Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

443 pages

GoodReadPak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

I first heard about The Orphan Master’s Son from Books on the Nightstand and was immediately intrigued because it’s set in North Korea, a place I find mysterious and fascinating.  After starting it, though, I found it really hard to get into the book.  It wasn’t what I was expecting and it’s pretty long.  But I’m glad I stuck with it because in the end it was incredibly powerful.

When you pick up this book, you will step into a world of such outlandish things as:

  • Party Aptitude Tests
  • Rightness of Thinking evaluations
  • The Glories of Science Museum
  • Redeemability farms
  • Testament to the Greatness of Machines Factory
  • The Evils of Capitalism classes
  • Juche Theory
  • Self-Criticism Pavilions
  • The Museum of Socialist Progress
  • Songs entitled “Our Quotas Lift Us Higher”
  • The rules of good citizenship: Devote Yourself Eternally to Our Glorious Leaders, Treasure Criticism, Obey Songun Policies, Pledge Yourself to Collective Child Rearing, and Conduct Regular Martyrdom Drills

These things helped construct the world of North Korea and really set the atmosphere.  Some of them sound almost laughable but when they are spoken of in The Orphan Master’s Son, it is with seriousness because they are simply a part of life.

Even more shocking is the awareness that many of the North Korean people have as to their flawed society.  One character recalls his father teaching him about the dual reality of their lives.  He says,

He told me that there was a path set out for us.  On it we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way.  Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.

Can you imagine living in a world where only one book is published per month and it’s possible to brag that you’ve “seen Titanic” and “been on the internet ten different times?”

In addition to the harsh portrayal of the realities of this world, the book is also full of violence when it comes to the treatment of certain citizens.  The second half of the book deals with torture and interrogation, the methods of which are crude and were painful to read at times.  Still, it’s a fascinating look into a place that really exists but is easy to forget about because it’s so hidden.

After reading The Orphan Master’s Son I went in search of other fiction set in North Korea and couldn’t find very much.  Still, I’m eager to learn more about this place so I’ve listed several books which look promising.

Jia: A Novel of North Korea by Hyejin Kim

The Tears of My Soul: The True Story of a North Korean Spy by Kim Hyun Hee

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

This Is Paradise: My North Korean Childhood by Hyok Kang

What are your thoughts on North Korea?  Given the chance, would you want to visit this mysterious country?

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