Friend: Paek Nam-nyong

Many people in the city neither knew the location of the Superior Court nor knew of its existence. Those who aided by the law or lived in a harmonious family had no reason to come here.”

Judge Jeong Jin Wu is presented with a divorce petition, and he’s “upset with having to deal with another family’s misery.” He’s in the wrong business then, because he’s seeing divorce cases, and that includes a lot of misery. But hey, wasn’t that why divorce was invented: so that spouses (mostly men) couldn’t have their unwanted mates locked up in loony bins, dungeons or murdered? So IMO divorce may not be the worst option out there.


33-year-old Chae Sun Hee is petitioning for a divorce. She’s a celebrity, a professional singer, the lead mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. She’s been married for almost ten years and has one son with her husband, 35-year-old Lee Soek Chun, who is 35 and works in a factory as a lathe operator. Now of course because I live in America, I see the reason for the divorce right there: it’s The Custom of the Country. You move up.

But this is North Korea in the 80s, so Chae Sun Hee must explain to the judge why she wants a divorce. Her reasons are vague; she states that she “can’t live like this anymore,” and that their “personalities are completely different.” According to Chae Sun Hee, it’s a “loveless marriage” loaded with “silent treatment” and nagging, but then comes something else, the biggie: “it’s embarrassing to be seen in public with him.”

After Chae Sun Hee leaves, the judge receives a strange phone call from Chae Rim, a chairman from the Provincial Industrial Technology Commission Board. He urges the judge to grant Chae Sun Hee her divorce and at first the judge is (naively) puzzled as to why this man would interfere. But then he recalls that Chae Rim divorced his wife, and what a shameful affair that was. The wife, who’d slaved pitifully for her husband as he moved up in the world, was a “country bumpkin.” It was a case that the judge never forgot.

Jeong Jin Wu was still bitter about that incident and felt that the divorce litigation should be dismissed. He wanted to punish Chae Rim for his violent and insolent personality, but he knew that the court would not approve of sentencing someone based on personality. 

The judge begins to do some background research on the divorce case which includes visiting the -not-so-happy home, and he ends up bringing the couple’s child home. Here we see the judge’s own compromised marriage. The judge and his wife lead separate lives, and although there’s no disparity of social position between them, they share very little and have grown apart. 

Written in a simple, unadorned style, this was an interesting, rather sad read; there was so much here that was familiar–husbands and wives getting sick of each another, the suffering of the children of divorce, and then so much that was.. well North Korean. The very specific divorce case morphs into considerations of love and marriage in general. Human nature doesn’t change but the laws of the land shape behavior, and we see that here, along with the power and, paradoxically, the powerlessness of a judge. 

Review copy

Translated by Immanuel Kim

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Nam-nyong Paek

One response to “Friend: Paek Nam-nyong

  1. Tony

    I liked this, too, a nice read, despite the obvious constraints of writing under Big Brother’s watchful eye…

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