Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Quotes

  • Versions of Reality

    Part 1, Pages 7-20

    The key to fighting in the dark was no different: you had to perceive your opponent, sense him, and never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you. (15)

    Jun Do's entire existence is based entirely on storytelling ("I'm not an orphan, I'm not an orphan"), so it's interesting that he feels this strongly about dealing with reality in the darkness. There's something way more dangerous about making stuff up in the dark—it distracts you from the probability that something very nasty is right around the corner waiting to take you out. In the daylight world, however, Jun Do's take on things is quite different: the metaphorical darkness enveloping his life in North Korea is too hard to look at straight on.

    It was dangerous to dream up people like that. If you did, they'd soon be in the tunnel with you. That happened many times when he remembered boys from Long Tomorrows. One slip and a boy was suddenly following you in the dark. He was saying things to you, asking you why you weren't the one who succumbed to the cold, why you weren't the one who fell in the paint vat... (18)

    Jun Do survives the horror of his situation in life by staying focused on the task before him—in this case, navigating the darkness of the tunnels—and not allowing his mind and conscience to wander back over his past unsavory deeds. In doing so, he's treading a fine line between creating a new (but selective) narrative for himself and acknowledging the truth of a miserably painful past. This "tunnel vision"—pun totally intended—keeps Jun Do from being emotionally paralyzed by the necessary moral depravity that marks his early life.

    Part 1, Pages 34-62

    She'd had a vision that humans would one day return to the oceans, growing flippers and blowholes, that humanity would become one again in the oceans, and there'd be no intolerance or war. (54)

    The American rower (night shift) is really starting to go off the deep end as she moves through the dark waters. Jun Do hears her alternative version of the future and realizes that she's been closing her eyes to the darkness, letting her imagination run wild rather than grappling with the landscape around her. As he theorizes earlier, her inability to fully engage with the present task has allowed her mind to give life to all kinds of irrelevant and dangerous weirdness.

    Part 1, Pages 75-90

    The Second Mate reached up and untied the rope himself. He pushed off. Floating free, he said, "We're the ones at the bottom of the ocean. You helped me see that." (80)

    The Second Mate has decided to defect because his exposure to the concept of the International Space Station (a project based on peace and brotherhood) undermines his perception of a hostile and depraved world bent on the destruction of North Korea. The propaganda of his homeland doesn't cut it anymore, and he certainly can't bear to suffer for an ideology that has no basis in reality.

    Part 2, Pages 194-208

    "Duc Dan's retired," he said. "You all went to his going-away party. He moved to the beach in Wonsan. He's not in jail, that's a lie that he's in jail. He's painting seashells right now. You all saw the brochure he had." (202)

    If you've read The Giver, this scenario may seem all too familiar: Duc Dan, a former member of the Pubyok, is not living it up on the seashore. There's no alternative utopian retirement society to which he's been "released." Rather, he's died a miserable death in the grim infirmary of Prison 33, from which Jun Do/Imposter Ga escaped. But his former colleagues can't bear the burden of the fate that will surely await them, to—so they spin a different end for their friend.

    Part 2, Pages 251-271

    "This is what hunger must feel like," she said, "this hollowness inside. This is what people must feel in Africa, where they have nothing to eat." (259)

    Jun Do/Imposter Ga has just made it up to Pyongyang after a nasty stint in a prison camp, so Sun Moon's perception of hunger as something that happens in other places really sets him on edge. In reality, Sun Moon knows all too well what it means to starve. Her denial that such things happen in North Korea insulates her from her own reality and helps her tell a different story about her life.

    The Dear Leader folded the cloth and gave it to Ga for his nose. Then he lifted Ga's arm. "And here is the real Commander Ga. He has beaten Kimura, and now he will defeat the Americans." (258)

    When Kim Jong Il designates Jun Do the new real Commander Ga, it's like we've entered an alternate universe. It's a place where the supreme leader can bend the rules of identity and personal will to create and un-create people on the spot—it's like Freaky Friday, but the stakes are actually high and real. As Jun Do learns, in North Korea, it's the story that's important—not the individual.

    Part 2, Pages 293-305

    Here were the names of all the boys he'd known, and looking at their busts, it seemed as though they'd made it to adulthood—here they had mustaches and strong jaws and broad shoulders... It was as if, instead of starving at nine or falling to factory accidents at eleven, they'd all lived into their twenties and thirties like normal men. (294)

    When Jun Do/Imposter Ga walks through the Martyrs' Cemetery, it's like entering a parallel universe. In that new dimension, all the desperate things he did to protect himself (like sending other children to untimely deaths) have no real consequences. It's a dream world, but it also highlights the horror of a past that has to be suppressed in order for Jun Do to face the reality of his present life.

    Part 2, Pages 366-387

    "Soon, I'll be able to fold up another one of Su-Kee's dresses and put it away. That's how I mark our life. When I'm old, it's what I hope to leave behind—a chain of unworn white dresses." (375)

    Comrade Buc's wife is living a life of unspeakable psychological pain, knowing that at any moment a "crow" can come and cart her family off to a prison camp. She and her husband are determined to end it all—for themselves and their children—before any such thing can happen. Her dignity and self-control in the face of such existential stress is symbolized by those white suicide dresses she makes for her daughters. The fact that she marks time by how many the children have outgrown—that's how many times they've cheated death—makes us feel like we've entered alternative universe.

    Part 2, Pages 407-417

    Soon I would be in a rural village, green and peaceful, where people swung their scythes in silence. There would be a widow there, and we would waste no time on courtship. I would approach her and tell her I was her new husband. (412)

    The Interrogator appears at first to have no personal identity (hence the lack of name), but he does have a very specific vision for his fantasy life. It's a world that he can only reach through self-inflicted torture, but it's clear that the peace of a normal life can't be his any other way. His vision of Eden is not only green and peaceful; it also includes a person with whom he can connect and who will live for him.

    Part 2, Pages 417-438

    Ga thought about reminding the Dear Leader that they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them. He considered sharing how there was only one penalty, the ultimate one, for questioning reality, how a citizen could fall into great jeopardy for simply noticing that realities had changed. (418)

    Imposter Ga can't help but reflect on the irony of this situation—that Kim Jong Il, the ultimate storyteller and bender of reality, wants to get at the truth of how the former Jun Do broke out of prison. The Dear Leader seems unaware that his policy of privileging a good story over truth has ruined his chances of ever learning what really happened down in that prison mine.

    Part 2, Pages 439-443

    Dipping his finger in a bloody wound, Commander Ga wrote inspirational slogans on the plane's windows, and to give Sun Moon some measure of resolve, he wrote in red, backward, a reminder of the Dear Leader's eternal love for her, nay, of his love for every citizen of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea! (442)

    Jun Do/Imposter Ga's narrative line ends several times, but none so dramatically as in this version cooked up by the guys from Propaganda. This story solidly illustrates what the Captain observed earlier in the work: the state needs stories it can use, no matter how unbelievable. Commander Ga as hero and martyr in the fight against American aggressors is far more usable than an impostor who one-upped the Dear Leader and took his fate into his own hands.

