Greg Girard/Contact Press Images

A celebration of National Day, Pyongyang, North Korea, 1995

A “Reader’s Guide” accompanying the paperback edition of Adam Johnson’s much-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel might suggest that the book is about North Korea. In an interview with his editor, David Ebershoff, Johnson mentions the vast amount of research he has done on that country, the books read, the people interviewed, and how much of his story is drawn from facts. Added to the interview is a list of suggested topics for discussion, presumably aimed at college students, including the following: “How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene?” This seems an odd way to approach a work of fiction.

In fact, The Orphan Master’s Son is no more about North Korea than The Merchant of Venice is about Venice under the doges. North Korea is the setting for an imaginary story about a man who gradually, though always dramatically, discovers his own humanity in a state that does everything to suppress it.

Two human qualities that any totalitarian system will attempt to stamp out are doubt and personal intimacy, for both threaten the total control of individuals by the state. Such a system not only strives to be in command of individual lives—everything from the work people do to the relationships they form—but the way reality, past, present, and future, is to be publicly, and as far as possible even privately, perceived. To express any hint of skepticism about the official truth promoted by state propaganda is to put that whole enterprise at risk, and must therefore be punished without mercy. Intimacy, or indeed any emotional attachment to other human beings apart from loyalty to the state and its rulers, must be rooted out for the same reason. That is why children are encouraged to inform on their parents.

The effect on human beings is to stunt their capacity for emotional or intellectual development, to turn them into grotesque human bonsai. Václav Havel called this “living within the lie.” If the rulers claim that black is white, everyone must pretend that black is indeed white, thus producing a state of collective madness, or pretended madness; and the distinction may not always be so clear.

The state of unreality affects the rulers as much as the ruled, though not always in the same way. If the ruler really believes his own propaganda, that he is the greatest genius/war hero/artist/holy man who ever lived, then he must be insane. But even if he doesn’t believe it for a minute, he cannot afford to show doubt any more than his subjects, and he has to live within the lie as well. And since the absolute ruler’s control can never be total enough, he is in a constant state of anxiety. No one can be trusted and so intimacy becomes impossible for him too. This is why despotic figures so often appear to suffer from stomach cramps and other malfunctions of the nervous system.1 Hitler needed an army of doctors, as did Mao. Himmler’s intolerable cramps could be relieved only by the manipulations of his Estonian masseur, who consequently became almost as powerful in the Reichsführer’s court as his astrologer.

I don’t know what ailments Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s late “Dear Leader,” suffered from. His demeanor, on the rare occasions when he appeared in public, hardly suggested robust good health. Ever fearful of assassination, he traveled in private bulletproof trains. The large amounts of money spent on supplying the dictator with crates of the best Hennessy Cognac and the choicest lobsters in the late 1990s, even as millions of North Koreans were starving to death in an entirely avoidable famine, would imply that his belief in the socialist solidarity extolled by his propaganda apparatus was limited.

In any case, Johnson picked the right setting for his dystopian novel. For North Korea under the Dear Leader, and even more perhaps under his father, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, was the closest thing to a totalitarian state the world has seen. Even under Mao, China was too big and messy for the Communist Party to exert complete control. Russian dissidence was never entirely stamped out, even in the worst days under Stalin. And Hitler never actually tried to manage every aspect of most Germans’ lives.

But North Korea was small and remote enough to be quite effectively sealed off from the outside world, at least until the advent of DVDs and cell phones, now smuggled in from booming Chinese border towns, which must look like Eldorado to hungry North Koreans. On one side is darkness and squalor, on the other are gleaming high-rises lit up like a thousand Christmas trees. The cult of the Kim dynasty, now in its third generation of tyrants, is a mixture of folk religion—complete with miracles and sacred sites—racialist nationalism inflamed by a history of humiliation at foreign hands, Confucian ancestor worship, and a hodgepodge of Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism-Kimism.


