House of Anansi Press
Satellite photos of the Korean peninsula at night show a stark contrast; the lights of the South shine brightly while the North is shrouded in near-complete darkness. It’s an image that’s been used to illustrate failings of the North Korean government – one that, through cruelty, mismanagement and the despotic rule of the Kim family, can’t even manage to give its people light. A simple illustration of a complicated problem, it doesn’t tell us anything about what life is like for people under the rule of a regime that keeps them in the dark.
North Korean defectors and experts have written memoirs, histories and political analyses that have been published in the West, but The Accusation is the first work of fiction to emerge. And while it covers much of the same ground as those works of nonfiction, there is something about fiction that makes hard information more digestible. The best short fiction condenses truth, presenting it a succinct and relatable way. The Accusation shines a light on the dark half of the Korean peninsula with stories that are as readable as they are important.
Bandi (the pseudonym of a North Korean journalist) wrote the stories in The Accusation between 1989 and 1995 – the last years of the reign of current ruler Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The Party takes a short view of anything remotely critical, so the manuscript was hidden away until a chance to smuggle it out of the country presented itself. According to the book’s afterword, it was nearly two decades before that opportunity arose. Unknown to Bandi, a plan was put in motion that ended with a stranger showing up at his door and asking for the manuscript. The author was hesitant at first, but ultimately handed it over, looking “as though it made no difference whether he died like this or like that.”
The stories, based on real-life anecdotes Bandi collected with a journalist’s ear for a good story, are a frank look at the life of regular citizens trying to get by under a repressive regime. Many of the characters fail to grasp the reality of the world in which they live, either through ignorance, stubbornness, or a misguided hope that the regime is more reasonable than it really is. In one, the mother of a sick and crying child scares him into calm by saying a picture of Marx is an evil spirit who punishes disobedient children. It works, temporarily, but causes the child to cry whenever he sees the picture. To prevent more crying, she keeps her curtains drawn, which prompts the suspicion of the local Party Secretary. The mother assumes the Party Secretary will be sympathetic to how the situation developed, but instead, the family is exiled for “making coarse remarks about the portrait of Karl Marx.”
The Accusation has the feeling of a man at last able to write the truth
It’s an institutional lack of empathy that allows bureaucratic busybodies the power to turn petty judgement of non-conformists into law. In On Stage, the capital is in mourning after the death of their Glorious Leader. Flowers are brought to shrines by citizens to show their sorrow, but then word gets out that a certain amount of mourning is obligatory: one visit to a shrine per day becomes mandatory, with a severe punishment for failing to be seen doing so. Available flowers disappear from the city, then from the countryside.
To hit quotas, citizens must band to gather to form foraging groups, and the area around Pyongyang is picked bare. A group dies in a landslide, but still, it is not enough; the quotas must be met, and every action is monitored. Stories like this seem satirical, but then this is a regime that allegedly used anti-aircraft guns in place of a traditional firing squad to execute a man whose crime was nodding off during a speech. Sadly, nothing in this book seems unlikely.
Red Mushroom walks readers though the process of publishing an article in North Korea, where rewrites demanded by the Party earn the lead character the nickname Mr. Bullshit Reporter, whose attempt to write a positive human-interest story is ominously described as “lacking in Party character.” A wise reporter, we learn, keeps his opinions to himself.
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The Accusation has the feeling of a man at last able to write the truth, setting free stories that he would never be able to tell in his home country. Stories such as the Party accusing a man of intentionally dying out of resentment toward the regime, or Kim Il-sung delaying trains for days so he can meander along a seaside drive, or even ordinary crying being treated as an act of rebellion. Even the small details of the stories – searching for scraps to make a kite or salvaging scrap metal for utensils – are the sorts of specifics that would be censored by the regime, lest they reflect badly.
If these stories are an exorcism for the author, they are a revelation for us; The Accusation is fiction, but it is fiction that screams truth. Like its great literary predecessor One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Accusation is a powerful work that seems destined to serve as the go-to example, and indictment, of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.