In a nation of lies, sometimes only fiction tells the truth.
So Adam Johnson ’s new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, already a New York Times bestseller, may offer new insights about North Korea, the country he says is too often dismissed as a mélange of "buffoonery, madness or evil."
With the launch of a long-range rocket scheduled around April 15, the world is turning its eyes again on North Korea. An outraged world clamors to know what can be done to contain a dangerous pariah state.
Johnson’s prediction? "They’re going to send up a big-ass rocket and whatever happens, the North Koreans will call it a startling success."
"It’s not about science," the Stanford associate professor of English explained. "It’s about the consolidation of power so Kim Jong Un doesn’t get murdered in the night." Johnson suggests we look to the country’s new leader, the third generation in a totalitarian dynasty, to explain the newest flare-up of celestial ambitions.
"In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it’s a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it’s just a message."
Johnson’s novel, published by Random House, traces the career of Pak Jun Do, a homonym for "John Doe," the son of a kidnapped singer and a man who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. He becomes a soldier patrolling the dark tunnels beneath the DMZ, the "demilitarized" zone between North and South Korea. He’s a professional kidnapper, a surveillance officer and eventually a player in the circles closest to the nation’s leader. The book is part romance, part adventure story, part spy novel and mostly the dark, absurdist drama for which Johnson is celebrated – though the parts that sound like comic-book excess often hew closest to the truth.
But is it over the top? Vindication came from award-winning author and Korea expert Barbara Demick, who read a published excerpt from the book last year and wrote in The Guardian : "I assumed it had to be part of a memoir by a North Korean, so accurate were the details. . . Johnson has made just one trip in his life to North Korea, but he’s managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I’ve read."
The Orphan Master’s Son was published a month after the December death of the longtime dictator, Kim Jong Il, an event that heightened interest in the book.
"With the passing of Kim Jong Il, we’ve had the first serious discussion of the place in a long time," said Johnson.
"North Korea is the most extensive national psychological experiment ever created. What is this place? Is it really this crazy? What’s its future?"
The April 15 event provides a clue: Johnson said the date will be "the biggest party ever" in the lives of most North Koreans. Not because of the satellite that will purportedly be put into orbit, but rather because it’s the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the current dynasty.
"He’s the eternal president of the nation," Johnson said, but insisted that the title is not just a flowery Asiatic honorific. "Seriously, seriously. It sounds absurd to us. If you were in North Korea and said he was not the eternal president, you would be sent away."
"You always know that a country has gone off the rails when they invent their own calendar," said Johnson. The Juche calendar, introduced in 1997, resets the calendar to 1912 – just like Pol Pot’s "Year Zero" recalibration in Cambodia, or the French Revolutionary Calendar two centuries ago.
Satellite maps and propaganda
The Orphan Master’s Son is the fruit of nearly six years of research – a research carried out with a stunning absence of reliable data.
"There are great books about the economy of North Korea, its military dimensions, its geopolitics, and its nuclear issues. But the human dimension? About that there’s little," said Johnson. "We have satellite images, propaganda, and the stories of people who have escaped."