The Winter Sun

November 29, 2017

Bandi (Deborah Smith trans.), The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2017

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

BandiWhen my daughter was two years old, she enjoyed going to the public library with me and playing on the ‘poota’. She would help type out the author’s name, or the title of the book, but once we had finished searching, she would want to stay on the computer and type some more. This routine could take some time. But one day Santa Claus came through the library’s front door with his big white beard, his big black boots, his big red belly, and his big white sack over his left shoulder. My daughter looked up from the keyboard, saw Santa, screamed, jumped off the computer stool, clambered up my body like a monkey up a pole, buried her head in my chest and shouted “We go home!”

Now imagine that this takes place in North Korea. And instead of Santa Claus, your two-year-old child is surprised and horrified by a giant portrait of another bearded man: Karl Marx. Your child screams and cries. He cannot be consoled. He is terrified. He is afraid of the Eobi, a “fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack and tosses them down a well” (p.36). This Eobi is ever-present. His portrait stares down on the ordered ranks of Pyongyang citizens massed to celebrate in Kim Il-sung Square: “One by one, columns began to form in the square, neatly divided like blocks of tofu” (p.55).

Karl Marx stands out dramatically, but not as forcefully, nor as ubiquitously, as the Great Leader himself. Kim Il-sung is the Great Leader. He is the Fatherly Leader. He is the Sun. The giant portrait of Fatherly Leader Kim Il-sung dominates the skyline of Pyongyang as he dominates the lives of the North Korean people. He points to the future. He stares into the window of your apartment, an apartment that overlooks Kim Il-sung Square, an apartment in a complex of identical apartments that house regime loyalists. Only regime loyalists have the right to live in the capital city, Pyongyang. Only regime loyalists have the special honour of living in an apartment that overlooks Kim Il-sung Square.

So why does your child cry when he sees the portrait of Karl Marx? Why does he close his eyes, or turn his face away from the Sun? What can explain such reactions to the hirsute hero of the international proletariat, and to the Father of Us All?

Where could such counter-revolutionary ideas come from?

Why shut the curtains in your apartment that overlooks Kim Il-sung Square? Why block out the Sun? All other curtains in all other apartments in all other apartment blocks overlooking Kim Il-sung Square are open. Everyone else is fulfilling their patriotic duty and presenting a united front.

Perhaps the drawn curtains are a coded message to foreign spies.

Perhaps they are a calculated insult to the Great Leader, the saviour of our people and the founder of our state.

Where could such counter-revolutionary actions come from?

These are just a few of the questions provoked by The Accusation, a series of short stories written in secret in North Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Eventually smuggled out on hand-written sheets and published in South Korea, these pseudonymous stories have now been translated into clear and forceful English prose by Deborah Smith.

Bandi’s seven stories present a unique literary perspective on a world that is normally glimpsed through non-fiction works, especially: defector memoirs (of varying grades of reliability); political analyses and historical narratives (from social scientists and professional historians who occupy different points on the political spectrum); and travelogues (that normally focus on the weirdness and hyperbole of North Korea, and typically include the same limited range of experiences provided by a highly controlled and restrictive North Korean state).

As with most non-fiction works about North Korea, The Accusation depicts life defined by strict social hierarchy and inherited status. A North Korean family’s economic, political and military history from the period of Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century, and the “side” taken by the family in the Korean War of 1950-1953, still defines its members as either “loyal”, “wavering”, or “hostile”. This bloodline determines which school or university the children and grand-children can attend, what state-appointed jobs they can take, and where in North Korea they can live.

“Loyal” means, of course, loyal to Kim Il-sung (and his descendants in what has now become the first nominally communist-inspired state that has achieved the inherited transfer of supreme power to the third generation). A “loyal” citizen might be one whose grandfather fought alongside Kim Il-sung against the Japanese in north-east China in the early 1930s. Or who fought against Syngman Rhee’s harsh South Korean regime and their US and UN backers (including Australian troops) in the brutal Korean War that technically has not ended 64 years after the 1953 armistice. A “hostile” citizen might be the descendant of a Japanese collaborator, a landlord, a Christian pastor, or someone with relatives who fought for the South.

Social hierarchy is extremely strong and it defines many things in North Korea. But it is not immutable. Many “loyal” comrades have, over the years, fallen out of favour and been banished to poor remote areas, imprisoned, made to disappear (along with their families) or executed. The loyal can be redefined as hostile and destroyed. It is well known that current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un executed his uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013, and it is widely suspected that Kim Jong-un’s secret agents arranged the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam in a poisoning attack at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

But how is social hierarchy experienced for ordinary North Korean people? In what ways does “loyalty” circumscribe and corrode everyday thoughts and actions? Bandi allows us to imagine such ordinary lives.

In the story “Pandemonium”, Bandi shows us what it is like to be stuck in a crowded train station. Because a special route has to be cleared for the secure travel of a supreme leader, the public train station becomes more and more packed as regular services are cancelled. Bandi depicts scenes of hunger, thirst, and the urgent needs of small children and the unwell. But to whom can they complain?

This dilemma is summarised neatly in the story “So Near, Yet So Far”: “even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion…so it was the law of the land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat” (p.98).

Imagine that your father is a North Korean agronomist, like the protagonist in Bandi’s “Record of a Defection”. He drops a tray of rice seedlings and some are destroyed. Is this a minor workplace accident, or sabotage designed to undermine the state’s agricultural plan and starve the people?

When people are starving, as has been the case at various times in the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (and before), Bandi shows how people scavenge for food and what they cook. In stories like “The Red Mushroom” and “Life of a Swift Steed”, Bandi takes the reader out to the denuded mountains, and into the cold kitchens.

The Accusation portrays life for the ordinary North Koreans who have striven to build a socialist future, like the labouring horse, Boxer, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. As a young revolutionary, Kim Il-sung defined this future as a time when Korean people could eat rice with meat soup, wear silk clothes, and live in a tiled roof house. Under Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, many North Koreans starved and wore vinylon. Today, under his grandson, North Koreans live under the threat of nuclear annihilation triggered by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un or President Donald J. Trump.

Bandi’s simple short stories have the power and directness of Russian realistic fiction, and they pose Brechtian dilemmas for the reader who has to question how to survive in such circumstances. Bandi occasionally uses metaphors from a previous era in Korean culture, “the winter sun sets swifter than a pea rolling off a monk’s head” (p.79), but there are few moments of humour in this book. Bandi treats his characters as both human and individual in a context where humanity and individuality are denied.

Glen Jennings has studied and worked in Australia and Asia, and is currently Deputy Dean of the Pathways School at Trinity College.

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