  • Suffering

    Part 1, Pages 7-20

    The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do's mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. 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)

    Jun Do's perception of relationships highlights the misery in the world around him. He tells himself stories to account for his undeserved suffering, giving the senseless pain he feels a logical source. The denial of his orphanhood is ultimately a rejection of the needless anguish caused by a ruthless state.

    Part 1, Pages 62-75

    The Second Mate closed his eyes for a moment. He removed his shoes and now he had none. The look in his eyes said that the wrongest thing that had ever happened was happening right now. And then the shoes slipped from his hand and into the water. He pretended to look at that horizon so that no one would see his face. (64)

    The Second Mate and all the crew are victims of a communist state gone wild, in which citizens go without basic necessities and human dignity is of little consequence. Losing the swank new Nikes isn't just disappointing to the Second Mate. It also sparks some total existential angst: how will he survive if he can't even protect his feet?

    Part 1, Pages 144-155

    "When a tunnel would collapse, in a mine, we'd have to go dig men out. Their eyeballs would be flat and caked. And their mouths—they were always wide open and filled with dirt. That's what you couldn't stand to look at, a throat packed like that, the tongue grubbed and brown. It was our greatest fear, ending up with everyone standing around in a circle, staring at the panic of your last moment." (155)

    Jun Do's description of his tunnel-warfare fears not only illustrates his fear of a miserably painful end; it also speaks to the need for human dignity and the desire for self-determination. Jun Do doesn't want to wind up a spectacle or a cautionary tale. He doesn't want the horror of being suffocated by dirt. He also makes it clear that it's not only the victim of such a thing who suffers; those who witness it are scarred, too, in a different way.

    Part 2, Pages 179-193

    He did as he was told and soon he was chewing a wad of them—their furry abdomens drying in his mouth, despite the goop that burst from them and a sharp aspirin taste from some chemical on their wings. His stomach hadn't been filled since Texas. (192)

    Jun Do may not appreciate Mongnan's recipe for survival in the prison camp, but it's effective. We'd like to point out that it's not just the taste of furry, bitter moths in the mouth that constitutes cruel an unusual punishment. It's also the fact that Jun Do derives satisfaction from eating them because he's starving so hard.

    Part 2, Pages 194-208

    On his forehead and scalp were pressure marks from the screws to the halo, a device that kept a subject from injuring his neck during the cranial administration of electricity. (203)

    Despite all the different forms of torture that Jun Do/Imposter Ga endures throughout his adventures, he still has to suffer through some pretty classic torture sessions at the hands of the Pubyok. In this scene, the report of his torments is kind of ho-hum: all we get is a description of the contact marks from the equipment. It's left to our imaginations to fill in the blanks concerning the "cranial administration of electricity." That's a very clean term for a pretty nasty physical reality.

    Part 2, Pages 209-232

    But did she think the pain in her movies was pretend, did she think the portrayal of national suffering was fiction? Did she think she could be the face of Korea that has been dealt a thousand years of blows without losing a husband or two? (220)

    As the voice on the loudspeaker narrates the story of the new Commander Ga moving into Sun Moon's life, we can't help but note the authorial voice ringing through at this moment. It becomes clear, later in the book, that Sun Moon knows a lot about suffering, national and otherwise. This is also a good opportunity for Johnson to use this national voice to poke fun at the state for co-opting the suffering of its people.

    In pain school, they'd taught him to find his reserve, a private place he could go in unbearable moments. A pain reserve was like a real reserve—you put a fence around it, attended to its welfare, kept it pristine, and dealt with all trespassers. Nobody could ever know what your pain reserve was... because if you lost your pain reserve, you'd lost everything. (209)

    We know what you're thinking: there's a school for that? Jun Do's pain training marks him out as someone extraordinary—and also as a person who will suffer a lot during his lifetime. The "reserve" is something more sacred than the popular "happy place." It's often so well defended that even the warden or ranger of the reserve can be surprised at what he finds in the deepest recesses of this private place. The pain reserve becomes the ultimate denial of external reality, allowing the sufferer to dissociate completely with the horrible things happening to his or her physical body.

    Part 2, Pages 272-292

    "And your acting shows people that good can come from suffering, that it can be noble. That's better than the truth." "Which is?" "That there's no point to it. It's just a thing that sometimes has to be done and even if thirty thousand suffer with you, you suffer alone." (285)

    Jun Do reassures Sun Moon that her life's work is valuable—even if it's valuable because it reveals a miserable truth. His nihilism in the face of suffering tells us that he's had great experience in this area and that he finds no value in it at all. There's nothing redemptive or useful in it for Jun Do, and it's certainly not a comfort for him to know that other people have also lived in misery. In a place where a denial of reality is standard practice, this is Jun Do keeping it real, on a high level.

    Part 2, Pages 293-305

    "Why wasn't it Gil?" he asked her. He was weeping uncontrollably. "The Second Mate I could understand. Even Officer So. Not the Captain. He followed every rule, why him? Why not me? I have nothing, nothing at all. Why should he go to prison twice?" (296)

    It's not often that Jun Do rails against the universe for bad things happening. As one who is used to suffering, he mostly just accepts it. The loss of the Captain is a moment of awakening for him—it's when he finally understands that playing by the rules means nothing in a society built on cruelty.

    Part 2, Pages 366-387

    Slowly, the car backed out, and as the tires shifted from grass to gravel, he heard the grab of the road and knew that the ultimate had been taken from him. The Orphan Master had bent his fingers back and removed food from his very hand... (373).

    Jun Do/Imposter Ga watches as Sun Moon rides away to the Dear Leader's side. He assumes that she is being taken as a squeeze for Kim Jong Il, and feels real pain at this. But it's an old wound, one that's deprived him of the most basic needs for survival. The seeming loss of Sun Moon teaches him that there is more to life than simply surviving.

    It's also important to note the nifty overlapping of identities that happens here between the Orphan Master (the man who regulated Jun Do's early life) and Kim Jong Il (figured as a father to all orphans and yet a totalitarian head of state). With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    They had only their teeth to start the cut, their nails to peel back a flap, and their little biceps to rip the branch clean. Normally, a sight like this would reassure him, make him feel comfortable. But Jun Do had seen no living boy so sinewy, and they moved faster than the Long Tomorrows orphans ever had. (170)

    Jun Do had seen some pretty serious suffering in his early years, but his journey north to the Prison Camp 33 reveals a whole new level of misery to him. It's as though he's entered an alien landscape in which the children aren't really human, as though their own hunger, neediness and despair has lifted them outside human experience and transformed their bodies. It's telling that the normally stoic Jun Do is disturbed by the sight of these boys outside the gates of the camp.

