North Korea is in part fascinating because it is mysterious. Cut off from viewing eyes not by geographical remoteness but by political design, the state and the lives within it seem strange and bizarre to observers. The mystery of the hermit state is part of its myth, which is cultivated by North Korea’s leadership, as well as a by-product of its peculiar circumstances. Outsiders can enter only irregularly. Western journalists cannot report on North Korea as they might any other country. Outside analysts can only guess at the bare facts of its economy, its politics and its culture.
What observers see is tightly controlled and contrived. It is the simulacrum of a state. And this contrived state is often on show when its government conducts tests of nuclear arms or ballistic missile technology. Elaborately dressed newsreaders declare that the West will be destroyed before the might of the North Korean military. There are parades and patriotic songs played over footage of military exercises.
This does not tell observers much about the North Korean state or its people. The country is only covered in the global press when its leadership does something either comically strange or capriciously cruel, or when its military is deemed to present an imminent threat. While this remains true, some bare facts remain unexamined. The world knows that North Korea is a dictatorship and a nasty one at that. It knows that the North Korean people have starved and been reduced to eating grass for want of food. That North Korea is a hereditary tyranny which has survived into its third generation is also an accepted fact. But what is missing from all this is a level of granular detail. This is necessary to see and to understand the way life is lived for the majority of North Koreans.
The recent publication of The Accusation, a book of stories from North Korea, is notable for several reasons. The book is good and the stories have a strange quality to them. This quality is almost uncanny. It is common to fiction which accurate describes the alien ways lives are lived in very different societies. In this case The Accusation is eerily accurate in its description of the basic nature of tyranny. But it is also an effective portrayal of how it is to be unfree as a North Korean, subject to the particularities of that’s country’s unique regime.
One of the most effective stories, “On Stage”, concerns the idea that, to live in a totalitarian society, each citizen must cultivate what is called ‘stage truth’. This is an elaborate survival mechanism. It is a sense that, to meet the expectations of the regime, citizens must lie to others about their feelings, their desires, their ambitions. And to do this, to perform in public, these citizens must lie to themselves. The performance cannot work if the performer knows it is all falsehood and fraud. This strategy is something North Koreans develop individually and instinctively. It stops North Koreans from doubting the regime and its constructed reality, but it does so for a reason. It keeps them alive. When this illusion is understood and its causes exposed, the results are explosive.
But more than effective literature, The Accusation is one of the first books published for global audiences about North Korea by someone still living in the country. Most books about the country for non-Koreans are written by those who have escaped. Their survivor narratives are compelling and often remarkable, but can present problems. Some of these stories can prove less than accurate, notably Shin Dong-hyuk’s Escape from Camp 14, which was questioned repeatedly and revealed to be made up of imagined elements enmeshed with real events.
This duplicity is somewhat understandable. Writing about oneself is difficult and often wrenching. This effect is only exacerbated when describing scenes or stories of real horror. The temptation to change significant details, to alter available evidence, can be strong. By omission or alteration, the writer can obscure aspects of their own lives they may wish to hide. Publishers and ghost writers are often less worried about scrupulous accuracy than they are about the production, or generation, of a good story.
As explicable as this all seems, it has an unfortunate consequence: the devaluation of North Korean defectors as sources. If they cannot be relied upon to be accurate, a great resource for studying their country is lost. In The Accusation, a new genre appears to open up. The collection’s author, ‘Bandi’, a pseudonym which means firefly, is a different quantity entirely. He is a writer and a North Korean. But unlike defectors who sell their recollections after they have left the country, Bandi is still in residence. He is anonymous for obvious reasons. Remaining within the hermit state gives his stories a real lustre that other accounts lack.
It is not only his proximate location which adds to Bandi’s light and value. He is also, his publishers say, a member of the official state-sponsored organisation for writers, the North Korean Writers’ Alliance. Despotisms try to co-opt the literary classes. First, the new leadership attempts to liquidate subversives; and then it creates a literary landscape in its own image, authorising and appointing writers to state-controlled organisations. This is the rubber stamp writers must seek. To work at all, the North Korean writer must receive approval from the state; they must adhere to strict ideological standards. Nothing can be published which is ideologically suspect of subversive. Art is supervised and directed from the centre.
Bandi is a member of a totalitarian writers’ bureau, yet he produces subversive and honest work for outside readers. This presents a fascinating dichotomy. Careful readers can compare the work which contracted state writers produce according to the standards of the dictatorship and the stuff they would or could write otherwise – and did, in Bandi’s case.
This is one area where the North Korean state has been quite munificent. Some books written according to state specifications have been translated into English by the North Korean state’s official foreign language press, the Foreign Languages Publishing House. They make fascinating reading. But one thing that sticks out about the fiction, of which little is visible to outsiders, is its poor quality.
Jackals, a novella by Han Sorya, a writer and politician whose work was famous and celebrated before his suppression, is almost laughably bad in translation. It used to be one of the centrepieces of North Korean literature; it is rather difficult to see why. Because its author was purged in 1961, there is no official state-sponsored rendering in English. But the literary critic and North Korea analyst B. R. Myers provides a translation which is accurate, if unpolished, in his Han Sŏrya and North Korean Literature. This translation is faithful to the spirit of the original, as Sorya did not aspire to elegance so much as ideological purity and a rapid turning out of writing. The novella is therefore, in Myers’ words, ‘riddled with mixed metaphors (usually of the bestial variety), logical inconsistencies, long stretches of tautologous dialogue, and confusingly abrupt transitions’.
