Friend: A Novel from North Korea

Translation: Immanuel Kim


Friend is the first North Korean novel translated into English. So far, the only books on North Korea that were available on the market were written either by Western journalists or by refugees. Bandi’s The Accusation, smuggled and published under a pseudonym abroad, was intended to reach readers outside the country. Paek Nam-nyong’s novel was written for Koreans and is an unprecedented opportunity to understand the dilemmas they face on a daily basis, even if the narrative obeys, more often than not, the party line.

The book was published for the first time in 1988, at a time when, as the translator Immanuel Kim mentions in an excellent afterword, the North Korean authorities decided to move away from promoting only narrative about heroes and wanted to show the heroism of ordinary people. It is also the time of the so-called Three Revolutions, when Koreans were encouraged to learn political ideology, acquire the latest technical skills and… to increase their cultural capital with books, songs, theater or cinema. The author began his adventure with writing in this context, and the entire narrative of the book appears on such background.

However, it is a mistake to assume that the book, which emphasizes every few pages the role of the state, pride of working in a factory or the essence of working for the community, is just a laurel for the Kim dynasty devoid of any literary value. Yes, it is a novel set in a very specific context, but it is primarily a story about the dilemmas of everyday life, the search for love, the family, about expectations, dreams and aspirations. And it is in these threads that we can see that people like us are hiding under a thick layer of propaganda.

The action begins when a famous singer visits the judge and seeks help in finalizing the divorce with her husband. The judge, Jeong Jin Wu, looks at her demands with contempt at first, but over time – after meeting her and her husband – realizes that some things simply cannot be fixed. We get to know the love story of Chae Sun Hee, a turner, and Lee Seok Chun, a mezzo-soprano in a local group (who also started with working in a factory). She has expectations of her husband that he will continue his education and get promotion, he does not understand why she is dragged along to the world. And in the midst of their quarrels and in a whirlwind of occasional violence, their son is.

This is a highly conservative book: in the way women are portrayed, how domestic violence is talked about, and how powerful the role of the state is. But for me it is a great look at how the world is perceived by people who usually do not have a voice in our European consciousness. People of flesh and blood, talents and vices. It is significant that women have the greatest ambition in the book: both the judge’s wife and the book’s main character. And although at times male heroes look at them with contempt, women help them reach their potential, not the opposite.

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