  • Politics

    Part 1, Pages 7-20

    Then Officer So said, "In my time, we had a whole division, a budget. I'm talking about a speedboat, a tranquilizing gun. We'd surveil, infiltrate, cherry-pick. We didn't pluck family types, and we never took children. I retired with a perfect record..." (12)

    It's not unusual for the old guard to complain about how great things were back in the day, but the fact that Officer So is going on about the good old days when state kidnapping was properly funded should make you giggle just a bit. It's okay: Johnson inserts this kind of dark humor throughout the text. Note that Officer So laments the loss of a kidnapper's code of conduct. Apparently, even villains should have their limits.

    ... the orphans were used to welcome ferry-loads of Koreans who had been lured back from Japan with promises of Party jobs and apartments in Pyongyang. The orphans would wave welcome banners and sing Party songs so that the Japanese Koreans would descend the gangway, despite the horrible state of Chongjin and the crows that were waiting to transport them all to kwan li so labor camps. (9-10)

    One sinister side of North Korea's foreign policy is revealed in this small memory from Jun Do's past. This memory speaks of a state unashamed to engage in revenge politics, rather than create a state that will allow its citizens to thrive. Jun Do's memory of these unfortunate dissidents is sparked by Officer So handing him a bag of brand-new, brand-name clothing to wear as they embark on their kidnapping jag—just the kind of clothes worn by the prosperous immigrants. Perhaps this should have been a warning sign for Jun Do.

    Part 1, Pages 34-62

    The Second Mate answered the Captain, though he didn't unlock eyes with the sailor. "You can't go around the world doing whatever you want. There are rules and the rules have to be followed. You can't just up and steal people's hats." (61)

    The Second Mate's reaction to the American sailors pilfering things from their boat reflects a standard complaint about the U.S.'s sense of entitlement, which comes from political and military power. For the Second Mate, it's all about the Captain's hat, which seems like a trivial thing. But for many, the U.S.'s seemingly unrestrained intervention around the globe is a much graver issue. Johnson calls special attention to this reputation by putting these highly charged words into the mouth of a North Korean sailor.

    Part 1, Pages 75-90

    "They're supposed to be our enemies, but they're up their laughing and screwing around." He lowered the directional and looked at Jun Do. "You were wrong," he said. "You were wrong—they are doing it for peace and fucking brotherhood." (79)

    The Second Mate is profoundly affected by this change to his worldview. Up till now, he has only seen the world as a place hostile to North Korea. The concept of the International Space Station—with it's emphasis on international cooperation and peaceful gathering of knowledge—suddenly makes his life in North Korea unbearable, since it's based on a lie. It turns out that the world might be a pretty wonderful place, and he's not getting to participate in any of it.

    "People don't mean anything to them," Jun Do said. "That's right," the Captain said. "They only care about the story we're going to tell, and that story will be useful to them or it won't. When they ask you what happened to our flag and portraits, what story are you going to tell them?" (63)

    Both Jun Do and the Captain understand the motivation of the state: that state is only interested in what will keep the political machine running. People are certainly expendable, but if they can provide something for the Propaganda guys to churn out over the loudspeakers, they have a certain value. Now Jun Do and the crew must determine the proper spin to their story so that they will be allowed to live.

    "Voter turnout in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is ninety-nine percent—the most democratic nation in the world! Still, the United States needn't feel shame. You country can still be a beacon for countries with lower turnout, like Burundi, Paraguay, and Chechnya." (129)

    Um, well, it's hard to be a democratic nation when you only have one person on the ballot, but nice try? Anyway, although this observation by Dr. Song is meant to highlight the twisted political logic that allows a dictator to remain in power while claiming democratic behavior, it's also a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the low voter turnout in the U.S.

    This regime will come to an end, she said. I have studied every angle, and it cannot last. One day all the guards will run away—they'll head that way, for the border. There will be disbelief, then confusion, then chaos, and finally a vacuum. You must have a plan ready. Act before the vacuum is filled. (201)

    Mongnan makes a hope-filled prediction for Jun Do in order to prepare him for the future. Jun Do ultimately interprets her admonition to "have a plan" to mean that he should have an exit strategy (like Comrade Buc's) for when things under the current regime become unbearable.

    We were told there were whole lobotomy collectives where former subversives now knew nothing but good-natured labor for the benefit of all. But the truth proved far different. I went with Sarge once...to interrogate a guard at one of these collectives, and we discovered no model labor farm... (316)

    The Interrogator reflects on the moment when he realized that his "good work"—performing lobotomies on those brought into Division 42—was really just malicious wounding. He understands too well that the stories told by the state to motivate its workers amount to little more than outright lies. It's ironic, however, that the Interrogator himself has redefined his own work description to make himself believe that he's engaging in something nobler than torture.

    They continue lockstep in this way, the self and the state, coming closer to one another until finally the pencil and the eraser are almost one, moving in sympathy, the line disappearing even as it's laid down, the words unwritten before the letters are formed, and finally there is only white. (317)

    The Interrogator describes the autopilot, an electrical torture device that synchs the delivery of electrical impulses to the subject's brainwaves. The goal is to erase the problematic identity of the prisoner and release him or her back to the state as a compliant citizen. The Interrogator has great admiration for this technique, calling it a "beautiful dance," since the unique electrical signature of a thinking mind is subdued to the will of the state.

    I sat with the average citizens, and on all their bodies, I couldn't help but see "Property of" in raised pink letters. The mark was on everyone, only now could I finally see it. It was the ultimate perversion of the communist dream I'd been taught since childhood. (401)

    The Interrogator's interactions with Imposter Ga have helped him lose his delusions about the state and cause a catastrophic break in his current life. Once he learns that the Dear Leader intends to use the huge branding iron to end Ga's life publicly, he finally gets it: all individual lives are owned by the state. There is no right to self-determination or to individual identity. Again, this is Johnson reinforcing the concept that usable story is what matters—not the person. The Interrogator realizes that his idealizing of his work and the purpose of a communist society have led him to the worst kind of dystopian nightmare.

  • Family

    Part 1, Pages 7-20

    Since beautiful women in the provinces get shipped to Pyongyang, that's certainly what had happened to his mother. The real proof of this was the Orphan Master himself. At night, he'd drink, and from the barracks, the orphans would hear him weeping and lamenting, striking half-heard bargains with the woman in the photograph. (7)

    In his desperate quest to avoid orphanhood, Jun Do pieces together a likely story about his family. This results, for him, in a twisted version of what familial love is: true suffering, loss and tragedy. He imagines that the cruelty shown to him by the Orphan Master proves the fact that the Orphan Master is actually his dad, because only a man truly suffering from the loss of his only love could hate a child so much. That's how Jun Do sees it, anyway.

