The past several years have brought many surprises out of North Korea, but one that has perhaps received less attention from Western media is the publication of The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea. The Accusation is a collection of short stories that were penned by a North Korean author, under the pseudonym of Bandi.
Each of Bandi’s stories, completed between 1989 and 1995, follows a different cast of characters in a different part of North Korea under the rule of Kim Il-sung. Readers see the North’s regime through the eyes of a loving grandmother bent on visiting her pregnant daughter, a border sentry forced to participate in theater for a military arts festival, and a reporter profiling the chief technician of a struggling bean paste factory, to name a few. These stories are works of fiction, but together they paint a portrait of a real country permeated by contradictions and pain.
Around 29,000 people have defected from North Korea and escaped to other countries over the past 20 years, and some of them have written about their experiences. As a result, a smattering of poetry and fiction about life in North Korea has been published internationally, but a book such as The Accusation is a first: its author still lives in North Korea.
Bandi is a writer in North Korea’s state-sponsored writers’ association, the Chosun Writer’s League Central Committee, which is an organization within North Korea’s Chosun Literature and Art General League. Under a government where all aspects of culture are highly monitored, all writers in North Korea are required to be affiliated with this league and literature is highly regulated. Writers are prescribed suitable topics by the Department of Propaganda and Agitation and only a small amount of their (censored) literature is published.
Though Bandi’s work began to be published in North Korea during the 1970s, the stories contained in The Accusation could never be published there.
Their opportunity for a readership beyond their author came with the defection of one Bandi’s relatives, who confided in Bandi her plans to escape to China. Concerned about the safety of his wife and children, Bandi decided not to flee with her, but he revealed to her the manuscript that he had been cultivating for several years. The relative told him that she could not take it with her on her journey out of North Korea in case she were found with it, but she promised to send for the book after she had safely made her escape.
The relative was captured by Chinese soldiers after crossing the northern border, but she received help from a human rights worker named Do Hee-yun. With the help of Do and his organization, the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, Bandi’s relative was freed and made it to South Korea. There she told Do about the manuscript, and he enlisted the help of a Chinese friend who intended to travel to North Korea to visit relatives. This friend managed to meet Bandi at his home and smuggle the manuscript back to Do in the South.
The Accusation was published in South Korea in 2013, and the English translation by Deborah Smith followed in March of 2017. True to its name, this book is a clear denunciation of the North Korean government.
Bandi’s characters hold all different social statuses and occupations, but each of their stories guides them through a similar journey. Their hardships are not uniform, but each burden leads its bearer to an epiphany as they realize the insidious malevolence of the state that they live under. The characters’ thoughts and exclamations about their society can be shocking in the brazenness of their dissent.
Beyond these clear moments of realization, the conditions described in The Accusation also reveal the paranoia that seeps through North Koreans’ lives in a more subtle manner. Each character is frightened of being accused of “antirevolutionary behavior,” and they are all vulnerable to falling into perilous situations due to circumstances and events beyond their control. They know that anyone can become an informer.
Perhaps the most poignant of all of The Accusation’s stories is “On Stage.” Told from the perspective of a father, this story describes how a young man leads his father to see how everyone in North Korea is forced to act in certain ways—at every moment throughout their lives, they must mask their true feelings and learn to behave as the government requires. In one instance, the son likens the 23 years of a friend’s life to 23 years of drama school. The anger and confusion that the father feels in response to this idea give way to dawning horror as he observes people around him and reflects on his own 58 years and how he too has been forced to hide his suffering.
Bandi’s stories also depict the obsequious way North Koreans were expected to treat even images of Kim Il-sung during his rule. In one story, set three months after the dictator’s death, citizens are still required to comb the barren hills for wildflowers to place on alters to his memory. Landslides and poisonous snakes claim several lives, and the cruel irony of situations such as this lay bare the absurd demands of the North Korean state and the toll that they take on its people.
But what is also remarkable about The Accusation, in addition to its political dissent, is the literary achievement it represents. The Accusation is not a dry rendering of brutal sufferings; Bandi has managed to write fiction that conveys sobering truths with finesse. His characters are realistic and plausible, and scattered throughout his text are beautifully detailed descriptions and similes that give life to their subject matter.
Deborah Smith’s work as a translator is also admirable. Smith has been careful to retain expressions that tie back to their place of origin. For example, in one story we find the sentence “The winter sun sets swifter than a pea rolling off a monk’s head,” a comparison that brings to mind the shaved heads of Buddhist monks in the Koreas. In another, a character wonders “how to heal the wound inflicted when her soft knee had snapped, like the sparrow who fell afoul of evil Nolbu,” referencing a Korean folktale shared by both the North and the South. As she translated Bandi’s work, Smith was careful to consider both the environment that had produced it and the importance of creating an English version that would best represent what Bandi wished to communicate to the world.
Other reviewers have compared Bandi’s work to that of Orwell or Ionesco, but what is so powerful about The Accusation is that it is a description of life as it was in a real country just over twenty years ago. Many of the issues that the book acknowledges—famine, censorship, travel restrictions, and propaganda are just a few—are clearly still relevant to North Korea today.
The way that each of Bandi’s main characters reaches a similar moment of realization leaves the reader with a haunting idea: does every citizen of North Korea recognize the oppression of their state, but struggle underneath it all the same, continuing to act their part?
The pen name that Bandi chose for himself means “firefly” in Korean, and it is explained by one of the poems that was also smuggled out of North Korea along with the manuscript of The Accusation. In this poem, Bandi wrote that he was “fated to shine only in a world of darkness.” For those of us on the other side of his world, the very least we can do is read and appreciate his work.