Title: The Accusation.
Genre: Short stories, politics, political dissent.
Country: North Korea.
Publication Date: 1989, 1993, 1995 (the compendium published in 2014).
Summary: In 1989, a North Korean dissident writer's stories, speaking of the horrors of the Kim Il-sung's regime and the lives of ordinary men and women facing the terrible absurdity of daily life in North Korea, were smuggled out of the country. This volume collects 7 short stories and 2 poems (in place of the Introduction and Acknowledgements). In Place of a Preface is a poem that serves as the mouthpiece for Bandi's belief of the evils of communism. In Record of a Defection (1989), a man describes the circumstances under which he and his family decide to defect - a shadow hanging over the whole family because of something his father had inadvertently committed many decades ago that grows ever darker and more dangerous as the man's nephew grows up. In City of Specters (1993), a successful family's life is jeopardized when, on the dawn of the National Day celebrations, their two-year-old son inexplicably develops an insurmountable terror of both the portrait of Karl Marx, and Kim Il-sung. In Life of a Swift Steed (1993), a man who is a decorated officer tries to preserve the reputation of his father's best friend as a Party member, when the older man violently refuses orders to cut down an elm tree growing in his back yard, which holds a special and ironic significance. In So Near, Yet So Far (1993), a man desperately tries to get back to the village where he was born and where his mother is now dying, despite the travelling regulations that forbid him from making the relatively short trek. In Pandemonium (1995), while a woman's husband and granddaughter are severely injured by being held in a train station for too long with too many people to allow for a First Class Event (the leader traveling down the given route), she has a shocking run-in with Kim Il-sung himself. On Stage is a story of a member's of the secret service, Yeong-pyo's, disillusionment with the state when he is informed his son's behaviour is found inappropriate, for it goes against the expected an constant outpouring of grief enforced by the state due to Kim Il-sung's death. In The Red Mushroom, a journalist tries to help a conscientious and hard-working man who, after ending a shortage of bean paste for the government, is chosen as the scapegoat to take the blame when the project fails due to environmental factors. In Place of Acknowledgements is a poem in which the author again warns against the terrible regime in which he lives, and urges people all over the world to heed his words.
My rating: 9/10
♥ That old man of Europe with his bristling beard
Claimed that capitalism is a pitch-black realm
While communism is a world of light.
I, Bandi, of this so-called world of light,
Fated to shine only in a world of darkness,
Denounce in front of the whole world
That light which is truly fathomless darkness,
Black as a moonless night at the year's end.
~~In Place of a Preface.
♥ The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn't want to think about, the only thing I could never get way from—my "standing." And the reason mine was so low? Because my father was a murderer—albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings.
♥ When the narrator of Choi's Record of an Escape has to make his way through the badlands around the Tumen River, a region bearing the distant memory of marauding Manchu tribes, he and his family still manage to maintain a spark of hope, unquenched even in the midst of adversity. But for my mother, who'd crossed the Gaema pass with her two young sons after seeing her husband taken away in handcuffs, there was only a heavy shroud of helplessness and desolation, with not a single strand of hope woven into its weft.
The people in Choi's book were fortunate in a way, heading into that adversity of their own free will, with nothing but their determination driving them on. They certainly seemed fortunate compared with us, being forcibly wrenched from everything that familiarity had made dear to us and "migrating" under armed guard to these distant parts where both the shape of the mountains and the sound of the water were foreign.
It was among these strange, comfortless sights that my mother breathed her last, still young, but beaten down by suffering and resentment. Her eyes were staring open when she died, her children's prospective future pricking her heart like one of the thick icicles that were abundant in our new home.
♥ As I read on with mounting surprise, the title of the bulletin—'Comrade Lee Il-cheol, Inventor! Further success in new inventions: the automatic plane!'—reminded me of a poster from middle school: "Great talent plus great effort! Student Lee Il-cheol's Study Experience," further ensuring that the name lodged in my mind...
There I was on my very first job, a colleague of the senor I'd held in such esteem, who had always seemed so far above me! I was so delighted by this lucky chance, and so proud to be working shoulder to shoulder with such an upstanding young man, that the desk I sat at felt like an old friend, and the willow outside the window seemed to dance for sheer joy.
To think how swiftly that happiness vanished! I hadn't been there long when, one day toward the end of the afternoon, an announcement was made. All Party members were to stay behind that evening, as the Party cell secretary had an important matter to discuss.
When I laid down my tools and headed to the break room for the meeting, how shocked I was to see the brilliant inventor, head lowered and shoulders slumped, trudging out through the main door! That young man—whose formal education had stopped at middle school but whose unflagging program of self-study had left him with greater intelligence and skill than any college graduate; who, like the legendary creature with the head of a dragon and the body of a horse, outstripped everyone else in both brain and brawn—how could anything of importance be discussed without him?