    Part 1, Pages 75-90

    "It's because no one ever taught you about family and sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to protect your own." The Captain's eyes were open and calm and so close to Jun Do's that it felt they were communicating in some pure, wordless way. The hand on the back of his neck was solid, and Jun Do found himself nodding. (83)

    While the Captain is surely manipulating Jun Do to save his own skin, there is something appealing in his explanation here that Jun Do does not want to resist. This explanation plays well with Jun Do's understanding that family members exist to sacrifice themselves for each other—and that the willingness to suffer is an innate part of belonging to a group.

    Part 1, Pages 144-155

    Was this what family was, how it grew—straight as the children's teeth? Sure there was an arm in a sling and over time the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, from start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons, without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter. (147)

    Jun Do's first encounter with American-style families challenges his understanding of what families look like and how they operate. The pictures in the Senator's house tell Jun Do that children are not meant to suffer and starve—and that the only people who disappear over time are members of the older generation. In this reality, bad stuff happening is rare and a real tragedy—not the stuff of daily life.

    Part 2, Pages 272-292

    There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us, we are family... [My father] told me that there was a path set out for us. On it we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way. Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands. (275)

    Interrogator 6 reflects back on "the talk" given to him by his own father—but it's not the kind of talk you would expect. Living in a communist dictatorship surely reshapes the way families interact with one another, and this guy's father wants him to know that saving your skin by denouncing a family member doesn't mean you don't love each other. It's a horrifying reality—and a traumatic memory for the Interrogator—but one that is blindly accepted by many of the characters.

    Part 2, Pages 293-305

    The bust and the man faced one another but bore no resemblance. He hadn't known what he'd feel when he finally faced this martyr, but Ga's only thought was, I'm not you. I'm my own man. (294)

    Jun Do (acting as Commander Ga here) faces his namesake martyr. His encounter with Pak Jun Do's memorial bust in the cemetery is as close as he will ever come to meeting an ancestor, and yet he understands that there is very little affinity between himself and the man for whom he is named.

    "My poor little orphan," she said. "An orphan's father is twice as important. Orphans are the only ones who get to choose their fathers, and they love them twice as much." (298)

    Mongnan is the first character to treat Jun Do in a really motherly way, and this has the effect of disarming Jun Do: it's the first time he quits denying the fact that he is an orphan. Mongnan points out that the Captain, whom Jun Do has just killed with a stone to spare him further pain, was a father figure to Jun Do. She is right about this: the Captain may have used Jun Do, but he also took a genuine interest in the young man's development. The horrendous Orphan Master aside, the Captain is the best version of a dad that Jun Do had.

    Part 2, Pages 366-387

    ... and Ga watched how the candlelight played on their faces, how Sun Moon's eyes lowered with delight, how the children relished their mother's attention, and how they kept trying to outdo one another for it, and how, as a family, they turned that melon to rind, saving the seeds in a small wooden bowl... (369)

    This is a true Kodak moment for Jun Do/Imposter Ga and Sun Moon, a glimpse into what family might be like in less hostile circumstances. But it is a fleeting glimpse, since some serious stuff is about to go down and ruin their chances for a lifetime of familial happiness. This moment later makes Jun Do realize that if things had been different—had he and Sun Moon not been born into a dictatorial state—he might have enjoyed such happiness every day of his life.

    Part 2, Pages 407-417

    The boy's voice was clear and trusting, the girl's was graveled with growing awareness. Combined with Sun Moon's longing, a harmony arose that was nourishing to Ga. No other family in the world could create such a sound and here he was, in the glow of it. (417)

    Jun Do/Imposter Ga has found his family at last—though it is ironic that he had to kill to get to it. His sense that this family is unique is a sure sign that he's gone head over heels for them and that he will be willing to do anything to preserve them. Note that Ga/Jun Do is basking in the "glow" of his adopted family's harmony—a term that is also used to describe one of Jun Do's best pain management techniques. This family moment is the type of thing that will reinforce that "pain reserve" that will help him endure his fate.

    He did catch the Okinawan families making appeals to fathers listening on their ships, but it was hard to feel too bad for kids who had mothers and siblings. Plus the 'adopt us' good cheer was enough to make a person sick. When the Russian families broadcast nothing but good cheer for their inmate fathers, it was to give the men strength. But trying to plead a parent into returning? Who would fall for that? (54)

    Here we get a deeper understanding of Jun Do's concept of family. As he scans the radio waves while on the Junma, he catches glimpses of how other families work—and it perplexes him. Children, he thinks, ought to be of service to their families, and not the other way around. There's a sense that weakness—even the natural frailty of infancy and childhood—is something to be hated and shunned.

    ... I realized that I wasn't composing for posterity or the Dear Leader or for the good of the citizenry. No, the people who needed to hear my story were the people I loved, the people right in front of me who'd started to think of me as a stranger, who were scared of me because they no longer knew the real me. (405)

    The Interrogator is having a serious identity crisis, partly because he can't find a way to tell his life's story, and partly because he feels that his parents know him only as an agent of the state and not as a person. No matter how hard he tries to break through his parents' official patter, the Interrogator can't have a "real" conversation—a true heart-to-heart—with his mom and dad. It's terrifying for him to think that his life story will not matter to anyone else and will die with him.

  • Truth

    Part 1, Pages 7-20

    There was a Japanese man. He took his dog for a walk. And then he was nowhere. For the people who knew him, he'd forever be nowhere. (18)

    Jun Do is obsessed with following the narrative line to its very end. He's tormented by the fact that he doesn't know what happened to his mother—he doesn't even know her name—and he's in awe of the American system, which allows names and phone numbers to be published. While he can be morally flexible in many instances, he's haunted by the fact he disrupted so many life stories in his kidnapping career. It's no wonder that one of his first actions in the U.S. is to tell Wanda the names of all those he helped kidnap. Jun Do feels that the families need to know how the story really ended.

    Part 1, Pages 34-62

    Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn't matter what they were about. It didn't matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted attention from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. (51)

    The Captain has just told Jun Do and crew about the squid attack on the Russian penal vessel that claimed the life of one of his young mates. It's a brief but emotional tale, and Jun Do is excited to hear a true, real story for a change. The story expands his world in terrifying ways and gives him an emotional education. That's also why this kind of sharing is dangerous to the state: real experience trumps propaganda.

    Part 1, Pages 75-90

    There was that wild light in his eyes. "And then one of us," he said, "without regard for his own safety, jumped into the shark-filled sea to save the Second Mate. This crewman suffered ferocious bite wounds, but he didn't care because he only thought about saving the Second Mate, a hero of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But it was too late—half eaten, the Second Mate slipped below the waves." (82)

    Reality is never a concern when dealing with the Dear Leader. You might even say that entertainment is of higher importance. The Second Mate's gruesome death by ravaging sharks certainly fits that bill, and it fulfills one major tenet of the state: the story is more important than the individual. If the story works with the Dear Leader's agenda, it's a go.

