book cover imageThe Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea
by Bandi,
translated by Deborah Smith.
Grove Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $25.

The title of this review is taken from Oscar Wilde’s celebrated essay carrying the same name. Writing in 1891, Wilde tries to imagine what life would be like if socialism had to triumph—if there had to be no private property, no insecurity, and if people had to be free from “the sordid necessity of living for others.”

Its significance lies inthe utopic imaginings of the author and in what he hopes the socialist creed can achieve. It also draws attention to the effect of ideology on the “soul”—the actuating cause of an individual, in secular parlance.

Socialism morphed into several variants, some more humane and others contemptible. Bandi’s book The Accusation gives us a glimpse of the “soul” of individuals under the vilest form of socialism—the North Korean variant.

Bandi (“Firefly” in Korean—a pseudonym) is an author who still lives and works in North Korea. His work is the first of its type since such novels are usually the work of political defectors who have left North Korea. He risked his life both in authoring the eight short stories here and in smuggling them out of the repressive republic. The manuscript containing the stories was completed in the mid-nineties on 750 pages each containing two hundred characters.

Very little is known about the author. He apparently was born in the northeastern provinces that border with China and Russia, and was still a child when the Korean War broke out. Like other North Korean writers, he followed the official route dictated by the regime to become an author.

The economic crisis and the great famine of the mid-1990s—euphemistically referred to by the regime as the “Arduous March”—led the author to embark on a soul-searching exercise. He began to write stories to “record the lives of those whom hunger and social contradictions had brought to an untimely death, or who had been forced to leave their homes and roam the countryside in search of food.”

In these eight short stories, Bandi gives a voice to citizens who “were forced to swallow this painful reality, without being able to breathe a word of complaint.” He is an author who feels that he has the duty to “produce work whose literariness would, in a sense, live up to the reality of the events he described.” This book makes for some grim reading. It is not easy to read the stories of these characters—soulless, desperate, and dehumanised by an all-controlling system.

In “Record of a Defection,” a family is blacklisted for three generations after the father resists farming collectivisation in post-war North Korea. A desperate wife is aware of the pain that this ostracism causes her husband and her nephew. She attempts to redress the situation by speaking to the local Party Secretary. The latter offers to use his influence and authority in return for sexual favors. This story provides a glimpse of love under duress, marital life conditioned by ideology.

“City of Spectres” features a young couple and their son. In a bid to discipline her infant son, the mother mentions the figure of the Eobi—an imaginary monster. When the child spots a large portrait of Karl Marx, he bursts into a crying fit for he assumes he has seen the Eobi. He has a similar reaction when he sees the ubiquitous portrait of Kim Il-sung. The narrative portrays a situation of complete dehumanisation. Attending to the child’s crying is not tolerated for it disturbs a major parade. Suspicion and fear dominate; nothing is taken at face value. Terror and psychological violence are the preferred methods of the regime.

This reign of terror is far removed from the initial hopes of the revolution. Such aspirations are exploredin “Life of a Swift Steed.” The revolution initially instilled confidence and optimism. However, this revolution gradually turned into a sinister affair. It poisoned social relations and made no allowances for personal emotions.

Feelings of shame and disappointment take root. Bandi writes about a man who was duped by the promise of socialism and disappointed with the outcome of the revolution. He reflects: “What suffering could compare with the disappointment and regret that Yong-su must have felt when he realised that the simple faith with which he’d once shouted ‘it’s a promise’ was founded onan illusion?”

The relationship between the individual and the state is an underlying theme permeating the book. In North Korea, the individual belongs to the state and his individuality is placed at the disposal of the state. The main character in “So Near, Yet So Far” dreams of enrolling at university but instead is called to serve in the army.

This same individual applies for an internal travel permit to visit his sick and dying mother. This permit is rejected four times over; on the last occasion due to an event in the region attended by the “Dear Leader” himself. The dehumanising effect of dictatorship is apparent in the way the totalitarian state regards emotions: “Even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome—a swift and ruthless death.”

This dictatorship is fronted by one individual: Kim Il-sung. He dominates every aspect of North Korean society. “Pandemonium” reveals the private feelings of some individuals whose lives are interrupted by a “Class One Event”—an event attended by Kim Il-sung–held in the area. People harbour great resentment towards the leader, but no one dares criticise him or utter a word of complaint. Bandi gives a voice to an elderly grandmother who uses her storytelling skills to weave an allegorical narrative of North Korea:

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.

Her story concludes with a rhetorical question: “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?”

The outside world could observe the collective cries of pain and sadness following the death of Kim Il-sung, and later, his son Kim Jong-il. Bandi gives us an inside view of the mechanics of such displays of collective mourning. Citizens cry on cue to a backdrop of hunger, famine, and malnutrition.

“On Stage” explores some of these themes. Reflecting on the collective grief that envelops the nation, the author cannot help but make a reflection on North Korea as a “society of actors.” He mocks the climate created by the regime: “where emotions are suppressed, and actions monitored, acting only becomes ubiquitous, and so convincing that we even trick ourselves.”

The last story, “The Red Mushroom,” revolves around a humble man who sacrifices his entire life to work for the Workers Party of Korea. He does so in the hope of obtaining some favors for himself and his family. However, the family takes second place to the demands of the Party. This story describes the appalling conditions workers face daily together with the widespread strife caused by the nationwide famine and the oppressive censorship mechanism adopted by the ruling party.

The reader gets a glimpse of the justice mechanism in North Korea. This involves public trials with large crowds. The accused has no mechanism to present his defense since anti-revolutionary activity is deemed to be indefensible.

At the end of this remarkable book, the reader feels as though he has just read a succession of haunting tales featuring characters that are somewhat forgettable but whose stories are disturbing and poignant. This is one of the strengths of this book. In a country dominated by the Juche ideology of self-reliance and overburdened with an all-encompassing personality cult, the individual has no ability to develop his talents and no mechanism to assert himself. Bandi’s characters cry out for a measure of humanity.

Together with other groundbreaking works, this book helps us form a fuller picture of the soul of man under socialism. It complements other texts, such asAleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago that explores the horrors of life in the Soviet Union, and Ana Blandiana’s dissident poem “Totul,” which exposed the absurdity of the Ceaucescu regime in Romania. These dystopic realities are far removed from the socialist-libertarian utopia imagined by Oscar Wilde.  

André P. DeBattista is an independent researcher and columnist. He has worked on various research projects in the fields of political science, governance, and international relations. In 2013 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He tweets @APDeBattista.