But such meetings were called quite often, and each time saw the "inventor" turned out of the break room with his tail between his legs! Why was I so affected by this contemptuous treatment? Why, when I found out that he had been unable to attend college due as his poor standing prevented him from joining the Party, did I find myself imagining how both the middle-school poster and the recent bulletin must seem meaningless imitations to him, mere children's toys compared with the real thing? My sympathy was so great, I even began to feel a vague, indeterminate hatred on his behalf. but this hatred was mingled with a far more tender feeling toward the inventor himself, that young man with the burning eyes, so humble and diligent despite his extraordinary mind. ...
People write books and sing songs claiming that love is this or that. But to me, love was indistinguishable from sympathy. That intolerable fretfulness at your inability to take any of the suffering on yourself, that irrepressible impulse to offer up your own flesh as a sacrifice, anything to bring some measure of relief...
In just such a blaze of sympathy, love budded within me and burst into glorious flower.
♥ With great difficulty I managed to calm Min-hyuk down and dry his tears, but there was no chance of carrying on with my sewing. He still had his satchel with him, I noticed, meaning he'd come syraigt here from school. No doubt he expected that I would be able to solve this problem with a click of my fingers. His confidence in me was a heavy burden.
For my own family, I could boast nothing better than a father who was a member of the municipal administration board, but Min-hyuk's parents held even this lowly position in high esteem. The boy had clearly picked up on this, hence his coming to me before his parents. The tears might have stopped streaming down his face but they were still there in his eyes, dark shining eyes like those of a young calf. It was impossible for me to do noting. Instructing Min-hyuk to stay and amuse himself, I went straight to the people's school. As chance would have it, the supervisor of the senior years—the Boy Scouts—was none other than Moon Yeong-hee, a childhood friend I'd lost touch with. Seeing her, I figured this would be easier than I'd thought. But as soon as she'd heard what I had to say, I realized that this was far more serious than a snub from some snot-nosed kid.
"There's no secrets between us," she began, "so I'll tell you very frankly how things stand. This is an issue that comes up time and again once the children become Boy Scouts. I received a proposal from their homeroom teacher to give your nephew the post of class president. His grades were already at the top, and his comportment was first-class. But when I went to get the proposal ratified by the Party secretary, I got, 'Comrade, don't you know that this child's father was deported to Wonsan?' and, well, that was that. The Boy Scouts is the first level in the Party hierarchy, so we simply can't use the same criteria as we did when the children were younger."
♥ "We've just come from school. Min-hyuk crossed the stone bridge first, and some kid said, 'That brat crossed the bridge first, who does he think he is?'"
"And you're just standing here crying about it?" I scolded Min-hyuk. "Jeong-ho, who's the one that called him a brat? Some big bully?"
"Pfft... Min-hyuk could swat him like a fly!"
"Then why didn't he? Instead of crying like a dummy."
"As if! That kid's father is a Party officer!"
Jeong-ho's words slid in like a thorn. Clearly, the unspoken thought behind them—and Min-hyuk's is a traitor—was also what lay behind the emptiness in Min-hyuk's eyes.
So, Min-hyuk has already begun to bow to the weight of his family circumstances? This early? The moment this though struck me, I pulled him into a tight embrace. If only I could melt the frost that was chilling his young heart!
Min-hyuk began to cry again, and this time I cried with him.
♥ How, how could this be? Even if the father had committed such a heinous crime that it really did warrant his death, what kind of crime could belong to his sons, who had been mere children at the time? And even if someone had decided that it was right and proper for the sons to bear the blame, how could it possibly be right for Min-hyuk to have his life darkened by his grandfather's shadow, a man he'd never even set eyes on? No, it was too much. Too much, truly, for innocent people whose lives consisted of doing as they were told. If Min-hyuk's uncle found out we were under surveillance, the shame and anger would cripple him. How cold he bear to show his face after that? He'd feel as exposed as if his socks were inside out!
♥ "You know, if anyone ever found out that my husband and I smuggled this file out for you, the verdict would be just the same—Class 149. It means the Party considers you a traitor. Our whole family would be deported according to Government Resolution 149, and persecuted for generations."
Class 149! I cringed to hear it spoken out loud. Those words were enough to strike terror into any listener. Even the seal used to stamp the document seemed not some innocuous wax stick but an iron brand, heated in flames and seared indelibly onto the rump of livestock. It had been used to brand slaves too, in the old days; now Min-hyuk's father and uncle, even young Min-hyuk itself, bore its mark. Not merely on the skin, but biting deep into the flesh.
..But there was something else—the tear-streaked mess of Min-hyuk's face when he'd come to ask my help that day, and later, leaning against the tree, the empty look in his eyes that belied his young age. I could see his face as though he were there in front of me, only this time the bridge of his nose had been seared with that hideous brand. His father and uncle might have a hard lot in life, but that was nothing compared with this. A blameless child with his whole life already mapped out, forced to follow in his parents' footsteps, step by stumbling step, along that same route of blood and tears.
