Something Resembling Normal Life

Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos  A newlywed couple on the banks of the Taedong River, Pyongyang, North Korea, 1981
Hiroji Kubota / Magnum Photos. A newlywed couple on the banks of the Taedong River, Pyongyang, North Korea, 1981

“Whenever I go to North Korea,” Immanuel Kim told an interviewer in 2017, “I see people reading.” In the metro, in elevators, in buses and restaurants. But what were they reading, in a state unrivaled in the harshness of its censorship? As a graduate student at the University of California at Riverside studying Korean literature, Kim—who is now a professor at George Washington University specializing in North Korean culture—had become curious about North Korean fiction, which was usually dismissed as mind-numbing propaganda. There was a basis for this stereotype, it turned out, but after eight months of diligent reading, Kim began to find work that he genuinely liked. One of the best novels he discovered, something different from almost all the rest, was Friend by Paek Nam-nyong.

Kim went on to translate the bookwhich tells the story of the divorce court judge Jeong Jin Wu and the couples he tries to help. First published in Pyongyang in 1988, Friend quickly became widely popular and was even made into a television series in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. There are no “best sellers” in the DPRK: as was the case in the Soviet Union, print runs are based not on reader demand but on what the government thinks its citizens ought to read. Friend’s true popularity, then, should be assessed according to how often copies are shared.

Paek told Kim that he was once sitting on a trolley across from a woman who was perusing a tattered copy of Friend. When he leaned over and offered to trade her a new copy for the old one, she looked askance at him. What he wanted was the only material proof available that his book was genuinely beloved, something much more gratifying than his Kim Il-sung Literary Award. Paek, it seems, is the rare writer who manages to fulfill stringent political requirements while also offering literary satisfaction.

Friend made its way across the Demilitarized Zone and impressed South Koreans, who were surprised at its light touch and convincing characters. Rather than agitprop, it was a sensitive account of the difficulties of marriage. The novel was a reminder that North Koreans, who were so often depicted abroad as vile caricatures, were just as human as everyone else. The South Korean writer Hwang Sogyong put it succinctly: “Through this novel, I realized that there are people living in the North.”

For an outsider, one of the pleasures of reading Friend is the search for clues about everyday life in 1980s North Korea. A glamorous singer wears “light, elegant perfume” and “a fashionable sheath dress”—so there is a theater there, and some people, at least, have perfume and fashionable dresses. A man is put on trial for wasting electricity: a felony. At a pub where an alcoholic coal miner likes to have a pint after work, green neon lights flash out the words “Fine Liquor.” A cityscape sounds more modern than one might have expected, though the enumeration of light sources makes you wonder if this is a place where electricity can’t be taken for granted:

Neon signs began to light up the city as the crimson sun retired behind the hills. A gentle wind blew through the trees, rustling the budding leaves and giving off the fresh scent of spring. Lights appeared in apartment windows one by one, creating a mosaic of changing patterns. Cars, buses, and trucks brightened the evening streets with dazzling headlights.

People wash clothes in the river when they don’t want to go to the laundromat, and the food supply is a constant source of concern. The characters live close to nature, for better and for worse. One woman who works for a reforestation company is sunburned in summer, while in winter her skin is cracked by cold and wind. After her divorce, her personality will blossom; she will “emerge from the shrubbery of the dead forest” like “a wild chrysanthemum.”

There are thrilling traces of something resembling normal life in one of the world’s most secretive and repressive states: a husband’s admiration for and resentment of his workaholic wife, an amateur singer’s longing for fame, marital squabbles over who will cook dinner, the anxious rapture of first love. It’s surprisingly easy to identify with characters like the compassionate judge and his hardworking wife. But it is also essential to remember that this tender story was written by a Writers’ Union member with every rule of censorship in mind, and that it surely reflects the ideological imperatives of the moment when it was written.

Then it’s difficult not to read between the lines. Is the theme of divorce an allegory for the North–South split? Is the novel set in 1984 as a nod to Orwell? Probably not. Messages hidden in censored literature are in their own code, one that is mostly unintelligible to those who are not fluent in the political minutiae of the novel’s time and place. A foreign reader’s understanding is inevitably partial, fragmentary. That doesn’t mean the experience isn’t rewarding. Reading Friend is like meeting a new person when you’re blindfolded. You touch their face, tracing their features with your fingertips. You can’t quite picture them, but you feel the warmth and texture of their skin.

The DPRK established its official culture in the shadow of the Soviet Union, which occupied the northern part of the Korean peninsula after Japan’s surrender in 1945. In 1946 Kim Il-sung, who would soon become the DPRK’s first Supreme Leader, offered his own variant on Stalin’s call for writers to act as “engineers of the human soul”: in North Korea, authors would be “soldiers on the cultural front.” They were ordered to study and emulate Soviet writing, and Soviet literature, literary criticism, and literary manifestos were widely disseminated in Korean translation. Following the Soviet lead, the North Korean literary establishment assigned mandatory topics, issued production plans, organized tours to industrial sites, and established “brigades” to take on writing projects. Purges directed by literary critics felled famous writers.

North Koreans went on staged tours of the Soviet Union, writing glowing, largely fantastical travelogues about the miracles they’d seen there. Soviet literary visitors to the DPRK, meanwhile, found that its writers had gone too far in binding their work to ideology. In the late 1940s, the Koreanstudies expert Tatiana Gabroussenko writes,

a visiting group of Soviet writers and artists tried to persuade their North Korean colleagues not to write exclusively about the Party and Kim Il Sung but to extol “eternal subjects” such as love or flowers for a change.

Soviet calls to “humanize” North Korean literature intensified after de-Stalinization in the mid-1950s. By this time, Soviet observers had begun to see North Korean literature as an “unwitting parody” of Soviet socialist realism, which used a traditionalist narrative style in the service of a preposterously idealized vision of a socialist society. The DPRK never de-Kimified. Quite the opposite: it tightened its control over its citizens and ramped up nationalist rhetoric. The era of unquestioning admiration and imitation of Soviet writers was over. In 1955 Kim Il-sung delivered a speech in which he pointed out that Korean schoolrooms contained portraits of Pushkin and Mayakovsky but none of Korean writers. About a decade later translations of Russian, Soviet, Western, and Chinese literature were banned, though Kim never broke officially with the Soviets.

In the 1970s Kim Il-sung embarked on a campaign intended to increase industrial and agricultural productivity at breakneck speed. The state induced an accompanying overproduction of literature, taking the position that anyone could be an author and that the writing of fiction could be ramped up like the manufacture of tractors. North Korean literary critics responded to this avalanche with disapproval, calling some of the works clichéd and unconvincing. (Their willingness to say so suggests that there was some room for resistance to official narratives.)

Writers turned next to workers’ efforts at self-improvement, in keeping with the DPRK’s 1980s “Hidden Hero” campaign to recognize the achievements of ordinary people. These stories dealt with the changes caused by modernization and new tensions between young and old, educated and uneducated, rural and urban, and men and women. Explicitly political concerns like war, rebuilding, and industrialization yielded to quieter, more domestic themes. As Immanuel Kim explains in his introduction, Friend should be read as a product of this middle age of North Korean literature.

In August 2015, during a brief thaw in relations between the US and North Korea, Kim visited the DPRK and interviewed Paek. Paek was, of course, highly restricted in what he could tell Kim, who deliberately avoided politically sensitive questions. Still, the interview yielded an unusually detailed portrait of a successful North Korean writer, and, by extension, of the literary ecosystem of the country.

When Paek was a year old, in 1950, his father was killed by an American bomb. (An estimated one million North Korean civilians were killed during the Korean War, many of them by American carpet-bombing that also destroyed the country’s infrastructure.) At bedtime, Paek’s mother read him Korean fairytales, Hans Christian Andersen stories, and Aesop’s fables. This, he says, was when he first fell in love with literature. Books allowed him “to enter into the imaginary world,” one “far more complicated and unknown than the world outside my window.”

As a reader, he had traveled more than we might expect. When Kim asked what books Paek enjoyed, he named not only canonical Russian revolutionary and Soviet novels like Gorky’s Mother and Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, but older Russian classics: Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, DostoevskyHe also mentioned Les MisérablesThe Red and the BlackJane Eyre, Dickens, Shakespeare, Moby-Dick, and Gone with the Wind. For the most part, this reading list is similar to that of a law-abiding Soviet citizen, full of classic nineteenth-century novels that explore social problems and the plight of the poor.

The conspicuous, bizarre exception is Gone with the Wind, which is said to be one of the most popular American novels in North Korea. As of 2013, North Korean tablets came preloaded with an e-book of the novel, including an introduction explaining that it depicts “a struggle between the bourgeoisie of the North and the landowners of the South,” and is “particularly useful for understanding how modern capitalism spread to all of the United States,” showing that slave labor was the economic foundation of the US. A North Korean negotiator once reportedly told a US envoy, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”

Paek’s mother died when he was eleven: “I had to borrow a smelly mourner’s clothes and hat, which were too large on me.” His older sisters raised him. After he graduated from secondary school he rejected the idea of university and became a lathe operator. He “learned the values of patience and creativity by cutting metal” during ten years of factory work. But he didn’t want to be a lathe operator forever; he wanted to be a writer. He enrolled in a distance-learning program at Kim Il-sung University, balancing his studies with his factory work, and he earned a degree in Korean literature in 1976. He joined the Jagang Province Writers’ Union, and when his first short story, “High-Quality Coal,” was published, he spent his paltry honorarium on “cold beer, dried squid, and egg bread” for his friends in the workers’ dorm.

He married and had three children, but his wife died young of a brain tumor, and he raised their children alone. Despite this personal tragedy, he met with great success in his career. By the time Kim met him, Paek was a member of the April 15 Literary Production Unit, an elite team founded in the mid-1960s to write historical novels about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Each novel is centered, according to Paek, around a specific moment in the leader’s life, spinning it into a dramatic narrative. The writers on the team critique one another’s work carefully: “Writing about the Great Leader and the Dear General takes more time because the narratives have to be perfect.” But the most difficult challenge Paek identifies will resonate with writers from every country: “Properly describing the seed of human life.”

Paek alluded indirectly to the intensive censorship he endures, telling Kim:

For the past several decades, I’ve worked with several editors on my drafts. The one I’m currently working with now is a meticulous editor. He would scrutinize every single word to identify strange expressions or descriptions. He would show me parts to revise. But revising is not a simple process. A work of fiction is something you love and something you gave birth to; how can you allow another person to reconstruct your child?

But if he had to start all over he would still be a writer, even if “the obstacles of writing fiction are like having to swallow the salty seawater.”

Paek’s own experiences provided the foundation of Friend. The Jagang Province Writers’ Union was in the same building as the local civil court. Curious about what went on there, Paek began attending court hearings. He found that most of the people there were filing for divorce. As he put it, “I witnessed arguments that can cut through steel and the psychological warfare between the couples.” He became close friends with the divorce judge, a man in his late fifties who taught Paek about North Korean divorce law and shared his sorrow over the family unhappiness he saw every day.

From the first page of Friend, one is struck by the fictional judge’s own distress, which is so rarely a feature in divorce stories: “Much like a fisherman trying to untangle knots in a fishing line, Jeong Jin Wu was upset by the burden of having to deal with another family’s misery.” He wonders about the reason for each divorce and hopes it’s a petty one, because those cases are easiest for him to resolve. Most of all, Jeong worries about the children. He’s willing to grant a divorce when he sees that lives are being destroyed by an unhappy marriage, but he knows that children will suffer despite his best efforts.

Friend suggests that a North Korean divorce judge’s task is not only to settle the terms of a divorce but to decide whether a couple ought to divorce in the first place. If possible he should help them reconcile. Jeong’s involvement in his cases extends far beyond the courtroom; he conducts thorough investigations that include not only interviews with the divorcing parties and their children but visits and interviews with their friends and colleagues. He drops in on Seok Chun and Sun Hee, who have filed for divorce, and finds their young son standing outside in the rain, waiting for his parents to come home. When the judge realizes that the boy has a fever, he carries him back to his own house, bathes him, wraps him in a blanket, and feeds him a warm dinner. He asks him questions like, “Hey, do you like your mother more or your father?” He wants to get to the bottom of the marital dispute and find out which parent should take the child.

The personality cult is blessedly absent from Friend—according to Immanuel Kim, this is typical of later works of North Korean literature—and the book is almost entirely free of the magniloquent political declarations that distend many socialist realist works. But the collectivist logic of state socialist art is still evident, and individual emotions are closely linked to political concerns. The judge feels distress not only out of empathy for individual suffering but because he views the family as a “unit of society” and the dissolution of a marriage as a blow to the polity. A worker unhappy at home will become lax in his duties; his manager may become bad-tempered; production quotas may be left unmet.

Jeong’s sadness over his cases also stems from problems in his own life—unlike standard-issue socialist realist heroes, he isn’t perfect. His wife, Eun Ok, is passionately committed to her work as a researcher in an agricultural laboratory. Raised in a cold, mountainous area, she has dedicated her life to developing vegetable strains that will survive the harsh climate and feed the people in her home region. She is away for twenty days out of every month; the lonely judge resents her absence, fantasizing about a cozy, traditional marriage with a homemaker. Since the day they met it’s been obvious that she is cleverer than he is, and that she is driven by an acute sense of social responsibility. He thinks ruefully about a conversation they had on their wedding night:

“Comrade Jin Wu, when we receive our new home, I was planning on using the master bedroom as a greenhouse so that I can check on the plants when I return from the research lab. Would that be all right?”

“Of course it will. I will buy you all the flowerpots you need,” said Jeong Jin Wu.

Eun Ok, completely moved by Jeong Jin Wu’s commitment, gazed into his eyes and promised eternal love, a harmonious family, and positive results from the research lab.

Now she loves her vegetables as if they were her children, and he’s stuck running the greenhouse while she’s away. But we know he loves her. Though her hands are rough and her hair is dry and thin with age, when she gets home he is overcome with feelings of “joy, encouragement, and tranquility.” An American advice columnist might tell him not to stay in a marriage where vegetables come before his emotional needs. But this is North Korea, and the people need to eat.

Seok Chun and Sun Hee meet at the steel factory where Seok Chun works, as his author once did, as a lathe operator. Their flirtation is depicted in inadvertently amusing passages whose industrial eroticism will feel familiar to anyone who has read Soviet novels:

Amid the noise of all the running machines, Seok Chun was able to distinguish the sound of the friction press that Sun Hee operated. He could see drops of sweat rolling down her forehead, around her lustrous eyes, and down her white cheeks as she arduously worked the press.

When Seok Chun hears Sun Hee sing at an amateur performance organized by the Factory Arts Committee, he worries that she’s out of his league. But soon he proposes: “Being a lathe operator. It’s truly rewarding, and like the sound of the rapids, it, too, has a melodic tune. I just need someone who will play that tune with me. Comrade, do you know what I’m talking about?” She does.

They’re happy at first, but things get rocky after Sun Hee quits her job to pursue a singing career and swiftly becomes a celebrity. She wants Seok Chun to enroll in the Engineering College to improve his technical skills, but Seok Chun insists that he’s satisfied with life as a simple lathe operator. This story is common in many societies: the gifted wife’s career exceeds that of her unambitious husband, and marital discord follows. But how should we interpret this episode from a political perspective?

As a veteran reader of Soviet fiction, I was tempted to conclude that we are meant to condemn Sun Hee as someone motivated simply by a bourgeois desire for social status, denigrating the noble work of an unsung hero of the proletariat. Seok Chun takes a similar line. But this novel was written well after the heyday of Stalin-style industrial heroes, at a time when North Korean literature sought to glorify education and technical skills. Eventually, we learn that Seok Chun’s refusal to pursue an education is stopping him from making his best possible contribution to the common good. He invents a useful device, but because he doesn’t know how to make professional sketches, it takes far more time and money to develop the machine than was necessary.

After the couple decides to file for divorce, Jeong is assigned to their case. In his mild way, the judge acts as our guide through the novel’s ideological reasoning. Though Sun Hee behaves badly, neglecting her husband and child, the judge is inclined to be forgiving. She has an exceptional talent that is of use to the nation. “Performing artists were different from other workers,” he reflects:

Their special gift could cause them to be vainglorious…. She was as much a part of her music as the music was a part of her. As an artist, she was responsible for moving the people of the nation through songs, lyrics, and her voice.

The judge concludes that Seok Chun is the one more at fault:

He had become complacent in his work, feeling more pride at being recognized as a humble worker than at actually completing his projects. He built a tight fence around himself under the cover of diligence and national duty, but in doing so, he excluded his wife and his son. This precise friction between the couple made Sun Hee react adversely, even imperiously, toward Seok Chun. His reluctance to fulfill his true national duty—the duty to progress and advance in his social position—thrust Sun Hee into despair.

The judge’s insights help the couple reconcile, just in time to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary.

Friend is clearly the product of a later, somewhat more relaxed period of official North Korean literature, displaying a level of ambiguity and flexibility that is perhaps comparable to that of post-Stalinist Soviet literature. Supposedly bourgeois qualities like vanity, excessive love of fashionable clothes and cosmetics, and a desire for money or fame are not condemned reflexively. There are almost no villains; instead, everyone is in need of aid, sympathy, and education to enable them to reform.

The novel also acknowledges that the state isn’t perfect. Corrupt officials impede domestic violence investigations and embezzle funds, and Seok Chun is cheated of a prize he deserved to win for his invention. The judge thinks angrily that there are “still too many people…who did not respect the country’s efforts to advance technologically and improve the economy, who instead flaunted their authority as they sat on the throne of bureaucratic power.” This remark sounds like a reflection of propaganda mandates, perhaps intended to scapegoat a few corrupt bureaucrats for larger social problems, but it’s a long way from undiluted socialist realist fantasy.

Kim is clear that Friend is not a typical example of North Korean literature; its unusual features are the reason that foreign audiences find it palatable. Still, it’s tempting to wonder whether the novel’s embrace of gray areas hints at thawing censorship. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to read the North Korean equivalent of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag novella whose 1962 publication was a watershed moment in Soviet culture.

Kim says he’s done with North Korean literature. (His monograph Rewriting Revolution: Women, Sexuality, and Memory in North Korean Fiction was published in 2018.) His new research focuses on North Korean comedy films. The projects are clearly connected: to understand a foreign culture, you need to know what people like to read and what makes them laugh. The DPRK’s human rights abuses and the brutal absurdity of the Kim dynasty have received much well-deserved attention in the Western media. But these shouldn’t be the only things we know about North Koreans.

Sophie Pinkham recently received a Ph.D. from the Slavic Department at Columbia, where she teaches Literature Humanities. She is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine.
 (December 2020)

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