In North Korea, A Man Toils for a Permit to Visit His Dying Mother: An Excerpt from “The Accusation”

14 May 2017

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, is a collection of seven stories, which depict the lives of men and women who are living in a police state. The book has been authored by a man from North Korea, under the pseudonym Bandi—which means “firefly” in Korean. In a note that appears at the end of the book, Do Hee-Yun—a human-rights activist who played a pivotal role in getting the book published—states that Bandi was born in 1950. He notes that Bandi followed his parents to China to take refuge from the Korean War, and spent his youth there, before returning to North Korea. There, he became affiliated with the Chosun Writers’ League Central Committee—North Korea’s state-authorised, tightly-controlled network of writers.

Do Hee-Yun notes that the focus of Bandi’s writing changed when he witnessed the deaths of many people close to him during the Arduous March—a term that was coined by the leadership of North Korea to describe the famine that decimated the country for four years from 1994. This period, and the exodus of several North Koreans for survival, strengthened in Bandi the resolve “to share with the outside world a true likeliness of North Korean society as he himself saw it.” The result was a 743-page manuscript that Do Hee-Yun gained access to in 2013. The book, which was first published in South Korea in 2014, has since been translated in over 18 languages and published in 20 countries. In one of the poems that was a part of the manuscript, the author explained his alias, noting, that Bandi was “fated to shine only in a world of darkness.”

The following excerpt from the book has been extracted from a story titled, “So Near, Yet So Far.” The story chronicles the struggles of a young man, Myeong-chol, who has failed in his repeated attempts to visit his dying mother, as the state refused to grant him the requisite permit to travel to the village in which she resides. The protagonist compares himself to a dragonfly stuck in a spider web. The story captures the frustration and helplessness of a man who is caught between the insatiable desire to be by his mother’s side, and the awareness of the consequences he would suffer for defying the regime.

“Ai!” A single cry escaped from Jeongsuk as, startled by the sound of the door swinging open, she sprang to her feet. Her son’s diaper, which she’d just removed, dropped from her limp fingers and hit the floor with a wet smack. There in the doorway, filling the frame, was the husband she hadn’t seen in so long. But her cry was not one of delight. She was astonished, and appalled, at how drastically altered he was.

Sunken cheeks, soiled clothes, the backpack that had been worn to rags hanging limp from one shoulder . . . He’d always been skinny and slightly stooped, but he looked to have aged twenty years in as many days. Jeongsuk would have mistaken him for someone middle-aged if she hadn’t known better. Could a person be so radically transformed in such a short space of time? What had become of the man who had made only brief visits to the family home in the last couple of years?

“Ah, why do you look so shocked?” As though these words had released her from some spell, Jeongsuk ran forward and threw her arms around her husband’s chest.

“Yeong-min’s father! You’re alive, you’re alive, oh, oh. . . .”

“All right, don’t carry on so . . . you’ll wake the child. Our son.”

“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting? Do you?” Jeongsuk’s fists flailed at her husband’s chest.

“You shouldn’t have worried yourself.”

“And how did you expect me to manage that? You were out that door without so much as a goodbye, never mind a travel permit. Angry. And drunk. How could I not expect the worst?”

“What happened back then . . . I’m sorry. Truly sorry.”

“Oh, but what am I thinking—your mother’s illness! How is she?”

“My mother . . .” “Yes? Has she . . . recovered? Or . . .” “No, nothing like that. Or, I don’t know, in fact. I never got to see her.”

“What?”

“I never even got to set eyes on the house.” “But then where on earth have you been all this time?”

“Please! I need a glass of cold water first.”

Jeongsuk’s husband threw open his jacket with surprising force, the zip screeching in protest. It looked as if he was trying to swallow something, his dry throat convulsing painfully. Jeongsuk hastily poured him a glass of water, which he drained in a single gulp. Handing the empty glass back to her, he sank to the floor as though collapsing, and his gaze found its way to their son.

“Our Yeong-min’s grown so much. . . .”

Jeongsuk frowned, alarmed by the note of dull fatigue in her husband’s voice; he was like someone whose strength had been sapped by long illness. He must be exhausted, she thought. And when would he last have eaten?

