📖 🇰🇵 #36: A 'bestseller' from North Korea

A state-sanctioned novel by Paek Nam-nyong

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Friend by Paek Nam-nyong is one of just a few North Korean novels to have reached an English readership. Over the years, a handful of memoirs by North Korean dissidents and defectors have been published but, unlike Friend, none of these books have ever been published within North Korea. As translator Immanuel Kim puts it in the book’s afterword, “Friend is unique in the Anglophone publishing landscape in that it is a state-sanctioned novel, written in Korea for North Koreans, by an author in good standing with the regime.”

Paek is one of North Korea’s most renowned writers. A former member of the Writers Union in Pyongyang, he was later promoted to the April 15th Literary Production Unit, an elite group of writers whose primary task is to write historical novels based on the lives and accomplishments of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Outside of this series, Paek writes fiction, including Friend, which was published in North Korea in 1988.

The book centres around a small-town judge called Jeong Jin-wu who specialises in divorce proceedings and grows especially interested in the case of one particular young couple: Chae Sun-hee, a well-known singer for the Provincial Performing Arts Company, and her husband Lee Seok-chun, a steel factory worker who Chae has grown to find boring and unambitious. When Chae asks for a divorce, Jeong takes it upon himself to learn everything there is to know about the couple: how they met; when things started to go wrong; how their seven-year-old son feels—he even finds out what the couple’s colleagues have to say on the matter.

As his research into the couple’s private life intensifies, Jeong reflects on his own marriage to Eun-ok, an agricultural scientist who spends a lot of time away from home. Like Chae, Eun-ok is ambitious and committed to her career. Like Lee, taking on household chores while his wife pursues her career is something that Jeong both admires and resents, despite knowing that he shouldn’t.

The themes Friend deals with—love, marriage, female ambition—are undoubtedly interesting, but I couldn’t help but feel the book is lacking at the plot level. The book essentially comprises one main plot with exactly two subplots, all of which neatly resolve by the end—a bit like a rom com (the book was, in fact, adapted for a TV drama in North Korea). And though Paek’s characters are by no means perfect, they’re almost superhumanly reasonable: as soon as they have their flaws pointed out to them, they apologise, sincerely, and change their behaviour accordingly.

At one point, a character called Chae Rim is found guilty of embezzlement:

The director of the City Electricity Distribution Company has designed an electric blanket for personal use and has been using it without permission from the government. This was considered a felony, as the entire country was trying to conserve energy. He was not an ordinary citizen but the director of the very institution whose priority was the conservation of energy. For this reason, he was going to receive a severe sentence. It was not simply a crime of wasting energy, but a crime of selfishness and greed. Electricity was more precious than money or any other commodity because it was the property of the nation.

And just a few pages later:

Chae Rim sat still like frost-covered grass when he realised that he would be severely punished and have to answer to Party leaders. He sighed with regret. He dared not contest the judge’s criticisms; there was nothing for him to contest. He was fortunate not to be in prison for his crime.

Written in the third person omniscient, Friend is a stylistically unusual book. Paek frequently delves into the interiority of two or three characters within the space of a single page and the book often dives into lengthy flashbacks. At one point the Jeong’s senior thesis, “A Legal Study of Divorce in Human History” is quoted in full. In other words, I wouldn’t call Friend a page-turner.

Though this book contains moments of clear propaganda—marriage is described as “a component of society,” we’re told that “the family’s fate as a unit of society is intimately connected with the greater family of said society,” and at one point Jeong feels angry that some citizens don’t “respect the country’s efforts to advance technologically and improve the economy”—it does provide some insight into the lives of ordinary people in a society that is otherwise closed off to the rest of the world. And if literature is supposed to teach you something new, it certainly does that.

Friend by Paek Nam-nyong, translated by Immanuel Kim (Columbia University Press, 2020 / 1988)

More books by North Korean authors

If you’re interested in more fiction published within North Korea, Immanuel Kim suggests Literature from the "Axis of Evil": Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations (eds. A. Mason, D. Felman, and S. Schnee), a short story collection with a few entries by North Koreans. “It's not a great sampling of NK literature,” Kim told me, “but it is the only other stories available in English.”

However, a handful of memoirs by North Korean dissidents and defectors are available in English. Here’s a list of those that were recommended to me:

  • The Accusation by Bandi, tr. Deborah Smith

  • The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot 

  • The Girl With Seven Names by Lee Hyeon-seo with David John

  • A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa, tr. Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown

  • Stars Between the Sun and Moon by Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland

  • Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee by Jang Jin-Sung, tr. Shirley Lee

  • A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim with Sébastien Falletti. tr. David Tian

  • Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim with Stephan Talty

  • Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland

  • In Order to Live by Park Yeon-mi with Maryanne Vollers

  • Long Road Home by Kim Yong with Kim Suk-Young

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Immanuel Kim for his help with this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!