Mike Breen, in his book The New Koreans, describes han as “a kind of rage and helplessness that is sublimated and lingers like an inactive resentment” and is often evidenced in tales of unrequited love, enforced separation and the like. Breen’s book is about South Koreans. But the han-generating hardships and repression suffered by the minjung under the Yushin constitution in South Korea are as nothing compared with the sufferings endured by their cousins north of the DMZ under the repressive hereditary dictatorship and terrifying surveillance system created by the Kim dynasty.
Bandi’s collection of short stories, smuggled out of North Korea and first published in South Korea in 2014, is full of han. And rage, and bitterness and a terrible sadness. This is a collection written in the early 1990s by an author who, according to the afterword explaining the text’s provenance, is still prominent in North Korea’s literary establishment, and who has to use the pseudonym which means “firefly” – a tiny creature that provides light in the darkness – to protect his identity and his life.
We have to take the provenance on trust, but the tales we read are consistent with everything we know about North Korea and paint the reality with more immediacy than we would dare to imagine.
In Record of a Defection a loving wife of impeccable songbun discovers the reasons behind her husband’s low status and tries to do her best to enable him to become a Party member. This would help their future offspring to avoid the discrimination and disadvantage suffered by her husband’s nephew. We feel angry at a system in which a grandfather’s perceived crime (of not being terribly skilled at new rice cultivation techniques) can still have an adverse impact on current and future grandchildren. We feel even angrier at the party official who seeks to take advantage of the situation for his own gratification. And we feel sorrow for the hardships of the wife and the husband’s misreading of her behaviour.
In City of Spectres, the party machinery’s literalism has a ring of authenticity. When the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was arrested in the DPRK in 2016, he reported that his crime was to have called North Korean border guards “ugly”, with “dog-like” voices. He had in fact described them as “grim-faced”, and relayed his experience having his suitcase examined by the same official: ‘”Books?” he barks. No, no books.’ So, in a colourful figure of speech, the central character in City of Spectres says: “The child who fears turtles will flinch at a manhole cover,” explaining why her two year-old son, who has an irrational fear of a giant portrait of Karl Marx in Kim Il-sung Square, is also nervous at a similar-sized portrait of the Kim Il-sung himself. Big mistake. When she and her family face their punishment the charge sheet includes “comparing the portrait of our Great Leader to a manhole cover.”
In Life of a Swift Steed we are told the story of a model worker, many times decorated for his efforts. Throughout his life he has been inspired by a tree which he had planted at the birth of the North Korean state, a tree which symbolised the hopes that communism would deliver: the fantasy of daily white rice and cooked meat. Much as the generation depicted in the South Korean movie Ode to My Father toiled away in order to build a better future, so the central character laboured heroically and self-sacrificially in support of the Party’s objectives. Of course, whereas the South succeeded in pulling itself up from the economic poverty it once suffered, the North Korea of the 1990s Arduous March saw a very different outcome, and the tree which had been planted in the 1940s came to be a symbol of broken promises.
In So Near Yet So Far, a miner tries and fails to get a travel permit to visit his dying mother, while Pandemonium describes the chaos imposed on ordinary citizens using the railway system when the transport network is shut down to enable a VIP to pass through.
Perhaps the two most powerful tales are left till last. In On Stage, a young theatre troupe is punished for a rehearsal in which their performance was insufficiently sincere. Meanwhile, on the larger stage that is the DPRK itself, in which the audience is your fellow-citizens and the security police, theatrical outpourings of grief are taking place following the death of the great leader, and we realise that in the DPRK everyone has to be an actor to survive.
The longest, and most damning, Accusation is the final one, in which the Party itself is likened to a poisonous red mushroom. The story is a bitter tirade against a system in which party officials and their families can twist the truth, morality and the law to further their own interests, and will have the reader shouting in unison with the narrator: “Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!”
That of course is the author’s aim, and one wishes that the collection could be published in North Korea. That will not happen while the current regime is in place.