Author Adam Johnson Envisions a Life Inside North Korea Under Kim Jong-il

January 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author Adam Johnson's second novel, "The Orphan Master's Son," is a fictional account of a young man's passage through North Korea -- a country unknown, unseen and, at times, futile before the death of its "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il. Johnson and Jeffrey Brown discuss his interpretation of the country and the late dictator.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: A novelist imagines life inside one of the world’s most isolated and potentially dangerous countries.

The death last month of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the naming of his son as successor briefly opened a small window on that secretive and repressive nation, but so much remains unknown and unseen.

One way in, a new work of fiction receiving much acclaim titled “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Its author is Adam Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University.

Welcome to you.

ADAM JOHNSON, “The Orphan Master’s Son”: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think we should start at the obvious question, which is, why a novel set in North Korea? What attracted you?

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ADAM JOHNSON: Well, I became fascinated just as a general reader. I read the “Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Chol-hwan Kang. The stories of people who had made it out of that country, even made it out of gulags, the Kwan-li-so system there, were so captivating to me.

It seemed, just as a writer, that this was perhaps the most difficult place on Earth to be fully human, a place where spontaneity is almost impossible, where confessing your heart and your wants and desires run counter to the state and could get you in trouble, and because I found very few works from North Korean writers themselves that they weren’t allowed to tell their own stories, that I thought this was something that literacy fiction could do, could fill in this void.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, then, of course, you had to learn what life is like. And some of it is from those stories. But you also made a trip there.

ADAM JOHNSON: I did travel to the DPRK in 2007.

It was very difficult to get there, but I did. And, you know, I was shown everything they wanted me to see. And I was minded very closely. But I think there are ways to see through the propaganda.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see?

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, I saw a country that was hungry for food, hungry for power, hungry for money certainly. They tried to sell me things at every turn that were all manufactured in China. They didn’t know that we had things in the rest of the world that were of much higher quality.

I saw a family in a park stealing chestnuts from a public tree, which is quite a transgression there and could get them in great trouble. And I saw how furtively the children kind of ran to the branches as the parents gathered them on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: These are the kinds of details that make it into the book.

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, they’re the kinds of things that you could never know unless you want there and saw them for themselves.

I saw a group of people in the back of a dump truck being transported to the countryside to volunteer to help with the harvest. And I asked my minder, you know, who they were. And she said they were just going there to help out. And she said everyone must volunteer here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, if you set aside the unusual setting, which is hard to do, but it’s a long kind of twisting tale of one character . . .


JEFFREY BROWN: . . . part thriller, part romance.

This character Jun Do, one episode after another, with the regime and then trying to survive the regime. Tell us about him and how you sort of found him as the way into the story.


Well, part of it has to do with my initial interest in narrative. In America, the stories we tell ourselves and we tell each other in fiction have to do with individualism. Every person here is the center of his or her own story. And our job as people and as characters is to find our own motivations and desires, to overcome conflicts and obstacles toward defining ourselves so that we grow and change.

But, in North Korea, it’s just the opposite. There’s one story. It’s written by the Kim regime. And 23 million people are conscripted to be secondary characters. There, as a youth, your aptitude towards certain jobs is measured, and the rest of your life is dictated, whether you’ll be a fisherman or a farmer or an opera singer.

And, in that world, to have your own desires and motivations, to reveal yourself is counter to your role and can get you in serious trouble. And so you have to censor yourself. And I took a character who starts as a model North Korean citizen, who does everything he’s told, no matter how grim or how dark it is.

But only when he realizes he’s truly disposable does he move to be a character that we would know, who takes risks for what he wants, in this case love.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this layering of stories, in a sense, is part of the theme here, I think. There’s a line where one character says, where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro.

ADAM JOHNSON: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the stories one tells is — I suppose, for a novelist, this is an interesting way of thinking about life, too.

ADAM JOHNSON: It’s true. In America, you can reinvent yourself at any turn.

And, you know, if things aren’t going well for you in life, everyone says, change, become someone different.

There, it’s the of opposite. The person can never change. It’s the national narrative that matters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you surprised then with — I know this took you a long time to do, right, a number of years?


JEFFREY BROWN: Did you — were you surprised by where it went, where it took you? Or did you have this in mind from the beginning?

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, I tried to keep, you know, like Kim Jong Il, for instance, out of the book, because he’s so absurd and we have such a caricature notion of him in the West.

But as the book progressed, and I really understood that this was the sole scriptwriter of an entire nation, that he alone was responsible, through totalitarianism, for the lives of every single person and their fates, I had to make him a character in the book. And so we get a look at the great scriptwriter himself. But, as a writer, I had to make him complex, find his weaknesses and strengths, make him round and believable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the timing of his death, you could not have known.

But what did you — what was going on in your head when you were watching last month when he died, and all this talk about the successor and who that might be and this little window that I mentioned into the society?

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, he still might come back to life.


ADAM JOHNSON: That’s the one place in the world where that could happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think so?


JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, it’s a strange enough society and culture.

ADAM JOHNSON: It’s a strange enough place that that could happen.

It’s a land of mysteries. It’s the most mysterious place in the world, I believe. And even as to his death, we don’t have his autopsy, we don’t have his cause of death. We don’t know how he died. Was he killed by a bodyguard? We don’t know anything about it.

And so it’s these mysteries that I wanted to fulfill. It was the people I saw all over Pyongyang that I wanted to individuate and to bring to life. And I had to use imagination to do it, because they’re not allowed to tell their own stories.


The book is “The Orphan Master’s Son.”

Adam Johnson, thanks so much.

ADAM JOHNSON: My pleasure.