Some of this toxic concoction goes down easily enough with many Koreans, and does not always require violent persuasion. But the lie within which North Koreans are forced to live is more extreme than most beliefs that govern closed communities: the state must be seen by its denizens as an earthly paradise ruled by sacred leaders whose rays of brilliance penetrate every corner of our benighted earth. And yet Koreans are no more immune to doubt and intimacy than other human beings. How a person fares when he gives in to these temptations, at a terrible cost, is the story of Adam Johnson’s novel.

The main character, at first, has no idea who he is. Pak Jun Do (the North Korean John Doe) is a child inmate of a ghastly concentration camp for orphans. His mother may have been a beautiful singer who was taken away from him to entertain privileged Party bosses in the capital, Pyongyang. Jun Do imagines that the “orphan master,” who treats him more harshly than other starving boys in the camp, may actually be his father. But he cannot even be sure of that. The world outside the camp is unknown to him. As far as he knows, this is the world, and any sign of inquisitiveness is quickly stifled as it is clearly fraught with danger.

When the great famine of the 1990s became so bad that it could no longer be officially ignored, North Korean propaganda referred to it as an occasion for heroism, taking inspiration from the “Arduous March,” the legendary struggle of Kim Il-sung against the Japanese in World War II, when the Great Leader’s guerrillas allegedly battled, as the official rhetoric has it, “against thousands of enemies in twenty degrees below zero.” But in the camp, the famine needed no name. For Johnson’s Jun Do, “it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust.”

Passages like this are well documented. Johnson is working with facts. Many of Jun Do’s subsequent adventures are drawn from known events as well, but by turning them into an epic journey experienced by one character, Johnson leaves the documentary realm and enters a world of literary fiction.

We know, for example, that North Koreans have made forays to Japan to kidnap people to bring back as language instructors. (In fact, the Dear Leader went further than that: in the late 1970s a South Korean movie star, Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped, along with her former husband, the well-known director Shin Sang-ok, to make films in North Korea. After almost ten years in Kim Jong-il’s service they managed to escape during a film festival in Vienna. Shin later had a career in Hollywood, where he changed his name to Simon Sheen and made ninja movies.)

We also know that North Korean soldiers were trained to fight in underground tunnels, where they lived like moles, rarely given the privilege of seeing the light of day. Just as true is the fact that fishing vessels are used for all manner of nefarious purposes, from smuggling guns and drugs to spying on foreign ships and radio communications. Johnson’s harrowing descriptions of mining camps, where blood and organs are harvested from prisoners, have the ring of truth, even if they owe something to the author’s imagination.

The long accounts of fantastic tortures—lobotomies effected by driving long nails into people’s heads, or machines that cause such pain that a person is reduced to being a robot for the rest of his life, without personality or memory, and so on—are made up, but that hideous tortures take place in North Korean prisons is certainly true. There might even be missions to the United States where North Korean government agents meet in secret with American officials, although the scenes of such a meeting set by Johnson in Texas, oddly, seem less plausible to me than his depiction of horrors in North Korea.

Only in an epic novel could we imagine that all these things would happen in the life of one Korean John Doe. Yet this epic quality works. Like Don Quixote, Jun Do is a hero struggling for dignity in a world of illusions. In Quixote’s case, the illusions are self-made. Jun Do fights his way through stories made up by others. It doesn’t actually matter whether everything described in Johnson’s North Korean dystopia is factually true. He has hit upon one particular aspect of life in a totalitarian society that again, perhaps because of its reliance on so much folk mysticism, is especially dramatic in North Korea, which is the central importance of fantasy, of stories, of official narratives, of lies. Everyone in the novel is making up stories. State propagandists do this as a matter of course, but so do individuals trying to escape from punishment or official disgrace.


