A satellite photo of the Korean peninsula taken at night—North and South—shows the southern half covered in constellations of light. The northern half, by contrast, is entirely, eerily dark. From space, North Korea at night looks more like an uninhabited desert than a 21st-century country of 23 million people.
It was precisely this darkness that intrigued Adam Johnson. His new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House), takes place in North Korea and brings the country—and the brutality of its everyday monotony—to life in vivid, exquisite detail. The book presents an intimacy with North Korea unheard of for a foreigner; Johnson accomplished it with extensive research and insightful prose, telling the story of Pak Jun Do, whose first taste of power comes when his father, who runs a work camp for orphans, allows his young son to chose which children eat first. Jun Do’s abilities and loyalty to the “greatest nation in the world” get him noticed by the state, and he’s put to work, as kidnapper, tunnel soldier, fishing boat radio operator, and foreign dignitary, before dangerously taking his destiny into his own hands (that great motivator, love, plays a role). Speaking recently in the lobby of New York City’s Dream Hotel, Johnson explains that his fascination with North Korea began as an interest in the voices of propaganda. “The notion that there is an official narrative for a nation—a script written by one person, essentially—that conscripts every citizen into being an unwilling character of someone else’s story was really compelling to me.”
Since 1945, North Korea’s totalitarian regime has established control of every aspect of every citizen’s life, from meager food rations (if there’s any food at all) and factory assignments to the one color of lipstick available and the language used to justify even the most violent circumstances. Kim Il-sung, the father of current leader Kim Jong-il, mandated that loudspeakers hang in every factory, housing block, and city square; for decades since, every day, they have relentlessly reminded citizens that they are fortunate to live where the population wants for nothing. Always present is the threat of being arrested and imprisoned, or worse. As Johnson makes clear, “The gulag system there is so devastating, and people do go away. They really go away.”
For Johnson, a Stegner Fellow who teaches at Stanford University, exploring this tension between the oppressive regime and the enduring spirit of the human heart became central to the book’s development. On one hand, the logic behind the propaganda becomes the reality, because there are no other available explanations, no alternative perspectives. As Johnson emphasizes, even during the Soviet gulags, “Solzhenitsyn got his books out.”
In North Korea, by contrast, “there are no magazines and no bookstores. There’s the official newspaper and the official radio.” Radios come programmed to one state-controlled station and any tampering is grounds for incarceration. All paintings, including hundreds in the national museum, depict two things: Kim Il-sung, or Kim Jong-il, looking heroic, or a pastoral setting without people, vehicles, buildings, or anything else that might indicate individual interpretation. The novels that do exist offer only more propaganda, forever depicting the triumphant sacrifice of some martyred peasant. Knowing that “no one there is allowed to write [his or her] own story,” Johnson wanted to try. He felt “a duty to get to that darkness.”
Because Johnson wanted to convey the unremitting presence of the dictatorship, he initially tried to incorporate real propaganda into the story, but found them insufferably boring in the context of a novel. Retelling “news” stories, such as that of Kim Jong-il’s reported 11 holes-in-one golf game, became even more absurd on the page, and Johnson knew that a setting of only prisons and labor camps would be too bleak for an American audience. The challenge became how to capture this place where free will does not exist, yet find the humor and humanity necessary to tell an honest story.
In 2007, after three years of research, Johnson went to North Korea, flying from San Francisco to Pyongyang through Beijing. Securing a tourist visa is difficult, but the government’s increasing need for hard currency can open doors. Johnson was told what date he would be arriving, what date he would be leaving, and that he would be flying (and paying for) business class on a plane built in 1963. He was in North Korea just under a week, including several days spent on an island in Pyongyang designated to keep foreigners separate from the city. He was kept in the constant company of his many minders, one of whom videotaped everything Johnson said (for purposes of a “tourist DVD”). Although the trip was brief, the experience of intimidation proved invaluable.
“Even visiting, it was clear to me that a spontaneous act was a dangerous act. To do anything, at any moment, that wasn’t calculated within its alignment of the national script could get you in grave trouble,” he says. Johnson quickly understood that he could not have a “genuine interaction with a single person there. It is illegal to speak with foreigners without special training. The minders... had been through years of specialized language training and diplomacy, in terms of protocol.” Instead of being deterred by this constant surveillance, Johnson used it to the benefit of the book, following Jun Do through his many state-appointed incarnations and, in the book’s second half, entering the head of another paradoxical character, a family man and professional biographer who records people’s life stories as they’re tortured.
Johnson’s previous novel, Parasites Like Us (Penguin, 2004), tracks an academic who unearths the self-destructive practices of the prehistoric Clovis civilization—and the ramifications that follow. The stories of Emporium (Penguin, 2003) exist in an oddly skewed suburbia populated with alienated youth. “Teen Sniper” chronicles a kid who expertly offs pesky Silicon Valley bigwigs but still can’t bring himself to talk to girls. In his disparate works, Johnson renders something inaccessible with such completely tangible details that the unfamiliar becomes inevitable.
In the DPRK, the use of electricity is extremely limited, and not only at night. Even in daytime, in big, national museums, buildings designed, Johnson said, “to be as inspiring and opulent as possible,” each room is kept dark until a motion sensor light allows visitors to see the dioramas and artifacts in front of them. Similarly, only a few floors of the immense tourist hotel have power. Johnson sees in this a metaphor for all of North Korea: “a gigantic, dark palace, of which you can only see one room at a time.” The Orphan Master’s Son, however, illuminates not only the shadowy places its characters inhabit but also their hopes and the flickers of their compassion, which can’t be diffused, even in the dark.
Johnson often interrupts himself while speaking, jumping from memories of his trip to deeper considerations of how people create their own narratives. “I wanted to get at some essential thing that you can’t get at, with this topic, with nonfiction. There are facts, but people focus on the economics, the military, all these global or political issues. But the true nature of the human lives people are leading is still blurry. All the great reportage out there doesn’t get to that, so I invented it.”
Liesl Schwabe's work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, AGNI, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and other publications.