- The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi
The Accusation is an extraordinary book. It is a collection of seven short stories written in beautiful prose and conveying the author’s earth-shattering despair over the suffocating social system of modern-day North Korea.
Aside from its literary qualities, however, The Accusation’s publication is an extraordinary feat. Originally published in 2014 in Korea (as Kobal), it is the first book manuscript ever written secretly in North Korea, smuggled out, and published abroad. Its writer, Bandi—a pseudonym meaning ”firefly” in Korean—has long been a prominent writer in North Korea whose works were particularly widely published in the 1970s (p. 243). He remains a member of the Chosŏn Writer’s League’s Central Committee, and is thus part of North Korea’s intellectual elite.
Bandi became deeply disillusioned with the suffering during the implosion of the economy in the late 1980s, and the subsequent famine of the 1990s. He wrote the stories in The Accusation in order to share with the outside world “a true likeness of North Korean society as he himself saw it” (p. 244). The manuscript was long hidden in a cupboard in his home in North Hamgyŏng province, until it was smuggled to South Korea with the help of a relative who had defected there.
It may not be appropriate to dwell so long on the background of an author [End Page 260] in a book review, but in Bandi’s case, the background is a highly significant part of the overall story. It has long been debated whether North Korea has a similar type of culture of literary and artistic dissent as the one that flourished underground through secret Samizdat publications in countries of the former Soviet Union. With The Accusation, the world no longer has to wonder whether a culture of dissent exists in North Korea. No one knows precisely how extensive it is, but no matter its size, Bandi’s masterful and damning work has put it on the literary map.
The book’s title describes its contents well. The work’s seven stories are all accusations of injustice and oppression against the North Korean state and the social system it upholds. The first story, “Record of a Defection,” focuses on a technical engineer in one of the country’s most remote provinces, who suspects that his wife is having an affair. As the story unfolds, switching perspectives to his wife, it turns out that she has been secretly taking contraceptive pills to avoid bringing a child into a world she sees as cruel and grim. When her nephew is barred from becoming class president, she learns that her husband comes from a family background considered to be highly suspicious by the government. This convinces her that no matter how hard you work, and no matter how great your merits, family background forms a glass ceiling that stymies opportunity. This story, like several in the collection, is a harsh damnation of North Korea’s sŏngbun system, whereby all citizens are classified according to their political loyalty, deduced through the political merits of their families.
Sŏngbun also figures prominently in “City of Specters.” In this story, a mother from a highly prominent family background, living in Pyongyang’s most upscale central district, struggles to keep her child from crying at the sight of the portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Karl Marx in Kim Il-sung Square where their apartment is located. As she draws the blinds to shield her child’s eyes from the portraits, the local street secretary (perhaps a mistranslation of inminbanjang, head of the local neighborhood unit, or inminban) complains that this creates a lack of uniformity in the way the apartment building’s façade appears from the outside, perhaps a metaphor meant to illustrate the stifling climate of forced conformity in North Korean society. The secretary soon becomes suspicious of the family, and learning that their baby cries at the sight of the...