When a fisherman defects, his colleagues have to invent a story to prevent them from being blamed for failing to stop him. And so they pretend that the defector was thrown to the sharks by vicious American imperialists. When the mission to the US does not have the results desired by Pyongyang, the agents have to make up a tale of dreadful humiliations heaped on them by the dastardly Americans. Lies are piled upon lies. Over and over, we read lines such as this: “What mattered in North Korea was not the man but his story.” The character who says this, a government agent named Dr. Song, also imparts the following wisdom to Jun Do, before he too falls victim to the secret police:

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. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.

There has been much speculation over the years about whether North Koreans actually believe everything they are told. John Everard, posted in Pyongyang as the British ambassador from 2006 to 2008, thinks that for a long time most North Koreans did. It was the famine, and increasing access to outside information, that changed the public perception.2 Perhaps he is right. It is impossible to know, and the speculation misses an important point.

Arthur Koestler famously imagined a character in his novel Darkness at Noon who believed so fervently in the Communist cause that he was willing to confess in prison to all kind of absurdities, simply because in his eyes the Party could not possibly be wrong. Many people took this to be a typical example of reality in Soviet show trials. I once thought I was being clever by quoting this bit of cant to a seasoned Polish survivor of the Soviet gulag, the journalist Leo Labedz. He instantly put me right: such confessions were mainly the result of torture, he said.

But again, this may have been missing the point. You have to live within the lie to survive, whether or not you believe in it. The problem for the characters in Johnson’s novel, as is no doubt true in real life, is how to retain, or acquire, the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood in such circumstances; how, as one of Johnson’s characters puts it, “to come to see the lies you told yourself, the ones that allowed you to function and move forward.” When a person is no longer able to do that, he has not lost only his physical freedom, but his freedom to think. He loses himself.

That Kim Jong-il was an obsessive movie buff who promoted himself as a scriptwriter, director, and film theorist of genius is not incidental.3 Many dictators see themselves as artists, creators of a Gesamtkunstwerk with a cast of millions. Like the Nazi rallies filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, North Korean stadium spectacles with hundreds of thousands of people forming gigantic pictures of the Great Leader by holding up placards in perfect unison are aesthetic symbols of total control. To achieve such feats of collective discipline, the “actors” have lost all individual distinction.

The loss of self in a show of machine-like precision can have surprising results. When the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu attended one of these totalitarian spectacles in Pyongyang, he was serenaded by North Korean singers in flawless Romanian. These were women who had never left North Korea. Their accents were faultless. They had been drilled into being perfect mimics of Romanian folk singers. There is something uncanny about this type of useless transformation.

Johnson’s hero, Jun Do, gradually sheds the enforced reflexes of an unthinking extra in the Dear Leader’s show by going through some peculiar transformations of his own. He finds his way to the truth, to his true feelings, his own thoughts, to himself, by adopting a role in another fiction, involving the country’s leading movie star. This particular story begins as a typical product of state propaganda. But the state loses control of its own fiction, and thus of the man who stars in it.

The twists and turns of this fantasy are elaborate and often deeply implausible. But this is perhaps deliberate, since Johnson has written a novel about stories made up of other stories. To find the truth, the hero of this epic has to cut his way through a labyrinth of lies. In the end, the reader is no longer sure what is supposed to be real. In some ways, Jun Do is more like Alice in Wonderland than Don Quixote, except that the Wonderland in this novel is in many respects no less zany, or indeed implausible, than the actual society it is modeled on.

After being trained to speak English, Jun Do serves as an intelligence officer on a fishing boat, listening in on public and private radio communications. He is happy at sea, happy to be alone, happy with his shipmates, happy not to be harassed by bullying officials, happy to listen to conversations between strangers who seem unafraid. At sea, he has a glimpse of freedom, and thus the first glimmer of doubt.

To relieve their loneliness, the fishermen have portraits of their wives tattooed onto their chests. Since Jun Do has no wife, or indeed anyone to care for, the captain offers to carve the image of a beautiful movie star over his heart. She is called Sun Moon, and she has acted as the revolutionary heroine in many patriotic films. Her real husband is another legendary figure built up as a national hero, a tae kwon do champion named Commander Ga who beat a Japanese rival on his home soil, successfully carried out assassinations in South Korea, and “purged the Army of all the homosexuals.” The movie star wife was his prize, despite the fact that the Great Leader wanted her for himself. He also got a sinecure as the minister of prison mines.

