The Orphan Master’s Son sparks new interest in North Korea. It was written just on the heels of the death of Kim Jong-Il. The control over the most bizarre country on earth has been handed over to 29-year-old Kim Jong-Un. Many believe that he is even younger than that. North Korea was already quite unstable while Kim Jong-Il was leading it, and now we have a young man that is going to be eager to “prove himself” to the North Korean hierarchy.
Through the protagonist Jun Do, a North Korean everyman, almost like a John Doe, and his misadventures, we get a peek into the country where people’s identities are subordinate to the roles the state expects them to fulfill, and even words or acts that inadvertently cast doubt on the greatness and goodness of the government can lead to death or prison or torture.
Jun Do, a soldier turned kidnapper turned surveillance officer, who tries to stay alive as he stumbles his way through the government bureaucracy. Like any North Koreans, he is to live at the mercy of the iron whim of the government. But he is lucky to have attended language school and acquire moderate fluency in English. He listened to international transmissions at sea. He was put on a plane on a diplomatic trip to Texas.
Sounds weird? Absolutely. It’s because unlike in the Western world where each person lives as he/she chooses, the extent to which people have to bend to the iron whim of a dictatorial state is beyond our imagination. I remembered reading Adam Johnson’s interview about the trip to North Korea for his research to write the book. Johnson wanted to know why he didn’t see any mailboxes. How did people get their mail? Why was there no one in a wheelchair in the capital? Weren’t there any handicapped people in North Korea? “It’s so surreal to see the sameness of everyone. I would walk through these crowds of people and they wouldn’t dare to look at me.”
“I asked all these verisimilitude questions that I don’t think anyone had ever asked them before,” Johnson says, recounting his strange, darkly funny experiences during a five-day visit to North Korea in August 2007. I get the same feeling about questions not being answered as I rifle through the pages of The Orphan Master’s Son: Johnson gives us the raw story of suppressed North Korean people. Don’t expect the “whys” to be answered because the people don’t know themselves.