In the little more than five years of his reign as North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un has turned out to be more terrifying than his father. His regime has killed dozens of associates, including his uncle and half-brother, built more nuclear weapons and stiff-armed diplomatic outreach, even from friendly countries such as China.
Over that same time, outsiders have learned more about North Korea than ever because of books written by North Koreans who’ve escaped the country. Their tales have been a kind of publishing trendlet in the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea. Now comes the next thing in that miniboom: a book by someone still inside North Korea.
“The Accusation” is a collection of seven short stories written by Bandi, pseudonym for a man in his mid-60s who spent his career writing government propaganda. He still belongs to North Korea’s state-authorized writers association, according to defectors involved in smuggling the manuscript out and Cho Gab-je, a prominent South Korean journalist who first published it.
Bandi wrote the stories collected in “The Accusation” in pencil at home at night in the late 1980s and ’90s, the period when the Kim family made its first father-to-son transfer of power and the country endured a famine that killed at least 2 million, or one out of every 10 people. But with so little material advancement in North Korea since then, they don’t feel out of date.
In each story, Bandi portrays the Kim regime’s broken promises and the way it keeps North Koreans in line. In a story called “City of Specters,” a well-off woman learns to fear too late. Having skipped a patriotic rally to tend to a sick baby, the woman realizes her mistake when the propaganda speakers declare a “miracle” that 100,000 people turned out in less than 45 minutes. The woman shudders in “the awe of terror rather than the wonder felt in witnessing a miracle.”
Deborah Smith, whose translation of Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, vividly brings to English the taut, searing stories. The tale of how the manuscript reached the free world, in two additional chapters, is harrowing itself.
The defectors and human rights activists involved in bringing the book to light say that Bandi is in a part of North Korea where information moves freely and is aware that he’s been published around the world. In South Korea, profits from the book are being used for scholarships to defectors and are being set aside for Bandi himself.
Media accounts in South Korea are calling Bandi North Korea’s Solzhenitsyn, referring to Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about the gulags and atrocities of the Soviet Union. But the first volume of Solzhenitsyn’s seminal work on the gulags was published in 1968, nearly 15 years after the Soviets started taking apart its labor camps. Similarly, Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” about his experience in Nazi concentration camps, came 11 years after the end of World War II.
Bandi is no Solzhenitsyn or Wiesel. But reading “The Accusation” is a much different experience from reading those literary masterworks. Each turn of the page, each moment of anger and sadness a reader feels for Bandi’s characters comes with a deeper ache.
The reader knows, horribly, that all of these things are still happening.
Evan Ramstad, the Star Tribune’s digital business editor, was Korea correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 2006 to 2013.