Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son Introduction

The Orphan Master's Son is a fictional book about North Korea, but where North Korea is concerned, it's hard to separate fact from fiction in the first place. If we didn't already know that North Korea was a crazy, messed-up place, we'd almost think this was some scary, dystopian sci-fi novel set on another planet.

Yeah, welcome to the DPRK. That's the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name for itself. As you may have guessed, there's not much that's democratic about it, nor is it really a republic, nor does it really belong to people, so… nice try there, we guess.

We know North Korea as a society hidden from the eyes of the world and ruled by the crazy, brutal ideologies of the totalitarian Kim regime. It's a place where only the agenda and desires of the state matter; there's no room for individuality or self-determination. Propaganda blares from loudspeakers installed in every household, and citizens whose lives don't conform to the official script find themselves in very hot water.

(Or, if you've seen Team America, in a pool of sharks, but we digress.)

Author Adam Johnson has said that he was captivated by North Korea and its stories because he felt that the DPRK must be "...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" (source).

Johnson's own visit to North Korea—though strictly monitored—and his years of research and reflection on life under the totalitarian Kim regime reinforced his ideas about how hard it must be to live as a North Korean citizen, and this became the driving idea behind this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (source).

Johnson gives life to the individual narratives that must exist in North Korea but can never be realized or even acknowledged under the oppressive regime. He chooses an orphan, Pak Jun Do, as his point of entry into this tightly controlled society. It's through this character that we get a sense of what life might be for a citizen who does his best to conform to official expectations—but who still suffers from the whims of an egomaniacal leader.

Jun Do's growing awareness of the world outside of North Korea complicates his understanding of his own government and makes it difficult for him to ignore the fact that he and his countrymen are living half-lives: they don't have ambitions, they don't have a sense of what they truly desire, and they don't know what it means to be free. Jun Do's encounter with the beautiful national actress Sun Moon awakens in him a sense of purpose and a desire to fight against Crazy Kim—that's Kim Jong Il, of course—who wants to control every detail of his subjects' existence, including their identities.

Johnson doesn't shy away from showing us the suffering that's part and parcel of Jun Do's life. We're talking starvation, torture, loneliness, imprisonment, betrayal, and the pain of witnessing brutality in every aspect of existence. Because we care about Jun Do and others, we're compelled to keep reading, despite the difficulties these characters face. By using fiction to show us what reality is like for 24 million North Koreans, Johnson coaxes us into experiencing, in a way, what no one would ever willingly want to endure.

What is The Orphan Master's Son About and Why Should I Care?

While we at Shmoop were busy Shmoopsplaining The Orphan Master's Son for you, a bunch of fantastic news stories have surfaced concerning North Korea. We've recently learned that North Korean scientists have discovered the cure for AIDS and Ebola (LOL, btw); that North Korea is continuing to build long-range weaponry; and—worst of all—that North Korea has banned the use of Instagram.

Clearly, the world is waking up even more to the bizarre and desperate place created by Kim Il Sung and his successors.

We know, too, that the outlandish cruelty of the Kim regime continues in spectacular fashion under Kim Jong-un, son of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. We're told this new head honcho actually executed his own uncle (and possibly this uncle's family members) for being a traitor.

If these headlines make North Korea sound like a bad sci-fi flick, it's not without reason. The centralized government scripts just about every aspect of life within its borders.

…Except for the things it can't script, that is. We're now getting a steady flow of stories from people who've defected from North Korea—some of whom were born in the notorious though poorly documented prison camps. We've learned with certainty that it's a place where human rights abuses abound and where most citizens lack access to basics like clean water, sufficient food, and electricity. The people of North Korea have died by the millions for want of these things.

Yet we still know so little about what it means to be a citizen of North Korea. While more and more foreigners are being allowed to visit (hey, the country needs $$$), they are strictly watched by official representatives and are not allowed to speak openly to average citizens. Books like The Orphan Master's Son give us a sense of what we might learn if we keep North Korea on our radar (a technology North Korea perhaps actually has… but don't quote us on that).

The Orphan Master's Son Resources

Websites

Words without Borders
This special edition of the e-zine offers a compilation of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry written by North Korean defectors.

DPRK, in Its Own Words
This website is the official face of North Korea. You'll find official information on political philosophies, customs, and cultural trivia here. Poke around and see how much the info matches Johnson's vision of the country.

Movie or TV Productions

Sun Moon's Casablanca?
If Sun Moon really existed and kept her promise after coming to America, she might have had a part in this film, which explores the stories of North Korean defectors.

Articles and Interviews

North Korea as Sci-Fi?
Here's a Paris Review interview with Adam Johnson about the research and writing of The Orphan Master's Son.

Propaganda Made Him Do It
When Electric Literature spoke with Adam Johnson about his interest in North Korea and propaganda, his initial response was quite surprising. Hint: it had to do with Bush's 2004 reelection.

That's Entertainment
This American Life's got a story about a South Korean movie star and her producer ex-husband who were kidnapped by Kim Jong Il's government—so that they could make better movies for North Korea.

Daniel Craig Saves North Korea?
It's not likely that even the suave James Bond could do much to change Kim Jong-un's totalitarian grip on the country, but some believe that the infiltration of Western pop culture may help North Koreans see what the quality of life is like in the outside world.

North Korean Soldier Walks to Freedom
It's rare enough, but it actually happened during the writing of this page. A daring defection directly from North Korea into South Korea—no usual trip through China required.

Video

North Korea, Undercover
Frontline uses undercover footage to check out how things are developing under North Korea's newest leader, Kim Jong-un.

Audio

An Experience of a Lifetime
This NPR interview with Adam Johnson addresses the author's experiences while visiting North Korea and poses the obvious question: why should we want to escape into a book about the darkness of a totalitarian government?

Images

After the Death of the Dear Leader
This interview with Adam Johnson took place one month after the death of Kim Jong Il. You'll learn more about what the author saw in North Korea and how he approached the development of Jun Do's character.

Days in the Life
We're not 100% sure how The Telegraph got its hands on these pics, but they do give a unique look into the world of Kim Jong-un, current leader of North Korea.

Inside a Closed Society
Check out the photo galleries titled "The Cult of Kim" and "North Korea" at David Guttenfelder's website. Guttenfelder is a National Geographic Fellow who helped the Associated Press open a bureau in North Korea in 2011, the first outside news agency allowed to set up shop there. The images here have no explanatory text, but they're still fascinating.