♥ In this country, a mother has only one wish when she brings a child into the world: that their passage through life will be blessed. But if she knew for a fact that what lay in wait was an endless path of thorns? She'd need the cruelty of a hardened criminal to condemn a child to that.
Soon, tomorrow at the latest, I'll have to go to the gynecologist.
♥ It seems all my secrets are being found out. Today, my husband finally discovered the meal I'd been making for myself—and he thought it was dog food! Dog food or pig swill, I should be grateful that it looked too unappetizing for him to suspect the truth. He's generally quite perceptive, but I suppose men are men, after all. I've been doing this for months—hovering around the breakfast table, finding something to keep myself occupied until he's practically finished eating, then sitting down for a few spoonfuls before seeing him off to work. The food that was meant for me gets saved for my husband's lunch, but I have to boil up some scraps for myself to stave off the hunger pangs. I'd had to repeat this performance toward the end of each month, when I haven't managed to make the rations last, and he hasn't noticed a thing. Dog food! He headed back out with the tape measure, and as soon as the door closed behind him I could no longer contain my laughter. But the warm tears that trickled from my eyes weren't quite tears of amusement. Nor were they tears of self-pity, of course, that I had to live off such meager fare. I was simply upset by my own powerlessness; that this small act was all I could do for my husband.
♥ Sitting hand in hand with my wife, we clasped each other tight and I sobbed like a child. And then I made up my mind. We would escape from this land of deceit and falsehood, where even loyalty and diligence are not enough for life to flourish choked as it is by tyranny and humiliation.
Outside the window, the cloak of darkness has already fallen. The clock on the wall shows that the hour is almost upon us. A few minutes from now, we will board a train that will carry us away from this town, all the way to the coast. There, a dugout canoe will be waiting, which I hid for just such an eventuality. My brother's family will join us, and the canoe will bear the fate of five lives.
There is, of course, great peril in this. We might easily be shot by the coast guard or a patrol boat, to be swallowed up like leaves in the wind and waves. And still, knowing this, we choose to bet our lives on this chance. Because we feel that to slide into oblivion would genuinely be better than continuing to live as we have been, persecuted and tormented. If fate intervenes, perhaps the hand of a rescuer might draw us to some new shore. Otherwise, we can only hope that our canoe on the vast blue will mark this land as a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies!
~~Record of a Defection.
♥ But no, it had to be kept hushed up. So the child was still a baby—what did that matter?
He was the son of a supervisor in the propaganda department, and having a tantrum at the sight of Marx's portrait had serious implications. And besides, now that the preparations for National Day were coming to a head, everyone was at such a level of excitement they'd be liable to mistake a dropped spoon for a grenade. The event itself would be followed by a strict review, and woe betide any participant who had demonstrated less than revolutionary fervor. No, it wouldn't do to step out of line just now. There were only a few days left, after all—they just needed to keep their heads down.
♥ Her group had been at the head of the square's far-left column, directly beneath the glowering gaze of Karl Marx. In the haze of dusk, before the square's electric lighting was switched on, that reddish-black face with its great swat of hair would have sent shivers down the spine of even the most stolid Party cadre. Perhaps it was that which accounted for Gyeong-hee's unwonted recollection—a line from the first passage of The Communist Manifesto, which she'd read at some point during college.
"A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism."
Had Marx inadvertently been writing his autobiography? The phrase was a mysteriously fitting description of how his portrait had appeared just then: closer in form to some spectral presence than an actual human being, plucked from some ghastly legend.
♥ 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.
♥ "Wasn't I telling you only yesterday about the 'Rabbit with Three Burrows'? Like the rabbit who keeps three burrows to hurry into as needed, you can never be too careful. That's the moral of the story. Always stamp on a stone bridge before crossing, to check that it will bear your weight. Those are the rules for living on Pyongyang. So what on earth possessed you, today of all days? ..What's the most important theory in all of Marx's thought?" he asked, raising his arm to point to the man himself. ..The dictatorship of the proletariat. To which the theory of capital and the construction of scientific communism are both related, of course, but secondary. If capital is the weapon of capitalism, the weapon of socialism, which governs all our lives here, is the proletariat dictatorship. A dictatorship of the people! Yes, the people of this city understand all too well the reality of that idea. That's why they love according to the principles of the 'Rabbit with Three Burrows.' But you go about without a care in the world, thinking your martyred father puts you beyond reproach. What do you think that will be worth, the day you slip up and find the people against you'? You think the Eobi is just a fairy tale?"
♥ "I tried to explain that Myeong-shik must have inherited my feeble constitution, that that's why he has this condition, and do you know what the department chief said?"
"That our physical constitution isn't all we inherit—that our mind-set comes from our parents too."
"He really said that?"
"Yes! And what would it say about you or me, if we'd passed on to our son a fear of the Great Leader's portrait? Well?"
"But that's ridiculous..."
"Is it? It's as simple as two times two."
