The Accusation is a collection of seven stories and two poems written under the pseudonym ‘Bandi’ or firefly by a dissident writer still living in North Korea and set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong Il. The stories are a window into the secret world of the hereditary dictatorships of the Kim family characterized by propaganda, corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic ineptitude where the government controls every aspect of a citizen’s life. While there are many works published by writers who have defected to South Korea, this is presumably the first collection written by a writer still living in North Korea to cross the border. The author risked his or her life to make these harrowing stories see the light of day. The account of how the manuscript made it out from North Korea into South Korea is an interesting story in its own right and is included as an afterword.
The chilling and profoundly sad stories are fictional but based on the experiences of real people and they all share a common thread. They reveal the fear and despair of the citizens, who, living under the watchful eye of authority, have to be constantly on guard as anything can be construed as conspiracy against the state. Each and every story is about an accusation. A person could be banished to the countryside, forced into a life of hard labor or even executed for a slight infraction, real or perceived.
Record of a Defection reveals how you have to atone for the sins of your ancestors. A peasant was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and of sabotaging the Party’s agricultural collectivization project as he was not abreast with the latest technology of growing rice seedlings in greenhouses. Years later his entire family suffers the consequences of his actions. His young grandson cannot run for Class President at his school. One black mark against you which can be a trifling offence or even an absurd non-offence can taint not only you and your family but many future generations.
City of Specters– A two year old is frightened by the gigantic posters near Central Square of Karl Marx and Kin Il-Sung visible from his apartment window. He mistakes them for monsters. His mother tries to allay his fears by drawing the curtains but the neighborhood is expected to exhibit uniformity in appearance for the upcoming National Day parade and her action is viewed as an infraction. Although she is a privileged woman, she has to pay a heavy price for this misstep. It is a richly symbolic story. These specters of Communism haunt not just the little boy but all the citizens in all of the land.
Life of a Swift Steed– A decorated war veteran had planted an elm tree in his youth as a symbol of the growth of a new socialist state. He had envisioned a life where everyone would live in a tile-roofed house, eat meat and rice and wear silks but the reality is that the people are living in poverty and there is a dearth of fuel in the freezing weather. The state wants to cut down his beloved elm which is interfering with a power line. The tree ends up being a symbol of his disillusionment as he comes to the painful realization that his medals mean nothing and that his entire life has been a sham.
So Near Yet so Far– Myeong-Chol, a hard-working miner wishes to visit his sick mother in the countryside but the state will not give him a permit to leave his province as there is a Class 1 celebration for the leader in his mother’s town and travel is forbidden to the district. After his application for a pass is denied three times, the man who has always been a stickler for rules, decides to make the journey illegally with the help of a friend. He gets tantalizingly close to seeing his mother as the title suggests but will he see the dying old woman and what will be his punishment for violating travel regulations?
Pandemonium– An old woman is traveling with her husband and granddaughter to visit her pregnant daughter but they end up being trapped in a crowded railway station. All traffic has come to a halt as the Great Leader Kim Il- Sung is about to visit the area. In desperation, she sets out on foot to visit her daughter and ends up getting a ride in the leader’s personal entourage and accidentally becomes part of a propaganda video. The government’s report of her happy laughter is in striking contrast to the pandemonium at the station where her husband and granddaughter suffered injuries.
On Stage– Even a month after the demise of the leader, authorities would monitor how many times people put flowers at his altar. The people risked venomous snakes and landslides to pick flowers to demonstrate their grief. Grief was closely monitored and people became experts at faking it. An improvisational comic skit had once landed a young man in hot water. He was suspected of being brainwashed by South Korean anti-Communist freedom broadcasts and now, much to the ire of his father, he is in trouble again for having held the hand of the daughter of a political prisoner and for picking flowers in a state of intoxication. He explains to his father how living in North Korea is akin to being on stage.
The Red Mushroom– A man requests a journalist to clear his uncle’s name. He has become a scapegoat of the party when the bean paste factory where he works runs short of supply due to mistakes made higher up. Unfortunately, even sincere journalists have to toe the party line:
“Eventually, he decided that he had no other choice than to knuckle down, amend the article so that the praise was meted out as the Party demanded it be, and submit it to the newspaper, all the while heaping curses on the field of journalism which he had been unfortunate enough to enter….”
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deborah Smith who has translated these stories beautifully into English retaining the local color and turn of phrase. The writing is stark but yet imbued with poetry. Whether it is a description of a cuckoo ‘crying out as if it were choking on a clot of blood’ or of people assembled in the square like ‘blocks of tofu’ or of a person shedding ” a pitcher’s worth of tears from a cup of sadness”, the similes and metaphors startle and suit the melodramatic nature of the tales. Many of the stories are repetitive but the repetition only serves to reinforce the shared plight of all the citizens whose fates are determined by the accident of birth and hang precariously on a piece of paper in a bureaucratic office.
There are Orwelian overtones in the stories but sadly this is not a dystopian world. It is a scathing indictment of a dynastic totalitarian regime which hasn’t changed much since the time the stories were written. In The Red Mushroom, the last story of the collection, the municipal building which stands for the red European specter is compared to a poisonous mushroom, the root of all misfortune and suffering and the story ends with the protagonist’s heart crying out the collective silent yearning of the people: “Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!”
The afterword to the stories reveals the interesting trajectory of the manuscript as it made its way to South Korea thanks to a relative of the author who enlists the help of a human rights activist. We learn that Bandi is a writer of the Chosun Writers’ League but other biographical details have been altered to protect his or her identity. Bandi who sees himself or herself as a firefly illuminating the darkness that engulfs North Korea includes, in lieu of acknowledgements, a poem imploring us to read his words. We owe it to the daring author to honor his request. Please read his book as an act of solidarity.