A Korean Friend

Patty Osborne

In Friend (Columbia University Press) by Paek Nam-nyong (translated by Immanuel Kim) Judge Jeong Jin Wu must decide whether Chae Sun Hee and Lee Seok Chun should be allowed to file for divorce. In North Korea, where the story takes place, the judge must talk to the husband and the wife separately, and also to the People’s Committee, the manager of the factory where Seok Chun works and the deputy director of the Provincial Performing Arts Company where Sun Hee performs as a singer. Judge Jeong Jin is a loyal North Korean and a sensitive man who re-examines his own domestic life while he learns more about the problems of the unhappy couple. His view of divorce is that “The law protects the entity of the family, as it is a component of society. It’s not an easy matter to destroy a piece of the nation.” During their conversations with the judge, both Sun Hee and Seok Chun describe the beginnings of their relationship in a more romantic way than we are used to reading in western literature, but when they recount the misunderstandings and anger behind their current problems, the story is familiar. The lengthy but highly readable afterword tells the story of the author’s life and places his work within “a literary approach that began in the 198s, aimed at getting rid of ‘socialist realism’ and ‘revolutionary romanticism’—idealizing the heroic struggle and sacrifice—to deal with the lives of ordinary people.” It goes on to say that “almost all the North Korean writing we have access to in English translation is by dissidents or defectors. 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.” And it’s a great read.

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