Only once Mrs. Oh had left the station and made it onto the newly constructed highway did she realize that it, too, was caught up in the Class One event. The road seemed to play hide-and-seek with the railroad, the former hugging the coast while the latter sometimes ducked away inland. And the road was utterly deserted; no vehicle dared to cast a shadow there, much less individuals on foot. All traffic had met a blockade farther up; Mrs. Oh had managed to smuggle herself on only by coming via the station. What on earth was this Class One event, if both road and rail traffic had to be suspended? Were there two Kim Il-sungs paying a visit? One thing was for sure: There would be ‘cats’ stationed at each key point on the route. [from ‘Pandemonium’]
Here is a new and totally different collection of short stories from North Korea. Bandi (’Firefly’ – a pseudonym) is a dissident who, as far as I know, is the only published one still living in North Korea. The Afterword, detailing how the manuscript was smuggled out with the help of a relative and a Chinese visitor, is itself enthralling, though since some details were admittedly changed to protect the writer, we don’t know which of them are accurate.
As to why I didn’t choose The Accusation as my main representative work for the PDRK, I have to admit to a few niggling doubts about its authenticity. If everyone in the country is fed a diet of what we would consider propaganda and uniformity, ‘Bandi’’s literary sophistication and international writing quality surprised me a great deal. Be that as it may, I hasten to add that you mustn’t let me put you off reading it because of that. On the contrary, it is insightful, ironic, fearless, readable and of sophisticated writing, and I highly recommend it.
Since it is likely many of you will read this book (as you should!), unlike my other collection of short stories from north of the DMZ, I won’t spoil it by giving away the plots. Some of the themes include the country’s self-defeating bureaucratic madness, the way even those loyal to it suffer, and the horrible way that the innocent are punished for the ‘crimes’ of their relatives.
I’ll just mention one of the stories, Pandemonium, since it was a total twist on the usual ‘Kim Il-Sung as deus ex machina’ in ‘Korean Short Stories’. An old grandma is offered a lift by the Great Leader himself (!). She had ended up walking along the road, having given up on both train and bus since all services had been cancelled due precisely to Kim’s own travel along this route (he had selfishly chosen to travel both by road and rail, according to which section of the route was most scenic). This causes a nightmare for everyone else. In the end the supposedly grateful grandma is turned by the regime into a propaganda tool to show the Great Leader’s compassion for his people. (Pandemonium is dated 1995).
This is an important inside look into the ‘hermit kingdom’ and, whatever the truth of its back story, we are very lucky to have it.
‘Bandi’, The Accusation: forbidden stories from inside North Korea (translated by Deborah Smith), London, Serpent’s Tail, 2017, ISBN 978 1 78125 754 8
(first published in Korea 2014)
North Korea (PDRK) is difficult, not only for diplomats but also for world-readers! The aim of my reading project is, essentially, to read a novel from every country and, if possible, to learn as much as possible about that country from it, from the inside. But I’m acutely aware that sometimes, due to dictatorship or other reasons, a book published in a certain country might actually tell you less about the real situation there than one published outside, perhaps by a refugee, émigré or just a foreign observer. This may well be the case with North Korea. There is no shortage of fascinating books about it, and I’ve read several of them recently. But my main aim here is to read what the local people might read, even if it’s only the voice of the government.
Since most outsiders are unlikely to ever read anything from there, it might be worth posting on a few books.
By the way, while in English we usually refer to ‘North Korea’ and ‘South Korea’ (or their official titles, PDRK and ROK), as a single country divided by war, it’s interesting that in the two states different traditional names are used for ‘Korea’ – Choson (Joseon) in the North, Daehan Minguk in the South. And it hasn’t only been divided since the Korean War – it was divided into three states for a large part of its history.
While reading this I also read a couple of fascinating non-fiction books on the country: Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick); Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (Bradley K. Martin); and Without You, There is No Us (Suki Kim). I found all of them enthralling and filled with the most amazing anecdotes. If you have even the slightest interest in this enigmatic land, I really encourage you to dip into a few non-fiction works on it. From my experience, they seem to be far more balanced and nuanced than the one-dimensional cut-out view you get from the Western (let alone PDRK) media. I can’t recommend these ones too highly.
