Stories that shine a light on the dark half of the Korean peninsula.
As the Anglo-speaking world dances with authoritarianism, it feels apropos, if not a bit foreboding, that Bandi’s collection of short stories, The Accusation, should have its English debut. “Bandi” is the pseudonym of a North Korean author and member of Chosun Central League Writers’ Committee. His committee takes its cues from the Worker’s Party Department of Propaganda and Agitation, a highly significant state organ.
But The Accusation, which consists of seven short stories, is propaganda of a different nature; one highly critical of the North Korean regime, and particularly that of its first leader Kim Il-sung’s final years, marked by the deprivation and misery caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse. In Bandi’s stories hunger, for example, is everywhere, as evident as is the watchful eye of the State. The Accusation is a stark and often despair-inducing collection, but one we should read with great urgency at this moment, both as a document of what is and what could be and as a way to continue gaining better understanding of the complexities of North Korean society, which remains elusive to the West.
The Accusation’s arrival in South Korea and now in English is cause for celebration. Bandi’s is not the first piece of literature written by a North Korean dissident. Several successful memoirs and collections of poetry have emerged from DPRK defectors in the South, and no doubt these works had their seeds in the North. However, as far as can be told, Bandi’s stories represent the first written by someone who remains in the country, presumably still writing both for the State and for himself (for all we know Bandi is a woman, as it is unclear which parts of his biography are fabricated to protect his identity). How they were smuggled out of the North—a story unto itself, full of the kind of fortune that confirms the truth really is stranger than fiction—is included as an afterward.
The stories are most valuable as representations of the inner struggles of ordinary North Koreans. They are varied, and translator Deborah Smith renders them in an almost cheerful, matter-of-fact tone; characters are given wit and bitter humor. Their lives are at once relatable and comprised of experiences that, for the moment, remain a great distance from the lived experiences of many people who will pick up this book.
At their core they elucidate the logic required of people who are constantly monitored, not just by the State, directly, but by their fellow citizens A passage from the first story, “A Story of a Defection” exhibits the pervasive scrutiny:
I answered unthinkingly, too busy wondering how she could possibly have seen us. Thinking back now, she must have heard the gossip from the woman at No. 4, come to me to verify it, then reported it to the residents’ police. All of which could mean only one thing: Our apartment was under daily observation.
The portion of the North Korean population formally or informally connected to the surveillance apparatus is unparalleled. There is no such thing as idle gossip, and Bandi’s characters are well aware.
One’s connection, however tenuous, to a subversive or reactionary element can be devastating within the social caste system of the DPRK. In the case of Ko Inshik in the final story, “The Red Mushroom”, his brother-in-law was discovered to not have been killed during the Korean War, but ended up in the South, where Inshik’s reputation "became tarred with the brush of those who ‘falsified their history,’ and was sent down from Pyongyang in order to ‘have the proper revolutionary ideals instilled in him’ in N Town.”
In “Record of a Defection” the narrator’s family has been relegated to what is known as the wavering class “because my father was a murderer—albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings."
The parents in “The Stage”, the collection's most artful and viscerally affecting story, become agents of the State against their son, Kyeong-hun. Already viewed as a subversive element, “more canny than he’s letting on”, Kyeong-hun is observed holding a woman’s hand and drinking alcohol during the period of mourning for the Dear Leader. But the sins of the son are the whole family's and it is Kyeong-hun’s father who is forced to debase himself before his Bowibu Director and sell out his son with crocodile tears.
"Of course it’s political. Such behavior would be disgraceful at any time, but now! Now, when the inestimable loss of our Great Leader…" As though on cue, tears ran down Yeong-pyo’s cheeks, sallow and sunken due to a long-standing liver complaint. Even Yeong-pyo himself found it difficult to comprehend. How could the small cup of sadness sitting inside him produce a whole pitcher’s worth of tears?
Where the collection falters, if only a bit, is its overreliance on a single narrative structure. Bandi works heavily from flashback to tell his stories. The flashback typically takes up the middle third of each story, often outlining the dedication and perseverance of a Party worker who ends up disillusioned and disgusted, often battling feelings of impotence.
This may be just the style he is comfortable with (no one faults a hip hop artist for never writing a metal song), or perhaps it is a form common or popular in North Korean fiction, there is no way to tell. Fortunately, this rigid structure often breaks out into evocative, lyric passages, such as this quiet moment between old family friends:
...the smoke from Yeong-il’s cigarette quietly unspooled into the freezing air, and a space gradually formed between the two men...
or this description of the weather:
When the wind pauses to gather its breath, its absence amplified the sound of the rain, which poured down the roof in a plaintive whoosh.
The Accusation represents a milestone for those living outside the DPRK, but also in a sense for those living within its borders. To our great detriment, we in the West reduce and caricature North Korea, wanting to believe it simply a country of brainwashed peons serving a Confucian Big Brother. But, even if the narratives tend to be simple, Bandi refuses simplicity for his characters. Instead he gifts them forceful and vivid voices. The characters are stuck inside a terrible bind and it imbues their daily lives with a complexity and self-awareness that is as heartbreaking as it must be psychologically torturous, a bind I hope sincerely we ourselves can avoid in the years to come.