Firefly Pierces the Fog of Tyranny

Only a handful of memoirs and reminiscences by North Koreans make it into print in South
Korea, far fewer still in the rest of the world. Naturally, those that do are written by defectors. It is therefore very hard to obtain a
critical view of the North Korean regime or the society over which it rules by one who has not yet departed. It is this that makes “Expose,” published in May this year by the same conservative imprint that gave Jang Jin Sung an outlet for the original version of his memoir, so intriguing.

The reader is informed at the outset that the book manuscript was smuggled out of North Korea by a female relative of the author, wrapped within copies of the writings of Kim Il Sung. Apparently part of the Chosun Writer’s Union, the author’s identity is shrouded beneath
a pen name, “Bandi” (meaning “Firefly”). Published in May 2014, it contains
seven short stories, each written using a mix of the author’s experiences and stories he
picked up along the way.   

Under such conditions, it is impossible to distinguish between the
writer’s first-hand knowledge and information he obtained from elsewhere. But in any case, the writing demonstrates his utter disdain
for the North Korean ruling system. The stories parody society, from the
perspective of the Pyongyang elite right down to those in the lowest social strata. While
it is surely easy to describe North Korea as a tyrannical regime in toto, this
book dissects that claim, explaining what makes it a tyranny, and giving tyranny a human, though by no means humane, face.

Perhaps the biggest injustice tackled is the country’s
long-established class system. North Korean society is officially divided into
three classes: “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile.” While the core
constitutes the elite, who generally live in Pyongyang, the wavering and
hostile classes make up most of the population. The hostile class in particular
is subject to systematic discrimination due to family background: to be “hostile”
generally means that a relative was an “enemy of the people” earlier in Korean
history, either by being a landowner, or fleeing to South Korea during the
Korean War.

For instance, in Talbukgi
(Escape), a man is haunted by his father’s unintended destruction of a
new type of rice crop during the reconstruction that followed the
Korean War. The man faces discrimination at every turn, and is unable to join the Chosun Workers’ Party
as a result. In Balgan Beoseot (Red
Mushroom), a successful cadre is purged for hiding the fact that a
relative had fled to South Korea. Expelled to the countryside, he falls victim
to corrupt local cadres who frame him for poor production. The injustice of blame for the supposed failings of an ancestor is explored, as is the
helplessness and ease with which those caught on the lowest rungs of
society can become scapegoats.  

North Korea’s excessive, paranoia-driven control over its citizens is
explored in other stories. Yuryeongui
Doshi
(The City of Ghosts) tells the story of a child who cries out in fear
whenever he sees a portrait of Kim Il Sung. Unfortunately, one such portrait can be seen from the window of his home; in desperation, his mother closes the shades whenever
possible to prevent her son from viewing it. Unfortunately, the opening and
closing of the shades catches the attention of a local official, who suspects the mother of trying to send signals to unsavoury elements. She tells
the truth, which the cadre takes as a lie or worse, and in the end the family is expelled from Pyongyang to the countryside. 

Another underlying theme surrounds North Korea’s infamous controls over general freedom of movement. Anyone travelling outside the bounds of his or
her locale must apply for and obtain a travel permit. Bandi puts a human face
on this restriction with the story of a man trying to get to his mother
before she dies. The man applies and is denied a travel permit, but, not be
discouraged, hitches a ride with someone else who has a travel permit for
two but to a different location. He travels as far as he can by train, and then
walks to his hometown. But as he is on the brink of arrival he is stopped,
arrested for not having a permit, and kicked out of the area. His mother dies alone, with him unable to be by her side.

Taken in sum, Bandi’s stories expose the many tyrannies North Koreans
experience everyday, from the act of just trying to visit ailing family to being systematically discriminated against on the basis of family background. The reader is informed
that the stories were written around the time of Kim Il Sung’s death, right before the “Arduous March” began. As a result they are
somewhat dated and may provide grist to the mill of accusations of distorting North Korea today, a country shaped by money and corruption rather
than loyalty. The choice of publisher may not help. But in truth these stories contain deep truths about North
Korean society, and add much to the growing literature on that country’s painful
reality.

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