Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Setting

By Adam Johnson

Setting

North Korea, Various Locations

The Orphan Master's Son focuses on Kim Jong Il's North Korea, a place equal to the finest sci-fi dystopias. It's a society that promotes a Stalinist interpretation of communism, an interpretation that breeds all kinds of corruption and social ills. The filth, poverty, and hunger that haunt Jun Do's world create the despair and desperation that motivate the behaviors of most of the characters, including Jun Do, who will comply with almost anything to survive.

While Pyongyang seems like a glittering jewel of a city to those who live in the more impoverished provinces, there is an underlying grubbiness and desperation even in the capital itself. The glamor of showplaces like the zoo and the Martyrs' Cemetery are undercut by the presence of starving families who scavenge for anything edible, and even the largest and most sophisticated government buildings use outdated technologies and suffer from daily power outages.

North Korea is also a place of thriving black markets, abandoned factories, and "ghost houses" that once gave shelter to families destroyed by the misery of life in a totalitarian state. There are gulags that take up large amounts of land and imprison generations of families, sometimes just because an ancestor committed a petty crime—or maybe none at all.

This country is the playground of the Dear Leader, who creates what looks like a supervillain's secret lair under the streets of Pyongyang. He travels through the famine-stricken countryside in his luxury train, oblivious to the suffering of his own people traveling just one track away in dilapidated cattle cars.

There's a kind of weird, crazy hilarity to this place, where, for example, the fear of hunger compels citizens to pasture goats on rooftops in the Big City, who just might rain down on your car if they accidentally step over the edge of the building. Yet despite the Dear Leader's zaniness, and despite Adam Johnson's delightful black humor, we aren't allowed to forget that this is a world built by conspiracy theories, delusions of grandeur, and a terrible, deep-seated poverty that destroys both body and spirit.