You know those dystopian portrayals of imaginary future societies (1984, Soylent Green, etc.), dark and creepy. Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son is like that. From the start, the societal setting is like nothing we can recognize. But it’s not imaginary. It’s North Korea.
This is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read.
First we meet Jun Do (John Doe), who starts in an orphanage. That’s pretty grim in most places, but North Korea makes horrors elsewhere look like a walk in the park. Jun Do is not actually an orphan; his father runs the place (hence the title). Or so Jun Do believes. What people believe is not always true; especially in North Korea.
The adult Jun Do gets on a kidnapping team, grabbing Japanese off beaches, for conscription as language teachers and so on. But these are mainly practice runs for the headline mission of nabbing a Japanese opera singer, fancied by a higher-up. Jun Do earns brownie points by not only bringing her back, but also a team member who’d tried to abscond into Japan.
Then he gets English training, and assigned on a fishing boat to covertly eavesdrop on radio traffic. His next gig is accompanying a diplomatic mission to Texas. And then he’s sent straight to a prison mine – North Korea is a fickle mistress. No reason for his fall is given; but anyone who’s seen Texas would probably be considered compromised. Even though initially at least, Planet Texas was so alien to Jun Do’s experience that he couldn’t properly process what he saw there, through his North Korean colored glasses.
Though this is fiction, in general the author aims to portray North Korea accurately. The kidnapping program, for example, was factual. It seems to have stopped, but no victims have been freed. North Korea did allow five to visit Japan with an agreement they’d be sent back. But Japan refused to return them to captivity. North Korea provided death certificates for eight further abductees, but later admitted they were fakes.
If anything, Johnson pulls some punches – malnutrition and outright starvation loom large in North Korea, but not in the more privileged echelons of most characters in the book, so the reader may not get the full picture.
On the other hand, there are some apparently fictional touches. One chilling detail is Wonsan, a beach resort where oldsters go to retire. Supposedly. But parents gone to Wonsan never write their children; Jun Do passed it on the fishing boat and saw no umbrellas or beach chairs. Some limited googling failed to confirm any such “retirement” scheme. The Wonsan beach resort exists, but apparently not for elderly commoners, who do continue living in North Korea. (I was going to add, “if you call it living;” but human beings have an immense capacity for adapting to circumstances.)
Another issue concerns the portrayal of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il as a character. The Times’s reviewer criticized his depiction as a “merry prankster.” Certainly it’s not a fully rounded portrait. However, given that Kim presided over and directed the horror-show otherwise described, his seeming insouciance in the book, to me, made him all the more sinister.
The book’s depiction of the nightmare of the prison camps and mines, based on much solid information we have, is all too realistic. They are death camps. End of story for the Jun Do character.
So now we meet a new one: Commander Ga. A taekwondo master, he gained fame by beating a Japanese champion (and not defecting); also for purging North Korea’s army of homosexuals (don’t ask what became of them). Ga’s reward was marriage to the nation’s leading actress, Sun Moon (a favorite of the Dear Leader), and a cushy post as minister of prison mines. His exalted status even exempts him from having to kiss Dear Leader’s ass. But as for other male asses . . . .
So on an inspection tour of a prison mine, down in a tunnel, he attempts a “man-attack” (as it’s phrased). But the inmate targeted not only resists, he manages to get Ga in a choke-hold, and next thing you know he’s in Ga’s uniform, out the gate, into Ga’s car, and is driven home to Sun Moon. Who basically accepts this switcheroo. As does even Dear Leader. (Each has reasons.)
Now, sometimes fiction calls for a “suspension of disbelief” – a literary term of art, meaning that for the sake of the plot you must accept things that may strain credulity. It’s voluntary of course. Here the strain skirts the breaking point. But so powerful was the book otherwise, I went along.
The new “Commander Ga” (yes, it’s our old friend) already had Sun Moon’s picture tattooed over his heart. The eventual consummation of his relationship with her was one of the funnier sex scenes I’ve read, it being North Koreanized. But by now, both of them are fully alive to the vile reality behind the country’s pervasive happy-talk brainwashing. Ga conceives a plan to get Sun Moon and her children, if not himself too, out of the country.
The book has many other characters and twists, but more of the plot I shouldn’t divulge. However (hint), I will mention one other character, who is an interrogator. There are two kinds. The “Pubyok” use brutal, direct methods. Our character’s “Division 42” disdains that, preferring a more intellectualized approach. Sort of a good cop/bad cop thing. However, Division 42 does utilize the “autopilot,” a diabolical electrical apparatus (apparently another of those author embellishments). Yet Johnson manages to portray this guy sympathetically, more or less. He even winds up a hero. More or less. And what that “heroism” entails provides the final word in bleak commentary on North Korea’s society.
To read this book, ensconced in my comfy chair, in my beautiful home inhabited by my lovely wife and daughter, with whom I enjoy honest relationships, in our wonderful free and prosperous country, gave me juxtapositional goosebumps.
I’ve written before on what to do about North Korea. This is not just another garden variety dictatorship. The other concerned powers refrain from doing anything that would actually undermine the Kim regime, fearing a huge costly mess to clean up. Yes, it would be bloody. But the price of avoidance is to perpetuate the suffering of millions, suffering we can scarcely grasp, for generation upon generation. I say bite the bullet.
Tags: North Korea