“You stay and rest with Yeong-min, then,” she said brightly. “I’ll just go and see about something to eat.” She hurried into the kitchen and started to wash some rice, then paused.

“Would you like to wash your face first?” she called out. “I can run you some water.”

There was no answer. Peering around the kitchen door, Jeongsuk was shocked to find that her husband had fallen sound asleep. With his mouth hanging open in his pale, gaunt face, he looked more like a corpse than a living man. A louse emerged from his sweater and crawled downward over his trousers, its white body evident against the coarse black material. Jeongsuk darted forward to snatch it up and crush it, shuddering with disgust at what she was witnessing, and tears sprang again into her eyes. What had been done to her husband, a kind, unassuming man, despite his imposing height, for him to return in such a state?

For the next three days he slept like the dead, clearly ill from exhaustion. Only by the fourth day had he recovered his strength enough to tell Jeongsuk the full story of what had happened to him.

His mother is dressed in white, standing on a hill that looks down on his home village, the blue river gleaming below. But she is ill—how has she been able to leave the house? The boatman plies his oars diligently, setting up a rhythmic creaking, but to Myeong-chol they seem to be moving in slow motion.

“Yeong-min’s father!” His mother runs right to the bank of the river, arms open to embrace her son, as though unwilling to delay the moment of their reunion even a second more. Equally impatient, Myeong-chol rushes forward before the boat has even bumped up against the jetty, but stumbles and pitches over the side, headfirst into the water. How deep it is, even this close to the shore. . . . And just as that thought pops into his head he sinks swiftly out of sight, down, down into the river’s depths. Thrashing and flailing, he manages to get his head back above the surface, but sees, to his dismay, that the strong current has already forced him back toward the middle of the river!

“Myeong-chol!”

He can just about glimpse his mother running along the bank, her face now as white as her clothes.

“Mother! Mother!” he shouts back to her, and, with a strength born of desperation, windmills his arms to propel himself toward her.

A hand clasps Myeong-chol’s shoulder and shakes him, firmly but gently. “Y-yeah? . . . Yeah?” As the dream dissolved, Myeong-chol opened his eyes. Who was this young man peering down at him, and why did he look so anxious? As his mind gradually sharpened, the sound of a train’s wheels clattering over the track pulled into focus. Huddled in his seat in a corner of the carriage, Myeong-chol immediately sat up straight.

It had to be late at night indeed, as even those crammed into the train’s passageway were lost in their dreams, their faces buried in their laps. “You’re finally awake!” The young man kept his voice down, but his relief was plainly audible. “Just take a moment. Think carefully before you do anything. You don’t have a travel permit, or a ticket either. You were drunk, you see.”

This news had the same effect on Myeong-chol as being doused with cold water. He was now perfectly alert and aware of his surroundings, and the course of events that had led to this predicament played in his mind as a moving panorama.

A smothered silence reigned in the waiting room of Department Two. This stifling atmosphere was due not only to the great number of people packing the tiny room, all of them waiting their turn, holding their breath, nor only to the oppressive heat of the midsummer sun beating down in the streets outside. It also came from all the notices of “Regulations of Travel,” so numerous there was barely any wall left visible, and the shrill little phrases they bore: ‘“fine”; “forced labor”; “legal sanctions.” And finally, it came from the pair of voices at the glass-fronted desk, which had a hole at the bottom like a ticket window, the voice behind the glass rapping out sharply, the one in front tremulous, imploring.

Whether a given person’s application was approved or denied was a matter of the utmost importance to all present, meaning that aside from the exchange between applicant and issuer, the air hung as heavy as in a graveyard, undisturbed by even a single cough. Everyone was well aware that only around one in ten applications was successful, so every time someone backed away from the window clutching a tiny permit slip, bowing and smiling in gratitude, a soft sigh of disappointment ran through the room like a breeze rustling the leaves of a tree.

Myeong-chol had to wait for over forty minutes before it was his turn to stand in front of the window.

“Yes, Comrade?” the permit issuer demanded, ogling Myeong-chol with his bulging eyes. He was a middle-aged man with a narrow forehead and a wide jaw, his gray-splotched skin like that of a frog in autumn; and he was perched on a tall chair like a judge from the Koryo Dynasty, so that even the gangling Myeong-chol had to tilt his head back to look his interlocutor in the eye.

