Everyday People

Friend: A Novel from North Korea By Paek Nam-Nyong, translated by Immanuel Kim. New York: Columbia University Press. 240 pages. $20.
The cover of Friend: A Novel from North Korea

Most fiction about North Korea published outside of that country is by defectors and dissenters, and most of it tells of the hardships of living under a totalitarian regime. Fiction published in North Korea tends to be the opposite: when I visited in 2017, the only English-language books at the bookshop that passed as fiction were hagiographic historical novels about former supreme leaders.

Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend is something different. Neither a work of dissent or leader-worship, it is, instead, an account of a married couple on the brink of divorce, as narrated from the presiding judge’s point of view. Originally published in 1988, Friend became something akin to a best-seller—print runs in North Korea are limited, so popularity is based more on a book’s wear and tear than sales numbers. It was republished in South Korea in 1992, and translated into French in 2011. It now holds the distinction of being the first officially published North Korean novel to be translated into English.

Paek is part of the April 15 Literary Production Unit, the group in charge of writing (or, rather, rewriting) North Korea’s historical record, but he has found room to write about nonhistorical things too. In a 2015 interview with translator Immanuel Kim, Paek says he was inspired to write Friend when he looked out the window of his Kanggye office, and saw couples heading in to the courthouse for a divorce.

Immanuel Kim
Immanuel Kim

Both members of Friend’s central couple, Chae Sun-hee and Lee Seok-chun, have worked as lathe operators. Paek, too, once operated a lathe. He shared short stories at work, and, on the recommendation of a supervisor, went on to study literature at Kim Il-sung University. Friend is one of Paek’s earlier books, written at a time when North Korean entertainment was shifting, finding space to do more than just idolize supreme leaders and praise humble living.

Still, those motifs remain present in Friend. The book’s focuses on Sun-hee and Seok-chun as individuals, but it also sees the couple as part of a collective of family units, which must be kept connected and strong. Subplots dwell on divorce judge Jeong Jin-wu’s marriage, his neighbors’ troubles, and his mistakes in how he handled a divorce case years earlier. All of these storylines feed into the main plot, as the judge looks into the divorce filing between Sun-hee and Seok-chun.

The novel also provides us with different perspectives on this couple’s story. They frequently misinterpret each other, particularly around the idea of social mobility. Although the work of a lathe operator is said to be noble and difficult, Seok-chun is urged by Sun-hee to go to engineering college so that he can be promoted. She wants more for him; he thinks she’s ashamed of him. He perceives Sun-hee’s ambition as disdain, her encouragement as nagging. Neither of them think their fighting is noticable, but their son’s actions suggest otherwise.

Does Friend provide a true view into everyday life in notoriously isolated North Korea? The hand of hard work and collective effort is certainly felt groping through the novel. In one scene, the judge admonishes Seok-chun, saying: “I believe that her demands are aligned with the demands of society, which is to raise the consciousness of the people in our country. She understood that the family is a unit of society, and that is why your self-improvement is absolutely required. You really have to correct your erroneous and ultra-conservative thoughts.” But there are curious details that shed light on average citizens’ knowledge of their environment. Friend’s opening ominously suggests the court is not a place one would want to know of, let alone be: “Many people in the city neither knew the location of the Superior Court nor knew of its existence.” As statues and pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il watch from almost every public space, you’d think the law, and threats of punishment, would be higher in citizens’ minds. The book makes no attempt to keep an illusion of a crimeless state: the judge reflects on embezzlement cases, and talks openly about how severe sentences for various infractions should be. The overuse of electricity is another offense, which inspires pointed remarks that it, as the fuel used to generate it, is scarce: this is why most farming and clothes-washing is done by hand.

Social roles, too, are not as rigid as Westerners may expect. The women in Friend find some opportunities to change jobs and advance: the judge’s wife, Eun-ok, works as a scientist trying to breed plants that can bear vegetables in harsh environments; Sun-hee has left her position as a lathe operator to become a singer. We also learn that ordinary North Koreans have disposable incomes, and have, in addition to the locally brewed beer, wine with meals (wine must be imported and is a luxury expense). Friend certainly bears the marks of North Korea’s tight control on artistic expression. But in its portrait of everyday existence, we catch glimpses of life outside of surveillance—squabbles, gossip, divorce. These characters might be under suspicion, and might live in fear, but Friend captures something more—most notably, people who are subject to the boredoms, pleasures, and frustrations of life.

Brian Ng is a writer from New Zealand who currently lives in London.