    Part 1, Pages 91-112

    The dream of him floating away, the bright lights, his radio. It's as real as the sharks rising out of the dark water, as the teeth in my arm. I know one is real and one's a dream, but I keep forgetting which is which, they're both so true. I can't tell anymore. I don't know which one. (112)

    After Jun Do suffers torture at the hands of the creepy older official, it's no wonder that he's got serious reality issues. During his beating, he retreats so far into his mind that he finds a place where the story they'd concocted about the Second Mate's gruesome death is absolutely true. It's a deeply affecting experience, and he finds that he simply can't stop telling himself stories. The Second Mate's wife doesn't really care about the truth: she wants the better story. She wants the gentle version to make her transition to a new husband easier.

    Part 1, Pages 124-143

    Where was the arm of the Captain of the Kwan Li? Jun Do suddenly wondered. In whose hands were his old dictionaries right now, and what person shaved this morning with the Captain's brush? In what tunnel was his team now running, and what had become of the old woman they'd kidnapped, the one who said she would go willingly if she could take his picture? (125)

    Jun Do can't bear not to know how stories end. There's something so essential and basic for him in knowing the truth of individuals' histories—perhaps because he lives in a society where something like the simple truth is not so easy to know. This lack of accessibility to basic facts hits him just at the moment he's flying over the Pacific Ocean, when he realizes that world is a whole lot bigger than he ever imagined.

    Part 2, Pages 194-208

    Sarge looked up at me for the first time. "Why doesn't Duc Dan ever write? All these years, not one of them has ever dropped a line to their old Pubyok unit." (205)

    The Interrogator, Sarge, and the rest of the crew at Division 42 are having a serious reality check at this moment. Their belief that good and faithful work in service of the state will be rewarded by a comfortable beach retirement has been dashed by the narrative of Commander Ga. Learning of their colleague's internment at Prison 33 shakes them momentarily and plants the seed in their minds that things may not be as they seem. Still, the truth eventually becomes more than Sarge and Q-Kee are willing to accept, so they simply discard it.

    Part 2, Pages 293-305

    "I've never been to Wonsan," he said. "But I've sailed past it many times. There are no umbrellas in the sand. There are no lounge chairs or fishing poles. There are no old people. Wherever the grandparents of North Korea go, it's not Wonsan." (301)

    Jun Do has become the bucket of cold water on everyone's delusions at this point in the narrative. He feels the need to strip Sun Moon of the belief that her mom is simply too busy having fun on the beach in Wonsan to write. And guess what? Sun Moon doesn't thank him for it. It turns out that sometimes, the truth just makes a miserable situation worse. But Jun Do knows that knowing the glaring truth is necessary for change.

    Sun Moon took a hard look at them. "My word," she said. "They're starving. There's nothing to them." The girl turned to her father. "We're not starving, are we, Papa?" "Of course not," the father said. (300)

    Sun Moon is facing a reality she'd hoped to leave behind: people really are starving to death right outside her door. But if she's finally willing to accept that Pyongyang has problems, the poor people of Pyongyang are not. It's like those old Warner Brothers cartoons where Wile E. Coyote can run on air just fine—until he looks down. For these people, to open their eyes and see the severity of their situation would be to give in to despair.

    Part 2, Pages 417-438

    It was suddenly so clear, everything. There was no such thing as abandonment, there were only people in impossible positions, people who had a best hope, or maybe only a sole hope. When the graver danger awaited, it wasn't abandoning, it was saving. (429)

    Perhaps Jun Do is simply justifying his actions (he's about to send Sun Moon off the U.S. without him), but we think he's having a true epiphany. And this epiphany isn't just applicable to his own actions: it has a lot to do with his own life story, the mother and father that he never had the chance to know. It's a poignant way to end the narrative line of the work, especially since truth has been so elusive for Jun Do this whole time.

  • Transformation

    Part 1, Pages 7-20

    It only took a couple of minutes—first they got sleepy, then a little dreamy looking, and if there was a last little panic at the end, it didn't matter because they couldn't talk anymore, and finally, before lights out, they looked pleasantly confused, like a cricket with its feelers pulled off. (16)

    Jun Do thinks about how the 16-year-old in the infirmary at the military base will die when they drain his blood from him. It's a horrifying practice, but for those who expect to suffer worse fates at the hands of the state, this sounds like a pretty nice way to go. Like the experience with the autopilot, this method of handling citizens is meant to take away the fight and erase identity. Jun Do later reflects that placing the young boy's blood into the ice was the real killing of him, since that was when the life force that made him unique was finally quelled.

    Part 1, Pages 75-90

    ... when that was all blocked off, there was only the inside of him, and what he discovered was a little boy in there who was stupidly smiling, who had no idea what was happening to the man outside. And suddenly, the story was true, it had been beaten into him, and he began crying because the Second Mate had died and there was nothing he could do about it. (88)

    Jun Do's pain training pays off during his first torture session. He's able to leave his physical body to take the punches while he retreats into himself for self-preservation. The process involves a change in perception for him, and not only of himself. He learns that there is a place inside him where lies become dramatic reality. He learns that he can convince himself of anything, and other people will go right along with him.

    Part 1, Pages 105-123

    "Where we are from," [Dr. Song] said, "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 man. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change." (121-122).

    Dr. Song approaches the subject of propaganda with an openness that is surprising. It's clear that survival in North Korea depends on adaptability—or the ability to abandon the self at the drop of a hat.

    Part 1, Pages 156-175

    Mongnan pressed a button and when the flash went off, everything seemed different. He was on the other side of the bright light now, and that's where all the bloodless people on the cots were—on the other side of her flash. (174)

    Mongnan's intake process for the unfortunate prisoners of Prison 33 reminds us of cultures in which photography is taboo because there is a fear that it will take your personal identity and not just your image. This is the moment when Jun Do as we've known him ceases to exist. Once he becomes part of Mongnan's files, he's part of the nameless and forgotten prisoners who will spend their last moments bleeding into a blood collection bag.

    Part 2, Pages 179-193

    Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing... There's no way around it: to get a new life, you've got to trade in your old one. (181)

    The Interrogator speaks rather coolly about the efficacy of torture with the autopilot. He speaks of it with admiration, as though the total erasure of a personality is a desirable thing. In his idealized world, it is. Undergoing such a change is like re-upping your passport with a new and better photo. In the Interrogator's mind, the subject can then move on to a productive life on a commune or other work detail. He will discover that the reality is quite different.

    Part 2, Pages 194-208

    He dipped his paw in honey and brought his claws to my lips. Then the bear said, "You will learn to speak bear now, and you will become as the bear and you will be safe." (207)

    In this uniquely North Korean fable, the bear symbolizes the Dear Leader, figured as the caring father of all orphans. Though the allegory is meant to be comforting, there's a level of creepiness in there, as well: the child will have to lose his own identity to conform to the life of the bear. His only alternative, as the rest of the story goes, is death.

