Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the Winter Olympics are currently under
way, is extremely cold. Subzero temperatures inspired organizers to plan
a relatively swift opening ceremony,
forced biathletes to reconsider their choice of gloves,
and sent television commentators in frantic search of cosmetics that
wouldn’t freeze their faces off.
Watching the Games, I have been thinking about the temperature fifty
miles north, on the other side of the D.M.Z., where basic
amenities—never mind battery-powered jackets,
space heaters, free coffee, and weatherproof foundation—are harder to
come by. Power outages are common in North Korea: in recent years,
according to some reports, the country’s net electricity usage fell to
nineteen-seventies levels, even as its population grew by nearly ten
million. Then there is the untold number of prisoners in labor camps;
presumably, their defenses against the weather are grossly limited.

The impassivity of the natural world—and the ruthlessness of winter, in
particular—is a recurring theme in “The Red Years,” a new collection of
political poems attributed to a North Korean dissident writing under the
pen name Bandi. “The Red Years” was published in South Korea in January;
it does not yet have a publisher in the United States. The book is a
kind of companion to “The Accusation,”
the collection of Bandi’s short stories published in the U.S. by Grove
Atlantic, last March—these poems are said to have been part of the
original, crumbling manuscript, which was smuggled across the border, enclosed in a copy of “The Selected Works of Kim Il Sung” at the urging
of one of Bandi’s defector relatives.

“The Accusation” was translated into English by Deborah Smith, who is
best known for her work with Han Kang,
the author of “The Vegetarian.”
In Smith’s hands, the stories of “The Accusation” conveyed something
powerful and subtle about life under totalitarianism. The poems of “The
Red Years,” which are being translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl for
publication in the U.S., are more blunt. They reflect “a typical North
Korean style of poem,” Krys Lee, an assistant professor of English
literature at Yonsei University, in South Korea, and the author of the
novel “How I Became a North Korean,”
told me by e-mail. “It has the kind of slightly sentimental and general,
abstract language that I associate with the country.” A prefatory poem,
which also appears in “The Accusation,” acknowledges as much: “Though
they be dry as desert / and coarse as grassland / miserable as
affliction / and primitive as stone-age tools, / Reader! / I beseech
you—read my words.”

The collection’s most explicitly political poems make heavy use of
comparisons to the natural environment: the narrator repeatedly looks
to, and often rails against, the mountains, trees, and flowers that
surround him. The poem “Green Leaves, Falling,” dedicated to “the young
political prisoners awaiting execution,” laments the “out of season”
chill wind that has cut short “youthful dreams.” “How much is their
worth, their lives, those green shoots?” the poet asks. “I will not
forget you, piteous green leaves falling, leaves falling.”

There is no shortage of Bandi skeptics: nearly all of the Korean experts
I spoke to or corresponded with for this piece—scholars, translators,
political scientists—had reservations. According to the account appended
to “The Accusation,” Bandi is a living North Korean writer, employed by
the state, who wrote these works in secret, in the late eighties and
early-to-mid nineties. (At least some of the poems seem to have been
written later, likely in the nineties and early aughts.) “There is
speculation that he may be a North Korean refugee, a suspicion that I’ve
also harbored,” Lee, who spent many years working closely with North
Korean defectors as an activist, told me. Even the writer’s staunchest
boosters seem comfortable with the possibility that Bandi might be an
idea as much as a particular person: in January, the South Korean
human-rights activist Do Hee-yun, one of the only people to have seen
the original manuscript, told me that he wondered if Bandi was its sole
author
, or if the stories
perhaps represented the work of a group of writers—some sort of
dissident-writers’ collective.

For now, the truth about who, exactly, Bandi is remains a mystery. But
the poems themselves stand as an unambiguous denunciation of a
government that has spectacularly failed its people. Reading them this
week, after the White House announced that plans for a secret meeting between Vice-President Pence and a high-level North Korean delegation
had fallen through—meaning that the small window for diplomacy between
the two countries opened by the Olympics had all but closed—their sombre
and sometimes repetitive language seems appropriate. In North Korea, the
winter may feel interminable. In the poem “Blizzard,” the agony of life
under the rule of the Kim dynasty is conveyed with a scream into the
frigid sky:

blizzard, blizzard, the sound of winter crying

chest pounding, sobbing, the sound of winter crying

spring, summer, fall, and winter—four seasons, and only you

weeping—the indignity of your unfortunate fate

never knowing soft flowers, green leaves, ripe fruit

only frost and snow, born of cold north wind

your whole life huddling, cringing, shivering

weeping—the indignity of your unfortunate fate

blizzard, blizzard, the sound of winter crying

chest pounding, sobbing, the sound of winter crying

try to tear it up, throw it out, your unfortunate fate

running, spewing blood, in the sound of winter crying

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