Study Guide

Kim Jong Il (The Dear Leader) in The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson

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Kim Jong Il (The Dear Leader)

Caricature or Character?

There's no doubt that Adam Johnson was having a grand old time when he created the character of Kim Jong Il for his book. While this totalitarian leader had a terrifying grip on his country and the lives of his citizens, his personality had an equal amount of the ridiculous in it. His arrogance and vanity in particular make an appearance in The Orphan Master's Son.

We first see him in action when Imposter Ga meets him in his bunker: "... he heard the clacking of heels growing louder in the hall outside as guards saluted the approach of the Dear Leader... in stepped Kim Jong Il. He wore a gray jumpsuit and designer glasses that amplified the playfulness in his eyes" (225).

This less-than-terrifying portrait of the short despot (notice the clicking of heels) runs up against the account given over the loudspeakers, where the description of Kim Jong Il totally fits a more heroic mold: "Suddenly, there was a bright light. Emerging from this was the Dear Leader, so confident, so tall, striding toward Commander Ga, and Commander Ga felt all his earthly worries fall away as a sense of well-being overtook him" (224).

Somehow, the gray jumpsuit doesn't make it into that version. Despite the ridiculous juxtaposition of these descriptions, we're given a character that is fully rounded—if maybe a bit insane—rather than simply the version we might find in propaganda in North Korea and outside of it.

Johnson does this by inserting details about the things the Dear Leader likes or admires. In one very telling moment in the bunker, he stops to admire a very particular gift in his collection:" On the table was a mounted Siberian fox posed mid-pounce above a white vole, a gift from Constantine Dorosov, Mayor of Vladivostok. The Dear Leader looked as though he might admire the fur of the fox, but instead he stroked the vole, its teeth bared against the threat above" (226).

In this moment, we see a man who is truly convinced of his outlook on the world outside of North Korean borders—and it's not a rosy one. Throughout the work, it's clear that the Dear Leader's perception that external powers are looking to crush his country is rubbing off on his citizens.

A Lover, Not a Fighter?

It seems a little hilarious to imagine a little guy with a round belly who wears gray jumpsuits and high heels as a Romeo. But like his counterpart in real life, Johnson's Dear Leader loves the ladies. And he's big-time sweet on Sun Moon, whom he discovered as a starving young girl on a train many years ago.

His amorous attentions aren't limited to the moody actress, though. He's married, for one thing. And he's starting to have a bit of a crush on the American rower girl. He's so into her, in fact, that he tells Impostor Ga that he's hoping Stockholm syndrome is a real thing, because he'd really like to keep the American for himself. Um—you're hoping Stockholm syndrome will help you win the ladies?

Of course, there are other considerations in such a conquest: "'She's read every word I've written,' he said. 'That's the truest way to know the heart of another. Can you imagine it, Ga, if that syndrome is real, an American in love with me? Wouldn't that be the ultimate victory?'" (330).

In so many ways, a love affair with the American would gratify the Dear Leader's huge ego. But even more gratifying would be to win back his romantic standing with Sun Moon. His rivalry with the real Commander Ga had ended badly for the Dear Leader, with the loss of his main squeeze. With the coming of Impostor Ga, the Dear Leader does his best to woo her back with memories of the good old days:

"We'll play Iron Chef with the kitchen staff, and you'll help me open my fan mail. We'll ride in my train to no place in particular and spend all night in the karaoke car. Inventing new kinds of sushi rolls, don't you miss that?" (386)

Just when we begin to see Kim Jong Il as a person with feelings, he begins to sound like a K-Pop star. The idea of a despot singing karaoke in a train car with his mistress in his spare time makes this character as rounded as they come.

Sympathy for the Devil?

Ultimately, Johnson isn't really asking us to like Kim Jong Il or find him endearing or any such thing. He does, however, want us to see him as a three-dimensional character, one who has a definite personality, and one who can be touched by the actions of the characters around him.

Johnson takes the opportunity to give this tyrant a little taste of his own medicine. To get back at this man who is oblivious to the suffering of his own people, Impostor Ga decides it's time for the Dear Leader to be well and truly afflicted. And he zings him right in the heart, taking away Sun Moon, the one thing that the Dear Leader wants the most in the world.

When he's struck, the Dear Leader fares no better than the hordes of people he's destroyed in his time: "For a moment, the Dear Leader's gaze went completely blank, and Ga knew the expression well. This was the face that Ga had shown to 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" (437).

And the Dear Leader really doesn't get it. After a lifetime of ruining other peoples' lives, the Dear Leader has the audacity to confront the triumphant Impostor Ga with this: "'Who would make their way to me, who would throw away his own life, just to spoil mine?'" (438). One might ask, Dear Leader, the same thing of you.

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