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Paek Nam-nyong: 벗 (Friend)

Before writing this book, Paek made a study of divorcing couples while he was working at the Jagang Province Writers’ Union. The local court dealing with divorces was in the same building.

The book opens as Judge Jeong Jin Wu is being handed a divorce petition by a trembling woman in a court office in a provincial North Korean town. He has specialised in divorce cases and seems to get very much involved in them. He knows this woman – Sun Hee – by repute, as she is a well-known singer, the lead mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. He has seen her perform.

Seok Chun and I have not been on good terms. It’s been like this for several years. I can’t live with him anymore! There is simply no way! We were not meant to be she says.

As a judge, he feels it is duty to find out more and learns that her husband works in a machine factory as a lathe operator, he brings home no money, however, as when he was experimenting on developing a new type of lathe, he damaged some of the factory’s equipment and feels it his duty to pay the money back. She wants to be granted a divorce at once but the judge says he needs to hear both sides and investigate further. Even when he receives a call from the chairman of the commission board urging him to grant the divorce, he says the same thing.

While we will learn more about this case, we also learn about the chairman of the commission board who divorced his wife because he had done well and she was still a country bumpkin. We also learn about the judge’s marriage, which is far from harmonious. Finally, we learn about the marriage of his two neighbours, she a teacher, he an alcoholic coal miner.

Judge Jeong is the key player here. He meets, both separately and together, Sun Hee and Seok Chun, as well as their seven-year old son, Ho Nam. Indeed, at least by Western standards, he goes way beyond the call of duty in establishing what is behind the fact that both husband and wife seem to want a divorce. She feels that he is too devoted to his job and his invention and will not make any attempt at advancement, for example by formally studying engineering or by dressing nicely, while he feels that his contribution – improving the the efficiency of North Korean industry – is superior to that of a mere singer, however good she is and however much she is admired.

At the same time, the judge examines his own marriage. His wife, Eun Ok, is a biologist and is aiming to develop vegetable species that will grow in the mountainous area where she comes from. As a result, she spends lot of time there, leaving him to fend for himself. As for his neighbour, she is a teacher and has devoted herself to her pupils. Her husband is an alcoholic and he knows that this upsets his wife and keeps promising to give it up but never does. Judge Jeong tries to help out here.

Finally there is Chae Rim, the chairman of the commission board. He tries to intervene in Sun Hee’s divorce, as he is related to her. However, Judge Jeong remembers how badly he treated his wife and discovers how his son is now suffering, and is determined to get him. Inevitably, he finds some dirty deeds (on what seems to us scant evidence). Chae Rim is clearly the bad guy but, as this is a North Korean novel, instead of calling in lawyers as a Western crook like him would have done, he accepts his guilt and punishment.

It is an interesting story, even if, to a Westerner, it seems a bit naive and black and white. Judge Jeong goes way beyond the call of duty to resolve the various issues. Some might say he is interfering. Equally, their standards, often laudable, may seem a bit odd to us. For example He who diligently carries out the Party’s directives is the true bearer of noble consciousness and character.

The role of women is very much part of the novel. We see most women working. Indeed, the lathe factory seems to have quite a few women doing technical jobs. Despite this, the men expect their wife to do the traditional housewife chores, such as cooking and laundry and complain when they are not available to do them

What is, of course interesting, is that this book is written by a North Korean writer who is not a dissident or enemy of the people, but someone very much part of the system and who has Party approval. Clearly, he has to paint the righteous workers succeeding and following the correct path, which he does. At the same time, the individuals are not all stereotypes and have their flaws and concerns and do not always behave the way they should. The book does admit on more than one occasion that there are workers who are slackers and, of course, the teacher’s husband is an alcoholic. It is not a great work of literature but certainly interesting to read about a country few of us are every likely to visit.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by Munye Ch’ulp’ansa
First English translation by Columbia University Press in 2020
Translated by Immanuel Kim