♥ "Informing the citizens. We have created a miracle here today, which has made the people of the world shudder with awe. One hundred thousand citizens have assembled here in Kim Il-sung Square. One hundred thousand citizens within forty-five minutes..."
Unbeknownst to herself, Gyeong-hee pressed her hands together in front of her chest at this new broadcast from radio channel 3. For some reason, her heart began to shudder.
"Shudder"! Yes, that was the exact word for it. What had just taken place in front of Gyeong-hee's eyes was a spectacle including the awe of terror rather than the wonder felt when witnessing a miracle. Not even the threat of immediate death could have induced such unconditional obedience. What terrifying force had caused this city to give birth to such an incomprehensible upheaval?
♥ Anything deemed to have marred the celebrations, even down to a so-called lack of fervor, was exhaustively accounted for. The most severe punishment tended to be expulsion from the capital—"banishment" was the official term. This was effected with ruthless efficiency. The banished were not even permitted to pack their own belongings. Once the verdict had been handed down—"Comrade, your behavior at the time of the celebrations has been judged as unacceptable; according to Party regulations, your household will be relocated to the countryside"—the punishment was discharged immediately.
Under the careful scrutiny of a representative from the department of information, several officials arrived with straw bags ad knotted rice sacks, into which belongings were packed so swiftly that the offenders never had time to react. Things were arranged so as to leave as little time as possible before the train bound for their new home departed. The representative stayed by the offenders' side the whole time, in the truck to the station and then onto the train, so deeply concerned to see them to their destination—which was so far from Pyongyang on every sense that it seemed an alien land—that he never once let them out of his sight.
♥ Her blank gaze shifted, and the square's two portraits loomed into view: Karl Marx, his features buried in a bristling sea of beard, and Kim Il-sung, his lips set in a stern, disapproving line. Two red "specters" bellowing at Gyrong-hee: "Stop this useless brooding, Comrade! You dare to think your punishment unjust? When you're given an order you follow it, without exception. Without exception, do you hear? Don't you know to whom this city belongs?"
Those menacing, pitiless specters kept Gyeong-hee's grief inside her and crushed any hope of a reprieve.
Her limbs began to tremble, and not only because of the September chill. Fear swelled inside her—fear, something which had to be instilled in you from birth if you were to survive life in this county. Now, at last, she had the answer to the riddle, understood the force that had moved a hundred thousand people like puppets on a string. If her husband were to quiz her now on Marx's most significant theory, how much more seriously, rigorously, confidently she could have answered.
The truck raced on to the station. On both sides of the road, the clusters of apartment windows mysteriously recalled to her her dream from the night before National Day: the "Rabbit with Three Burrows"....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. If the Eobi were to give the order, the figures said, hey would flock to the square in even less time than before, without exception!
~~City of Specters.
♥ "You must have a lot on your mind, Uncle? Receiving your thirteenth medal, I mean."
"That's right. Before you arrived, I was just thinking about the true owner of these medals."
"What are you talking about, true owner? They were each awarded to you for your unsparing devotion to this country!"
Yong-su was silent, visibly hesitating over whether or not to speak what was on his mind. After a while, he continued, "The true owner of these medals... is standing outside."
"What? Outside?" Yeong-il blanched. "You don't mean..."
"Why so startled? That's right, I'm talking about that elm tree out there. That's what's had me on my feet my whole life, working myself to the bone! Every time I looked at it, it's like I could see them come to life—all the promises they made me when I was a lad. All the wonderful things that were going to come true. It's that elm that's spurred me on to do the things they gave me these shiny medals for; and yet, in the end... ..Ever since I first became a Party member, that elm has been my rock, my pillar propping me up."
♥ As he sat there listening to his uncle's story, the smoke from Yeong-il's cigarette quietly unspooled into the freezing air, and a space gradually formed between the two of them.
♥ "People look up to me and my wagon, you know. And my elm..."
"For God's sake, not that elm again! 'My elm' this, 'my elm' that, morning, noon, and night... Where are the so-called fruits of this elm, eh, that you've worn your life out on? Still on their way, are they? Soup with meat and pure white rice—"
"Stop flapping your tongue, woman. They're awarding medals at the factory tomorrow; I'll need to be able to hold me head up then, won't I?"
"Another medal! What good is a medal to us? Will a medal keep us warm? Will a medal fill our stomachs? It's just a useless chunk of iron; it;s a far cry from silk clothes and a tile-roofed house."
"What? You bitch!" Yong-su thundered, snatching up the ashtray. It flew past his wife's face, almost grazing her cheek, then smashed against the wall of the kitchen, exploding into a spray of fragments.
♥ Next, there were those two curious phrases he'd uttered: "For those who are a bit slow in the head, every slur cuts twice as deep," and "you and the tree both!" "A bit slower in the head"—that was a euphemism if ever he'd heard one, but what was behind it? And why would Yong-su have threatened to harm his precious elm? It wasn't as though he'd needed to make a confession in the first place; Yeong-il certainly hadn't been expecting it.
