make a run for it but a voice commands her stop. When she turns around she sees standing outside one of the black limousines none other than Kim Il-sung himself. But instead of being summarily shot and killed, the unexpected happens: Kim Il Sung offers her a ride, saying:
“It’s no trouble. I too am a son of the people. Just the thought of past days pains me, when our people had to walk everywhere on foot; why should they walk now, when all the conditions are in place to ensure a pleasant journey? Come, ride with us.”
The whole thing is captured by journalists, and for days afterward the encounter is endlessly replayed on the village loudspeakers that broadcast propaganda 24 hours a day. Again and again, Mrs. Oh is forced to hear herself pouring out words of “boundless gratitude” to the Great Leader, proving “that all can travel free from discomfort.” The irony of course is that while Mrs. Oh was travelling in comfort, pandemonium had broken out at the train station when the line reopened, and her husband and granddaughter were so badly jostled in the melee that they were sent to the hospital with broken bones.
Perhaps the story that most greatly captures the absurdity of life in North Korea is “On Stage.” Three months after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, the country is still deep in mourning, and its citizens are expected to continue to place flowers and shed tears at makeshift altars honouring the Great Leader. The story is told from the perspective of Hong Yeong-pyo, a member of the notorious Bowebu or secret police. But when Yeong-pyo’s son, Kyeong-hun, is reported to have been spotted holding hands and drinking alcohol with Big Suki (the daughter of yet another so-called counter-revolutionary) during this grim period of mourning, Kyeong-hun admits to his father that the regime is a sham. So shocked is Yeong-pyo by his son’s blasphemy that he attempts to shoot him!
What makes this story particularly noteable is that it highlights a key metaphor central to all of these stories—indeed, to life in North Korea in general: the idea of performance. In Kyeong-hun’s written statement in which he confesses his so-called crime, he becomes the book’s raisonneur when he describes a skit he put on during his military service in which he calls Act I “It Hurts, Hahaha” and Act II “It Tickles, Boohoo!” “‘At this very moment,’” Kyeong-hun writes in his confession, “‘behind the curtains where you cannot see, I’m being pricked with a whole host of needles. But the director commands me to laugh!’” What he is implying, of course, is that North Korea is a country in which everyone is forced to become an actor. Instead of laughing with joy at the death of Kim Il-sung, the entire nation is forced to shed tears upon command. Conversely, when the drill sergeant asks Kyeong-hun and his troop if they are hungry, they naturally respond, “‘Not at all! […] We aren’t gluttons obsessed with filling our bellies!’”—though the reality (as it is for nearly all these characters) is the opposite, even twisted into a joke: that their navels are in love with their spines “as the two were clearly hankering for a kiss.” The absurdity of the regime and the falseness of these tears finally hits home for Kyeong-hun’s father when he later stations himself outside one of these makeshift altars and sees Big Suki’s mother ostensibly crying for the passing of Kim Il-sung but whose husband is languishing in a prison camp somewhere in the country.
To briefly return to “Pandemonium,” Mrs. Oh also employs a similar metaphor. In trying to tell a bedtime story to her granddaughter who can’t sleep because of the pain of her broken leg, she comes up with this fairy tale:
“Once upon a time there was a garden, surrounded on all sides by a great, high fence. In that garden, an old demon ruled over thousands upon thousands of slaves. But the surprising thing was that the only sound ever to be heard within those high walls was the sound of merry laughter. Hahaha and hohoho, all year round—because of the laughing magic which the old demon used on his slaves.
“Why did he use such magic on them? To conceal his evil mistreatment of them, of course, and also to create a deception, saying, ‘This is how happy the people in our garden are.’ […] Where in the world might you find such a garden, such a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?”
This “performance” or “façade” metaphor can even be extended to the structure of these stories. Like “On Stage,” in which Kyeong-hun’s confession is embedded within his father’s story, “Record of a Defection” is also structured as a story within a story. Told in the form of a letter “written” by Il-cheol, the bulk of the story is Il-cheol’s transcription of his wife’s diary, which not only changes the point of view from husband to wife, but it also highlights that behind the “exterior” of one story lies another: one more complex and truthful. “The Red Mushroom,” too, is somewhat similar. Hoe Yunmo is a journalist known to all in his town as “Mr. Bullshit Reporter.” And although he may be forced to write fictitious, propaganda-style articles for the local newspaper, the true centre of the story is Inshik and Yunmo’s desire to get to the heart of this broken man. So when Inshik is publicly accused of negligence and sedition at the end of the story, Yunmo (along with the reader) knows the truth behind what is being publicly displayed in that stadium.
Throughout these stories Bandi depicts a North Korea where drink is abundant but food is not. It’s a place of food rations, little to no heat, officially-scripted speech, lies, and obsequiousness. While fascinating to read, it’s a world I also didn’t mind leaving upon reaching its final pages. And what makes his depictions all the more troubling is that they only scratch the surface at the true harsh extent of the famine and economic realities that crippled the country beginning in the early 90s. (Though how much Bandi knew, witnessed, or personally experienced is anyone’s guess.) And of course it’s a place where nearly all of Bandi’s characters have been accused of some “crime”—holding hands with a girl, boarding a train to see one’s dying mother, failing to grow crops, closing one’s curtains, having a family member who fled to the South—all the while unequivocally pointing his finger at the country’s leadership that allows its population to suffer but forces them to smile and happily express boundless gratitude for everything they have.