In Adam Johnson’s book The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, you immerse yourself in the North Korea of Kim Jong-Il. You will often want to leave but , as awful as the story is, it is fascinating as well. Adam Johnson did not grow up in North Korea or have any special knowledge of North Korea. He had a grant, and he used his time to read all the best books on the matter. He reads his essay about this to us at the end of the Audible version of this book. He tells us that while this research gave plenty of detail about Korean principles of economics, farming, militarism, and governing, there was little in these references about the people of North Korea. So the book is fiction. The people are characters Johnson has created. How close to the realities of life in North Korea this novel comes I cannot say, but there are defectors from North Korea and yet there have been no denouncements of the general truthfulness of this book. It seems that readers can put some faith in the descriptions of the fear we suspect lies at the heart of this strange, secretive nation.
We meet Pak Jun Do, reared in Long Tomorrows with the orphans, but not actually an orphan. He is the son of the Orphan Master and a beautiful singer who is taken away to the capital to serve the Dear Leader. Jun Do seems to have a lucky life for a while, avoiding assignment to hard labor, or being sent to a prison camp. He is taught English. He listens on a radio aboard a fishing boat, the Junma, he is chosen, as a hero of the people (a lie) to go to Texas with a group of North Koreans, perhaps because he speaks English. He goes to Japan (to kidnap Japanese people to bring to North Korea). He travels to South Korea to kidnap an opera singer for the Dear Leader. (Why doesn’t he ever defect, we wonder.) There is more. He has been tattooed with the image of the lovely Sun Moon, Kim Jong-Il’s favorite actress. She was stolen from the Dear Leader by the ferocious martial arts champion Commander Ga.
Jun Do loses his lucky life (or gets really lucky) when he ends up killing Commander Ga and when Kim Jong-Il makes him the new Commander Ga, replacement husband to Sun Moon. His Captain on the Junma once said to him, “It’s not because no one ever taught you about a family and sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to protect your own.” He reminds Jun Do that the Captain and crew are his family. When he is assigned a real family we will see what sacrifices he is willing to make.
For some unknown reason we find that Jun Do as Commander Ga is also in a prison interrogation unit and we hear this part of his story in flashbacks and flashforwards. How did he get there? What happened to his luck? Did love make the difference?
Every day in Pyongyang and throughout N. Korea loudspeakers give encouragement and tell pretty lies to Koreans. The speaker also tells each day a new installment in the best story of the year. This year they are telling the love story of Commander Ga and Sun Moon – not the real one – the Dear Leader approved one.
“Citizens, we bring good news! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors – wherever you hear this broadcast, turn up the volume! The first success we have to report is that our Grass into Meat Campaign is a complete triumph. Still, more soil needs to be hauled to the rooftops, so all housing-block managers are instructed to schedule extra motivation meetings. …Finally, the first installment of this year’s Best North Korea Story begins today. Close your eyes and picture for a moment our national actress Sun Moon. Banish from your minds the foolish stories and gossip that have lately swirled our city about her. Picture her the way she will live forever in our national consciousness.” (pg. 218) (On Audible these announcements are read in a voice that is perfect for the role.)
We meet Jun Do’s/Commander Ga’s interrogator. He is a creature more typical of North Korea, determined to do his assigned job producing “biographies”/confessions from his subjects to file in the “library” and hooking subjects up to the autopilot (now that lobotomies are out of style) for electric shock treatments. He is opposed by the old-school pubyok (pu-bi-oks) who are more thuggish and who learned to perform lobotomies with #20 nails. They laugh at the idea of biographies and make our unnamed interrogator’s life complicated. Cans of peaches play a big role in the dark side of Johnson’s story.
The Orphan Master’s Son is a detailed and layered story of a place run by a truly pathological (bipolar) autocrat, where life has no stability, no predictability, and no sweetness (except for one lucky Orphan Master’s son). It would be poignant but we are not allowed to dwell on that. It would be horrific, but we are not allowed to dwell on that either. It was strange to read this novel at a moment in time when the newest Dear Leader is trying to rejoin the community of nations. It’s a novel, but it speaks to everything we suspect about the “Hermit Kingdom.” Perhaps it will be disappearing forever. We can only hope.