Friend: A Novel from North Korea

Nam-Nyong Paek (Author) Immanuel Kim (Translator)


Paek Nam-nyong's Friend is a tale of marital intrigue, abuse, and divorce in North Korea. A woman in her thirties comes to a courthouse petitioning for a divorce. As the judge who hears her statement begins to investigate the case, the story unfolds into a broader consideration of love and marriage. The novel delves into its protagonists' past, describing how the couple first fell in love and then how their marriage deteriorated over the years. It chronicles the toll their acrimony takes on their son and their careers alongside the story of the judge's own marital troubles.

A best-seller in North Korea, where Paek continues to live and write, Friend illuminates a side of life in the DPRK that Western readers have never before encountered. Far from being a propagandistic screed in praise of the Great Leader, Friend describes the lives of people who struggle with everyday problems such as marital woes and workplace conflicts. Instead of socialist-realist stock figures, Paek depicts complex characters who wrestle with universal questions of individual identity, the split between public and private selves, the unpredictability of existence, and the never-ending labor of maintaining a relationship. This groundbreaking translation of one of North Korea's most popular writers offers English-language readers a page-turner full of psychological tension as well as a revealing portrait of a society that is typically seen as closed to the outside world.

Product Details

Columbia University Press
Publish Date
May 05, 2020
5.5 X 8.4 X 0.7 inches | 0.65 pounds
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About the Author

Paek Nam-nyong is one of the most renowned writers in North Korea today. He was born in 1949 in HamhΕ­ng and worked in a steel factory for many years before enrolling at Kim Il Sung University. He worked in the Writer's Union and later joined the elite group of writers called April 15th Literary Production Unit.

Immanuel Kim is Korea Foundation and Kim-Renaud Associate Professor of Korean Literature and Culture Studies at George Washington University. He is the author of Rewriting Revolution: Women, Sexuality, and Memory in North Korean Fiction (2018).


A layered story of family obligations stretched to breaking point . . . Reading Friend is like sifting through a black box for clues into a sealed culture.--Yoojin Grace Wuertz "Times Literary Supplement "
Paek's focus on individuals and family, and his willingness to acknowledge failings, make for a novel that manages to be engaging, and even quite moving, even beyond its context.--M.A. Orthofer "The Complete Review "
The publication of Immanuel Kim's painstaking translation of Paek Nam-nyong's Friend is a significant event. It promises to shift the focus away from those texts that simply confirm our preconceived notions about the DPRK toward a subtler and more informed consideration of literary practices there.--Travis Workman, University of Minnesota
Paek weaves themes of greed, corruption, and self-sacrifice into a subtle, restrained narrative . . . A rare glimpse into an insular world.--Kirkus Reviews
Friend depicts daily life in North Korean society. The psychology of human relationships evoked in this fascinating novel shows that North Koreans, far from being brainwashed robots, are as fragile as people everywhere--that they too simply want to be happy together, and suffer intensely when things go wrong.--Brother Anthony, Sogang University
With still so little known about the North Korean people beyond mostly tortuous escapee narratives, Kim enables a rare, welcome glimpse into 'a messy world of human emotions and relationships that is at once entirely alien and eerily familiar.'--Booklist, Starred Review
Friend offers an astute psychological exploration of marriage, the work that goes into such a partnership, and the many ways it could fail us.--Eric Nguyen "Minneapolis Star Tribune "
Friend offers a fascinating glimpse into the realities of North Korean life. It reminds us that the people of that country may face hardships, but they also experience the same domestic challenges that afflict humans everywhere.--Clifford Garstang "New York Journal of Books "