Now he saw it plain. A combination of recent events had led the scales to fall from Yong-su's eyes, revealing the always postponed fruits of his labor—that pure white rice and tile-roofed house—to be nothing but an illusion, one that he hadn't had the wits to see. He'd felt rage and sorrow, yes, but also shame at having been so easily placated, shame at the pride he had taken in useless lumps of metal; and so he'd wanted to punish himself, by striking at that which was most dear to him...
Yeong-il was genuinely stunned. He would never have dreamed that that simple phrase, "waving an axe," could have had its roots in such enormous turmoil. And yet, even this was not as shocking as his own thoughts on the matter. Now that he had seen right through to the core of this man Seol Yong-su, a man who clearly believed himself to have been duped by socialism, how could he, an officer with a star on his shoulder, be regarding him with such equanimity?
..What suffering could compare with the disappointment and regret that Yong-su must have felt when he came to realize that the simple faith with which he'd once shouted "It's—a—pro—mise" was founded on an illusion? He'd had to bear that acute sense of loss alone, with no one but himself to blame or reproach, the torment compounded by the lack of any outlet for it, the impossibility of allowing any outward expression. From that perspective, the axe-waving had not been a threat of violence toward either the military police or the tree itself, but a cry of self-denunciation, the sound of a human being torn apart by contradictions.
Chae Gwang! You too ought to know the suffering of this man, a kindhearted man who has been cruelly deceived! That day will have to come, before too long.
♥ More than the stiff limbs and shuttered eyes of his uncle, who must have died the night before, alone in the empty house, what startled Yeong-il was the body of the elm, lying splayed out in the center of the yard, having been hacked in two near the base of its trunk. The repeated blow had been delivered with such force, such frenzy, that there were tiny white chips of wood speckling even the stable roof. Stepping through the side door into the crowded kitchen, Yeong-il saw a block of elm wood burning in the fireplace, making a sound like the snickering of false laughter.
The coroner diagnosed the cause of death as a heart attack.
~~Life of a Swift Steed.
♥ His eyes, which shone with the gentle innocence of a calf, brimmed with bitter tears. Was Solmoe, the village he'd grown up in, some foreign city like Tokyo or Istanbul? How could his own village, in his own country, his own land, be so remote, so utterly unreachable? He would have gladly trekked there on his own two feet, if only someone would have given him permission. A thousand ri or ten thousand, it didn't matter to him; if only those Travel Regulations weren't blocking his path.
Myeong-chol longed to let himself sob out loud, to stamp the ground or shake his fist at the sky. But, depending on the circumstances, he knew that even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome—a swift and ruthless death. Ad so it was the law of the land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat.
♥ "I can't," he slurred repeatedly. "I don't have it in me."
"Ah, for God's sake!" Yeong-ho flew into a passion, banging his chopsticks on the drinking table. "They must have trained you well in that village of yours, eh? Properly broken you in. In this society, I tell you, people are like sheep!"
"Are you different?" Yeong-sam countered. "If you hadn't been 'broken in,' as you put it, would you have managed to live so long?"
♥ Outside the window, a skylark cried, and Myeong-chol sat up in surprise. Turning to the window, he saw the cage hanging from the eaves, just as it had always used to.
"How can that be?"
"The very next morning after you set them free, they came flying right back again. So I put them back in their cage."
"Pitiful, domesticated creatures!" Myeong-chol muttered as though chewing and spitting each word.
The larks chirped again as though to counter Myeong-chol. He could imagine what they might be saying: "Aren't you just the same? You came back too, after all..."
That's right, what am I but a caged animal, for whom the shortest distance might as well be a thousand ri? A pitiful, domesticated creature!
Myeong-chol sprang to his feet. The line of his lips looked firm as a rock, while a raised rope of muscle pulled over one cheek. He leaned outside the window and unhooked the cage, holding it out at arm's length. Something like a moan leaked from his mouth. With oddly unhurried motions, and as though operating independently of his body, each hand began to wrench at its side of the cage. There was a loud crack, and the cage split in two. Calmly and without hesitating, as though he had rehearsed all these movement, Myeong-chol let the two halves clatter to the floor. The larks turned a single circle inside the room, then darted out of the window swift as arrows.
"Why did you do that?" Jeongsuk's voice quavered with fear; she had never known her husband to behave like this.
"There is no 'why.' I needed to break the cage, so I did, that's all."
♥ Myeong-chol and Jeongsuk both reached out to take it, and their eyes fell on those four small characters, gouging into them like a knife into a gut.
There was no wailing, no sobbing, no falling to the floor. The two hands holding the telegram merely trembled, silently, shaken by something far more powerful than tears.
~~So Near, Yet So Far.