“What’s your business?” he snapped, raising his voice as though irritated that his questioning look had been insufficient. Myeong-chol was tongue-tied in the face of this aggressive attitude. That was always the way with him—whenever he came up against something awkward or perplexing, the words he had to say would just slosh around in his chest. Perhaps because there was so much he could have said, it all piled up and stopped his mouth like a cork.

How much he wanted to say right now—that he had just had a telegram reading “MOTHER CRITICALLY ILL”; that this was the third such missive he’d received this past month; that each time he’d applied for a travel permit to his home village his application had been denied; that a similar decision today might mean he would never see his mother again, at least in this life! But, cowed by those bulging eyes, Myeong-chol was able to produce only a muttered “I, this,” as he smoothed out the telegram he’d been clutching in his sweaty fist and carefully pushed it through the hole in the window.
“What’s this?” “It’s a telegram.” “You think I don’t know a telegram when I see one? But why have you brought this to me? Your company has a line manager to handle travel permits, no?”

“Yes, and I did apply to him first, but it was rejected. . . .”

“Oh? So you thought, what, that you’d come here and get a permit for an application that had already been rejected?”

“It’s just that this is the third time . . .” Myeong-chol produced two more telegrams from his coat pocket, limp, well-handled specimens he’d clearly had for a while. “Please consider my situation. I’m her firstborn, and her only son. There’s only my younger sister left in our village, and she lives with her husband’s family. . . .”

“That’s enough.” The three telegrams were swept back out through the window in a gesture of dismissal. “We’ve had an order from above forbidding travel to this district. They’re gearing up to hold a Class One event—you know what that means, don’t you? That’s right, the Dear Leader himself. Now why am I bandying classified information with a witless mine worker?”

“Even so, when the mother that gave birth to you—”

“Enough! If you want to haggle, go do it at the market. This is Department Two, not some street stall!” The man’s bulging eyes looked in danger of escaping their sockets. A sigh of defeat escaped from deep inside Myeong-chol, as though something had been snuffed out. Department Two was situated in the economy committee building, but in reality it operated under the purview of the military police. Its employees were security officers in plainclothes—was there anyone who wasn’t aware of that? So why did this man feel the need to parade his authority and bluster about his time being wasted?

Making sure to appear suitably deferential, Myeong-chol withdrew from the coveted spot by the window. In his mind’s eye, he saw his mother as she must look now, lying on her sickbed with only his sister to attend to her needs. He saw his little sister, who should by rights now be at her husband’s house, and who must be listening every hour for her brother’s tread! His poor widowed mother, who had never known any other life than farmwork, wearing away her feeble bones to raise her children all on her own!

Originally, Myeong-chol had planned to return to his home village after he finished his military service. He would labor alongside his mother, he thought, hoping, in whatever small way he could, to make things easier for her in the few years before she became eligible for an old-age pension. And then, of course, there had been the young woman—she would wait for him; they had an understanding. Even after he was discharged, and his entire platoon packed off to the Geomdeok mines, he’d been unwilling to abandon this dream.

What hadn’t he tried to get away from the mines and back to his mother’s side! He’d scrimped and saved to put together a bribe for the local Party secretary, repaired the mine foreman’s underfloor heating as a favor, pressured a friend who worked at the hospital to forge a letter claiming his mother was gravely ill. Still, society’s rules remained as rigid and unbending as ever, refusing to give an inch where Myeong-chol, so it was claimed, might be inclined to take a mile. Eventually he’d had no choice but to send for his intended—this much, at least, being permitted—and leave his mother all alone.

Time passed, as time does; Myeong-chol became a father, and his mother finally became eligible for a pension. There was only the upcoming harvest to be got through, then Myeong-chol could arrange to have her come and live with him and his wife. She would finally see her son again, and the grandson she’d never met! With the culmination of all his hopes so tantalizingly near at hand, how could he have guessed that those hopes would all come crashing down?

As he stumbled out of Department Two, his legs barely able to hold him up, a wave of soundless sobs threatened to choke Myeong-chol. His eyes, which shone with the gentle innocence of a calf’s, 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. And so it was the law of the land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat.

