reviewed by Christopher Klim
“Though it was close to midnight, Gyeong-hee sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.”
Starvation, terror, death—this is the world of people trapped north of the Korean DMZ in a country led beneath the auspices of a single man who will do anything to preserve his fiefdom. And these conditions exist only in the best of favors. For many people, a minor offense, or perceived offense, results in banishment, generational curses, or hard labor—a sentence of sunup to sundown toil, torture, and thirst until a person is literally worked to death. The latter is what one expects from life under a socialist monarch, but it is the former, the everyday grueling aspects of ordinary life, that are captured within this insightful and harrowing collection of stories written about life in North Korea.
The author, who remains in North Korea, employs the pseudonym, Bandi, to protect his identity. He writes tales of people paying for the sins of their forefathers, sins that would be considered inconsequential in a free land, and sins they fear that they might commit in the future. Fear is the most powerful tool of a totalitarian regime. The cost is not only the theft individual liberty, but the draining away of the soul. Those who will not conform to fear, who will not be reformed by it, are simply eliminated—removed from society, cities, or the ranks of the living if necessary.
“City of Specters” is one of the most haunting in the collection—not because of physical brutality, but because of the way authoritarian control pervades the human spirit. At the outset, Han Gyeong-hee fights the crowds assembling in Pyongyang for an annual celebration honoring the supreme leader. She is strong and independent, contemptuous of her husband’s flaws, while struggling with the night terrors of her young son. Her son is frightened by the oversized images of Kim Jong-il posted throughout town. One in particular can be seen through their apartment window, reminding him of a legendary beast who punishes misbehaving children. Here, the normal trials of parenting collide with the pervasive demands to conform to society. After Gyeong-hee repeatedly draws her curtains to salve her son’s episodes from the public, she is reprimanded and warned for not keeping her window presentation in unison with the rest of the building. The overarching aspects of everyday life in a terrorist regime are on full display. Like an x-ray examining her thoughts, the government plumbs her business and plies it against her at will. It’s a slow burn that crushes her soul. Again and again, the party informers threaten Gyeong-hee, until her family is banished from the capital city, and a woman who seemed strong enough to persevere anything is psychologically broken.
Some intellects of free nations overemphasize their country’s imperfections, demanding greater control of a centralized government as a curative measure. This is a fear-driven philosophy that, as Bandi so aptly documents, results in fear throughout the land. Each of these misguided intellects either misinterprets or purposely skirts the central debate of individual liberty vs. authoritarian control, ignoring the endgame. Suppressing independent thought and action, so that the least equipped among us are safer, historically leads to diminished rights, self-expression, and prosperity. It in fact reverses the progress of civilization, not enhances it as some might claim. It does, however, empower and enrich the ruling class—albeit a military dictatorship, a communist regime, or an elected hierarchy that has become a corrupt and isolated faction apart from the people. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty brings potentially dangerous paths en route to creativity, success, and fulfillment. Authoritarianism delivers a stifling cocoon and a guaranteed dead end of personal misery. Bandi approaches this result in each of his stories. Acts that we take for granted in a free society will place his characters in peril.
Man’s inhumanity against man has been the overarching sin of the centuries, and Bandi reveals this abomination, resulting when one small group dominates the masses. Handwritten between 1989 and 1995 in native hangul, his stories are delivered in a simple style, but neither time nor translation lessen their impact. Although a brief afterword sketches the genesis of this book, one can only imagine what it took to both compose these stories and then smuggle them outside the country. Bandi has no doubt risked his life many times in the process. Let’s hope he’s still alive and continues to shed light on the many sins that his country’s tormentor badly wishes to hide.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review