    "I made it through winter, but afterward I was different. I can't make you understand what the winter was like, what that did to me. When the thaw came, I didn't care about anything." (196)

    Jun Do/Imposter Ga tries to explain what happened to him in the space between entering Prison 33 as Jun Do and leaving it as Ga. Exposure to harsh winter elements has the same transformative powers as a torture session—he's pretty sure he doesn't want to live through another one. His reckless new attitude signals that he's getting ready to throw in the towel.

    "When you're out of sight of shore," he said, "you could be anybody from anywhere. It's like you have no past. Out there, everything is spontaneous, every lick of water that kicks up, every bird that drops in from nowhere. Over the airwaves, people say things you'd never imagine." (108)

    Jun Do speaks of the freeing nature of the ocean: the general lack of borders and oversight give him a sense of what it might be like to live a different life. He acknowledges that a lack of borders changes people and helps them to lose their inhibitions—or perhaps fear of prohibitions. It's the spontaneity factor that really hooks Jun Do. There's no inevitability when things can change on the spur of the moment.

    "If the Americans use their senses and keep their heads level," Dr. Song said, "then no tiger story will fool them. They will taste that this is cow. But if the Americans are just toying with us, if they don't plan on seeking the facts and negotiating seriously, then they will taste tiger." (123)

    Ironically, Dr. Song has already interpreted the tiger meat in more than one way. On the one hand, receiving the meat of an endangered species will make the Americans feel like they have the moral high ground. On the other, it will force the Americans to make a decision: will they be diplomatic, or will they call the North Koreans' bluff? We can't help thinking of Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger." We're betting Johnson was thinking of it, too, when he thought this up.

    "He didn't kill Sun Moon and her children. Ga turned them into little birds and taught them a sad song. Then they flew away toward sunset, to a place where you'll never find them." (239)

    Comrade Buc tells the Interrogator and his crew what actually happened to Sun Moon in barely allegorical terms, but they still fail to understand what he's on about. The idea of defection is so far out of their vocabulary that they simply don't get it. Sun Moon and her children are not the only ones to undergo significant change in this story line: Comrade Buc has lost everything that matters and is now wallowing on the floor of the "sump" in Division 42.

    "You're one of us now," he said. "You're an intern no more. You no longer have use for a name,' he added as he pulled hard on her fingers, snapping the cracked bones straight for a proper heal." (364)

    Q-Kee has paid a terrible price for her "graduation" from intern to full-fledged Pubyok: she's personally killed her colleague Jujack because he withheld information from them. The traditional breaking of the hand against the doorjamb is meant to toughen the hand itself, but it's also clearly a chance for Q-Kee to release herself from the horror of her actions. Her willingness to murder in cold blood transforms Q-Kee into a minion of the state who no longer needs a personal identity.

  • Love

    Part 1, Pages 7-20

    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)

    This is Jun Do's first and overriding concept of familial love: it equals suffering and distress, and all injury has to be re-scripted to feel less psychologically painful afterward. Jun Do's determined to find the silver lining in the especially cruel treatment he encounters at the hands of the Orphan Master. He creates an alternate identity for himself—though it does him no real good. He's still conscripted into orphan's work, and he finds himself living out the identity of a person who is fully expendable—until, of course, he meets the love of his life.

    Part 1, Pages 34-62

    Jun Do was thinking about all the popular definitions of love, that it was a pair of bare hands clasping an ember to keep it alive, that it was a pearl that shines forever, even in the belly of the eel that eats the oyster, that love was a bear that feed you honey from its claws. Jun Do visualized those girls: alternating in labor and solitude, that moment when the oar-locks were handed off. (48)

    Jun Do has no practical experience of love, so when the Second Mate asserts something about true love, he goes through his mental catalogue to see if it rings true. His metaphors kind of make us wonder about the society he grew up in: all of the comparisons he lists are full of danger, promising injury, even while beauty is present. Jun Do's image of the American rowers working together seems like a more appropriate metaphor of enduring love.

    Part 1, Pages 62-75

    And then the idea of a portrait, of any person, placed over your heart, forever, seemed irresistible. How was it we didn't walk around with every person who mattered tattooed on us forever? And then Jun Do remembered that he had no one that mattered to him... (72)

    In one of the most poignant moments of the book, Jun Do questions if the endowment of a tattoo would place Sun Moon in his heart for real. It's a naïve and vulnerable moment for him—especially in front of his crewmates. It's also a little soul-crushing when he has to be told it's all for show, and he realizes just how alone he is in the world. And yet the tattoo does do something kind of magical for Jun Do, as it puts him in the position to be closer to the beautiful Sun Moon.

    Part 2, Pages 272-292

    Around Sun Moon, blossoms open, the petals spreading wide to reveal hidden pollen pots. Commander Ga dripped with sweat, and in his honor, groping stamens emanated their scent in clouds of sweet spoor that coated our lovers bodies with the sticky seed of socialism. Sun Moon offered her Juche to him, and he gave her all he had of Songun policy. (292)

    Wow, where to start with this one? First, we can tell that the author was having a super sweet time writing this passage. The Propaganda Boys' version of Impostor Ga and Sun Moon making love is working overtime on the communist metaphors, showing that even the most intimate of moments can be co-opted by the state. The high ridiculousness of the euphemistic language shows how ludicrous it is to control every part of an individual citizen's life. Not to mention that it makes for really bad fiction.

    It didn't matter to me that he had probably killed the woman he loved. How had he found love itself? How had he pulled that off? And had love made him become someone else, or, as I suspected, had love suddenly appeared once he took on a new identity? (276)

    The Interrogator is a card-carrying member of the Lonely Hearts Club, and it seems that the only confession he's really interested in from Impostor Ga is how to pick up girls. But in all seriousness, this is less about love and more about having a personality, an identity to offer another person. Without that—since the Interrogator is really without identity—he understands that he will never be able to make someone love him.

    Part 2, Pages 327-347

    "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)

    The Dear Leader confesses his "feelings" for the captive American rower and hopes that Stockholm syndrome is a real thing. Johnson depicts Kim Jong Il as a delusional schoolboy who flatters himself at every opportunity, completely and deliberately oblivious to the world outside of North Korea. His idea of love is equally without basis in reality: the American rower is being forced to transcribe his works during her captivity. She has no choice in the matter. If he's waiting for Stockholm syndrome to kick in, he better have a sackful of patience.

    Part 2, Pages 366-387

    "A name isn't a person," Ga said. "Don't ever remember someone by their name. To keep someone alive, you put them inside you, you put their face on your heart. Then, no matter where you are, they're always with you because they are a part of you." (379)

    Impostor Ga is doing his best to impart useful wisdom to Sun Moon's children, who have become attached enough to him to want to reveal their proper names to him. He tells them that their relationship is really beyond simple names. In that sense, Ga is advocating a kind of psychological tattooing of a loved one's identity directly onto the heart. It's a nice metaphor for the lasting impression this family has made on his memory and identity.

