By Alek Sigley
I very recently finished reading the North Korean novel Friend (벗) by Paek Nam-Ryong (백남룡). The novel was published in the 1980s, and was apparently a best seller in North Korea. It was published in South Korea too where it garnered acclaim from literary critics.
The story takes place in a city in the DPRK’s mountainous northern region. Part of what made it the subject of such interest in South Korea and overseas was that it dealt with the topic of divorce—which had been seldom if ever dealt with in North Korean fiction previously.
The main characters are a married couple, the husband, Ri Sŏk Ch’un, and wife, Ch’ae Sun Hŭi, who have run up against the shoals of marital “disharmony”, and seek divorce through the local people’s court. The judge overseeing the case, Chŏng Jin U, becomes personally involved in both trying to discern the root of the couple’s problems and helping them resolve them. This is most importantly for the benefit of their young son, Ho Nam, but also themselves, and society more broadly. Indeed, an important message of the book is that the family is the basic “cell” from which the nation is composed, and therefore must be healthy if the nation is to be guaranteed a future. Thus the judge Chŏng Jin U is to the couple not only, or even primarily, an instrument of the state, but is their “friend”. Hence the title of the novel.
Friend is well written, poetic, and quite moving. The characters are interesting and endearing, and while there is inevitably some ideological content in the story, it is not overbearing. It is distinctively North Korean, but also deals with universal themes such as love, friendship, and the relationship between the individual and the collective.
I highly recommend the novel to anyone who can read Korean. And for those who can’t, an English translation by Korean-American scholar Immanuel Kim is in the works and will be out at some point in the future. Dr. Kim has also published a quite engaging interview with Paek Nam Ryong, where the author talks about his life, his work, and even cites Steinbeck, Hemmingway and Dostoyevsky among his influences. Immanuel has produced some very interesting academic research on Friend too. The North Korea Francophiles out there can also get their hands on the French translation.
There is a lot to be said about this story, as a work of good literature, and as an artifact of 1980s North Korea and a reflection of its society and ideology. But in this post, I want to briefly describe the two meet cutes (scenes where future romantic couples meet and begin their relationships) in the novel, because they really do put the “cute” into “meet cute”.
The first is that of Ri Sŏk Ch’un and Ch’ae Sun Hŭi, the married couple filing for a divorce. Their love story is recounted when the judge, Chŏng Jin U, trying to ascertain the cause of their marital problems, asks Ri Sŏk Ch’un to describe how he first met Ch’ae Sun Hŭi. It is thus told from the husband, Ri Sŏk Ch’un’s perspective.
A North Korean Factory Romance
It all began when Ri Sŏk Ch’un, a lathe operator from a machine factory (n.b. the author worked at a machine factory in Kanggye in the far north of the country before going to Kim Il Sung University to study literature), is sent on mobile assignment with two others to help an everyday goods factory set up their lathes, cylindrical grinders, and other machinery. At a meeting in the factory’s hall, Ri Sŏk Ch’un and his team are called up onto the stage, where they are greeted with a round of applause as thanks for their assistance. Ri Sŏk Ch’un is handed a bouquet of flowers from a beautiful young lady dressed in a ch’ima chŏgori (traditional Korean women’s dress). It is friction press operator Ch’ae Sun Hŭi.
In an instant, he is enthralled. His heartbeat quickens, and the bouquet of flowers “were as if they had bloomed from her expansive chest” (some of the description in this novel is surprisingly suggestive for North Korean fiction). He musters all his efforts to calm down his thumping heart and divert his gaze away from Ch’ae Sun Hŭi’s direction.
But over time, Ri Sŏk Ch’un found himself unable to stop his thoughts from drifting towards Ch’ae Sun Hŭi. While he had not been able to get to know her that well during his time there, it was she who had gone out of her way to guide him around the town, and help him settle in when he first showed up. Her beauty, kindness, and poise had left a deep impression on him.
Listening to the cacophony of factory machinery, he could pick out from amongst the noise the sound of Sun Hŭi’s friction press, a sound which always brought up an image of her in her work clothes, at her station, beads of sweat collecting on her forehead.
He had to express his feelings to her. So he went back to his room and started writing a letter. But one after another, his letters ended up being torn to shreds. He simply found it too difficult to write something which didn’t come off as a cliché from a romance novel, or suggest that he was an insincere Casanova who just wanted to sleep with her. Besides, writing a love letter like this wasn’t something which suited a working-class man such as he.
So he asks a mutual friend to pass on a message to her, “meet me behind the poplar tree after work”. He goes out to the tree and waits. Time passes, it is dark, but Ch’ae Sun Hŭi is nowhere to be seen. It rains, and he is soaked. It is as if the weather is mocking him, “she’s out of your league”, it is telling him. His heart torn, he decides to leave. In the distance, someone is approaching. She is holding an umbrella above her head, and carries an extra one in her other hand. It is Sun Hŭi, and the second umbrella is for him. But the damage has already been done, he talks to her curtly, says goodbye when they arrive back at the worker’s dormitory, and resolves to quickly finish up his work at the everyday goods factory and return home.
Later, the factory art troupe, of which Sun Hŭi, a skilled mezzo-soprano (middle-range) singer, is a member, is performing. Listening to her beautiful singing, Sŏk Ch’un finds it all too much, and leaves. He sits on a stone seat in the nearby park, sullen. The performance ends and everyone vacates, and heads home. Finally, to Sŏk Ch’un’s surprise, Sun Hŭi approaches. She apologises for the other night, and Sŏk Ch’un too asks her to forgive him for his rudeness. Upon hearing that Sŏk Ch’un plans to leave after not long, Sun Hŭi implores him to stay on longer. The friction press is too monotonous she says. She wants to learn the lathe, and asks Sŏk Ch’un to stay on longer than planned so he can teach her.
While walking back home, Sŏk Ch’un turns to Sun Hŭi. Her shoulder accidentally brushes across his chest. Sŏk Ch’un feels a burst of cold, and the flow of blood in his body stop. He looks at Sun Hŭi’s blushing face, and reaches for her hand. “You… Love me, don’t you? Just say it”, he implores. She pulls her hand from his, “please don’t ask”, she responds, shy, and a little afraid. “Let’s meet again tomorrow”, she says.
And so began their romance. The following section describes a moonlit date on the beach by the river rapids. Sŏk Ch’un strums on the guitar. He is not particularly skilled, and the somewhat mangled performance is unable to properly convey his love for Sun Hŭi, but he is trying, and for that Sun Hŭi is touched. Kind as always, she comforts him, “there’s too much noise by the river so it doesn’t sound as good as it would indoors”. Such words expressed none other than true love, thought Sŏk Ch’un.
Eventually they marry, have a child, and Sun Hŭi begins pursuing a new career as a professional singer, which in part contributes to the friction (no pun intended) in their relationship, but I’ll leave things here for now—those who want to hear the rest of the story can read the book!
In the next part we’ll learn how the judge, Chŏng Jin U, met his wife, Ŭn Ok.