Saturday, February 9, 2019

In Whose Service Is Perfect Freedom

While I was in Chicago over the New Year, I found a book of fiction from North Korea, the first I've encountered and evidently the first that has appeared in the West.  (By coincidence, I found it in the same used bookstore where in 1995 I found the first South Korean novel I ever read, A Gray Man by Choi In-hun.)

The book, a collection of stories, is called The Accusation; the author uses the pseudonym Bandi.  The English translation, by Deborah Smith, was published in 2017 by House of Anansi in Canada and by Grove Press in the US.

There are some strange things about it.  According to a rather novelistic afterword, Bandi's manuscripts were smuggled into South Korea in the late 1990s; they weren't published even in Korean for another couple of decades.  There may be good reasons for the delay -- maybe publication waited until Bandi died, for his own safety? -- but there's no explanation.  Also the account of the process by which the material was smuggled seems unnecessarily complicated, even contradictory; again, that could be to protect the smugglers and the author.

I'm not sure what I expected from the stories.  They're about the oppressiveness of life in a harsh totalitarian regime, where people can lose their homes and jobs for infinitesimal ideological deviations, or even for being anonymously accused of them.  The cover blurb, reproduced on Amazon, calls The Accusation "eye-opening" and a "vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state."
The Accusation is a deeply moving and eye-opening work of fiction that paints a powerful portrait of life under the North Korean regime. Set during the period of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il's leadership, the seven stories that make up The Accusation give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships. The characters of these compelling stories come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from a young mother living among the elite in Pyongyang whose son misbehaves during a political rally, to a former Communist war hero who is deeply disillusioned with the intrusion of the Party into everything he holds dear, to a husband and father who is denied a travel permit and sneaks onto a train in order to visit his critically ill mother. Written with deep emotion and writing talent, The Accusation is a vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state, and also a hopeful testament to the humanity and rich internal life that persists even in such inhumane conditions.
The publication and translation of The Accusation is surely an event, but is it really "eye-opening"?  As an official enemy of the US, North Korea has been very effectively demonized in South Korean and Western media; much of the half-century-long flood of propaganda is even true.  I doubt any reader of Bandi's stories will find any fundamental surprises in his account of life in a highly repressive society.  Quite a number of books by Western visitors and North Korean defectors have appeared in the past few years, so we don't lack for first-hand accounts of life there.  The Accusation would have been more of a revelation if it had been published sooner.

What struck me most about The Accusation was how familiar it felt.  I've read a fair amount of fiction from Korea, some of it written under the Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1945, some of it written in the postwar period, during and after the South Korean dictatorships imposed and supported by the US.  Much of the claustrophobic feel of Bandi's fiction was reminiscent of the stories of those earlier periods.  During the postwar dictatorships, people suffered discrimination and repression because they had family or other ties to the North; being accused even of socialism, let alone communism, could have uncomfortable consequences much like those suffered by Northerners with family in the South.  For many years after the Korean war, there was a curfew in the South, and woe betide anyone caught abroad between midnight and 4 a.m.  The Kwangju uprising in the Southwest of South Korea of 1980 was put down with extreme brutality by Park Chung Hee's successor.  People were jailed, tortured, and executed for often flimsy political reasons; they might spend many years in camps in the countryside.

Or consider this anecdote, from the opening pages of  Korea's Grievous War by Su-kyoung Hwang (Pennsylvania, 2016):
In 1960, a crowd of mourners dressed in white formed a long funeral procession in a provincial district in South Korea. Young men and widows holding portraits of the dead led the grieving throng to a graveyard where their deceased family members were to be buried together. The collective casket contained the remains of over seven hundred people who had been massacred at the beginning of the Korean War. Their families had disinterred the bodies from a mass grave and were giving them a decent reburial. An inscription placed at the graveside read, “To the traveler passing by: historians of the future generation will tell the story of this grave.” One year later, under a newly established dictatorship, both the inscription and the burial site had disappeared without a trace. The families who had organized the mass funeral were arrested, imprisoned, and silenced. Their stories disappeared from public consciousness for decades.
Both North and South plotted to infiltrate and subvert each other.  In the 1960s a little group of convicts was sequestered and trained as commandos to cross the DMZ and assassinate then-DPRK dictator Kim Il Sung, as payback for an earlier attempt by Kim to assassinate then-ROK dictator Park Chung Hee. The operation was shelved when Park decided to make friends with Kim instead; it remained a deep secret until it was commemorated in a blockbuster 2003 South Korean film, Silmido.  South Korea, though nominally more open than the North, still had a reputation as the Hermit Kingdom until the 1988 Olympics were held there.  But the old rulers of the Republic of Korea were never really happy about the increase in freedom south of the 38th parallel, and there has been more or less constant pressure to turn back the clock.

Because of all this and more, I was taken aback by the claim at the end of the book's second afterword, that the "manuscript that had been in Bandi's possession was now going to South Korea, to a land of freedom and hope" (245).  That was much more true at the time Bandi sent his work south, than it was when he began to write it.  Outside of those few who knew something about Korean history, the change went largely unremarked in the United States.  Remember, like many other dictatorships South Korea was officially part of the Free World during the Cold War.  Little glitches like torture, massacres, and death squads were not incompatible with the US conception of "freedom" then, and not much has changed.

This is not to say that North Korea is a free society -- of course not -- or that I don't hope that the Kim dynasty will ultimately be replaced with a freer, more democratic government -- of course I do.  These days I dare to hope that such a change might happen in my lifetime, without the bloodbath dreamed of by South Korean and US hardliners alike; we've had enough of those.  I just believe that The Accusation was published a bit late to be effective propaganda.  If you haven't read much Korean literature, or even if you have and want to hear from a wider range of voices, it's worth a read.  The day may not be too far off when it will be as dated as Soviet-era dissident literature.  That's something worth hoping for.