What a collection of short stories tells us about North Koreans
On the lives of those others.
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In her book, Nothing to Envy, on "ordinary lives" in North Korea, Barbara Demick recalls a trip to Pyongyang in 2005 when she was escorted from place to place by a couple of the regime's minders. These people, who rarely made eye contact, ensured that no off-the-record conversations took place and that there were no deviations from the approved itinerary.
Demick started to wonder what they were actually thinking. "Did they love their leader as much as they claimed? Did they have enough food to eat? What did they do when they came home from work? What was it like to live in the world's most repressive regime?"
Her compelling work of non-fiction is an attempt to answer those questions through a series of interviews with those who lived there and then managed to defect. Such answers can also be found in a work of fiction published earlier this year: a collection of short stories titled The Accusation, by Bandi, translated into English by Deborah Smith.
These seven stories make for apt if grim reading at a time when the dogs of war are straining at the leash. They also make clear, for those who need reminding, that the actions and thoughts of a country's leadership must not necessarily be equated with those of its citizens.
There have been other records of life in North Korea over the years, with most of them written by those no longer living in the country. However, Bandi - a pen-name that means "firefly" in Korean - still lives and works there, supposedly a member of the Chosun Writers' League Central Committee. Thus, South Korean writer Kim Seong-dong points out the historic nature of The Accusation: "No work denouncing the oppressive, antidemocratic regime of North Korea, by a writer still living in North Korea, has ever before been published."
The Accusation; Bandi: A handful of sand flung into the giant propaganda machinery in operation for seven decades now.
Bandi apparently wrote these stories in the early '90s, and each one of them is a harsh evaluation of the effects Kim Il-sung's regime had on North Koreans. A handful of sand flung into the giant propaganda machinery in operation for seven decades now.
Given that they're composed with the specific purpose of highlighting the plight of a hapless citizenry, they can come across as somewhat didactic and over-determined. That, in this case, shouldn't take away from their illuminating power or the author's mettle.
"We would escape from this land of deceit and falsehood, where even loyalty and diligence are not enough for life to flourish, choked as it is by tyranny and humiliation," one of the characters thinks. Others in these pages, for whom defection is not an option because of age or family, simply have to put up, pretending, for example, to be enthusiastic about the National Day celebrations, "mass games, in which a million people would take part".
Each story has at its heart the consequences of a blatant intrusion of the State into personal lives. A woman has to kowtow to a senior official because she wants her disgraced husband to rejoin the ruling party; a child is terrified by a picture of Marx, a reaction his parents unsuccessfully try to conceal; drawn curtains in an apartment are irrationally seen as a form of secret code; those without internal travel permits suffer indignities and tribulations when on the road because of personal emergencies.
Bandi apparently wrote these stories in the early '90s, and each one of them is a harsh evaluation of the effects Kim Il-sung's regime had on North Koreans. Photo: Reuters
Many stories are underpinned by aspects of Korean culture, such as strong family bonds, respect for elders, and ties with the land. This occasionally creates an appealing folksy quality, though much of it is again linked to the author's critique of living conditions under the regime. In one story, for example, we're told: "Like the rabbit who keeps three burrows to hurry into as needed, you can never be too careful. That's the moral of the story. Always stamp on a stone bridge before crossing, to check that it will bear your weight. Those are the rules for living in Pyongyang."
In the world we live in, those rules apply not just to Pyongyang.
In another story, Kim Il-sung himself puts in an appearance, being described as "a man whose pale golden clothes seemed to shed a soft veil of mist, enveloping him from his shoes to his fedora..." Though he clearly exudes absolute power, "his bulging paunch bent his arms into the shape of the Cyrillic letter".
There's a delicious irony, then, to read in the book's afterword that when the manuscript of The Accusation first travelled out of North Korea, it was allegedly concealed within the pages of The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung.