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Family revolution , divorce , hidden hero , patriarchy , memory

    Paek Namryong’s Pŏt (Friend)1 was published in 1988 and made its way across the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and into the hands of many South Koreans by 1992. One of South Korea’s renowned writers, Hwang Sŏgyŏng (1993, 199), said this after reading the novel:

    Another South Korean writer Yun Chŏngmo said,

    Their genuine shock over Paek’s Friend may not have been simply based on its theme of divorce but on a deeper level of reading and understanding the tenuous narrative structure.

    Paek’s other stories such as Pongmuja tŭl (Servicemen, 1979), Ilt’ŏ (Workplace, 1979), 60 nyŏnhu (After 60 Years, 1982), Chŏlmŭn tangbisŏ (The Young Party Secretary, 1983), Saengmyŏng (Life, 1985), and Pŏt (Friend, 1988) all center on cadres which struggle to improve the living and working conditions for the collective. Paek understands the critical role of the cadres as the middlemen between the Party and the people.3 That is why he delineates cadres in many of his narratives as what Tatiana Gabroussenko (2009) calls the “caring cadre,”4 which facilitates the imperative duty for individuals to conform to the Party directives. While the conflict between state and individual is a recurring theme in North Korean literature, Friend stands out among Paek’s other works and even among other novels published around the same period for its inability to seal off and enclose individualistic tendencies in a female character. The “utopian” ending in the novel is anything but artificially contrived to meet the demands of the Party’s family revolution.

    I am not suggesting that Friend is an antithetical text in North Korea, or, what one may call, a dissident work. The central theme in Friend complies with the Party-line of revolutionizing the family, where the protagonist Chŏng Chinu administrates his legal power to restore a dysfunctional family to a healthy condition and thus raises the individuals’ ideological consciousness. Central themes in North Korean literature are supposed to render a unitary reading, a univocal meaning that complies with the Party thought, where difference or otherness is disregarded, eliminated, or simply unthought.

    The majority of the conclusions in North Korean novels not only promote the Party and offer “eternal optimism,”5 but, more implicitly, reinstate a maledominated socio-political order. In short, novels in North Korea engender a masculine reading, where Partha Chatterjee’s “the women’s question” gets subsumed under the patriarchal discourse of the totalizing state. What makes Friend unique, however, is its implication and thematic conflict that love and loyalty to the state cannot be forced upon or demanded from individuals. The main conflict in the novel is not between the divorcees but between the presiding judge (Chŏng Chinu) and the obstinate female divorcee (Ch’ae Sunhŭi). While the novel is supposed to present the divorcees’ ability to transcend their differences and instantiate their obligation to the state, a problematic discourse yet exists, where Sun-hŭi resists the enclosure of her individualism and thus reasserts the “women’s question.”

    Paek Namryong’s Friend ends with ambiguity as to whether or not a married couple on the verge of divorce will remain unified. Paek demonstrates that human emotions and interpersonal relationships between married couples resist prescriptivism.6 Seen in this way, Paek uses his creativity to navigate around or circumscribe a prescribed narrative structure that the Party often demands from its writers. Thus, this novel is one of the few works in the late 1980s that creatively explicates the torrents of raw, undisciplined human emotions and desires in individuals,7 who struggle to negotiate between their public and private lives—their external, superficial obligations to the collective and their internal, self-seeking ambitions for themselves.

    A few South Korean specialists on North Korean literature like Kim Chaeyong, O Ch’angun, Roh Kwinam, and Ko Inhwan have hailed Friend as the representative novel of the 1980s that reveals the changing tides, the optimistic purview of literature in North Korea.8 In the 1980s in South Korea, many of the abovementioned scholars participated in a movement called “On Correctly Understanding North Korea,” which was the first time that academicians took North Korean studies seriously (O 2008, 13). Their optimism was based on the increasingly popularity of North Korea among university students, reading groups and lectures. Two of the most popular novels that were taught by these scholars were Nam Taehyŏn’s The Hymn of Youth (Ch’ŏngch’un sŏngga) and Paek Namryong’s Friend. The fervent reception of these novels opened up new possibilities of understanding North Korea, creating an optimistic outlook among scholars and students.

    Even with the reprinting of Paek’s Friend in South Korea in 1992, scholars likeKim Chonghoe (2007, 147) argue that the writers are “echoes” of the Party, and, therefore, are limited in voicing their creativity. In addition to Kim Chong-hoe, literary scholar Kwŏn Yŏng-min (though not a specialist in North Korean literature) criticizes North Korean literature for basing its content only on Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology, and, as a result, delimiting the writers’ creativity.9 However, Kim and Kwon’s sweeping generalizations about North Korean literature add little to the research of the functions of literature in a tightly controlled system.

    To think that ironic readings in North Korean novels do not exist in such a totalitarian society may be underestimating the single most effective tool that writers wield: language. Though a unitary language of the Party’s directive is often demanded from the writers, Bakhtin (1981, 3) asserts that the novel is the sole genre that continues to develop, that is as yet uncompleted. Paek’s Friend is a case in point that renders ironic readings and that which allows the readers to negotiate between their own interpretation and the Party’s holistic ideology. Stephen Epstein (2002, 35) argues that an alternative methodological perspective from which to approach the fiction of the DPRK is in terms of an implicit contract established between state, author, and reader. That the success of any given story will depend on the skill with which the author can manipulate the conventions of the Party while still remaining within a rigid structure (Epstein 2002). It is, therefore, imperative to understand the North Korean socio-literary context in order to estimate the different narrative practices in Friend.

    1From here on I will use my translation, Friend.  2This quotation is found in the appendix of the South Korean publication of Paek Namryong’s After 60 Years in 1992.  3Refer to Jaejin Su’s The Impact of Personality Cult in North Korea for a deeper analysis of the “middleman” in North Korean socio-politics.  4Refer to Tatiana Gabroussenko, “North Korean ‘Rural Fiction’ from the Late 1990s to the Mid 2000s: Permanence and Change.” Korean Studies 33 (2009): 79–81.  5Refer to Stephen Epstein, “On Reading North Korean Short Stories on the Cusp of the New Millennium,” Acta Koreana 5, no. 1 (January 2002): 33.  6Sin Hyŏnggi and O Sŏngho (2000, 321), argue that Friend shows the revolutionary love of the couple, that there have not been any other novels in North Korea that portray love as such. While this may be true—and certainly the way the Party wants the readers to interpret the novel—I argue that there is not enough evidence in the text to suggest the couple’s unification.  7Individuality is highly regarded in North Korean literature. The individual does not refer to rights to privacy and private property, as Sonia Ryang (2002) notes. Instead, the individual in North Korea is self-cultivating in light of Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology.  8The collection of these optimistic scholars’ essays is in Pukhan munhak ŭi chihyŏngdo [Topography of North Korean Literature] (Seoul: Ehwa Womans University, 2008).  9Refer to Kwŏn yŏngmin, Han’guk hyŏndae munhaksa [History of Korean Modern Literature]. Seoul: Minŭmsa, (2010): 424.


    In North Korean literature, a tale of the family ineluctably ensues the construction of the “Great Family,” which consists of Kim Il Sung as the Father, the Party as the Mother, and the people as the children. This type of literature is most notably a reflection of Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology and subsequently called Juche-literature. The harmony of the Great Family is based on the collective-spirited individuals working for the state. Whether or not the story directly celebrates Kim Il Sung, the end product of the majority of narratives produced in the DPRK projects a male-oriented social order by reinstating the head of the family as the resolution of the narrative conflict. This “head of the family” may come in the form of Kim Il Sung, a Party secretary, a local manager at a factory or collective farm, a bureaucrat, or any other representative of the state. Individuality—one of the main thematic conflicts in many of the narratives—is collectivized to ensure the prosperity of the patriarchal order. As Luce Irigaray (1985, 83) says, “For the patriarchal order is indeed the one that functions as the organization and monopolization of private property to the benefit of the head of the family.” Thus, the restoration of the head of the family becomes the symbolic motif in North Korean literature.

    Narratives that take place during the colonial period or the Korean War often depict victimized families, persecuted by the colonialists or American imperialists as Brian Myers (1994) discusses through the works of Han Sŏrya and others after liberation. In these narratives, fathers are often ruthlessly murdered by the imperialists or have died on the battlefield, usually leaving the mother and her children vulnerable to the perpetrators. The outcome of these stories often finds or replaces the former head of the family with a new one under the guidance of Kim Il Sung or the “correct” attitude toward a brighter socialist utopia.

    In other instances, the dissolution of the nuclear family may have been considered a righteous, self-sacrificing decision as long as it was for the cause of the socialist revolution. For example, in one of the self-proclaimed masterpieces in North Korean literature Sea of Blood (1982),10 the mother loses everything she possesses because of the Japanese colonialists: her husband, her village, and her youngest son Ul Nam. Through the course of the novel, the mother comes to realize the importance of the socialist revolution and accedes to sending off her eldest son and daughter to join a guerrilla force:

    The future of the socialist revolution is prioritized over the nuclear family in Sea of Blood. The mother’s tears as she sends off her children to the guerrillas are tears caused by joy rather than her maternal instinct of worrying over her children. She has come to terms with herself and is convinced that the guerrilla force will provide her children with comfort, food, shelter, and victory. The dissolution of the nuclear family is not a necessary evil for the mother; it is simply necessary for the construction of the socialist nation. She may have endured unutterable pain in losing her husband and her youngest son to the Japanese, but there is no pain in losing Wol Nam and Gap Sun. She is proud that her children will contribute to the building of a new future. The mother is able to transcend her maternal instincts and allow her children to be incorporated into a new family, a revolutionary family, one that is forged by Kim Il Sung.

    Ri Kich’ang’s Pinnanŭn sedae (Radiant Generation 1974) celebrates an orphaned boy who eventually becomes a respected architect with the help of Kim Il Sung. The architect’s “lost” biological father is replaced by Kim Il Sung as the surrogate father. One is never deprived of a family, therefore, as long as one understands that true kinship is found in working for the construction of the state. And An Sŏnok’s Han kajŏng (A Family 1979) tells a story about a private who thinks about his family back home but later realizes that a true family bond is forged among comrades fighting for the nation.

    However, the literary trend shifts in the late 1970s and 1980s, where domestic problems—discord between husband and wife, hostility between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, and generational gaps between parents and children—increase in narratives to identify the source of the problem or internal members of society who weaken the stronghold of the socialist family.11 Kim Kyosŏp’s Saenghwal ŭi ŏndŏk (Height of life 1984) traces the daily life of a well-educated working wife whose only desire is to be a homemaker. Her attitude appears to be “bourgeois” to her husband, creating strife between the couple. The wife eventually continues her work and succeeds in inventing a heating system for the factory, which wins the approval of her husband. Their marital problems are resolved along with the the nation’s technological advancement.12 And Pak Chŏngsang’s Kyŏrhon munje (Marriage Problems 1985) depicts a young working woman who derides the conservative views of her future mother-in-law, causing problems even before the marriage. The young woman asserts the importance of her occupation in society and is unwilling to simply become a subservient housewife. Women in these narratives project their strong instincts for the welfare of the nation and become stronger nationalists than their counterparts. Additionally, these narratives reiterate the gender problems, both traditional and revolutionary, that saturated the debates on the “woman question” in the formative years of the DPRK.

    Suzy Kim (2010) reassesses the woman question by examining the role of the revolutionary mother in the early development of the DPRK. According to Kim (2010, 760), motherhood was defined as the most exemplary form of selfless public service, which not just women but everyone should strive to emulate. Much like the mother in Sea of Blood, the unconditionally sacrificing icon of motherhood becomes synonymous with the nation. Kim (2010, 761) continues, “Before identifying themselves as women, women were to identify with the nation, as the woman question was equated with the national question.” The woman question emerged during the formative years of the DPRK and continued to circulate during the aftermath of the Korean War, and, as a result, women were to embrace national (re)construction as their highest calling.

    The woman question reemerges in the 1980s, requiring the women not only to work physically for the nation but to strengthen their ethical imperatives as a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, or a daughter-in-law according to the nation’s demands that one’s ethical obligation to the state or nation transcends all familial or personal duties. This kind of ethicality can be seen in Ri Inch’ŏl’s Mangne ttal (My Youngest Daughter 1980), where three daughters are depicted: the eldest daughter married a wealthy man but lives in misery because her husband has marital affairs with other women; the second daughter married a low factory worker but lives happily because her husband has the correct socialist ideals; and the youngest daughter has to choose between a wealthy businessman and a diligent factory worker as her suitor. The youngest daughter convinces her stubborn father to bless her marriage with the factory worker because true happiness derives from adhering to the correct ideology. Thus, the woman question in narratives as such does not pose a threat to the nation as the trajectory of the discourse of women ends up promoting nationalism and serving the demands of the Party.

    Although raising the consciousness of the women or the masses with the correct ideology is nothing new in North Korea, the 1980s marked a significant transition in both the political and literary world. In February of 1982, Kim Jong Il was announced as the successor to Kim Il Sung and, as a result, literature produced in the literary journal Chosŏn munhak (Korean Literature) and other state-owned media began to construct the personality cult of Kim Jong Il. Although Kim Jong Il does not appear in the narratives at this time, the contents of the plot creating a stronger family bond among comrades and finding “hidden heroes” among complacent individuals seem to add yet another layer of reading in these works. Literature on the nuclear family can be read as Kim Jong Il’s justification for enabling himself to rise to power. The implicit claim is that the relationship between father and son is stronger than the relationship between non-family members, and, in order for the revolution to continue, a family member ought to succeed Kim Il Sung’s position.13

    Thus, literature depicts domestic problems as the modality of restoring the head of the household and raising the consciousness of the family members. The nuclear family functions as the appropriate allegory for the succession transition along with some contemporaneous social problems. It is amid these socio-political conditions that Paek’s Friend came into the hands of many North Koreans in 1988. Despite its commonplace theme of a nuclear family, the matter of divorce renders it exceptional. The plot is as follows:

    This novel makes divorce its central motif, which is rare, if not nearly nonexistent, in North Korean literature before its publication in 1988 as it threatens the dissolution of the revolutionary family. Turbulent marital problems, issues with raising children, and desires to live a comfortable life devoid of Party directives are some of the concerns in Friend, and all of the characters are not without problems. Significantly a model citizen is not already present in the narrative but is gradually developed.

    The main couple comprises Sŏkch’un and Sunhŭi who both want a divorce because of personality conflicts. The second couple comprises Ch’ae Rim and his wife (who makes an appearance without a name), who divorced because of personality conflicts. The third couple comprises a coal factory worker and a schoolteacher who have been faithfully married despite myriad personality conflicts. Finally, the fourth couple comprises Judge Chŏng Chinu and Ŭnok who face marital problems because of Ŭnok’s long absence from home to conduct her research.

    It may appear as though Paek polarizes two sets of couples to distinguish the ideal family (coal miner and schoolteacher) from the anti-revolutionary one (Ch’ae Rim and his wife). In stories like Ri Inch’ŏl’s My Youngest Daughter, the clear explication of polar couples allows the readers to mentally map the superimposition of the Party’s ethicality of the good. Yet, this technique of polarizing the two couples not only depicts the individuals as being flat and undeveloped but also limits the readers’ options. In other words, the choice is rather obvious and prescribed to the readers by the Party.

    However, Paek’s narrative strategy is not for readers to choose between the ideal and the anti-revolutionary couple. Instead, Paek focuses on every couple’s marital problems in the novel to show the transformational process of a dysfunctional family into a revolutionary one. According to Ko Inhwan (2008, 309), the problem between Ch’ae Sunhŭi and Ri Sŏkch’un is not to show how one overcomes the other, but rather, to show how the two acknowledge their mutual problem in order to create a better future for themselves. The achievement of this “better future” is orchestrated by the “hidden hero.”

    10The transliteration of the characters’ names in this paper is taken from the DPRK’s translation of Sea of Blood.  11Refer to Kim Chaeyong (1994, 260–270) for a detailed analysis of various motifs in North Korean literature during the 1980s.  12This is what Sin Hyŏngki and O Songho refer to as “technological ideology,” where characters in novels increase their technological education directly for the construction of the nation (2000, 327).  13This is not to say that Kim Il Sung always had Kim Jong Il in mind as his successor. According to the South Korean scholar Jae Chun Lim (2009, 52), Kim Il Sung had prepared Kim Yŏngju (Kim Il Sung’s brother) above anybody else as his most probable successor. However, Kim Yŏngju’s poor health forced Kim Il Sung and his old guerrilla comrades to change their succession plan and search for an alternative (Lim 2009, 53). Although the North Korean media began to disclose specific evidence indicating the political succession in early 1973 (Lim 2009, 54), it was not until 1982 that literary works on Kim Jong Il’s personality cult appeared in Chosŏn munhak.


    Sŏkch’un and Sunhŭi’s marital problems are presumably resolved by the incorporation of a new member into the couple’s family: Chŏng Chinu (a legal cadre member).14 Throughout the novel, Paek vacillates between using “Judge Chŏng Chinu” and “Chŏng Chinu.” Paek shows the transformation and implication of Chŏng Chinu from an impersonal cadre member to a personal, paternal member of Sŏkch’un and Sunhŭi’s nuclear family. When Sŏkch’un and Sunhŭi leave with Honam (their son) from Judge Chŏng Chinu’s apartment, the narrator says, “The judge wasn’t their relative or a friend, but to invite the family over to his house and offer this kind of hospitality was out of the ordinary. The three left the judge’s house” (Paek 56). Later, when Chŏng Chinu criticizes Sŏkch’un, he says, “I’m advising you, not as a judge, but as your elderly friend.” (Paek 158). Finally, toward the end of the novel, Chŏng Chinu asks if he could visit Sŏkch’un and Sunhŭi on the day of their anniversary: “I want to go over to your house not as a judge but as your friend. Honam will also greet me like his pal.” (Paek 165). Chŏng Chinu’s emphasis on the idea of “friend” seems to carry more weight than his occupation as a cadre member in the legal world. For Chŏng Chinu, becoming the people’s friend may be his highest calling as a cadre member. This may be the indicative moment where Paek arouses the sentiments of the readers to accept Chŏng Chinu as a friend and the father-figure of the family.

    Chŏng Chinu represents the hero of the narrative due to his strong moral qualities, un-bureaucratic attitude, and intention of revolutionizing the family. North Korean literature specialistKim Chaeyong (2000, 292) considers Chŏng Chinu to be the “hidden hero” of the novel. Heroes of this kind are not guerrillas during the colonial era or soldiers on the battlefield during the Korean War but common people. At the same time, “he must be able to show his objective development as a prototypical hero” (Kim 1994, 274). Chŏng Chinu is an ordinary civil servant, who embodies the magnanimous virtue of a hero. He is what Kim Chaeyong refers to as the “people’s friend” (inmin ŭi pŏt). For instance, when Chŏng Chinu discovers that Sŏkch’un’s efforts have been fruitless because of the shortage of the proper type of sand, he goes to the riverbank and digs up a backpack full of quality sand. As a result, Sŏkch’un is overwhelmed by Chŏng Chin-u’s willingness to help him with his project.

    The “hidden hero” campaign in the 1980s singled out model citizens who manifested ideal characteristics for others to follow. With the need to advance society with technology—under the auspices of the Three Revolutions—the role of the hidden hero provided morale for failing individuals to become reincorporated into society. The family revolution, therefore, became the method by which the Party eliminated and collectivized individualism. This campaign asserted that the nuclear family is only a cell of society, but that “proper” care and discipline are required to prevent the cell from turning into a cancerous one. In one instance, Chŏng Chinu cultivates vegetables during Ŭnok’s absence. Chŏng Chinu’s tending of vegetables in a greenhouse reflects the micro-politics of maintaining and monitoring the nuclear family. Chŏng Chinu controls the humidity level, measures the temperature, and clears away any weeds that may deter the health and growth of the vegetables. Although he grumbles about his absent wife for leaving him with all the household chores, Chŏng Chinu faithfully tends to the vegetables as if they were his own. His attitude toward the vegetables mirrors the way he nurses Sŏkch’un and Sunhŭi back to marital health. After Chŏng Chinu criticizes Sŏkch’un for falling behind the times,15 Sŏk’ch’un enrolls in night school at a technical institute. His tenderness toward the couple as their friend makes Chŏng Chinu a parental figure rather than a faceless bureaucrat.

    His antithetical position against Ch’ae Rim, who is self-serving rather than serving the needs of the people, further secures his position as a hero. Ch’ae Rim’s obese body symbolizes his opulent lifestyle and power. His silk suits and fashionable neckties show the disparity between the elite cadre members and the workers. Ch’ae Rim is accused of falling into bureaucratism and formalism—which are the two ideologies most deleterious to the construction of the state—for profiting from government funds.16 After Chŏng Chinu threatens to arrest Ch’ae Rim for fraudulent activities, Ch’ae Rim confesses his misconduct and promises to redistribute the funds properly. Unlike the villains in the past, the literature of the 1980s presents the “enemy of the state” as no longer being found outside the Edenic society of the DPRK but rather inside, disrupting the movement of the state toward its socialist perfection.17

    Paek’s portrayal of “Chŏng Chinu” as the sympathetic people’s friend, who transforms the nuclear family into a revolutionary unit by eliminating the family’s discord, and “Judge Chŏng Chin-u” as the unerring law enforcer, who proceeds to prosecute and attack the “cancerous” individuals in society runs parallel with the Party’s family revolution. In this respect, Chŏng Chinu assumes the category of the prototypical hero as discussed in Kim Jong Il’s On the Art of the Cinema (2001). That is to say, in North Korean socialist realist heroic fiction, everything is subordinated to the positive figure, including the fate of the entire dramatis personae (David-West 2009, 20).

    At the same time, Chŏng Chinu’s psychological development provides depth to his character, which allows the readers to sympathize with the otherwise magnanimous hero. Amid conflicting marital couples, Chŏng Chinu’s own marital problems also tread along the verge of divorce. His wife Ŭnok’s extended absences from her domestic duties as a wife cause Chŏng Chinu to feel pangs of regret. When he comes home to an empty apartment, Chŏng Chinu thinks to himself: “Does a husband have to understand the woman’s duty as a housewife? It’s not like her research is ground-breaking; it’s just cultivating vegetables” (Paek 23). The narrator adds:

    But after resolving other couples’ marital problems, Chŏng Chinu recognizes the importance of his wife’s research for the community, that a healthy family must overcome personal interests for the improvement of the collective. He, therefore, transcends the limits of his personal angst toward his wife and supports the agricultural advancement of the collective for which his wife works:

    Chŏng Chinu’s ability to accept his wife’s research indicates his resolve with his individualistic desires and his ethical obligation to the collective. Unlike the gungho, flat, and prescribed heroes in narratives of the 1970s and even in the 1980s, Chŏng Chinu’s heroism derives from the process of overcoming his egocentric and self-indulgent behavior. Despite his occupation as a judge, whose rational acuteness and Party orientation are required, Chŏng Chinu’s subjective behavior reveals his ethical struggle for the “good” of the collective.18

    While the conflict appears to have been resolved and a harmonious conclusion is promised, this type of conclusion reinstates a patriarchal restoration contrived by the Party directives, whereby the family revolution is implicitly gendered. Chŏng Chinu compels Ch’ae Rim to confess his fraudulent misdeeds; he convinces the coal miner to quit drinking and to pursue his long-lost passion;he transforms Sŏkch’un into a “new man,” helping him to acquire the latest technological skills appropriate for the Party’s demands; and, most importantly, he undergoes his own Party–desired transformation, qualifying him as the hero of the narrative. Interestingly enough, Chŏng Chinu does not articulate the Party’s directives to the women—the narrative is about the transformation of the men. Friend appears to follow the formulaic structure of typical North Korean novels in the 1980s with the restoration of the male character as the head of the household and therefore the stronghold of the nation.

    However, there is yet an unresolved issue in the novel. The “end” of the novel does not fulfill its enclosure of the narrative. The end seems to resist (en)closure, or, at the very least, suspends the completion of the novel. The ending is forced and contrived with the thoughts of Chŏng Chinu leading the readers to believe that Sunhŭi and Sŏkch’un will compromise their differences and build the optimistic family with Sŏkch’un as the head of the family and Sunhŭi as the faithful housewife: “Chŏng Chinu looked at Honam and tried to appease his envious thoughts. Don’t worry child. Your parents will remarry. They may not have a wedding ceremony, but they will prepare a new family. It will be a spiritual wedding” (Paek 195). A “new family,” signifies one that is not built on individualism or self-centeredness but on the spiritual (chŏngsinjŏk)—even perhaps the Absolute Spirit (Geist) in the Hegelian sense—or the correct ideology of the state. Indeed, the spiritual wedding is not referring to a reformation of the nuclear family but a new commitment to the state. The family elevates itself, sublates itself, beyond itself, to and for the state. Meanwhile, where is Ch’ae Sunhŭi?

    14Friend shows that the divorce proceedings are administrated by a judge of the municipal court. The judge represents the state, and the duty of the judge is to foster care to the people.  15The idea of “falling behind” was a common criticism against workers with “old ideologies.” In 1973, Kim Il Sung announced the Three Revolutions Team Members, whose duties were to articulate the Party’s technological and ideological demands. In 1975, Kim announced the national campaign Three Revolutions Red Flag Movement, which encouraged the entire nation to raise the Party’s ideological consciousness and promote technological development. The Workers’ Party of Korea promoted the slogan of “Three Revolutions,” including Sasang hyŏngmyŏng, “Ideological Revolution,” to make North Koreans faithful followers of the leader and the party; kisul hyŏngmyŏng, “Technological Revolution,” to liberate North Korean agricultural and industrial production from old-fashioned technology; and Munhwa hyŏngmyŏng, “Cultural Revolution,” to elevate the everyday life of North Koreans to a higher, more advanced cultural standard (Ryang 2002, 27).  16Kim Il Sung. “3 Tae hyŏngmyŏng ŭl him itge pŏryŏ sahoechuŭi kŏnsŏl ŭl tŏuk tagŏch’ija” [Let us put more effort into the construction of socialism by supporting the Three Revolutions]. Speech delivered in March 3, 1975. Kim Il Sung chŏjakchip 30 (1985): 112.  17Ch’ae Rim markedly presents a different type of villain from the villains of the past. Refer to Alzo David-West (2009, 21) and Kim Jong Il’s (2001) On the Art of the Cinema for a description of prototypical villains in literature.  18This type of characterization is not uncommon in many of Paek’s stories. In Life (1985), a doctor fails to “heal” his son’s academic problem and resorts to bribing the dean of the university to admit his son; in Servicemen (1979), a cadre member at a factory pushes for his son to go on an important business trip, but when the factory council suggests a more qualified worker, the cadre member struggles to overcome his ambitions for his son; and finally in After 60 Years (1982), a retiring manager fights to retain his position in order to salvage his social authority. It is clear in these examples that Paek’s narrative contents delve into the tumultuous psyche of individuals to open up universal problems that extend beyond the parameters of the Party’s imperatives.


    Although the main conflict in Friend appears to be between the two antagonistic cadre members Chŏng Chinu and Ch’ae Rim, the implicit conflict is between Chŏng Chinu and Sunhŭi—a conflict between the state and an individual.Ko Inhwan (2008) allegorizes Sŏkch’un as the state and Sunhŭi as the family, and argues that the harmony of the state and family represents the fulfillment of the family revolution set by the Party. Ko’s observation is certainly correct in its prima facie reading of the married couple, and this reading is perhaps the way the Party expects the novel to be read. However, Chŏng Chinu is undeniably the legal representative of the state, an ambassador of the Party, whose duties are to administer the law and secure the state ideology. To think that Chŏng Chinu represents the failure of the state, the one who could not seal off the individualistic tendencies in Sunhŭi, and in this way creates fissures in the community may be a ‘blasphemous’ reading. However, it is precisely this reading, an ironic reading that resists the novel’s optimistic enclosure.

    It is Sunhŭi who pleads for divorce, not for the purpose of disrupting the harmony of the state but simply because she cannot live with Sŏkch’un anymore (Paek 7). Her initial request for divorce derives from her incompatibility with her husband—her private affairs. But as soon as Chŏng Chinu decides to handle the case, it becomes a public affair, an affair of the state. Sunhŭi realizes her powerlessness over the law and that the law will not decide what is best for the individuals but what is best for the state: “As soon as she grabbed Honam and pulled him into her arms, Judge Chŏng Chinu reprimanded her like the way he did at his office. ‘Comrade Sunhŭi, let the child go.’ She realized that the law supported the welfare of her son more than her” (Paek 55). The law will certainly be more concerned over Honam not only because he is an innocent victim of rivaling parents but because he is the future of the state.19 In a previous divorce hearing, Chŏng Chinu sent a boy to his father’s custody for the boy’s future which was related to his physical and mental growth (Paek 17). Thus it is the state that “establishes” the child’s patriarchal identity, while the mother “raises” and “lets him go.”

    This logic asserts that children need to be well fostered in order to pass from the family to the state in Hegelian terms. “The family attains completion in the bringing up of children and the dissolution of the family” (Hegel 1991, 200) For Hegel, human law is the ethical life that derived from the family but soon suppresses the spirit of individualism. Though each individual originates from a family, the ethical calling for the individual is not to remain in the family but to break away and even dissolve the immediate family for the sake of the state in order to achieve a completed individual. Hegel (1967, 493) states, “The youth goes forth from the unconscious life of the family and becomes the individuality of the community [i.e. Ruler].” The family is a temporary space, the realm of the unconscious, before the individual (most notably men for Hegel) secures his identity in the state. Motherhood, then, as Suzy Kim (2010) discusses, is the selfless channel that allows for the son to enter into the state. While Sunhŭi tries to hold on to what is obviously hers, the ominous words of the law orders her to “let the child go,” reminding her that the tug-of-war is not with her husband but with the state.

    The law tries to reduce Sunhŭi to a mother, whose duty is to “let go” of what’s rightfully hers to the state like the mother in Sea of Blood. Her only dis-course is to be subordinated to the man or “reabsorbed and reduced by masculine discourse and practice” (Irigaray 1985, 126). The state instructs her to give up what’s legally the state’s. Yet, Sunhŭi tries to make her voice heard; she makes an attempt to assert her otherness to the determining social order. When her director at the Province Performing Arts Theater blames Sunhŭi’s marital problems for interfering with the business, Sunhŭi says, “If it’s me that’s bringing shame to the Company, then I will quit” (Paek 134). As soon as she utters these words, Sunhŭi realizes her consequent fate: “In order to persist in her desires, she would have to sacrifice her fame and all that came with her future aspirations as a singer. And she would have to be ostracized from the large family called society” (Paek 135). Although Sunhŭi is willing to drop her career and fame for her insistence on resisting the male discourse, “all the thoughts that caused her to fear derived from her anxiety and despair from accepting the fact that she will be a wretched being” (Paek 135).

    Sunhŭi will be left without a job, family, her son, and, most importantly, her dignity as an individual. Her wretchedness derives not only from her deprivation of society but from her inevitable absorption into the very social order which she tried so hard to resist. Sunhŭi has nowhere to turn, no one to depend on—her best friend Ŭnmi constantly urges her to remain married; her director nearly fires her; Chŏng Chinu refuses to divorce the couple; and even her son seeks his father. Where can Sunhŭi find refuge?

    Memories. While Chŏng Chinu asks Sŏkch’un to recall the romantic days to soften Sŏkch’un’s calloused feelings toward Sunhŭi, the judge never asks Sunhŭi to do the same. The narrative does not recount her side of the story. Her voice is not heard in the grand narrative of the patriarchs. Sŏkch’un’s story is told to reestablish his responsibility as the head of the family, where even the idea of memories serves the state. In many North Korean stories, memories function as the operative trope to reconstruct a new identity for the protagonist. Most of the memories would recall Kim Il Sung’s messianic deliverance of the nation from the arduous days of the colonial period or the traumatic moments of the Korean War. At other times, memories of Kim Il Sung visiting a factory or collective farm or how the workers have sacrificed their lives for the construction of the nation would determine the positive outcome of the individuals’ actions. However, Paek’s Friend is exceptional in this respect because the individuals do not recall the nation’s past but their own personal pasts. Of course, these memories serve as a narrative strategy to contextualize the couple’s relationship that fulfills the logic of the narrative. In other words, even these so-called personal memories contribute to the construction of the dominant patriarchal order, where these memories do not tap into the unconscious level of the story-teller but remain at the conscious level.

    Chŏng Chinu attempts to enclose Sunhŭi, to re-incorporate her into the social “norms” by reminding her of their tenth wedding anniversary, which is his method of constituting memory for her. The judge thinks that the memory of their anniversary will somehow move her. However, for Sunhŭi, memorializing her wedding anniversary is a public affair in sheep’s clothing. “Marriage is legally binding” are the words of Chŏng Chinu, insinuating that Sunhŭi’s marriage to Sŏkch’un irrefutably belongs to the state. Therefore, Chŏng Chinu feels justified in asking Sunhŭi if he could visit the family on that day:

    Who can stop the law from entering into Sunhŭi’s house? Even on her wedding anniversary the state watches the couple through the gaze of Chŏng Chinu. The judge’s attempt to reinforce “norms” or “normality” into Sunhŭi’s life proves to be futile when she responds: “Those kinds of days are only meant for normal families” (Paek 165).

    Normality, for Sunhŭi, means the end of her individuality, the sublation of her selfhood to the state. “Normal families” are the ones that abide by the dictates of the law, governed by the totalizing power of patriarchy. Although the law may have legitimized Sunhŭi and Sŏkch’un’s marriage, and although Chŏng Chinu may have brought the couple physically together by the end of the novel, there are no concrete indications as to whether or not Sunhŭi chooses the path to “normalcy,” whether she submits her individuality to the state.

    Instead, Sunhŭi’s only refuge is in her reveries, the imaginations that transcend the limitations set by the law. Sunhŭi’s memories are of her childhood and not the days she dated and married Sŏkch’un. Her childhood memories are fused with her imaginations, making it difficult to decipher truth from fantasy:

    This is the only account of Sunhŭi’s private, unconscious moment in the novel, the only moment where gender, class, and the Party do not determine her identity. Sunhŭi’s reveries open up the realm of the unconscious that suspend temporality from progressing along its teleological path—it is essentially an-archic and ateleological (Irigaray 1984, 95). The state cannot own or become the proprietor of Sunhŭi’s imaginations. It will try its best to “pull” and “drag” her away from ungrounded, unconscious, and un-ideological reveries, which is no doubt the dangerous zone in which Sunhŭi stands. Sunhŭi inevitably, against her will, must return to reality, to the conscious level, to her ethical and societal responsibilities as her son—the future of the state—gently calls on her.

    Sunhŭi’s last words in the novel are exchanged with her son when he, Sokch’un, and Chŏng Chinu come to the train station to welcome her back from her tour. After this encounter, Chŏng Chinu takes Honam to a park to leave Sokch’un and Sunhŭi alone. It is Chŏng Chinu’s hope to reignite the couple’s love for each other. The last line of the novel ends as such: “A family is where the love of humanity dwells and is the beautiful world where hope flourishes” (Paek 195). Will his hope be transferred to the stoic couple? Does this “family” also include Sunhŭi?

    19Refer to Frederick Engels (2001, 139) in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, where he says, “The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not.”


    North Korea as a whole underwent radical changes after 1967. “Being a crucial year, 1967 was when Kim Il Sung’s rule became indisputable, the ‘great leader’ (suryŏng) system was institutionalized, and when Kim Jong Il reportedly purged opponents of his father’s dictatorship” (David-West 2009, 13–14). This change also affected the way in which writers were expected to have form and content comply with the new political system. Thus, not only was Kim Il Sung’s authority institutionalized but also a patriarchal language. Kim Jong Il’s alleged purging of his father’s opponents is a telling sign of eliminating difference from a systematized unitary language of the Same.

    One of the most efficient ways for the Party to control and educate the masses was by mobilizing a group of loyal cadre members (and the Three Revolutions team members) throughout the country. These cadre members would, then, crack down on and rectify the misconduct of the individuals who have antirevolutionary tendencies. On the surface level reading, Paek’s Friend is no different in this respect. Chŏng Chinu is an upright cadre member with moral qualities that enable the other characters to change their misguided ways. Promoting the family revolution by way of preventing a divorce and nurturing a family back to its healthy condition runs parallel with the Party’s directives.

    What makes Friend such a unique novel among others in the 1980s is Paek’s examination of the nuclear family and memory in a way that arguably no other writers have done in the past. He uses divorce as that which has the potential to subvert the family revolution and that which inflicts great pain on the divorcees, their children, and friends. Furthermore, his narrative strategy of creating a different kind of memory makes Friend an exceptional novel. It is precisely Sunhŭi’s reveries that subvert the teleological progression of the patriarchal narrative. The movement of the family to the state is momentarily suspended as the readers catch a glimpse of Sunhŭi’s uncontainable, un-enclosable fantasies.

    However, the tale of Sunhŭi does not threaten the stability of community because the narrative is told mostly from Chŏng Chinu’s perspective. The criteria for a revolutionary novel are met in Friend: presence of a positive hero, criticisms against problematic individuals, and overcoming a conflict and finding a solution. This may be a universal narrative framework, but North Korean literature lays emphasis on the process of transforming the aberrant individuals into loyal followers of the Party. But in my reading of Friend, Sunhŭi’s highest obligation is to herself rather than to the ubiquitous demands of the Party. The unitary language coupled with the holistic ideology of the state attempts to enclose and homogenize Sunhŭi’s voice into the Same. It refuses to accept (gender) difference in its trajectory of history, where herstory has never had a chance to challenge the suppressive patriarchal language, needless to say, emerge in other North Korean novels since 1967 and until, perhaps, the publication of Friend.

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