On a secret mission to the US, Jun Do acts as the translator for a North Korean government official. His doubts begin to grow. And with doubt comes a guilty conscience about the things he has done. He strikes up an acquaintance with an American intelligence agent called Wanda, and gives her the names of the Japanese women he has kidnapped before joining the fishing crew. Puzzled by this strange man, Wanda tries to figure out who he is. The tattoo on his chest leads her to believe that he is the famous Commander Ga in disguise.

Alas, the mission turns out badly. The Americans refuse to give the Koreans what they want. And so the secret delegates have to be punished. They disappear into the gulag, and this marks the end of the first half of the novel with the following words: “From this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do.”

Then something bizarre happens. Commander Ga, on an inspection tour of the prison mines, gets into a fight with an inmate we know to be Jun Do. The inmate kills him and manages to escape with the help of an old woman, who knows how to stay alive by secretly slitting the underbelly of an ox in the prison farm with a razor and sipping the blood. From now on the prisoner adopts the identity of Commander Ga, and his adventures are told in two different versions: his own confessions to a state interrogator after he is arrested and the official propaganda story broadcast through loudspeakers attached to the walls of every building in North Korea.

In the official version, the “Best North Korea Story” of the year, the real Commander Ga is on a secret mission abroad, and the impostor ends up being convicted of the murder of the commander’s movie star wife, Sun Moon, and their two children. In the confession, the fake Commander Ga tells an extraordinary tale of moving in with the movie star and her children in their lavish home in the hills outside Pyongyang. He falls in love with the woman whose tattooed image he has borne over his heart. Unfortunately, the Dear Leader still wants her back as his personal possession. But “Commander Ga” manages to save Sun Moon and her children by spiriting them onto an American plane that has landed on a mission to North Korea: an almost magical act inspired by the last scene of Casablanca, a film he brought back from America on DVD as a gift for Sun Moon. By saving them, he had to sacrifice himself, albeit with much graver consequences than those faced by Humphrey Bogart. It was the purest act of love.

The enigma of the fake Commander Ga and the mystery of Sun Moon’s disappearance mean a loss of face to the Dear Leader of almost existential proportions. For he has lost control. That the movie star and her children could have been saved without him realizing it would be an intolerable truth, so nobody can possibly believe it. It falls to an anonymous interrogator, a hollow man whose profession is to extract every biographical detail from people before electrocuting them to oblivion, to get to the bottom of “Commander Ga’s” story. But even under the worst torture, the commander appears at peace.

In a rather touching subplot, the hollow man becomes jealous of the commander and wants to find out the secret of his serenity. The interrogator has never known human closeness. His father and mother are too terrified to speak to him in anything but Party clichés. Since he is convinced that Commander Ga killed the people he professed to love, he concludes that this is the key to achieving intimacy, and he tenderly murders his parents.

It should be clear from this summary description of Johnson’s novel that we are not dealing with documentary evidence here; this is a fantasy, a fiction, a work of literary imagination. That the setting bears a strong resemblance to aspects of life in North Korea gives it an anchor in reality. And the cliché that fiction can cut to deeper truths than fact holds true of this novel too. It tells us something profound about the pathology of the totalitarian state. But if it were merely a fictionalized account of North Korea, a book about that terrible state, it would be less interesting than it is.

Even in the most open societies it is never easy to find intimacy with others, let alone face the truth about oneself. Citizens of the US or France or Japan are spared the particular horrors inflicted on the people of North Korea, but we too are bombarded with stories, fictions, lies, often in the service of commerce rather than politics. Western consumers are also told to mimic idols and heroes. Here too we have to struggle to “come to see the lies you told yourself.” What makes this extraordinary novel so chilling is that it is really about all of us.