The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, 2012
Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2013
The Orphan Master’s Son took me over a year to get around to reading, mainly because the premise expressed on the dust jacket seemed so strange and foreign: “The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.” North Korea has been a mystery to many of us due to how closed off from the rest of the world it is. And I have heard very little about the lives people lead in the country other than how the people often go without sufficient food while the government spends large sums on the military and defenses. Maybe I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn more about all of this, so I put off reading Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning novel. And to be honest, I have not enjoyed or felt rewarded for having read many of the recent winners of the prize for fiction. However, I admit that I got caught up in this novel and I am sorry I put off reading it for a year. I have not written a blog post on any of the more recent Pulitzer winners because of my disappointments with the works but The Orphan Master’s Son was, for me, a rewarding read and a book I want to talk about in this blog. Please bear in mind that I am only giving my reactions and opinions. Your take on The Orphan Master’s Son may be different from mine and I would value hearing your views.
The Orphan Master’s Son is the story of Pak Jun Do who was the son of the orphan master at the Long Tomorrows orphanage in North Korea. Jun Do’s mother was stolen away by the North Korean government to Pyongyang to be a singer. That’s all he knows of her. However, the Orphan Master sees his lost wife’s face in Jun Do and, therefore, takes out his loss and hurt by being cruel to his son. It is Jun Do’s job to give a name to each orphan boy, usually taken from the list of honored martyrs of North Korea. Though he is not an orphan himself, Jun Do is taken for one his whole life because he is named after a national hero and he grew up in an orphanage. Orphans are at the lowest level of society and most of them end up in the army. At age 14 during a severe famine, Jun Do and the other orphans at Long Tomorrows are trucked to an army base where they are trained to be tunnel fighters. The North Korean army digs tunnels under the demilitarized zone into South Korea. The tunnel fighters are trained to sneak into the South and kidnap people and bring them back to North Korea. Jun Do moves on from tunnel fighter to be a kidnapper in the Navy. His job is to go by fishing boat to the shores of Japan, sneak into the country in a small raft, grab an unsuspecting Japanese citizen, and bring the victim back to North Korea. One of the kidnapped persons was a famous Japanese opera singer whom a North Korean Minister wanted for his own. Jun Do was particularly good at carrying out these raids because of his knowledge of taekwondo and his ability to fight in the dark. After a number of successful kidnappings, Jun Do is rewarded with schooling to learn English and is then assigned to a fishing boat where he has the job of monitoring English radio transmissions and reporting them to the North Korean government.
Kim Jong Il
Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
The story told in The Orphan Master’s Son is strange and hard to believe but it’s also compelling to read. The events in the life of Jun Do strike me as rather implausible but the context of these events, occurring as they do in North Korea, was interesting and informative. Not knowing much about North Korea, I became fascinated by the story Johnson tells in this novel. In preparing to write The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson travelled to North Korea in 2007 and read numerous testimonies of defectors from the country. I believe that Johnson gives a reasonably accurate description of the bizarre dictatorship of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, over the nation of 23 million North Koreans. This nation is believed by many to be one of the most backward and repressive countries in the world today. Johnson drives home this point. As I read the novel I kept trying to decide whether Johnson was giving the reader an expose’ of how things are in North Korea or a parody of North Korea and the Dear Leader. I thought of how the movie and TV series “MASH” was a humorous parody, often exaggerated, of how it was for a U.S. Army medical unit in the Korean War. Yet, MASH had a ring of truth that made the episodes entertaining, poignant and educational at the same time. My opinion is that expose’ and parody both apply to The Orphan Master’s Son. I see parody in how truth is handled in Kim Jong Il’s regime. While the citizens are taught over loudspeakers in their homes and places of work that North Korea is the greatest, most democratic nation on earth where there is no hunger, the citizens are also warned over the loudspeaker to not start snaring song birds and gathering acorns until the proper seasons for these activities. A central point in The Orphan Master’s Son is that the people are kept in the dark about how life is outside of North Korea. For example, a central female character in the story, Sun Moon, asks a captured American woman about the evil imperialistic country she comes from: “I wonder of what you must daily endure in America, having no government to protect you, no one to tell you what to do. Is it true you’re given no ration card, that you must find food for yourself?....What plays over the American loudspeakers, when is your curfew, what is taught at your child-rearing collectives?....How does a society without a fatherly leader work?...How can a citizen know what is best without a benevolent hand to shepherd her?” Keeping the people so ignorant about the outside world and what North Korea is lacking compared to other countries is an effective way to maintain power and control.
Ultimately, I think The Orphan Master’s Son is a story about love. Jun Do didn’t have the love of a mother or father, for that matter. People in North Korea were taught to not seek and cultivate familial love but rather to feel the love of the Dear Leader and the State. Under the surface, however, Jun Do longs for love. Though he has never had a wife or even a girlfriend, he has the face of North Korea’s major female movie star, Sun Moon, tattooed on his chest while he is working on a fishing boat. He has to do this so he will appear to be a fisherman since they all have their wives’ faces on their chests and Jun Do doesn’t want to be taken for a spy if their boat is captured by the U. S. Navy. In a hard-to-believe plot twist, Jun Do is sent to Texas on a mission to recover a piece of Japanese radiation-detecting equipment that the U. S. has taken away from North Korea. This is where the novel starts getting even more unbelievable rather than being a serious look at life in North Korea. The mission fails and Jun Do gets thrown into a prison mine after returning to his homeland. He manages to survive the terrible conditions and harsh treatment and eventually escapes. Jun Do ends up being the replacement husband of Sun Moon and finally finds love. The movie Casablanca and the actions of Rick serve as a model for Jun Do in how to make the ultimate sacrifice for his loved one and, in the process, play a good trick on the Dear Leader. What an inventive, unique story- much better than a MASH episode.
I have tried to not give away too much of The Orphan Master’s Son but I hope that my thoughts might create an interest in reading Johnson’s award-winning novel. I learned a number of things about North Korea and Kim Jong Il but I was also entertained and touched by the story of The Orphan Master’s Son. As to the accuracy of the descriptions Johnson gives of the Dear Leader and conditions in North Korea, I have become more convinced of this since reading a February 17, 2014 piece by John Heilprin of the Associated Press which reports that a United Nations panel has sent a formal warning to North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong Il, that he may be held to answer for continuing crimes against civilians of that nation. These crimes include mass starvation, executions, torture and rape. The U.N. investigation also found that North Korea is guilty of lifelong indoctrination of its citizens, political prison camps, and state-run abductions of North Koreans, Japanese and other nationals. I’m impressed that Johnson describes all of the above U.N. findings in The Orphan Master’s Son. What first struck me as hard to believe is now documented by an U.N. investigation of North Korea. Thanks to Adam Johnson for bringing to us this look at life under the Dear Leader.