♥ There are people dying here!" screamed Mrs. Oh, seized by the despairing conviction that she was about to breathe her last, buried in this jumble of people. Her head and back were being steadily crushed by this mass of contorted, entangled limbs, while heavy blows knocked the wind from her chest. Throbbing heat, the stink of sweat, the gooey mud under her feet... these things were already growing faint for her, receding into the background. Only one single thought hung clear and sharp in her mind—that this was how she was going to die. Perhaps it was all her long years as a history teacher that gave her the illusion, now, of being caught up in a mass of starving slaves, in one of the grain riots she'd taught her pupils about.
And Mrs. Oh would have truly met her end in that spot, were it not for the fact that the bread supplies ran out just in the nick of time. As soon as all the bread from the handcart was sold, the maelstrom subsided. Mrs. Oh managed to buy three packs just before the chaps reached fever pitch, and kept them clutched safe to her chest the whole time. Holding in her mind the thought that they had been bought with their last ration coupons, that without them the family would go hungry for however long it now took to make it to their destination, Mrs. Oh kept a tight grip on these precious packets.
♥ "Hoho... Seeing our Yeongsun laughing with Grandma has made this old man's pain all better." Her husband was lying rigid as ever, his eyes boring into the ceiling. His warm affection was palpable in the unusual softness with which he spoke; to Mrs. Oh, it was clearly an attempt to make her see that her granddaughter bore her no grudge whatsoever.
"Yes, yes, it's coming to me now." But though Mrs. Oh had found her voice, she didn't seem able to produce another tale, so moved was she by the depth of her husband's affection.
"Looks like you've used up all your grandma's stories, Yeongsun! How about one from me instead?"
"Okay." Yeongsun's cheerful, matter-of-fact answer showed how utterly ignorant she was of the effort this was costing her grandfather.
"Cock-a-doodle-do, do you know the one about the rooster, Yeongsun?"
It was this that finally moved Mrs. Oh to tears: her husband imitating a rooster's call, an attempt to help their granddaughter recover her child's innocence, in which she too could detect a plaintive note. The more strenuous his efforts, intended to assuage his wife's guilty conscience even more than to lighten their granddaughter's heart, the less Mrs. Oh found herself able to conceal her emotions. All this for her sake!
A teacher at the same middle school as his wife, his lessons were known to be tough and rigorous, but pupils and close acquaintances alike received great affection from him, and gave nothing but love and respect in return.
Midnight had passed, and the cuckoo still didn't know how to quit... That sound stitched the nighttime stillness, punctuating Mr. Oh's telling of Aesop's fable, in a pain-filled voice...
Even if I hadn't left the station that day, perhaps this kind of calamity...
♥ Feeling as though her body had suddenly withered to the size of a dried jujube, Mrs. Oh dropped to her knees about five paces in front of Kim Il-sung. As she did, words slid as smoothly from her mouth as a coiled spring being released.
"I respectfully pray for the long life of our Great Leader, Father of Us All."
No matter who you were, if you lived in this land, beneath these skies, you would have memorized these words time and time again ever since you learned to speak; hence they flowed without a hitch even from Mrs. Oh's mouth.
♥ The Great Leader had me ride in the car the whole way—he wouldn't set off again until I agreed.
Eventually, her speech ran its course. Now it was the turn of the feverish broadcaster to add insult to injury.
"Do you hear this, listeners? These words of boundless gratitude toward our Great Leader, toward our socialist system! Such i the love of our Great Leader holds for us, a pleasant route has now been opened so that our people can travel free from discomfort under these skies and beside this sea, and happy laughter rings out all along that route, like that of this old woman, Oh Chun-hwa."
..Yesterday, when her husband and Yeongsun had been transported home from the hospital, he had told Mrs. Oh in minute detail all they had suffered at the station. Based on his account, the vision that sprang up in her mind while she was riding in the car had been no illusion, but almost an exact mirror of reality. The only ways in which it didn't quite tally were that the walls of the ticket barriers were not pushed out—though four of the gates did collapse—and that the pair had been buried in the tide of humanity with Yeongsun not on her grandfather's back but clutched to his chest. How on earth would the pregnant woman have fared in such a free-for-all, with her stomach already paining her? And those three could not have been the only victims, the only ones to have their limbs snapped, to have their hips twisted, to end up having a miscarriage....
But those cries of pain which, if combined, would be enough to cause even hell to overflow, had all disappeared somewhere, drowned out by the sound of "happy laughter"—apparently swelled by Mrs. Oh herself! Laughter produced by one who had had the fingernails of both hands ripped off! Were such things possible in this world? How could the screams and cries of such a mass of people be transformed into "happy laughter" without a cruel sorcery being at work?
Mrs. Oh shuddered. All of a sudden the image of a demon working just such black magic flashed in front of her eyes. Some ancient, hugely corpulent demon which conducted itself extremely freely. Having dexterously whipped up the magic which had created that "happy laughter," it was now waddling busily back and forth preparing a similar spell. Only this time, the object would not be Mrs. Oh herself but her daughter, who had given birth in the maternity hospital.
