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.