The Orphan Master’s Son
By Adam Johnson
Random House, 443 pages
In what has become an annual ritual, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced in January the number of North Koreans who escaped to the South during the previous year. The total for 2011 was 2,737, the ministry reported. That was up a bit from 2010, and slightly down from 2009, when the tally hit a record 2,927. Under South Korea’s constitution, any North Korean who flees is guaranteed a home in the South.
It is a crime to leave North Korea without permission, punishable by imprisonment or even death, and until recently only a tiny number of North Koreans dared to try. In the four decades from 1953, when the armistice suspending the Korean War was signed, until 1993, a mere 641 North Koreans made it safely to the South.
Things began to change in the mid-1990s, when famine hit North Korea and starving men, women, and children flooded across the border to China. Since then, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the Tumen or Yalu Rivers and sneaked into the area of northeast China once known as Manchuria. They seek food, work, or a little taste of freedoms that are unimaginable in their own country but available to some extent in the Communist country next door.
In contravention of its obligations under treaties to which it is a party, China refuses to help the North Koreans in its midst—or even allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to do so. Rather, its cruel policy is to track them down, arrest them, and deport them back to North Korea, where they are sent to prison, or worse. Like the Fugitive Slave Act in pre–Civil War America, which made it a crime to help runaway slaves, Chinese law criminalizes assistance to the North Koreans. American Christian missionaries are among those who have gone to jail for the “crime” of housing or feeding desperate North Koreans.
Some of the North Korean refugees in China decide that life on the run is too difficult and go home voluntarily, sneaking back across the river and resuming their old lives. Others choose to remain in hiding in China, where they find jobs on the black market or, in the case of women, sell themselves to Chinese men as brides. A courageous few decide to go for the gold and attempt to make it all the way to South Korea. They turn to brokers or Christian missionaries, who guide them out of China to a Southeast Asian country, or north to Mongolia. From there, the refugees present themselves at a South Korean consular facility and ask for asylum.
All of this is background for understanding Adam Johnson’s extraordinary new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which takes place in the North Korea of the recent past. The book is a riveting, moving narrative about one North Korean’s quest for personal freedom. It is also a brilliant piece of reportage depicting life in that secretive country. Johnson has said that in imagining what North Korea is like, he relied on accounts of North Koreans who escaped. His book could not have been written without them.
Johnson’s hero’s name is Pak Jun Do—“Jun Do” being a wordplay on the English-language “John Doe.” He is a North Korean Everyman, and The Orphan Master’s Son is a kind of modern morality tale, where the protagonist must choose between a godly life and one of evil.
Jun Do undergoes many trials. In the orphanage where we first meet him, he is called upon to make life-and-death decisions about which boys get extra food and the least dangerous job assignments. When, as an adult, he is assigned to a kidnap team whose mission is to abduct Japanese citizens and take them to North Korea, he must decide whether to defect and how to handle a fellow kidnapper who wants to do so. His later incarceration in a prison camp presents numerous moral choices having to do with the survival of the fittest. In a final showdown with the country’s late dictator, Kim Jong-il, Jun Do faces decisions that will affect both himself and the woman he loves. “People do things to survive,” Jun Do tells a friend early in the book, “and then, after they survive, they can’t live with what they’ve done.”
At least one critic has placed The Orphan Master’s Son in the literary tradition of magical realism, where fantastical elements blend seamlessly into the real world. In the real North Korea, it has been noted, an ordinary man like Jun Do could not have risen to a position where he matched wits with the Dear Leader. Also in the real world, a trip to Texas that is central to the plot is implausible.
Perhaps so, but in the context of the surreal world of North Korea, truth can be as bizarre as fiction. In The Orphan Master’s Son, most of the nightmarish things that happen could have happened; they are rooted in that country’s awful reality. They are, so to speak, ripped from the headlines—or, in this case, extrapolated from the lives of real North Koreans.
The fictional Camrade Buc is a case in point. Johnson’s character is seemingly patterned on the real-life figure of Colonel Kim Jong-ryul, who was Kim Il-sung’s personal shopper. Colonel Kim defected while on a shopping trip to Vienna in 1994 and recounted his story in a book published in 2010. In The Orphan Master’s Son, Camrade Buc travels the world at the behest of Kim Jong-il, procuring cognac from France, sea urchins from Hokkaido, and DVDs from Los Angeles.
Or take an episode that is set in the fictional Prison Camp 33. Jun Do is forced to participate in the execution of the man who was a father figure to him and who was captured while trying to escape. This is similar to what actually happened to Shin Dong-hyok, a refugee now living in South Korea, who was a former inmate at the actual Prison Camp 14. Shin described to me how he was forced to watch the execution of his mother, who was hanged, and his brother, who was shot. Like Jun Do’s friend in the novel, Shin’s mother and brother had tried to escape.
In one poignant passage, The Orphan Master’s Son describes a family’s collective decision to kill themselves rather than be shipped off to “the camps.” This reminds me of a real-life family of refugees, now in South Korea, who had sworn to commit suicide if they were arrested by the Chinese police during their journey out of that country. The mother, Kim Chun-ae, described to me how “we all had rat poison handy.” She told me that she and her teenaged son and daughter agreed that they would not allow themselves to be repatriated to North Korea and sent to the gulag.
The abductions depicted in The Orphan Master’s Son are also true to life. Kim Jong-il once ordered the kidnapping of his favorite South Korean movie actress from a beach in Hong Kong. When Jun Do and his team are instructed to snatch a beautiful opera singer from Japan, one of his fellow kidnappers ruefully remarks: “You don’t know how Pyongyang works….Once the other ministers see her, they’ll all want their own opera singers.”
Near the conclusion of The Orphan Master’s Son, Jun Do says, “I’m not sure I understand freedom, but I’ve felt it.” Johnson’s brave and engrossing novel presents the brutality and bleakness of the totalitarian state, where freedom exists only as a dream. Rising above the everyday challenges of survival and endurance requires exceptional courage—like that shown by the fictional Jun Do and his real-world counterparts, the thousands of North Koreans who have fled.