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The Orphan Master’s Son

By Adam Johnson, A Powerful Tale of Survival and Life in North Korea

“But people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can’t live with what they’ve done.”

So, this is going to be a little lengthy, especially because I ended up reading up a fair amount on North Korea after I finished the book. I’ll split it into parts though to make it a little more digestible.

Plot Summary

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson was the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer for fiction, and it tells the story of Pak Jun Do, a boy living under the oppressive regime of Kim Il-Jung in North Korea. Jun Do begins his life as a boy growing up in an orphanage. He leaves to become a tunnel rat for the military, ends up on a kidnapping squad, gets sent to a mining labour camp, and it goes on and on until he ends up in a plot to rescue Sun Moon, a famed actress who is a jewel of North Korea.

Through these shifting circumstances, Johnson gives us glimpses into a diverse swath of lives and the varying levels of affluence of those in North Korea. And in telling this tale of a man who climbs the ranks until he manages to reach into the upper echelons of North Korea’s elite, Johnson manages to direct many years of research into a book that gives a believable and unexpectedly thorough but hard look at life in North Korea.

More than just a general depiction, The Orphan Master is powerful because it lends individuality Jun Do and those he encounters. The people Johnson depicts for us are vivid and even relateable, despite the circumstances seeming so extreme as to be almost other-worldly.

Some Background on North Korea

So, the basics are that North Korea is highly militarized and has been subsisting under the oppressive Kim regime since the 1950s. Its citizens are inundated with propaganda, such as about American aggression, and political crimes, such as political dissidence, are harshly punished. Like something out of the Hunger Games, most of the country is very bitterly poor, flirting with starvation, though the regime holds out Pyongyang, it’s capital, as a beacon for the elite. Of course, most people aren’t allowed in Pyongyang (there is no freedom of travel in North Korea), and entrance into Pyongyang requires special permits.

Other facts (based on outside info, though hints of these things appear in the book): there are constant electricity shortages and power outages (people generally sleep early because it all goes dark when the sun goes down), around 200,000 of its 24 million-ish residents have been sentenced to labor camps that are comparable to Soviet Gulags, and it is illegal for citizens to interact with foreigners or to consume foreign (Western, South Korean, etc.) movies and media — in some more serious situations these things have been punishable by death. Other particularly troubling characteristics include North Korean’s government-supported drug trade and counterfeiting of other currencies to support their shaky economy. There’s a bunch of other troubling things; for example, they have a handful of churches in Pyongyang, but it’s just to attract foreign aid, and in practice Christians (and other religions) are persecuted.

The mechanisms for controlling people are namely brainwashing and fear. With regards to the brainwashing, information is tightly controlled in order to convince the people that they live on the best place on earth and that everyone else is worse off. Apparently, it has become more difficult in recent years thanks to black markets and access to information technology, and the party line has had to adapt because of it. So, for example, whereas previously they tried to convince them that the South Koreans lived in poverty and had constant famines, it has now become clear that South Koreans are living well, so now they are telling them that defectors from North Korea face a lot of difficulties and discrimination in South Korea. In other words, the new party line tells them that they would be worse off if they left (which might have some truth to it).

As for using fear, the problem with speaking out or running away is that the government routinely uses torture and they will punish your family, too, and potentially any others associated with whatever incident prompted it. For almost all the defector stories, there is also someone else — a brother, a wife, etc. — who was executed or committed suicide or sent to a camp (and likely tortured) — because the person defected. When a very high ranking official defected (“as if Joseph Goebbels had defected from Nazi Germany”), the numbers of people who were reported to have been carted off to labor camps ranged from 500-2000.

Still, one note that Johnson points out in the interview answers after book that is not really highlighted in the book itself, is that for people who keep their heads down and follow the rules (and if those around them do the same), they can live a fairly normal life and even be happy, even if their lives are limited and deprived compared to life in the U.S. or South Korea.


In The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson describes the deprivation, fear and egregious human rights violations of this place whose residents almost seem to be in captivity. But whereas these indignities against the Korean people become almost sterile written up and listed into reports (UN 2013 Report on North Korea, see also Human Rights Watch 2014 Report on North Korea), though still objectively horrific, in The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson makes you feel it. He tempts you with a sense of discovery as the plot skips along, introduces a little confusion as Jun Do tries to understand his changing circumstances and environments, and forces you to face each of these atrocities one by one on an individual level.

