What of a land where people’s lives are thwarted at every turn, where prospects are determined by party status, where movements are restricted by permits, orders, and decrees, where “justice” is meted out mercilessly, and against which there is no recourse.
Even the urge to “sob out loud, to stamp the ground or shake his fist at the sky …can be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome—a swift and ruthless death. And so it was the law of the land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat.”
While the leader of this land and the leader of the free world trade barbs and threaten to launch missiles to destroy each other, The Accusation has appeared, a book of short stories about the people who live in this land. The author is a North Korean writer who uses the pen name Bandi.
The Accusation was smuggled out of North Korea at great risk. It is the only known work of literature to come out of North Korea by a writer still living inside the regime. An Afterword by Kim Seong-dong, of the Monthly Chosun, tells the story of how the manuscript got out. The Publisher’s Note relates the journey of this work to its publication in the West.
Another note from Do Hee-yun, Representative of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, fills in the broad facts that are known of the life of Bandi: born in 1950; took refuge with his family in China during the Korean War before returning to North Korea and becoming a writer.
We are told Bandi had some early success (in the 1970s) writing state-sanctioned stories and poems as a member of Chosun Writers’ League Central Committee. (It is understood that to work as a writer in North Korea, one must work under the sanction of a party agency, which controls and censors all publications.) However in the 1990s, during the period known as the Arduous March—a decade of famine and starvation, “exacerbated by floods but stemming from the disastrous economic policies of previous decades”—Bandi witnessed a misery, which he could not fail to address in his writing. The Accusation is this work.
The seven stories cover six years between 1989 and 1995, that is, the last years of the reign of Kim Il-sung (grandfather of current dictator Kim Jong-un). Kim Il-sung died in 1994, ending a 48-year rule over North Korea (since 1946 when the Korean peninsula was divided).
These are highly-crafted short stories, spare and eloquent.
They are not easy to read.
It is hard to descend into these austere narratives of totalitarian hell and the people trapped in it:
A man and his family decide to attempt an escape into China and leave behind a letter explaining their decision to a friend.
A child is terrified of the giant portraits of Karl Marx and Kim Il Sung hanging in the main square. He equates these gargantuan faces with the Eobi, a fearsome creature of Korean folklore. His fear has consequences for his parents.
A man—a “swift steed” of the revolution in his youth who, all his life, did hard labor for the beautiful communist future—can go no further.
A young man from a small village, conscripted into the army and then forced into labor in the mines, attempts to visit his dying mother, despite denial of his petition for permission to travel.
Thousands of people are stranded in a small train station when trains and roads are closed for a “Class 1” event. A grandmother sets out on foot along the empty highway to deliver a package to her daughter in a nearby village. Her unexpected encounter with the Dear Leader himself leads to unexpected consequences.
An informer suspects the authenticity of the outpouring of people’s grief when the Great Leader dies. An actor schools him in “stage truth.”
A reporter for a local party newspaper writes a story about a man who is accused of “dereliction of duty.” After years of hard labor on a mountain, where he was sent to lead a team producing soybeans for the town’s soybean plant, his group’s work is wiped out by storms. The town suffers shortages. The journalist attends the trial and records the man’s final cry.
The Accusation begins with a poem:
That old man of Europe with his bristling beard
Claimed that capitalism is a pitch-black realm
While communism is a world of light.
I, Bandi, of this so-called world of light,
Fated to shine only in a world of darkness,
Denounce in front of the whole world
That light which is truly fathomless darkness,
Black as a moonless night at the year’s end.
The Accusation also ends with a poem:
Fifty years in this northern land
Living as a machine that speaks
Living as a human under a yoke
With a pure indignation
Written not with pen and ink
But with bones drenched with blood and tears
Is this writing of mine
Though they be dry as a desert
And rough as a grassland
Shabby as an invalid
And primitive as stone tools
I beg you to read my words.
The author’s pen name, Bandi, is the Korean word for firefly.
Jessica Slote is a teacher and a writer. Her book, Loretta Auditorium Presents: The Loretta Plays will be published by Fly By Night Press, Spring 2018.