“We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
This, a familiar note in recent presidential refrains, came yesterday in an address to the U.N. During that speech, Trump also referred to Kim Jong-un as “Rocket man,” which, I was somewhat surprised to discover, is not an original dis for a North Korean leader.
In recent months, most news out of North Korea has concerned rockets, the terrifying potential of long-range strikes. Though fears of nuclear conflict fuel most North Korean headlines, a groundbreaking story in North Korean letters shook the literary world earlier this year. In March, Grove Press published a short story collection, The Accusation, penned by a North Korean dissident who still lives in the country. This collection is the first of its type.
The author, publishing under the pen name Bandi – the Korean word for “firefly” – remains, for obvious reasons, anonymous. In the information about Bandi included in the afterword of his collection, his South Korean editor notes, “Biographical details have been altered in order to protect the identity of Bandi.” (To this end, though Bandi is referred to as ‘he,’ we cannot assume that the writer is a man.)
Some general details about Bandi’s life are not in dispute. Bandi remains a member of the state administered Choson Writer’s Alliance. Membership in this guild is requisite for publication in North Korea. Short fiction is popular and the country holds its writers in high regard. While a great deal of this status stems from the government’s interest in controlling all narratives, literature and literacy remain a real element of national pride. Though the product of dubious recording, it is telling that the government boasts often about its “100%” literacy rate.
While all state sponsored writing follows the principles of the national ideology, Juche – resolute self reliance to combat forces conspiring to destroy the homeland – it is important to recognize that Bandi’s work is far from the only literature produced in the country. If you’re interested in reading some state sponsored North Korean fiction, Words Without Borders published several stories in this issue of their online magazine.
That said, Bandi’s stories are the first to escape the country while leaving their dissident creator behind. Though many defectors have written about North Korea after fleeing the country, Bandi completed his work in the shadows while keeping up the appearances of a state sponsored writer. Some have compared his work – writing done in secret, under the thumb of an oppressive regime – to Solzhenitsyn’s writing, which had to be smuggled out of Soviet Russia and published in exile.
Only in the 90’s after several decades of working as a writer, did Bandi begin his work as a dissident. During this period, when unspeakable famine struck the country – a result of catastrophic flooding and the disastrous ‘Arduous March’ economic policies – Bandi lost many of his friends. In the face of that disaster, he turned his pencil to stories that exposed the fear and suffering of his nation. The result, a 700-plus-page manuscript composed in pencil, would not escape the country for many years.
Through a fortuitous connection – a Chinese citizen sympathetic to Bandi’s cause – his work found a way out. After visiting Bandi’s home under the guise of seeing family, this literary smuggler escaped with Bandi’s manuscript, each page concealed within the folds of The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung.
The stories in The Accusation follow families, individual tragedies, daily catastrophes that are often lost when we think about macro level autocracy, when we consume headlines that give us images of missiles and military marches. Bandi’s stories teem with anxiety – neighbors reporting each other for not using state issued curtains, parents reporting a child for drinking liquor after the death of the Dear Leader.
In a particularly haunting piece from the collection, “City of Specters,” a mother fears reprisal when her young son falls into crying fits standing beneath images of Karl Marx and Kim Il-sung. These tantrums occur before a national day of celebration, a time of increased vigilance – “Now that the preparations for National Day were coming to a head, people were at such a level of excitement they’d be liable to mistake a dropped spoon for a grenade.”
Fear of this, the implication of her child’s crying, captures the daily terror that pervades Bandi’s stories. “And what would it say about you or me, if we’d passed on to our son a fear of the Great Leader’s portrait?” the mother asks, though she is certain of the stakes. The stakes of every moment in The Accusation – the daily stakes beneath nuclear headlines, the stakes of Bandi’s truth telling – are life and death.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.