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If there's one thing Jun Do doesn't want to be, it's an orphan. The trouble is—he's an orphan. What's the big deal? Well, orphans have a pretty low status in North Korea. They're considered bad luck, and they're often assigned the lowliest of low jobs. Nobody really wants them.
As a kid, Jun Do will do just about anything to avoid thinking of himself as parentless. He even "adopts" a father nobody else would want, and in order to justify this guy's awful treatment of him, he invents a story about the guy's disappointed love:
It could only mean that in Jun Do's face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy's shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel. (7-8)
We learn that the Orphan Master does more and worse to Jun Do, including starving him along with the other boys in the orphanage. Jun Do's quest to create a family at any cost is more than just an emotional safeguard: if he's an orphan, he's the most expendable member of his society. We know this because of what happens to the boys around him—and the life that Jun Do goes on to lead as an adult.
You might be repulsed as first by the behavior of the supposed hero of this book. Jun Do makes some very questionable moral decisions from the earliest moments of his life, including sending young boys to their deaths on dangerous work details. He also botches several kidnap attempts, resulting in death for innocent victims.
But it's clear from the beginning that Jun Do's just doing what he's told. We may not value that as a character trait, but in Jun Do's society, it's the key to survival. The state calls the shots, and the citizen responds—or else. It's for this reason also that Jun Do appears not to have much of a personality for the first part of the book.
His very name is a generic one given to orphans who have no one else to name them. Johnson plays on this lack of identity built into Jun Do's name when he has the Senator's maid comment on its similarity to "John Doe." The Senator's Wife chimes in, and in doing so, she makes a poignant observation that applies to Jun Do's lack of inner life:
"John Doe? Isn't that the name you give a missing person?"
"Actually," [the Senator's wife] said, "I don't think John Doe is a missing person. I think it's when you have the person, just not his identity." (140)
Jun Do's world expands as he works with the crew of the Junma, learns about the International Space Station, and meets actual Americans. In this process, he starts to see his country with new eyes and begins to diverge from the script of Model Citizen that has been written for him since his ill-fated birth.
It's not until he's actually standing in the hellish infirmary of Prison 33—with Mongnan telling him what he will need to do to survive the camp—that Jun Do realizes the depth of deception the state has practiced on him his whole life. His protest, as he steps onto the grounds of prison, tell us that his identity is about to change in a radical way: "'I was a model citizen,' he told them. 'I was a hero of the state...'" (175).
Jun Do might have gone the way of any other prisoner in the camp—succumbing to cold, starvation, insanity—except for the help of a few people: Mongnan, Sun Moon, and Commander Ga.
Mongnan recognizes Jun Do for what he really is: a vulnerable orphan. She teaches him everything he needs to know to survive and is the only one who offers him sympathy on his fatherless state after the grisly death of Jun Do's surrogate dad, the Captain.
The appearance of Commander Ga and his despicable behavior awakens outrage in Jun Do and brings him to action. Though he hasn't created a new script or identity for himself beforehand, the act of defending himself against an official representative of the state means that Jun Do is moving toward self-determination at any cost.
His ability to step into Commander Ga's shoes—literally—shows that he's more than ready to take on a new identity, even if it isn't his, in the hope of a better life. We see this most strongly as he drives away from the prison camp and finds his entrance picture among the pile of Mongnan's notes. He already doesn't recognize his old self:
But the eyes—it's unmistakable how wide they are yet refusing to see what is before them. Such a boy he seems, as if he's still back in an orphanage, believing that all is well and that the fate which befalls all the orphan boys won't befall him. The chalk name on the slate he held seemed so foreign. Here was the only photo of that person, the person he used to be. He tore it slowly into strips before letting them flutter out the window. (210)
By the time he gets to Sun Moon, Jun Do knows what he wants out of life. He wants to have the love of the woman whose beauty sustained him in the prison camp, whose image is etched forever on his heart. He doesn't want to be a vulnerable orphan at the mercy of the state. As he tells Sun Moon, he's about to be the best thing that ever happened to her: "I'm the good husband. I'm the one who's going to make everything up to you" (216).
In the end, things don't work out the way that Jun Do/Commander Ga would like. But he does derive immense satisfaction from the fact that one big thing does go his way. With the defection of Sun Moon, he gets to take a swipe at the Dear Leader, who has made the lives of 23 million North Koreans total misery:
On the Dear Leader's face was a look of disbelief. His eyes roamed over all the options, all the impossible things that might have happened to Sun Moon. For a moment, the Dear Leader's gaze went completely blank, and Ga knew that expression well. This was the face that Ga had shown the world, that of a boy who had swallowed the things that had happened to him, but who wouldn't understand what they meant for a long, long time. (436-437)
And that's it, right there. Jun Do/Commander Ga has one moment when he's able to get through to the Dear Leader and convey the pain of a lifetime. From there, he's carted off to Division 42, where he encounters the lost Interrogator and the Pubyok. It seems that this little, tiny moment of freedom will have to be enough for Jun Do, because we learn that the "real" story of what happened on that tarmac is never gonna see the light of day.
Despite his relative triumph, Jun Do doesn't get his happily-ever-after: that's not really a script that's available in North Korea. Instead, he gets re-scripted again. This time, he becomes fodder for the Propaganda guys, who scratch away at the truth until they find a story that will suit the state.
By creating a fantastical and heroic death scene, the Propaganda guys are able to save the reputation of Commander Ga—who will become yet another hero in the Martyrs' Cemetery—and the cherished memory of the beautiful Sun Moon.
In this narrative, the Dear Leader is never fooled. He never gets his comeuppance. And Jun Do simply doesn't exist. This, we are told, "...is how an average man becomes a hero, a martyr, an inspiration to all"—that is, by giving up everything for use by the state.
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