It would be a good book just for the sheer amount of thorough research or the strong writing or the well-crafted characters and a plot line that offers both color and substance. But Johnson combines all these elements, balances them and has created a very powerful and important book in the process. I say it’s important because, in addition to being enjoyable to read, it’s also necessary for popularizing information about what is going on in North Korea — all the information is out there, but not enough people know the ugly details beyond “oh, they’re communist and have nukes.” In fact, a problem with how the North Korean regime is being portrayed in popular media is that they are mostly show to be buffoons and jokes (see, for example, Margaret Cho’s awful Globes cameo*); it takes attention away from the fact that there are many, many, many real people who are being tortured and murdered on a continual basis thanks to the Kim regime and that is a much bigger problem than the dictators having have small eyes and imperfect English.

One of the strongest points about the book, I think, was Johnson’s use of Jun Do’s story to highlight the class divisions in North Korea. By positioning him as someone who is, against all odds (and honestly, this is where the “fiction” comes into the story) managing to finagle his way into the “elite” of North Korea, it shows off how the many are being exploited for the benefit of a few. The author even notes in the questions at the back of the book how it’s harder to get information about the elites and about life in Pyongyang (which is accessible only to elites), because they are generally more satisfied with their lives and so they aren’t the ones to defect.

It’s not a perfect book, some of the transitions were a little confusing, the plot gets a little far-fetched, etc. but it all seems petty nit-picky in light of all the novel has to offer. The only thing that seems worth discussing is maybe how the front part of the book reads a little differently from the second half. It starts off a little slow (and by starts off, I’m talking like 150 or so pages in so it’s substantial). It might be because the author probably had more information to go on to write these parts. I enjoyed the whole book, including the beginning, but it does progress a little slower in the start.

Fact-Checking The Orphan Master’s Son

My first question once the story got underway was, how much of this is true? The world here reads like something out of a dystopian novel and much of it reminded me of the atrocities of life in Stalinist Russia — complete with Gulags, mass famine (which resulted in the deaths of about 10-15% of the population), brainwashing. But in history class I remember asking myself, what type of world was it back then that they would let these things happen? And now, flipping these pages, it’s an uncomfortable truth that these atrocities are going on as I type.

Barbara Demick, a journalist who has written and reported extensively on North Korea, wrote a review of this book, noting that it manages “to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I’ve read” and that “I assumed it had to be part of a memoir by a North Korean, so accurate were the details.” At the same time, she notes that it gets less accurate (or at least less factually based) in the second half. This is understandable, given that the first half is about Jun Do as a poor boy and in low-ranking military positions, whereas in the second half of the book the “plot” of the book really begins to step up and his ascent begins, which is where the book starts to deviate from reality.

The part that first got me really questioning the verisimilitude of the information being presented was when Jun Do gets assigned to a kidnapping crew in the military. He and two others are sent to Japan to kidnap selected or sometimes random people to take with them back to North Korea. But it turns out, this was entirely true and one of the passages was based on a first-hand account that had been given by a defector. The North Koreans apparently routinely kidnapped people from Japan in the late 70s, early 80s.

So, it does seem that much of the book is based in facts and hard research. That being said, it is still, of course, fiction and when the plot gets moving it becomes pretty detached from reality in terms of the plot twists, but to me that seemed pretty obvious. In other words, for the most part, the world itself is based in reality and the plot of the book is not…which is generally what happens in fiction writing, so I personally feel okay about those deviations.

One thing that’s discussed in the book that I didn’t seem to find corroborating outside evidence of is forced lobotomies, which the special police talk about as being used in special circumstances — I didn’t see anywhere where it says that anything like that happens, but of course that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It’s clear other torture methods are widely in use, so it’s not impossible. Also, Johnson has stated that the blood transfusion scene was of his own making, but mostly as a narrative replacement for forced abortions, public/mass executions, amputations, etc. that occur. Also, I don’t think the elderly get shipped off somewhere the way Johnson says, but there are various accounts of the elderly/disabled being given poor treatment in various ways. Maybe the book over-reached a little in exercising its artistic license in this regard though.

Last Thoughts

To sum up, I thought it was a very good book, carefully crafted and filled with a lot of information and nuance. I think people who like narrative non-fiction would especially like this. It’s sort of a blend of that and a dystopian novel. It is very elegantly and artistically written, and the balance of fact and fiction also help to balance out being both informative and entertaining.

As a final thought, that after reading this book, I would feel uncomfortable with visiting North Korea for purely tourism purposes (i.e. not like humanitarian or journalistic purposes), in good conscience, knowing the government is using those profits to carry out these awful tings. It’s like how everyone wonders what type of monsters would support Stalin and Hitler coming to and staying in power — well, this regime is not vey different, so if you’re visiting North Korea because you think it sounds cool to tell your friends, well then, it might be that you’re that monster?

I came across this quote in another article I read, penned by a North Korean defector: “Let no one forget the wider and much important part of his story: that the human rights abuses the world promised to never forget and never repeat after World War II have and still are happening.”

*She sucks.

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