A LITERARY INDICTMENT
On The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi
by Hardy Griffin
‘Bandi’ means ‘firefly’ in Korean, and is a pseudonym for the author of this collection of short stories, as she or he is still living in North Korea. As the Afterword lays out, the smuggling of these stories into first China and then South Korea took a number of years, not to mention any time the writer spent debating with her- or himself over whether to attempt to get this manuscript out of North Korea. All of which goes some ways towards explaining why the stories focus on life in North Korea during the early- and mid-1990s, the last years Kim Il-sung was alive.
As I write this, the news of Otto Warmbier’s death has just been announced. An American student who took a tour of North Korea, he was arrested in January, 2016, for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel; while serving a 15-year sentence, he went into a coma in March, 2017, was released on June 13, and died six days later. This may seem at first to have nothing to do with a collection of stories from the same country, but in the way these things sometimes happen, I read this collection shortly before the news story broke about Otto Warmbier’s release, and now the two seem to me to be intricately linked. In the fourth of the seven stories, “So Near, Yet So Far,” Myeong-chol is a young man who is drafted into the army immediately upon graduating from middle school (and thereby loses any chance of going to university), and after the army, he is forced to become a miner. From the moment he is drafted, he is never allowed to return to his village to visit his sick mother, even though he receives telegrams every so often detailing how her condition is rapidly declining. When his third application for permission to go to his village is denied, “Myeong-chol longed to let himself sob out loud… [but] he knew that 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.”
Otto Warmbier’s ‘act of rebellion’ (that is, allegedly stealing a propaganda poster), also ended up leading to his senseless and untimely death. It is easy to blame the North Korean regime for their slow response to Warmbier’s alleged botulism and their slow release of him once he fell into a coma.
Yet in this story collection, even as the ‘accusation’ of the title does not spare Kim Il-sung (the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea), it clearly focuses on more than the top of the regime. In the second story, “City of Specters,” Gyeong-hee is the manager of a marine product shop and is also a supervisor in the propaganda department of the Communist Party. She has secured this enviable position due to the status conferred on her by her father’s martyrdom in the Korean War. But when her two-year-old son starts crying during an important speech leading up to National Day festivities, to quiet him, she convinces him that the portrait of Karl Marx hanging behind the speaker is a picture of the Eobi, “…the fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack and tosses them down a well…” This ends up backfiring when a giant picture of Marx is hung across from their living room, after which they have to keep the curtains closed. As Gyeong-hee looks at the portraits of Marx hung around Pyongyang, she ruminates on the first line of The Communist Manifesto:
“A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.”
Had Marx inadvertently been writing his autobiography? The phrase was a mysteriously
fitting description of how his portrait had appeared just then: closer in form to some
spectral presence than an actual human being, plucked from some ghastly legend.
Later, Gyeong-hee’s husband, who has not grown up with the protection and respect that a martyred father conveys, takes her to task for her Pollyanna naiveté that all is always well:
“The dictatorship of the proletariat... Yes, the people of this city understand all too well
the reality of that idea... But you go about without a care in the world, thinking your
martyred father puts you beyond reproach. What do you think that will be worth, the day
you slip up and find the people against you? You think the Eobi is just a fairy tale?”
And this is where The Accusation is truly a remarkable book—the indictment of the title, plays out in all different ways in these seven stories, and is not only leveled at the autocratic regime but rather at North Korean society and, what’s more, at human nature itself.
I know it’s a bit forced to return once more to the case of Otto Warmbier, but I was struck as I watched the live broadcast of his father’s statement to the press and ensuing Q&A session. One reporter asked Fred Warmbier if he had a message to the North Korean people in light of his son’s condition—it seemed a clear set-up for him to say they shouldn’t support such a draconian regime and should rise up and demand change, blah blah blah. To his great credit, Fred Warmbier didn’t take the bait and instead repeated how happy he was not to have to think about North Korea anymore. I was impressed that this man who could so easily have thrown out a sound-bite in the unending war of words refused to do so.
In a flashback in “Life of a Swift Steed,” two friends join the Communist Party immediately after the Japanese army is defeated at the end of World War II, “...their heads filled with dreams of prosperity.” One of the two, remembering this, also recalls how he thought the establishment of North Korea would lead to “...pure white rice with meat every day, and silk clothes, and a house with a tiled roof!” Needless to say, he has none of this in the present, despite his unflinching loyalty. This is hardly exceptional, as malnutrition and deprivation feature in every story, as this collection was written during “The Arduous March,” the name given to the famine and scarcity of the early and mid-1990s (the Afterword discusses this at length). And here is another of the lasting impressions left by The Accusation—you can’t expect people who have been brow beaten, starved, deprived, and isolated by the entire world to suddenly rise up and demand foreigners in prisons receive proper medical care and appropriate sentences. In fact, these circumstances put an end to any acts of rebellion or critique, from speaking out against bad farming policies to something as innocuous as crying when your appeal to travel to your dying mother’s side is denied. As Gyeong-hee comes to undestand at the end of “City of Specters,”
Her limbs began to tremble, and not only because of the September chill. Fear swelled
inside her—fear, something which had to be instilled in you from birth if you were to
survive life in this country.
At the same time, how do we explain the pictures coming out of North Korea on parade days of tens of thousands of people marching and chanting in the streets? The story “Pandemonium” references the Pandemonium that is “the abode of the demons”—a reference, I presume, to the lines in Paradise Lost dedicated to Satan’s creation of Pandemonium, the capital of Hell. In the telling here, by the grandmother who is the protagonist of the piece, Pandemonium is a garden with a high wood fence all the way around it, wherein
“...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
“Why did he use such magic on them? To conceal his evil mistreatment of them, of
course, and also to create a deception, saying ‘This is how happy the people in our garden
are.’ And that’s why he put the fences up, so that the people in other gardens couldn’t see
over or come in.”
The seven stories in The Accusation open a hole in the fence around North Korea and allow us to look in. It is, in the end, a look that carries with it a certain responsibility—that is, that we recognize the full breadth of the accusation being put forth.
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi, and translated by Deborah Smith, is published by Grove Press (March, 2017) and is widely available in bookstores in the US and as a kindle edition from Amazon worldwide.