    ... Ga watched how the candlelight played on their faces, how Sun Moon's eyes lowered with delight, how the children relished their mother's attention, and how they kept trying to outdo one another for it, and how, as a family, they turned that melon to rind, saving the seeds in a small wooden bowl... (369)

    This is familial unity and love as it should be, not as Jun Do first conceived of it while trying to make the best of the miserable Orphan Master's abuse. It's ironic that this shining moment should be unreal—this is not his family, and he is not Ga—but it's the best that this orphan can do. Yet through his naiveté and desire to be a good husband and father, Impostor Ga has made this family his own and created this moment of happiness for all of them.

    Part 2, Pages 388-407

    "They're about a woman whose beauty is like a rare flower. There is a man who has great love for her, a love he's been saving up for his entire life, and it doesn't matter that he must make a great journey to her, and it doesn't matter if their time together is brief, that afterward he might lose her, for she is the flower of his heart and nothing will keep him from her." (396)

    Impostor Ga interprets the words of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," which he has just sung for Sun Moon. He doesn't know all the words, and we suspect he knows little of the background of the song, but that doesn't matter. Sun Moon wants him to sing a love song that is true and isn't Party-affiliated. Jun Do hits the nail on the head here, and it's exactly what Sun Moon wants to hear. Both of them are looking for real intimacy with another person—something not planned by the state. This spontaneous and strange song choice speaks about love in such a way that Ga can apply it neatly to their situation.

    Part 2, Pages 417-438

    It was suddenly so clear, everything. There was no such thing as abandonment, there were only people in impossible positions, people who had a best hope, or maybe only a sole hope. When the graver danger awaited, it wasn't abandoning, it was saving. (429)

    Because Ga now has something to lose, he's beginning to make some profound discoveries. In this case, he's seeing that sometimes the most hurtful behavior has a legitimate motivation. This epiphany comes courtesy of his own planned abandonment of Sun Moon and her children to their fate in America so that he can save Comrade Buc's family. Despite his humble beginnings as an unloved orphan who had nothing to lose, Impostor Ga now finds himself in the position to behave selflessly—and to understand the hold that true love can have on a human soul.

  • Foreignness and the "Other"

    Part 1, Pages 20-34

    "If you slept with one of these girls," Gil said, "you'd know it was because she wanted to, not like some military comfort girl trying to get nine stamps in her quota book or a factory gal getting married off by her housing council." (28)

    Gil has reached a level of understanding about North Korea that Jun Do has not yet attained—hence the tension between the characters. Gil gets it: life in the free world means self-determination, the right to do as you please, particularly in the most intimate moments. This is a basic freedom that Jun Do cannot grasp at this point.

    ... Jun Do saw a passenger jet crossing the sky, a big plume behind it. He gawked, neck craned—amazing. So amazing he decided to feign normalcy at everything, like the colored lights controlling the traffic or the way buses kneeled, oxenlike, to let old people board. Of course the parking meters could talk, and the doors of businesses open as they passed. Of course there was no water barrel in the bathroom, no ladle. (26)

    As Jun Do moves through Japan on his way to kidnap Rumina, his exposure to modern life in a developed country overwhelms him on every level. There is no lack of comfort in this place (flushing toilets, people)—and it makes him miserable. Unlike Gil, he has no plans to become part of the luxury. All the things that amaze him here are the things that separate him even further from Japanese society, because they're things he can't have.

    Jun Do never looked. He knew the televisions were huge and there was all the rice you could eat. Yet he wanted no part of it—he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who'd gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing. (22)

    When Jun Do first sets foot on Japanese soil with Gil, he feels the chip on his shoulder growing. His life of depravation—all in the name of a sociopolitical ideal—suddenly seems hollow. This first experience with another culture gives Jun Do an inkling of just how wrong things in his own country really are. As his moral flexibility is tested further, the giant TV sets will be the least of his worries.

    Part 1, Pages 34-62

    "To row around the world," the Second Mate said. "Only a sexy woman would do that. It's so pointless and arrogant. Only sexy Americans would think the world was something to defeat." (44)

    This truly comical moment makes Jun Do uncomfortable, but he really can't think of a good defense against the Second Mate. The concept of the arrogant American comes up in several places in this work, with Johnson doing his best to capture honestly the truth of some of the stereotypes. Though this is a goofy statement on the part of the Second Mate, the idea of the arrogant, sexy American taking on the world holds traction for many people who are not Americans.

    "You don't know how devious these North Koreas are," Pak countered. "Their whole society is based on deception. You wait, we'll tear this boat apart, and you'll know I'm right." (58)

    The South Korean translator is working on his own preconceived notions about his slippery neighbors to the north. While Pak's assessment seems unfair (Jun Do is our hero, after all) and verging on prejudice, there's much truth in what he says. His distrust of the enemy at the border is not something the American naval officers can appreciate fully. All they can see is badly impoverished fishermen.

    The First Mate found a pair, blue and white, and stowed them under his bunk. The Pilot was marveling over a size fifteen, over what manner of human would take that size, and the Machinist created a tall pile of shoes he intended for his wife to try. (55)

    The finding of the gigantic Nike shoe is a little like finding Sasquatch's footprint in your backyard. You know such creatures must be mythical, and yet there it is: proof in footwear. For an undernourished North Korean, finding such a proof must open the eyes too far, too fast. Knowing that the world is big enough to contain you and said really big person is enough to strike fear into the heart.

    "And what if you do make it around the world—how do you wait in line for your dormitory toilet again, knowing that you've been to America? Maybe the millet tasted better in some other country and the loudspeakers weren't so tinny. Suddenly it's your tap water that smells not so good—then what do you do?" (47)

    This is a common lament of people all around the world: what if the grass really is greener on the other side? How can I continue to live my sad, sad life? The Second Mate also shows us his provincial side when he couches everything in terms of his North Korean existence: the toilets, the millet—all things that wouldn't be an issue in America to begin with. He senses that bigger, better things are out there, but he doesn't even have the language with which to dream (or despair) about them.

    Part 1, Pages 124-143

    Women were free to smoke in America and should not be confronted. Disciplining other people's children in America was not okay... With great discomfort, Dr. Song touched on American standards of personal hygiene, and then he delivered a mini-lecture on the subject of smiling. He concluded with dogs, noting how Americans were very sentimental, with a particular softness toward canines. (125)

    For an American reading this, it's the stuff of comedy. But for an American to write it? Well, that takes some clever perception. It's sometimes easy to forget that Jun Do is merely a character written by Johnson, especially in moments like these. He really has to step out of the American mindset to get into Jun Do's and Dr. Song's in order to see Americans as they might be perceived outside their own borders. The bit about the dogs will return repeatedly, reminding us further of the vast differences between North Korea and most of the developed world.

    The Captain had told Jun Do that off the east coast of Japan the ocean was nine thousand meters deep, and now he understood what that meant. Witnessing the vastness of the Pacific—how impossibly monumental that you could row across it!—he understood how rare his radio contacts had been. (124-125)

    Jun Do's world suddenly gets to be a much bigger place when he travels beyond the borders of North Korea. It's all a little overwhelming—if not downright depressing—to understand the distances between peoples.

