T he Kim-Trump Singapore summit this week is ‘historic’ in more ways than one. Besides a formal end of the war and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, it throws into sharp focus what kind of place North Korea is. And what the United States of America has become.
We don’t have to say much about the Trump regime, just read the POTUS tweets to see how he has corroded a government of the people, for the people and by the people — a nation that used to welcome the huddled masses yearning to be free.
We know much less about life inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since the armistice 64 years ago. How and why did an anachronistic Stalinist state survive to this day? The deep scars of war and America’s role in the suffering allowed the Kim Dynasty to deflect the people’s attention to a permanent outside enemy. The competing interests of Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and the U.S. locked the geopolitics for decades.
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The world doesn’t know much about the North Korea beyond impressive military parades, reports of famine and sibling rivalry leading to executions. Aside from a few tantalising glimpses from within the country, there is not much to go on.
When we arrived in Pyongyang on a flight from Beijing five years ago, there was a feeling of déjà vu: the austere terminal looked and felt like the old Kathmandu airport. Since there was no official to receive me, the police took my passport and were about to put me on the same flight back when my hosts showed up: a driver, translator and minder.
The mandatory first stop for all arriving visitors are the much-larger-than-life statues of The Great Leader and The Dear Leader, father and grandfather of president-for-life Kim Jong-un. Each bouquet of gladioli costs $5. Then it is to the Great Kim’s nativity site. In the car, driving along deserted streets and past empty high rises, we are reminded of the rules: no carrying local currency, no leaving the hotel unattended, no talking to people on the streets.
The apparatus of control look similar to the GDR while it was behind the Iron Curtain, but the degree of social engineering and fear in the DPRK today are much more palpable. Even so, just like no one could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, dramatic changes may be afoot on the Korean Peninsula as well. Wonders never cease: the reclusive tyrant has meetings with South Korean President and former human rights activist Moon Jae-in at the DMZ, and now the Sentosa Summit on Tuesday with Trump.
Cornered by sanctions, Kim knows his people cannot take it for much longer. He badly needs to put food on the table and goods in the shops, and has used nuclear blackmail effectively to attain that. But what has it been like for ordinary North Koreans to live for nearly three generations under totalitarianism?
When facts are scarce, one needs to turn to fiction. And a newly-translated collection of seven short stories by an author with the pseudonym Bandi and smuggled out of the North is better than most travelogues in portraying the reality of ever day life in Korea under the Kims.
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea takes us inside homes and factories where no foreigners are allowed. In page after page, we visit rundown communes in the countryside, to prefab flats away from Pyongyang’s sanitised, sterilised streets where pedestrians in suits are said to be paid to walk all day. Where shoppers and shopkeepers in well-stocked stores in the main squares are probably actors.
Bandi weaves the reality of life in North Korea into tales of families caught up in a surveillance state with spies everywhere, and everyone is watching everyone else. The smallest indiscretion or disrespect can get them convicted for anti-revolutionary crimes and sent off to the gulags. All the seven stories have the same plot: individuals made slaves to the state, everyone is an informer unless proven otherwise, even family members, they have to use flattery and favours to keep party sycophants happy – all the while trying to live lives with a modicum of human dignity, scrounging for basic necessities, just trying to survive from day to day keeping their heads down and trying not to be noticed.
It sounds like an Orwellian apocalyptic fiction, but it’s all raw DPRK, without exaggeration and embellishment. The characters are the flipside of jubiliant cutouts of smiling revolutionary workers and soldiers seen in Pyongyang.
A cutout propaganda billboard at Pyongyang’s main square from both sides.
A woman is forced to act out her grief at the death of the Great Leader, but is taken to task by a commissar who thinks her sorrow is not convincing enough. Her emotions are suspect because her husband has been imprisoned for dissent.
In another story, Pyongyang runs out of flowers for the Great Leader and people are forced to march up to the mountains to gather wild blossoms. A mother tries to stop her baby from crying by scaring it with posters of Karl Marx and Kim il-Sung outside the window, but the baby gets even more spooked. The party suspects the family of being anti-revolutionary because they draw the curtains.
The handwritten manuscript was smuggled out of North Korea in 2013, and authenticated as having been written by a North Korean writer for state-owned media. Bandi in Korean means ‘firefly’, and the author says he chose the nom de plume because he is ‘fated to shine only in a world of darkness’. It is an apt coincidence that ‘Bandi’ in Nepali means ‘prisoner’.
The Accusation Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi.
Translated by Deborah Smith
Serpent’s Tail 2017
$12.99 Hardcover 247 pages