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In Search of the Chosŏn People of Lost Korea

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The director of the City Electricity Distribution Company had designed an electric blanket for personal use and had been using it without permission from the government. This was considered a felony, as the entire country was trying to conserve energy. He was not an ordinary citizen, but the director of the very institution whose priority was the conservation of energy. For this reason, he was going to receive a severe sentence. It was not simply a crime of wasting energy, but a crime of selfishness and greed. Electricity was more precious than money or any other commodity because it was the property of the nation.

For those of us steeped in cultures of conspicuous consumption this is numbing news, but it pretty well sums up the purported ethic of the North Korean regime and socialism in general.

All in all, Friend is a tight, well-written staging of the so-called Juche political philosophy of independence and self-reliance that wants to be the soul of the North Korean regime. As Immanuel Kim puts it in the Afterword,

Friend is set during the Hidden Hero campaign of the 1980s, which sought to recognize the extraordinary achievements of otherwise ordinary citizens" The trend in fiction of this period was to delineate a new class of intellectual heroes who improved social conditions with their brainpower rather than their brute strength.

It's a signal of some sort; maybe a booby trap for our trapped booby in the White House. We ain't all about the missiles, could be one read. Who knows?

It seems that Paek Nam-Nyong, whose fame came with earlier Kim family novels, is being called upon again to burnish Kim Jong-un's reputation. The question is for what purpose releasing a thirty year old narrative. Unlike other books written by defectors from the regime, Kim points out, "Friend is unique in the Anglophone publishing landscape in that it is a state-sanctioned novel, written in Korea for North Koreans, by an author in good standing with the regime." As usual, time will tell whether there is any other import beyond the narrative's literary value, of which there is plenty. Kim's dedication page is a nice way to feel the sentiment expressed in Friend. He writes: "For my wife, my comrade, my friend, Angela Kim."

This review first appeared in Counterpunch on May 29, 2020.

(Article changed on November 20, 2020 at 05:36)

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Australia. His poetry, commentary, and reviews have appeared in publications in Oceania, Europe and the USA, such as Cordite, Morning Star, Hanging (more...)
 

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