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The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea Kindle Edition
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"Children of Blood and Bone"
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Each of the stories focuses on the lives of ordinary citizens who try to survive in a regime that seems to be decaying from within. While rarely explicitly critical of the idea of socialism, the stories providing a searing indictment of bureaucratic incompetence that leaves people on the precipice of starvation or condemned to a life of hardship because a piece of paper marks their record. In one story, “So Near, Yet So Far,” the protagonist attempts to visit his mother who is dying of heart disease, only to see his application for a railway pass denied on three separate occasions over the course of many months. Growing desperate after his most recent denial, he stows away on a train and manages to disembark immediately outside his hometown. However, he is stopped by guards and, because he lacks the necessary pass, is condemned to penal labor for three weeks. By the time he arrives home, a telegram arrives notifying him of his mother’s death.
For most of these characters, they served the regime loyally and worked hard, but see their efforts come to naught, which spurs a sudden realization of the horrors they have tolerated. Another story, “Life of a Swift Steed,” describes a teamster who served admirably in the Korean War, and in peacetime he was regularly commended with medals for his employment performance. In his youth, he planted an elm tree, symbolic of his optimism for his new country and the prospect of a better life. As the decades pass and the protagonist grows old before his time, he realizes he was beguiled by the empty promises of the regime and that his medals are nothing but valueless pieces of iron, and dies of a heart attack as he chops down the elm tree so cherished by him.
In virtually every story, one’s family plays a vital role in their fate. Many characters are tarred with a permanent black mark that bars their advancement because a family member defected or was found to be treasonous. Even those too young to understand the political consequences of their behavior place their family in peril. “City of Specters” has a two-year old petrified by giant posters of Karl Marx and Kim il-Sung that hang outside his apartment window, mistaking them for monsters. His mother tries to sooth him by closing the curtains, but this interferes with the uniformity expected of Pyongyang for an upcoming parade, and results in the family being banished to the countryside. With the exception of a cameo in one story, Kim il-Sung never appears in person, but his specter haunts these characters, demanding loyalty to his regime above their own lives. To do otherwise guarantees their forfeiture.
Only one story in the collection can be regarding as having something resembling a hopeful ending. In the first story of the collection, the protagonist’s wife refuses the romantic advances of the local party commissar and they are forced to flee by boat, leaving behind a letter that forms the story and leaving ambiguous whether they survive. For each of the other tales, life offers nothing but death, heartache, or physical suffering. The characters are provided only minimal personality development, in part because their stories are meant to represent the pain and arbitrariness of fate for each citizen in the country.
When I first read about the publication of The Accusation, I was somewhat skeptical of the stories’ veracity. The State Department admitted they provided funding to advance its publication, and the North Korean exile community can sometimes float ridiculous material in an attempt to chip away at the regime’s credibility. After completing this book, however, I believe the stories are genuine. They seem to come from a place of deep bitterness, even in translation. In the few biographical details provided in the afterward about the author, it is stated he is a member of the country’s writers league. He wrote these stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s, just as the country was beginning to undergo a famine that would kill hundreds of thousands of people. Growing disenchanted with the regime, he made his dissent in silence and when a family member defected, he was able to eventually smuggle these stories to her through a trusted intermediary. Bandi means firefly in Korean, and a poem at the front notes he sees himself as a solitary light piercing a veil of immense darkness. Hopefully this collection is the first hint that a new dawn in North Korea will soon arrive.
I saw a YouTube video interviewing N Korean defectors...I was surprised they said life was better in N Korea specifically because everyone in the village knew each other. In American cities, S Korean cities, European cities, strangers don't connect in a meaningful way - I for one don't know any of the neighbors in my apartments.
But our freedom is not something to throw away. We could not relocate to N Korea and find it better - not in any way shape or form. And from this book, yes, they know people in their village but the authors describe a life walking on tenterhooks - they never knew when a communist authority was watching them. Punishments for very small things range from beatings, banishment to the country, work camps and execution.
An example of a "small thing" was leaving the curtains closed in the city on the beloved leader's birthday. The impression of not pretending awe of the day was highly unacceptable. The mother of the family left the curtains closed because her child was sick and adversely affected by the light. A neighbor warned her about it, and then reported her when the curtains remained closed. The mother was a professional who had enjoyed respect and a relatively high paid job, yet the whole family got banished to the country for leaving the curtains closed.
In these punishments, whole families are scarred with the dissenter stain, even for generations. In my opinion, those N Korean defectors who liked it better there have not yet gained an appreciation of freedom. Freedom of religion, information, basic human rights, are things every democratic nation has worked hard at building over several hundred years. It's easy for anyone with a large enough army to take over a country but there is hard work in the cooperation required of democracy. We with those freedoms need to appreciate our fore-fathers' hard work and sacrifice rather than just take it for granted.
There are seven short stories about mainly working people that show the strict control, the lack of compassion and the brutality that the Kim regime doles out. These are sad and depressing stories that speak to the hearts of those of us who live in democracies where we don't have to get permission to travel from one city to another and we don't have guilt by association. If one family member does something wrong , then the entire family is forever associated with that crime.
My favorite story is "Red Mushroom" for its showing what happens to people who work themselves nearly to death, who gets the credit and what the courts are like in this closed country.