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A powerful new book shares dissident stories smuggled out of North Korea

Knowing that the anonymous author of The Accusation is still living in North Korea adds another layer of discomfort; the book you hold in your hands carries huge risks for him and his family.

The Accusation, a collection of courageous and confounding short stories, is an unprecedented work of fiction by an author known only by the pseudonym Bandi. The manuscript, smuggled across North ­Korea’s borders by a relative, is the first piece of non-Juche literature (Juche ideas extol the country’s leader) to be published by a writer still living inside the Hermit Kingdom since the peninsula divided in 1945.

The stories are expertly translated by Deborah Smith, who brought Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, to English-speaking readers. Each has at its heart an accusation, enabling the book to highlight masterfully the ways in which everyone – from an ageing party official to a two-year-old baby – is debased by the fear of committing an unavoidable or unforeseeable crime.

What happens to the parents whose baby is scared of posters of the Great Leader, or to the boy who is caught holding hands with a girl while picking flowers for display during the endless period of mourning for Kim Il-sung? How about the man who accidentally “murders” rice seedlings intended for collective farming, or the son who travels without a permit to visit his dying mother? “What crime have I committed?” he wonders to himself. “Am I a thief or a murderer?” These questions are private thoughts that can never be vocalised and the unpredictability of each “offence” is so unnerving, the punishment so severe, that Bandi’s craftsmanship often lies in his ability to eke out the details, as if this were some dystopian detective drama. The volatility of each scenario makes the outcome feel at once unthinkable and horrendously predictable.

Even though his work shows similarities of both quality and content to stories by authors as various as Gorky, Solzhenitsyn and Chen Ruoxi, or even Chinese contemporaries such as Yan Lianke, it is humbling to realise – given the continued blackout on any non-state-approved literature in North Korea – that Bandi has found his voice alone. And it is clear from his plaintive preface how little he knows of the way the outside world views North Korea: he fears that we, too, must be blinded by its propaganda.

We are used to poking fun from the outside at the state’s unintentionally hilarious news stories, from Kim Jong-il being “the best golfer in the world” to North Korean scientists confirming the existence of unicorns and inventing waterproof liquid. At the same time, the testimonies of those who escape – from high-ranking officials to political prisoners – leave us in no doubt that the human rights abuses under this totalitarian regime have no equal in the modern world. Only last month, we witnessed the bizarre assassination of the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, apparently attacked at Kuala Lumpur Airport by two women, one of them dressed in pink tights and a top emblazoned with “LOL”, who say they thought it was a prank for a reality-TV show.

This chilling coexistence of comedy and tragedy is exploited beautifully by Bandi in “On Stage”, which centres around a young actor who has been investigated for improvising two sketches, “It Hurts, Hahaha” and “It Tickles, Boohoo”. His father, a government official responsible for assessing the “sincerity” of people’s grief during mourning for the Great Leader, is mortified: first by his son’s transgression and later by his own complicity in a world where expressions of sadness and joy are intentionally inverted. In “Pandemonium”, the only way to understand this warped reality is to make up monstrous fairy tales. As an old lady asks, “Where in the world might you find . . . such a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?”

The Accusation spans the period 1989 to 1995, covering the final years of the reign of Kim Il-sung, whose birthday is still celebrated as the “Day of the Sun”. As a lone representative for ordinary people living in what he calls “fathomless darkness”, Bandi (the name means “firefly”) offers a much more vulnerable form of illumination. Indeed, knowing that he is still living in North Korea adds another layer of discomfort; the book you hold in your hands carries huge risks for him and his family.

It’s a quiet privilege to be given access to the voiceless by listening to such vivid and uncompromised storytelling. And yet, emerging from Bandi’s “fictional” world, where news that doesn’t suit a ­government’s biases has no value, and the leader fixates on how many people attend the celebrations for National Day, this collection of stories seems both a flickering light in North Korea’s darkness and an unintentional reminder that it is getting darker here, too. 

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith is published by Serpent’s Tail (256pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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