North Korea has, for better or worse, been in the news a lot lately, whether it’s the volatile situation brewing on the Korean peninsula, or the more hopeful efforts at some kind of joint presence at the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
It’s with all this in mind that I picked up The Accusation by Bandi – a pseudonym (from the Korean for “firefly”) designed to protect the identity of the author of this book of short stories. Books by North Korean defectors, both fictional and non-fictional representations of life inside the isolated nation, are not uncommon. But with Bandi, we have the first instance of a book written by a writer still living in North Korea. An afterward to the book explains the situation: Bandi is, apparently, a writer working officially, a member of North Korea’s state-authorized writers’ association (the Chosun Writers’ League Central Committee). Married with children, Bandi is not in a position to defect, but the defection of a relative set in motion the events which led, eventually, to The Accusation’s manuscript being smuggled out of North Korea and its publication in South Korea (after which it has been translated into a number of languages, including English and French).
The title chosen for this collection of short stories is, I think, meant to echo French writer Émile Zola’s famous “J’accuse” letter, in which he denounced the French judicial and political system in the coverup of they Dreyfuss affair – and which has, over time, been used by many writers in many countries to express dissatisfaction with political regimes. Bandi’s stories were written mostly in the early to mid-90s (each story is given what is assumed to be the date it was finished), just prior to the death of Kim Il-sung (the “Great Leader”) and the beginning of the Arduous March, that period in North Korean history marked by a famine resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. They are a powerful denunciation of a system that fails its people as it aims to protect the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family dynasty.
But Bandi’s stories are much more than that. If, on the one hand, they give us glimpses into a system that was already precarious, with people scrambling to find something, anything, even a handful of sawdust, just to cook a meal; of flooding destroying soybean crops, and the orders to collect acorns instead to produce “bean” paste; of the confusion and pandemonium caused by the Great Leader’s every movement. The stories are powerful because they give us glimpses, too, into the lives of ordinary people. The dutiful son who desperately tries to reach his dying mother, even though he has no travel papers permitting him to do so. The wife, whose husband comes from a family branded as counter-revolutionaries, who struggles to help her nephew even as she knows he is doomed to live with the stain of treachery though he’s done nothing at all to merit it. The young mother whose small child becomes frightened – in that way that many children become fearful of things with no context for them– by the giant portraits of Marx and the Great Leader in the square outside their apartment. There are Yong-il and Yong-su, two men who welcomed the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from the Japanese, who saw the Communist Party as the promise of a bright future, one in which “everyone will eat meat and white rice every day, wear silk clothes, and live in a tile-roofed house.”
There are, of course, people who are devoted to the system, and work within it unquestioningly. But Bandi shows us that there are people who suffer, but who stuff their suffering down and hide it away because they know if they complain their suffering could be so much worse. And there are people who question the system, if only to themselves. And there are some, who worked their whole lives devoted to the system, who suddenly come to understand its corruption and oppression, and who are unable to cope with that realization, taking their own lives because they see no other way out.
Bandi’s stories challenge us to look beyond North Korea and its leadership as a place of crazy dictators with a population that has “drunk the Kool-Aid”. There is no doubt that the regime in the DPRK is oppressive and cruel. But Bandi’s stories also invite us to see North Koreans as individuals with many different motivations, and with lives and worries that sometimes resemble our own.
Just the facts
- Title: The Accusation
- Author: Bandi
- Translator: Deborah Smith
- Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
- Year published: 2017