This collection (Korean Short Stories) was originally published in Pyongyang in 1986, when Kim Il-Sung was the head of state (actually he still is, officially, despite the minor detail of being dead). The common feature of the stories is a messianic appearance (in reality or dream) of the ubiquitous Great Leader, who was (it was claimed) an expert in everything, so it was interesting for me to see the specific advice he gave on each occasion.
Generally the editing is quite good with only one or two funny typos (”Sometimes the beauty of fair sex is really mightier than the sword, the priest thought to himself”).
History of Iron (by Pyon Hui Gun, 1967) – A steelworker is visited by the apostolic figure of Kim Il-Sung (in the flesh this time) and inspired by his rather vague advice to repair his blast furnace which had been bombed by the ‘Yankee imperialists’ by hand-chiselling out the congealed iron.
Happiness (by Sok Yun Gi, 1963)
A love story in which a paralysed man suffering from ‘bone tuberculosis’ and a ‘Yankee shell splinter’ lodged in one of his vertebrae is cured with a bone marrow transplant. At a desperate moment during the operation the doctor cries out in his mind, “‘What shall I do, Comrade Leader?’ The penetrating voice of the great leader echoed in my heart. ‘Have trust in man and love man!’” The patient walks out of the hospital ‘before long’ and is rewarded by the Party by being sent to work in a mine (seriously!)
‘It dawned on me then [sic] happiness is not gratification of one’s desires. I still firmly believe this – true happiness is not what we have gained but the long hard struggle for it.’ Despite some ridiculousness (the patient ‘knocked off a dozen or so American tanks single-handed’ before being wounded) and self-contradiction (especially as to when true happiness comes, considering this is the theme of the story), it is on the whole not bad.
Ogi (by Chon Se Bong, 1961) – Ogi nearly breaks off her engagement to Bong Guk when he decides that he could learn more by going to university than by staying as a tractor driver. The romance is saved when she discovers the miracle of the correspondence course. ‘nuff said…
Fellow Travellers (by Kim Byong Hun, 1960) – A county party chairman meets an enthusiastic would-be fish breeder smuggling young carp in her can on a train. I wasn’t quite sure why she was freelancing if the development of pisciculture was already Party policy, but it’s nice to see someone there being front-staged for doing something spontaneous and taking some initiative!
Everyone in Position! (by Om Dan Ung, 1974) – A group of workers come up with a radical plan to move a huge crane a distance of 6 Km, faster than the normal time of four months (!), by carrying it whole on a ‘raft’ of trucks and bulldozing the road as they go, thus overcoming ‘the central physical moment of force’ and the ‘law of inertia’:
“The opponents of our views know nothing but laws of physics. They don’t know the essence of the Juche [self-reliance] idea that man is the master of laws.”
Unusually, this story doesn’t end in a triumphal resolution, although we can safely assume it will:
“The impressive march with the 25-ton crane moved on through the dazzling confetti towards the target of steel production set by the leader.”
Unfinished Sculpture (by Ko Byong Sam)
This one is uniquely set in Kwangju in South Korea (which the Southerners now spell Gyeongju) during a confrontation “between the townsfolk who had risen up for liberty and soldiers armed to the teeth”. Annoyingly, this story is undated so it was impossible to know if it’s based on an actual uprising (probably the 1980 Kwangju Massacre/May 18 Democratic Rising) or some future purely fictional event. Of course, you wouldn’t recognise the lovely city:
“Silence. Blood. Red blood. the roadside pebbles, smashed roof tiles, broken street trees, downtrodden flower beds, open school bags, the pages of textbooks and notebooks fluttering in the wind, children’s shoes, smashed buses and barricades… Everything stained with blood. This night the white-robed girl was wandering in search of her lover, on the asphalt road splashed with young people’s blood, instead of flower petals or spring rain.”
I found the plot messy and hard to follow.
Korean Short Stories: a collection from North Korea, Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2003, ISBN 1-4101-0218-1
The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.
So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.
HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)