Despotic North Korea prompts ordinary people to do extraordinary things

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by BandiBandi (it means firefly in Korean) is the pseudonym of a male dissident writer still living in North Korea. This extract is from one story in a collection titled The Accusation. The stories were smuggled out in 2013. The South Korean publication in 2014 was a historic first; nothing like it has emerged in the 68 years since the peninsula was divided. It has since, according to the New York TImes, been published in 20 countries and translated into 18 languages. 

Myeong-shik had abruptly swallowed his sobs, and Gyeong-hee let out a sigh of relief. But the very next moment, the little lump of fire in her arms, who was pressing his face into her chest as though trying to tunnel inside her, became racked with the most extraordinary convulsions.

“Myeong-shik, Myeong-shik, no! This child …” Gyeong-hee had been appalled. The corners of his mouth were flecked with foam, and his eyes were glassy and unfocused. Had a doctor  happened to be at hand, the incident might well have ended in disaster. In the past week, Myeong-shik had had similar fits on two other occasions, terrified by the Eobi as seen through the apartment window.

These convulsions could have been easily prevented if Gyeong-hee had been more scrupulous in her care – she’d drawn the double curtains only over the west-facing window, when she should have known to cover both. Myeong-shik was shaken from his senses by that initial terror; in his eyes the portrait of Kim Il-sung had worn the countenance of the menacing Eobi.

Even the neighbourhood curtains need to be just so for  North Korean  parades.
Even the neighbourhood curtains need to be just so for North Korean parades. Wong Maye-E

Far from reassured

Now, though she had ensured that both sets of curtains were fully closed, Gyeong-hee was far from reassured as she watched her son find what little amusement he could in his toys. At any moment, she was expecting to hear the words “Fifth floor, apartment No. 3!” rapped out from the street below, in the chilling voice of the local Party secretary. If it happened, it would be the third time, and this time, she knew, he would not be fobbed off with an excuse and an apology.

“Fifth floor, apartment No. 3!”

Had she imagined it?

“Fifth floor No. 3!”

Karl Marx: Too much for a nervous child.
Karl Marx: Too much for a nervous child. Supplied

“Ah, yes.” Even after she admitted to herself that the voice was real, it took Gyeong-hee a few moments before she was able to get the words out, and her casual tone sounded forced in her ears.

“Please come down.”

So this is it … Gyeong-hee lifted Myeong-shik up and carried him out of the apartment, descending the stairs with heavy feet.

“Again, Comrade Manager? After everything I’ve told you?”

Any kind of deviance just won't do.
Any kind of deviance just won’t do. AP

Though well past forty, the local secretary’s lips still bore the flush of youth, and her white-framed glasses contained no prescription. Her voice, on the other hand, was cold and colourless.

“The thing is, Comrade Secretary –”

“That’s enough. Do I really have to spell it out for you a third time?”

This appeared to be a rhetorical question, as the woman launched straight into her usual speech before Gyeong-hee had the chance to question its necessity. “Comrade Manager, do you have something against the white nylon undercurtain with which the Party has been good enough to provide you? Provided, indeed, as a special consideration for the houses in our street, which have the honour of being at the city’s heart, a place where many foreigners will soon be visiting to see the celebrations. Do you perhaps resent the fact that they were not donated free of charge?”

There's no getting away from portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
There’s no getting away from portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. AP

‘Secret code’

“That’s not it, it’s just—”

“Look. Every other house has those same curtains, so the street can look neat and uniform. Which it would, if  your apartment wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb!”

Jabbing a rigid finger in the direction of the offending curtains, the secretary scowled first at them and then at Gyeong-hee herself.

“Well, as I said, it isn’t that I – ” Once again, Gyeong-hee found herself interrupted.

“It’s the same story every time. Why do you persist with this obstinacy, Comrade Manager? You might throw your weight around in your job, but collective life is another matter!”

“You go too far …”

“Too far?” the secretary thundered, though Gyeong-hee’s protest had been couched in the mildest terms. She began to flip through the red notebook she’d had tucked under her arm. “Given your family’s loyalty to the Party, I’ll tell you frankly how things stand. I received a report, dated the sixth of September. ‘In apartment 3 on the fifth floor of Building 5, every day from around six in the evening until the next morning, blue double curtains are drawn in both windows. I find this extremely suspicious. It could be some kind of secret code, to communicate with spies.'”

Clapping the notebook briskly shut, the secretary glanced sharply up at Gyeong-hee. “Such a report will have reached other ears than mine, Comrade Manager. And you dare to tell me that I’m the one who is going too far?”

Gyeong-hee’s eyes were wide with shock – at first. Almost immediately, she felt something bubbling up inside her, moving through her body with real heat and substance. Those who have boldness – who are undaunted, even, in their endurance – know how to hold themselves in check when they have to. But there comes a point when that endurance reaches its limit, and when it does, the full force of their character will manifest with double intensity.

“‘A secret code? Spies?'” Gyeong-hee’s laughter finally burst forth, a hearty guffaw that she could not control. She laughed so long and so loud that Myeong-shik whimpered in alarm, and the secretary began to look somewhat cowed.

“Okay,” Gyeong-hee said, still chuckling to herself, “I’ll tell you.” As she drew herself up to her full height, and shifted Myeong-shik higher in her arms, her imposing stature was matched once again by a dignified, commanding air. The laughter had acted as a coarse sieve, straining out her niggling concerns until all that was left was sheer brazen nerve. What could she possibly have to fear?

Even when she trotted off to school as a child, with her bowl cut and satchel, the red armband awarded to those whose character and comportment marked them out for a glittering career in the Party was a near-permanent fixture of her uniform, and it stayed on her arm through to her college days. After graduating and securing an enviable position, she steadily maintained her rank as a Party cadre and was entrusted with ever-greater responsibilities.

Having a father who was martyred in the Korean War meant her standing was sufficiently secure to not be threatened by the minor slip-ups that were inevitable now and then.

Her husband, though the graduate of a distinguished revolutionary academy, lacked her confident, decisive outlook. Congenital timidity was the only reason to quail before the business of a child’s nervous disposition! So their son found Marx’s portrait frightening; did it follow that his parents opposed the man’s ideology?

“After all,” she continued, her voice made husky by a rumble of amusement, “can the full story be worse than what you think, that I should be denounced as a spy?” Beginning with the incident during the rally, Gyeong-hee rattled through the whole history of Myeong-shik’s condition, ending with the business of the double curtains.

The secretary frowned.

Weed out any deviance

“But why cover the window on this side, too? Marx’s portrait isn’t visible from there.”

“No, but the Great Leader’s is.”


“You know the saying: The child who fears turtles will flinch at a manhole cover.”

“What? Your son is frightened by the portrait of our Great Leader?” The secretary’s gaze seemed to sharpen suddenly behind her glasses, but Gyeong-hee was past being deterred by such things.

“In any case,” she finished, “now that I’ve explained everything, I’d appreciate your understanding. I can’t shut my child up in a cupboard, or watch him every minute of the day, so what else am I to do? But tomorrow, during the ceremony, I promise I’ll keep the curtains open.”

“That is not acceptable,” the secretary insisted, her clipped tone rising as she delivered her final remarks. “This isn’t some petty quarrel over home furnishings. The review due to take place after the ceremony is intended to weed out any deviance from Party ideology – you are aware of this, Comrade Manager? I’ve nothing more to say.”

By the time Gyeong-hee had come up with a response, the secretary had vanished around the corner of the street, like a black hawk flying away with its prey.

This is an extract from The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, published by Profile Books, and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $27.99

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