Mrs. Oh shuddered again. So far, thanks to that demon's sorcery, the people of this land had been living lived turned entirely on their heads, utterly different from the truth.
♥ Witnessing his mother's distress caused Kyeong-hun's eyes to tear up in response. All that his "twenty-six years of drama school" had taught him to bury deep inside him now refused to be suppressed any longer.
"Don't you see how miserable it all is? How wretched? People who are so eager to catch others out, they even scrabble around after rubbish like this." He gestured angrily toward the bottle at his feet. "A sincere, genuine life is only possible for those who have freedom. Where emotions are suppressed and actions monitored, acting only becomes ubiquitous, and so convincing that we even trick ourselves. Look at all these people, sobbing over a death that happened thee months ago. starving because they haven't been able to draw their rations all the while. What about the mother of the child bitten by a snake while he was out gathering flowers for Kim Il-sung's altar? Perhaps she finds her private grief useful for shedding public tears. Isn't it frightening, this society which teaches us all to be great actors, able to turn on the waterworks at the drop of a hat?"
"Shut up, you little idiot! Enough of this reactionary nonsense!"
"But those who see forced tears as a sign of loyalty, of solidarity? Aren't they the real idiots? Surely you know that whatever the play, the curtain always falls in the end."
♥ What he had just witnessed felt as unreal as a dream. Such tears were not to be believed.
If even someone like Big Suk-i's mother was able to sob convincingly, cry out "Great Leader!" in a suitably mournful tone... But how were they managing to squeeze out actual tears? Did they carry bottles of water concealed about their person, to splash on their faces when no one was looking?
It's called stage truth.
Who said that? The voice had sounded like Kyeong-hun's but also like that of an old army comrade of his....
Stage truth... As Yeong-pyo dragged himself over to a corner, his feet seemed to move of their own accord, while his mind, unmoored, drifted further from the here and now. That's right. Anyone can produce a few tears if they have that, even Big Suk-i's mother. But it usually takes an experienced actor to really pull it off....
After all this time, have you still not figure out that that's exactly what she is? That voice again—who was it? Could it be that Kang Gil-nam, who had insisted on performing the second improvisation? A woman like her, with forty-five years of acting school under her belt, forty-five years in which to master the only scenarios she'll ever need: "It Hurts, Haha"; "It Tickles, Boohoo." And no wonder she's excelled, with you to train her up. Strict teachers are always the most effective.
Forty-five years? But she can't be older than forty-five now. And I'm the one who trained her, who taught her the cunning of a nine-tailed fox? Me?
Yes, you, Father. You've had fifty-eight years of the same training, after all, and you've always been top of your class.
Kyeong-hun, you bastard! I ought to have put a bullet in you just now. I don't know where you got it from, this insolence, this insubordination... but it has nothing to do with me. Nothing, do you hear me?
You're too modest, father. You gave a display of your talent only this morning; how to produce a pitcher's worth of tears from a cup of sadness.
What are you talking about, "this morning"?
In front of the Bowibu director. And it came in handy, didn't it?
What? I, I don't know what you're talking about. I don't know. I don't...
♥ But his immediate surroundings had passed beyond his comprehension. The altar's brilliant halo filled a vacant gaze, in which the pupils had come unmoored. The intersecting beams from the cars' headlights resembled theater spotlights. One beam stretched all the way to where Yeong-pyo was standing, illuminating the sombre pines and low stone benches.
"These pines are wonderfully drawn—just like the real thing! Wait a minute, whose scene is this? Ah, that's right, that's right..."
Passing between the trees, a trainer took the stage. A trainer bearing the indelible stain of a horrifying crime, who must now press the barrel of a gun to his temple and bring this whole matter to a close.
The bang of the gun ripped through the warm night air, but Yeong-pyo was beyond hearing it. Hong Yeong-pyo, a stern director who had demanded the same stage truth no less from himself than from others, had chosen to bring the curtain down, in advance of that of his fellow actors.
♥ He decided to do some background research, the first step of which wold be to visit Inshik's family. In his fairly lengthy career as a reporter, there had been many instances which cemented the truth that the best way to get an idea of people's true character is through their home life rather than their workplace.
♥ The house spoke eloquently of suffering, and of Inshik: a man who had painstakingly collected mushrooms as an offering for his late wife, a woman whose memorial ceremony he could not even attend; a man who had plunged his hands into brambles, hoping the raspberries might lighten his children's hearts, children whose faces he had to content himself with merely imagining. The crooked fence, the storehouse roof which could not keep out the rain gave clear expression to the fact that the man of the house was somewhere else, pouring his efforts into some other toil. The place even seemed to echo with his voice, alone on the mountain on the anniversary of his wife's death, outwardly engaged in chasing away wild boar, inwardly praying that she had found some happiness.
