A brisk look at KCNA, North Korea's official news agency hosted from Japan, used to form an occasional part of my reading routine. It was a source of comic relief at first. As the rest of the world oscillated between crises, the inhabitants of North Korea seemed splendidly insulated from anything approaching hardship.
Their late leader Kim Jong-il was unflinching in his efforts to spread prosperity and tranquillity among his people. In 2008, much of the world was bracing itself for economic meltdown. But the citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, according to KCNA, were "enjoying their holidays in sanatoria and rest homes built in scenic spots of DPRK".
After a while, though, reading KCNA for pleasure felt like a perverse exercise. The website was aimed, after all, at a foreign audience – and the fact that the North Korean government could so cavalierly pass off complete fabrications to the outside world, knowing too well that the world knew them to be lies, was a measure of its contempt for common decency, its indifference to international opinion, and its power over its citizens. To those condemned to endure it, North Korea is no joke.
My sense of remorse was renewed by reading The Accusation, the only work of fiction written by a writer still living inside North Korea to reach a readership outside the country.
We shall probably never learn who that writer is. The biographical information supplied by the publishers is deliberately sparse and intentionally misleading: if his identity is ever revealed, he will in all likelihood face the firing squad.
The author introduces himself in a short prefatory poem as Bandi – "firefly" in Korean – a creature "fated to shine only in a world of darkness". An afterword by the South Korean novelist Kim Seong-dong explains that Bandi, a man now in his late 60s, is a member of North Korea's state-sanctioned writers' association who, between 1989 and 1995, handwrote, in pencil, a series of short stories about life under Kim Il-sung, the founder of the totalitarian state, and his son and successor Kim Jong-il.
The manuscript, totalling 750 sheets of paper, was later smuggled out of North Korea with the aid of benignant outsiders enlisted by a tenacious relative of Bandi's who had escaped to South Korea.
Each of the seven stories in The Accusation, translated into English by Deborah Smith, advances a chillingly vivid portrait of life inside North Korea – "a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies", as Il-cheol, the narrator of Record of a Defection, calls it. Il-cheol's father was branded an "anti-revolutionary element" in the 1950s for failing to use greenhouses to grow rice and packed away permanently to a labour camp.
His mother, deported along with her children to an unfamiliar place on the border with China, “breathed her last, still young, but beaten down”. Il-cheol, having somehow become an admired inventor, has married into a family with an unblemished record of allegiance to the Workers’ Party. But his own past continues to haunt him.
His family's suffering hasn't expiated the taint of his father's "crime". He is still a "hostile element", ineligible for membership to the Party, eternally suspect in the eyes of the state. He resents his wife, then questions her loyalty to him, before stumbling onto a shattering discovery that upends all his beliefs. He will, he resolves, risk everything to defect from North Korea, a "land of deceit and falsehood, where even loyalty and diligence are not enough for life to flourish".
Gyeong-hee, the Pyongyang resident who is at the centre of City of Spectres, is the antithesis of Il-cheol. Her devotion to the Party is so whole, her family's history of fidelity to the state so sterling, that she has cultivated an uncomplicated faith in the system under which she lives. She lives in an apartment overlooking the city's main square. When her 2-year-old son is paralysed by terror at the sight of the huge portraits of Karl Marx and Kim Il-sung displayed there – seeing in their faces "Eobi, the fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack and tosses them down a well" – she draws the curtains and thinks nothing of it. This seemingly trivial act inaugurates her precipitous downfall. Her neighbours, eager to exhibit their own devotion to the portraits that induce dread in Gyeong-hee's son, complain.
And the woman who "up until now … had lived in
ignorance of what it was to fear" is charged with neglecting to train her child "in the proper revolutionary principles" and is abruptly expelled from Pyongyang.
As she's driven with her belongings to the train station, she considers the capital city in the blackness of the night and understands what Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" looks like: ordinary people, denatured by the rituals of revolution and desperate to propitiate the revolution's overlords with sacrificial displays of dedication, unceasingly spying on each other with "eyes narrowed in accusation".
Bandi has been likened to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This is a specious analogy. Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who mutated in comfortable exile into a reactionary Russian nationalist, first published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) inside the Soviet Union.
Bandi cannot be fitted into familiar traditions because he is unprecedented. North Korea is unlike anything that exists or has existed.
Before the division of the peninsula 69 years ago, Korea experienced an extraordinary literary ferment that sought to rescue and remake the nation, ravaged for centuries by the competing imperialisms of China and Japan.
Yi Kwang-su, one of the pioneers of modern Korean literature, advocated a total break from the past. "We are a new people, without ancestors, without parents, that came from heaven", he declared in 1915. Yi, who had once dreamed of becoming the Korean Gandhi, gave early expression to the seemingly contradictory ideas that came to dominate North Korea.
For writers who gravitated towards Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung's rejection of the Korean past provided the illusion of progressivism, while the chauvinistic affirmation of Koreanness embedded in his ideology afforded the easy security and familiar comforts of identity.
Kim Jong-il's "revolution" was a fraudulent enterprise from the beginning, and the writers who boosted it by migrating to his new state were deceiving most of all themselves. North Korea became the graveyard of their talent. More works of merit – not just literary but also scientific – were published during the 30-year reign of the medieval Korean king Sejong than have appeared in the entire history of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which now exists solely to provide lavish subsistence to its owners.
Bandi's existence proves that fear and mass hypnosis haven't yet succeeded in annihilating the imaginations of North Koreans. If the stories in The Accusation are sourced from the actual experiences of actual people, then there can be no doubt that there are multiple Bandis in the country – men and women like the characters in The Accusation who are striving to preserve their souls from the assaults of the Kim dynasty.
Kim Seong-dong, the novelist, speculates in the epilogue that Bandi has risked his life to publish his work abroad in the hope of spurring "external efforts" to free North Korea.
What can the "world" do? Very little, alas – and not only because Pyongyang is armed with nuclear weapons but also because the "world" is a fractured entity. To read The Accusation as an invitation to aggression is to do a disservice to its author. Readers who demand the "liberation" of North Korea through military means after putting the book down will be failing Bandi. North Koreans are human beings, not a cause. They deserve solidarity and meaningful support, not aerial bombing. It may seem impossible to imagine this now, but in the end it is they who will determine their own future.
As the young son of a loyal secret service agent tells his father in the story One Stage, "whatever the play, the curtain always falls".