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A Review of Bandi’s The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

A collection of fictional short stories about life in North Korea, the content of Bandi’s The Accusation is presented anonymously (Bandi is a pseudonym) after being smuggled over the border to the South. Despite being presented as fiction, the stories seem to contain a large kernel of truth.

Passed from a defector to a member of the Citizens Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees in Seoul, these stories deal largely with the dynamics of everyday life in the North. In one, a large group struggles for sustenance and direction as a gruelling train journey is held up by the safety requirements of Kim Jong Il on the move.

Another portrays a tiny moment that changes lives, as a young child grows to fear the symbolic portraits that occupy Pyongyang, and the entire family suffer the consequences. In a third, a man’s efforts to spend time with his dying mother take a tragic turn as he battles red tape.

The characters are at mixed levels of society, but largely not on the bottom rung of the North Korean social scale; while there are references to prison camps, no story is set in one. Instead, they portray everyday types in cities and villages, often non-specific in their location, and take in family life, political interference and the practical difficulties of survival. Whether about food or family, there’s an underlying desire to escape Pyongyang’s more obvious suppressions of freedom.

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Mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung;s homecoming, Pyongyang, North Korea

Dated in the late-80s and early-90s, these tales – simply for portraying the Kim regime in an oblique but obvious bad light – would constitute an act of severe rebellion in North Korea. The best-case scenario for the author, were he to be caught, might be an extended spell in a prison camp, yet at first glance, these passages portray such simple aspects of life in the Hermit Kingdom.

The simple nature of the stories lends itself to a suppressing, overbearing view of horrors and hardships. The presence of fear is like a constant background hum crawling from and between the lines of every page. The ‘citizen’s perspective’ lacks the horrifyingly grandiose nature and exaggerated ridicule of books closer to the leadership, but aligns with the ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’ life of the average person portrayed in many escapees’ memoirs.

Korea: A Defector’s Experience, North and South

North Korea will always have a problem when it comes to the world’s perspective. With the two halves of the Korean peninsula long embroiled in a bitter propaganda war in which neither side can be trusted to any real degree, South Korea comes out on top simply by virtue of having the louder, more internationally recognized voice. Most unbiased historians would probably come to the conclusion that there’s more truth to the South’s (relatively down to earth) claims, too, but very few people have the kind of genuine perspective – or even the access to it – that allows an honest appraisal of the true nature of the situation.