♥ "Ah! Why did I ever hang this around my neck?" Song exploded, madly agitated, striking his side where the pocket containing his Party membership card was. "Why did I become a lady-in-waiting at the brick house, of my own accord?"
"Because you were deceived by a mask, a front, like me. Deceived by those slogans—'Equality'; 'Democracy'; 'The People Are the Masters of History'—the ones that looked nice enough on the surface, but had the knife of dictatorship underneath."
"You're right. In all of creation, the rule is that the more toxic something is, the more pretty and friendly it's made to look."
"That's the truth. Like poisonous mushrooms!"
♥ This was the full content of the prosecution statement. There was no defense. Any defense of an antirevolutionary element who had disturbed the tranquility of the people would itself stand accused, next to the man it had defended. The crowd was perfectly familiar with the way judgments were passed in this country—no one expected a defense.
♥ "Accused! Do you acknowledge the charges brought against you, Ko Inshik?"
The crowd's collective gaze shifted to Inshik like the mass surge of a swelling tide. The look on his face just then! His lips twitched soundlessly like those of an idiot, while his eyes stared blankly over the heads of the crowd, in the direction of the town's central streets. But none could know the exact spot on which his gaze had landed: the municipal Party office—the red mushroom.
"He seems to have lost his senses!" A fluttering swell rose in the stadium, then subsided, like the shiftings of the nighttime sea, an instant later.
"Silence! Accused, are you listening?" No reply.
In spite of his efforts at self-control, Yunmo felt a rasping sound from inside himself push at his tightly closed lips. What answer could Ko Inshik make now? From those early days reclaiming the land, when his eyes had watered at the half-burnt charcoal which was all he'd had to use by way of kindling; when he'd injured his hands by pulling up tree roots and rolling rocks away; that early morning when, with a heavy heart, he'd gone in pursuit of the wild boar, picturing the incense sticks his children would be lighting on their mother's offertory table; that later morning when he'd had a narrow escape from death, opening his eyes on his wooden pillow after being struck down by poisonous mushrooms; those days and days on end when he'd gone out to gather acorns and replace the soil that had been washed away—on all such days, without fail, he had cultivated flowers of conscience unselfishly in his heart!
Those flowers had now been struck by a bolt of lighting, in broad daylight, flattening all their stems—how could Inshik now hope to make them stand upright? He would be lucky if his heart didn't burst in his chest, causing him to faint in the fact of such injustice!
Those who were sitting as close to Inshik as Yummo was were able to hear him muttering, "There's one, there's one," jerking his cuffed hands for all the world as though he were trying to uproot a weed. Then, seeming pleased at having accomplished some task, he tipped his head back to face the sky and let out a thrilling laugh.
Amplified by the microphone in front of him, that laughter boomed through the stadium, striking a chill into the hearts of the audience. They regarded Ko Inshik more closely, and found that the expression on his face had altered. That face was now frozen rigid, belying the laughter that had just burst from it. Inshik stretched his cuffed hands out in front of him as though trying to grasp something. This time, his voice was neither loud nor soft, a muttering that was also a scream.
"There it is... still there! Please go and pull up that red mushroom. That terrible thing—there! Please, can you hear me?"
♥ Red mushroom! For Yunmo, those two simple words, though the product of a deranged mind, told of the hundreds and thousands of other words that must have been boiling inside Inshik at that very moment, consuming him like the fires of hell.
Now that Inshik's snow-white conscience had finally recognized the poisonous mushroom that had put down roots in this land, he was summoning desperate strength to pull it up from the ground, that mushroom stained with deceit and oppression, with tyranny and pacification.
..Yunmo's gaze was directed squarely at the municipal Party office—the red mushroom—which Inshik had clearly been staring at over the heads of the crowd. How many noble lives had been lost to its poison! The root of all human misfortune and suffering was that red European spectre that the that lion-headed man with the tobacco pipe had boasted had put down roots in this land, the seed of that red mushroom!
Yunmo clenched his fists with crushing strength, unable to tear his gaze from the so-called red-brick house, his heart ringing with the gruesome cry which Ko Inshik had been unable to speak.
Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!
~~The Red Mushroom.
♥ Fifty years in this northern land
Living as a machine that speaks
Living as a human under a yoke
With a pure indignation
Written not with pen and ink
But with bones drenched with blood and tears
Is this writing of mine
Through they be dry as a desert
And rough as a grassland
Shabby as an invalid
And primitive as stone tools
I beg you to read my words.
~~In Place of Acknowledgements.
♥ These were works that could not be written without risking one's life. Risking one's life to resist a system of oppression can be interpreted as having a premonition of that system's end. In this sense, the writing produced by resistance writers who live within North Korea, exposing the face of the nation to the world, is in itself the beginning of an epoch-making upheaval, showing that cracks are now appearing in the hereditary dictatorship, which has seemed until now an impregnable fortress.
~~from Afterword: How The Accusation Came Out of North Korea, by Kim Seong-dong (Writer for the Monthly Chosun).