Feelings of frustration and helplessness, of having been unfairly treated, left Myeong-chol physically and mentally drained, so that all he could do was wander the streets, wherever his feet took him, with no clear destination in mind. Everything was hateful. The chirping of the cicadas, which should have cut through the stifling July heat, was nothing but an irritating whine; both the ground he trod and the air he breathed were wholly repugnant. As he walked, memories of similar days were dredged up, days that were all too frequent in a life which, after all, could not yet be called long.

Like the day when, after graduating from middle school, he’d been called up to serve in the people’s army—a decision in which individuals had no say—and seen his dreams of going on to university snuffed out. Or the day he’d been forced to trudge along with his unit, their destination written on a sign held up by an officer at the front of the column, then pile into the back of a tarp-covered truck, longing for home so strongly that he felt a lump in his chest. On those days, too, Myeong-chol had felt the need to weep and rail against the world; then, like today, he could only choke on his own frustration.

“Hey, is that you, Myeong-chol? Myeong-chol!”

Myeong-chol, who had been staring at the ground as he trailed along the roundabout, raised his head to see a stocky man with curly hair running across the new road toward him. it was his friend Yeong-ho.

“Well, how did it go?” From the urgency in Yeong-ho’s voice, you would have thought it was his own application he was inquiring about. The two men had bumped into each other earlier that day, when Myeong-chol was on his way to Department Two. Yeong-ho, who’d been to buy something to drink to celebrate his younger brother’s long-awaited visit, had stopped Myeong-chol in the street, and hadn’t let him get away until he’d poured out all his worries over the permit. “Come on, tell me, did you get the permit or not?”

Aware that the news would pain Yeong-ho almost as much as himself, and overcome by his friend’s empathy, Myeong-chol couldn’t bring himself to open his mouth. Though they weren’t from the same village, they’d joined the army in the same cohort, their friendship cemented when both were discharged and, against their will, started work at the Geomdeok mines. Both had become fathers relatively recently, and their wives had also grown very close, so each couple could be found in the other’s house almost as often as their own.

“I knew it,” Yeong-ho broke out, embarking on a rapidfire speech in the hope of staying Myeong-chol’s tears. “I knew that’s how it would turn out. I didn’t say anything when I met you before, thought I might as well let you hope, you never know, but you’re not the only one who’s been back and forth to Department Two recently. My brother’s travel permit was approved ages ago, but it just keeps getting delayed. There’s always some fault to pick with it—there are two of them on the same permit, you see, so they’re both supposed to present themselves together at the factory, only the other guy got sick. What was my brother supposed to do? He explained the situation till he was blue in the face, but nothing doing. He hoped they’d show a bit of understanding—ha! Those bastards are about as understanding as a block of wood.”

“I didn’t even get time to explain; if I had . . .” Myeongchol’s throat contracted painfully, preventing him from finishing the sentence.

“Damn it! Come on, Myeong-chol, let’s get out of here!” Taking his friend firmly by the wrist, Yeong-ho waved the keg of alcohol in his face. “There’s only one remedy for a day like this—you need to get drunk, immediately.”

The two men went back to Yeong-ho’s home, where Myeong-chol did exactly as his friend had suggested. To make matters worse, they drank practically the entire keg between the two of them, as Yeong-ho’s brother Yeong-sam refused to take more than a glass, wary of missing the evening train. Myeong-chol had never before drunk himself into such a stupor.

Yeong-ho, equally intoxicated, had the bright idea of using one of the telegrams as a travel permit, as they were about the right size. “If some bastard wants to look at it, well, he’ll have a mother like everyone else, won’t he? What dog doesn’t have a mother? Permit or no permit, just go!”

Drunk as he was, Myeong-chol couldn’t even contemplate following this advice. Taking pity on Myeong-chol, Yeong-sam suggested a slightly more practical plan: His own travel permit for that evening specified two persons, and as the other guy was no longer able to make it, they could at least go to the station together and see if they might just chance it.

Myeong-chol could only shake his head. “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 any different?” Yeong-sam countered. “If you hadn’t been ‘broken in,’ as you put it, would you have managed to live so long?”

Excerpted with permission from The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, published by Hachette India.

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