Adam Johnson’s highly-praised second novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (Random Houses), pulls back the curtain on totalitarian North Korea (aka the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), where fealty to the national narrative is the highest priority for its citizens—at least for the ones who want to keep themselves and their loved ones out of a gulag. Following up on our recent profile, Tip Sheet got Johnson on the phone to find out what kind of impact the death of “dear leader” Kim Jong-il will have on the nation’s oppressed citizenry.
What do you think average Americans would find most surprising, or alien, about North Korean life?
I feel like in the West, we see ourselves as central characters in our own lives. We tell ourselves stories about central characters who have yearnings and desires, who move forward to get what they want, who have to question and overcome obstacles, and who finally find change and understanding. In North Korea, the story is the opposite: there’s one central character—that’s Kim Jong-il—and there are 24 million secondary characters. Those people have to suppress their own yearnings and desires: there, you’re told what role you’re going to play, how you’re story’s going to end, and how you feel about it. Any deviation from this results in the gulag.
One thing I still can’t get my head around is the Three Generations Policy, which means that if you’re deemed to be subversive, you get sent to a prison with your whole family. It’s a prime idea behind North Korea’s control: you make a mistake and everybody pays.
What do you think Kim Jong-il’s death means for the average North Korean?
I made Kim Jong-il a character in my book, because eventually I realized that this is the central story spinner: if we didn’t get a look at him we wouldn’t understand the story that everyone else must live by. When I was in North Korea I really suspected that everyone knew that the party line was a lie—but they had no idea what the truth was. They know all the capitals of the world, for instance, but they don’t know that there’s a difference between Mogadishu and Paris. There’s no alternative to the story that the Kim dynasty has created the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.
So I don’t think that life for the average North Korean will change in any significant way. [North Korean officials] had to follow the story from the last 60 years, they couldn’t say “Oh, forget all that, here’s a new story to live by.”
How do you research a society as closed off as North Korea?
One tragedy of North Korea is that they don’t have any of their own literature. Everything has to be approved, and propaganda is the only thing that gets approved. The research also proved difficult also because so many of the books on North Korea focus on the political and economic aspects. The people who get out are so damaged, after being trained their whole lives never to reveal themselves, that communication is dangerous, it’s very difficult for them to tell their stories. The human aspect is really missing, I think that’s why I wanted to create it.
One book that’s kind of essential reading is The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (Basic, 2005) by Chold-Hwan Kang, and even he had someone [Pierre Rigoulot] who had to help him write this book. It’s probably our truest portrait of life inside a gulag there. I also followed Barbara Demick’s reporting [from North Korea] in the L.A. Times. (Demick’s reporting is collected in her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Spiegel & Grau 2009). She wrote especially about Chongin, where famine hit hard and caused the people to scavenge and sell everything they could from the city’s shuttered factories, in order to survive. That portrait of a civilization cannibalizing its factories really spoke to me as a metaphor for North Korea as a whole.
The mystery of the DPRK is never-ending. It’s even more mysterious to me now, having written the book. I hear the speculators in the media, but other than satellite images and the testimony of defectors, we know nothing about that place. Maybe, with Jong-il’s death, people will start taking North Korea seriously in terms of human rights abuses, rather than making jokes about the absurdity of Jong-il. [His government] is the most dark, sinister system every created. That’s really what I wanted to capture in my book, and I hope it will cause people to think about this tragedy that’s happening right in front of us all.