The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea
translated by Deborah Smith.
Grove Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $25.
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.
Such is the plea of the only author to remain in North Korea and produce a work of fiction critical of the nation’s repressive regime. Writing under the pseudonym Bandi (“firefly” in Korean), he says that his work is
“Written not with pen and ink,
But with bones drenched with blood and tears.”
Bandi, a retired writer who served in the state apparatus under Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, chose his pseudonym because, like a firefly, he is “fated to shine only in a world of darkness.” It is fitting that his short stories, like intermittent flashes of light, should be all that escapes the darkness of the Hermit Kingdom. The story of that escape is itself a great tale.
The Accusation was written over many years, mostly during the regime of North Korea’s Great Leader and dynastic founder, Kim Il-sung. Written on seven hundred and fifty pages of coarse paper, the collection was bundled and hidden until a relative of Bandi secretly disclosed her intention to defect. She deemed it too risky to take the manuscript with her since she was unlikely to bypass Chinese soldiers patrolling the border. But she promised Bandi that she would send a courier when the time was right. Enter Do Hee-yun, a representative of a North Korean refugee assistance organization in Seoul, who, upon learning of the story collection from the defector, sent a Chinese friend with family near Bandi’s village to make contact with the writer and retrieve the manuscript. Since the risk of detection was serious, the courier smuggled Bandi’s handwritten pages out of the country concealed between The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung, a peculiar fact of the novel’s transit that no doubt vexes Kim Il-sung’s grandson and current dictator, Kim Jong-un. After some difficulty finding a publisher, The Accusation was published in South Korea in 2014, translated into French a year later, and finally published in the United States and Britain. It is currently available in nineteen languages.
The excitement surrounding the publication of The Accusation is heightened by the hope that it will discredit the North Korean regime more effectively since it comes from a source living inside the country. Surely this is a desired effect. But Bandi’s aim is something greater. He highlights the struggle of ordinary people. He gives flesh and blood to the skeletal figures lining the streets of Pyongyang during military parades. Through their hunger he gives us a taste of their desperation.
And so the stories are spare, minimal, and without ornament. They are filled with descriptions of wraith-like people, almost spectral, driven under the lash of state control. Or as Bandi describes himself
A machine that speaks,
A human under yoke.
And yet, not lifeless. The heat of human passion burns in ordinary interactions between friends and lovers, fathers and sons, husbands and wives. It is the the only source of warmth in stories dominated by the cold detachment of the all-consuming State.
In every encounter with the State, danger lurks. Any lingering hope is lost. In “Record of a Defection,” Sangki, the young wife of a man whose inherited guilt for a familial transgression against the Party is suffocating his future, encounters the local Party secretary and seizes the opportunity to reverse her husband’s fortunes. It becomes clear that the Party secretary is only interested in her, not her husband. When she spurns his drunken advances, the secretary accuses her and promises retribution. Sangki realizes that her hope in a future was misplaced, even futile. She cries, “To think that the faint glimmer of hope I’d been clinging to was in fact the dark shadow of wickedness!” North Korea is indeed a shadow world “where even loyalty and diligence are not enough for life to flourish, choked as it is by tyranny and humiliation.” It is “a place where life withers and dies.”
In “City of Specters,” the banners of Marx and Kim Il-sung are displayed all over Pyongyang. A young boy is convinced that the stern-faced men are manifestations of the Eobi, a terrifying ghost, and has tantrums whenever he is in sight of the banners. His mother draws the curtains to shield the boy’s eyes from the ubiquitous images. Only, she draws the curtains on National Day, when all the curtains were ordered open by Party edict for the ensuing parades. Drawn curtains draws suspicion, and suspicions are confirmed when the boy publicly recoils in terror at the sight of the banners. The mother, whose own father was revered as a martyr of the Korean War, is ultimately deemed “guilty of jeopardizing the preservation” of Party ideology and banished.
Another story recalls Animal Farm. In “Life of a Swift Steed,” a decorated laborer and war veteran comes to a crushing realization after years of loyalty and hard work. Like Orwell’s workhorse Boxer, Yong-su finds himself discarded by the State he proudly served. In a haunting scene, he recognizes the lie for which he lived and served, “revealing the always postponed fruits of his labor … to be nothing but an illusion, one that he hadn’t had the wits to see.” Even those who have wits are similarly blinded. In “The Red Mushroom,” a young doctor is powerless to help an uncle who, out of favor with the Party, is facing execution. The doctor realizes that any benefit to being a Party member is arbitrary and fleeting. He wonders why he ever joined. A friend responds, “Because you were deceived by a mask, a front, like me. Deceived by those slogans—‘Equality’; ‘Democracy’’ ‘The People Are Masters of History—’the ones that looked nice enough on the surface, but had the knife of dictatorship underneath.”
The dissemination of Bandi’s work in the free world is an extraordinary literary event. More so, perhaps, it is a political one. Bandi was recently dubbed “North Korea’s Solzhenitsyn.” The comparison is inevitable, but it isn’t apt. Both writers are critical of communist regimes, use animal and insect imagery to illustrate routine dehumanization of people, and write of the constricting fear that governs social interaction. But the difference between Bandi and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn goes beyond horizontal considerations of subject matter and geography. It is rather at the vertex of Solzhenitsyn’s vision, in the ultimate realm of the spiritual, that the difference is greatest. As he once declared, “In the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.” It is the spiritual vision that permeates Solzhenitsyn’s work and which is starkly absent in The Accusation. It is also what gives his work moral authority. And it is precisely why Russell Kirk, in his assessment of the Russian dissident, called him “a man of moral imagination.” Both authors make for grim reading. But only in Solzhenitsyn do we find redemptive hope amidst the savagery and suffering.
Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer. He has appeared in Saint Austin Review, Crisis, New English Review, New Oxford Review, and Chronicles. He blogs at pityitspithy.com.