The heart of the story is unrefined, designed as a mechanism for the transmission of propaganda. Through the revelation of their evil deeds, an American missionary and family are revealed to resemble the jackals of Sorya’s title. The Koreans they live among are driven to realise this by the Americans’ cruelty, and gain a sense of solidarity and a purpose in opposing the missionary family. Like this plot, Sorya’s prose is strained. Animal images abound. Children scurry away from the missionary’s intimidating son ‘like little spiders’. When the son, Simon, grabs the protagonist, Sugil, he clamps ‘his strong hand like a kite’s claw on the back of Sugil’s neck’. The neck in question is then drawn in ‘like a turtle’. This style quickly loses its folksy charm.
Since North Korea is ostensibly a Marxist-Leninist state, it follows that its literary culture should resemble those of other communist countries. The writings of North Korea’s leaders should, by rights, follow the pattern laid out by the leaders and intellectual architects of other communist states. There are similarities. The Complete Works of Kim Il-sung are like those of any other communist leader. (On a half-ironic note, the handwritten script for what became The Accusation was smuggled out of North Korea hidden in an edition of the Great Leader’s works.) But differences soon appear in the North Korean case. Written works purporting to be produced by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, are remarkable in and of themselves. The best example of this is his truly bizarre treatise On the Art of Cinema, helpfully translated into English by the Foreign Languages Publishing House.
The Dear Leader was known for his love of film. One of the most commonly repeated stories about his time in power concerns the kidnapping the South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and the actress Choi Eun-hee, who was also Shin’s wife. The story goes that Kim wanted to have them feature in projects of his own. His book certainly gives the impression of a frustrated creative: it is hectoring, vain, didactic and turgid.
It contains enough of the requisite ideological aspect – doctrinaire thinking with an attempt at originality – which characterises the works of some Marxist leaders, but it lacks all the poetry which made other communist figures’ writing endure. There is no North Korean writer-leader like Lenin; there are no North Korean poet-tyrants like Stalin and Mao.
At the same time, North Korean culture is divergent from the pattern established by other communist societies. The worship of the leader has set in, as it eventually did in other second world states. This is not a surprise. But the North Korean literary scene seems bereft in comparison to the Soviet Union and communist China. Even in film, which held such importance for Kim Jong-il, North Korea has made little progress. There is no North Korean Eisenstein.
These surveys are less than rigorous. Each state is unlike any other. But some things are comparable. It’s illustrative to compare the results of socialist realism, the communist artistic doctrine which holds that art should represent and be comprehensible to the working classes, as it was produced in Russia and North Korea. Some North Korea watchers, such as Myers, say North Korean literature is not actually socialist realism at all. Instead, North Korean propaganda contains a mix of ideological Marxist language and almost ethno-nationalist rhetoric. It appears, in practice, to comprise an uneven mix of the twentieth century’s dominant totalitarian philosophies.
This marks a further point of divergence between Korean Juche and other communist societies. Perhaps this difference can also be felt in and discerned between the cultures of dictatorial societies.
Soviet socialist realism still produced beauty, even if this was created in spite of the USSR’s tyranny and the monolithic cultural intentions of the its rulers. In what little North Korean literature English readers have access to, this seems not to have occurred. Its best literature is written either by escapees or internal dissidents disregarding artistic diktat.
This does not suggest that the Soviet artists and writers were culturally superior to their Korean cousins, or that European communist societies were more naturally conducive to modern literary culture. Instead, the difference is not so much cultural as political. And it is intentional rather than involuntary. The brilliance of Soviet thinkers and writers was not due to the communist party’s authoritarianism but occurred in spite of it.
The Soviet dictatorship was terribly oppressive, but North Korea is a different situation. It approaches total dictatorship in ways not before seen. It is a hereditary tyranny which has survived into its third generation. For a society to remain not only closed but also repressive for generations repudiates some optimistic rhetoric about the inevitable tide of freedom. The hereditary tyranny in North Korea suggests a lack of even the possibility of dissent, either through a rigid control of the nation’s intellectual life or through an accumulation of such power in the hands of the dictatorship that opposition is almost entirely impossible.
In an influential essay for Vanity Fair, the writer Christopher Hitchens documented his own visit to North Korea and suggested that the nature of its tyranny was almost unique. Did the North Korean people really believe what they are meant to believe? Hitchens asked, nearly two decades before Bandi elucidated the ‘stage truth’ North Koreans must perform every day.
‘I have been a visiting writer in several authoritarian and totalitarian states, and usually the question answers itself’, Hitchens wrote.
Someone in a café makes an offhand remark. A piece of ironic graffiti is scrawled in the men’s room. Some group at the university issues some improvised leaflet. The glacier begins to melt; a joke makes the rounds and the apparently immovable regime suddenly looks vulnerable and absurd. But it’s almost impossible to convey the extent to which North Korea just isn’t like that.
Despite this assessment, despite the monolithic nature of the North Korean state, pockets of resistance still exist. North Koreans defect from the country every year. They flee its horrors. They protest against its prison cities and empty fields. They write their stories. And most of what they write is good and true.
In Bandi, another mode of dissent has become visible. It is covert and small, but it is not insignificant. North Korean intellectual life can provide a means of seeing this total dictatorship in action, and understanding how it was created and how it sustains itself. But the cracks are appearing. It has taken more than half a century, and the de facto leadership of North Korea has changed hands successfully – but tyranny is never indefinite.
The Accusation is the first book smuggled out of North Korea while its author remains inside. There will doubtless be more. Books of this kind demonstrate that there are people within the people’s republic who question its doctrines and are willing to criticise its leaders. They are unsung, and often unseen. But they are there. And while such people exist, the Kim regime cannot survive in perpetuity. This knowledge will weigh heavy on North Korea’s leaders. It should make the rest of the world gladden, and hope for a better future, a future thought impossible not long ago.