    Part 2, Pages 348-366

    "I wonder of what you must daily endure in America, having no government to protect you, no one to tell you want to do. Is it true you're given no ration card, that you must find food for yourself? Is it true that you labor for no higher purpose than paper money?" (350)

    This moment when Sun Moon speaks to an uncomprehending American rower about the incredible folly of capitalistic life is a double-edged sword. It's clearly a criticism of American culture, but Johnson also makes us acutely aware of the otherness of a world in which ration cards and absolute government control are actual things. In the end, neither side looks particularly attractive.

    Part 2, Pages 417-438

    "Korean, this is a word written in blood on the walls of the heart. No American could ever use it. So she has paddled her little boat, so some sun has beat down on her. Have the people she loved faced death so that she might live? Is sorrow the only thing that connects her to all who came before her? Has her nation been occupied by Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese oppressors for ten thousand years?" (420)

    Sun Moon is desperately trying to convince the Dear Leader to stick with the plan to let the American Rower go—otherwise her plans to defect will be derailed. And she is good: while we know her ulterior motive, her patriotic panegyric is moving and makes us wonder just how much of it she really feels. If you're very careful, you might imagine an authorial intrusion here, with Johnson speculating on what it means to belong to a nation.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Part 1, Pages 34-62

    The Captain was older. He'd been a heavy man, but he'd done some time aboard a Russian penal vessel and that had leaned him so that now his skin hung loose. You could tell he'd once been an intense Captain, giving clear-eyed commands, even if hey were to fish in waters contested by Russia. And you could tell that he'd been an intense prisoner, laboring carefully and without complaint under intense scrutiny. And now, it seemed, he was both. (43)

    The marks of captivity—physical and psychological—don't fade from the characters in this work. But there's another curious observation about confinement in this passage: that even when freed, the prisoner remains captive in some way. The Captain shows this in his fear of transgression, of doing anything that will land him in prison again. His final words to Jun Do in the prison camp (just get out) bring this home.

    The life of a fisherman was good—there were no endless factory quotas to fill, and on ship there was no loudspeaker blaring government reports all day. There was food. And even though they were leery about having a listening officer on board, it meant that the Junma got all the fuel coupons it needed, and if Jun Do directed the ship in a way that lowered the catch, everyone got extra ration cards. (44)

    Jun Do's sense of freedom is defined negatively—by what it is not—rather than by any qualities exclusive to liberty. For him, the space and quiet just to think, to shape himself without scrutiny from a higher power, to have basic necessities for survival, is the clearest sense of freedom in the world.

    Part 1, Pages 62-75

    He could hear the ocean out there, feel the offshoreness of it in the air on his face. And yet, when he sat on the pitch, he could make out none of it. He'd seen the sea in daylight, been upon it countless times, but what if he hadn't? What might a person think was out there in the unfathomably grand darkness that lay ahead? (67)

    Earlier, Jun Do thinks about the freedom offered by the sea, which has no border or nationality—or at least, less of each. But there is a flip side to the "spontaneous" nature of the ocean: it can't really be fathomed. This moment in the darkness on the sea reminds Jun Do that they are out there, alone. He does understand what is out there beyond the darkness, and yet there is a claustrophobia about this observation that can't be denied.

    "I'm just saying, I'm a guy who's got a lot to lose." The Second Mate paused, choosing his words. "But you, you got no one. You're on a cot in the kitchen of a monster's house... if you'd just punched that American in the face," he said, "you'd be in Seoul by now, you'd be free. That's what I don't get. If a guy has no strings, what's stopping him?" (70)

    The Second Mate's astute observation makes us think: what makes Jun Do tick? Why does he feel compelled to return, as Gil does not, from Japan? There's never really a clear answer to this question. Maybe he wants to find his mother in Pyongyang, or maybe he believes the propaganda that he's heard his whole life about other countries. It's also entirely possible that Jun Do is naïve. As with many other characters in the work, he has not yet plumbed the unique depths of misery that his country has to offer.

    Part 1, Pages 144-155

    How to explain his country to her, he wondered. How to explain that leaving its confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan—that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with the other boys in the slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere, because the guards were everywhere—that was the purest freedom. (154)

    Jun Do believes, as many do, that you can't really experience something fully without have experienced its opposite. So good cannot be known fully without evil, wealth without poverty. In this case, Jun Do wants to tell Wanda that perhaps she doesn't know what freedom really is, because she's always been free. Freedom without risk, he thinks, is no kind of freedom at all. He later changes his understanding of what it means to be free.

    Part 2, Pages 293-305

    When a person was caught trying to escape, he was buried to his waist at the water's edge and at dawn, a slow, almost endless procession of inmates filed by. There were no exceptions—everyone had to throw. If your toss was lackluster, the guards would shout for vigor, but you didn't have to throw again. (296)

    There's really nothing further to say about the barbarism of this practice in Prison 33, but Jun Do's presentation of the story is interesting. The victim is not the only one who is constrained in this scenario; the other prisoners are compelled to do something they likely don't want to do. Prisoners have one avenue to exercise their free will in this matter: they can throw hard, or not. We wonder if this small choice was given to them merely as an additional torment?

    "In prison, they kept us right at the edge of starvation. You could still do work, but you couldn't think. Your mind would try to retrieve a thought, but it wouldn't be there. There's no sense of time when you're hungry. You just labor until it's dark, no memory." (295)

    The physical confinement of prison life doesn't even touch the experience of the prison camps of North Korea. They also practice a passive form of mind control there through starvation. The idea that a person can be trapped in his or her own mind through outside manipulation is the founding concept of torture, especially as practiced by the Interrogator. Playing with a prisoner's memory and ability to reason is a surefire way to ensure docility and minimize escape attempts.

    Part 2, Pages 327-347

    ... she was the one that rowed all night, without the horizon to steer toward or the sun to mark her progress. She was forever bound to the other rower, yet completely alone. She labored forward solely on duty, her body bowing to the oars, but her mind, the broadcasts she made, never had a woman sounded so free. (341)

    Jun Do notes the strange paradox of the night rower. There's no denying that both rowers are tethered not only to each other, but also to their craft. It's truly a place of confinement. The night rower takes to wandering in her mind, creating strange aquatic societies and so on, completely untethered to reality. As admirable as Jun Do finds it, this inability to engage with the reality surrounding her might have been the beginning of her trouble.

    Returning the Dear Leader's gaze, Ga felt no fear looking into the eyes of the man who would get the last word. In fact, Ga was oddly carefree. I'd have felt this my whole life, Ga thought, if you had never existed. Ga felt his own sense of purpose, he was under his own command now. (438).

    Jun Do/Impostor Ga finally feels free, but it's a pyrrhic victory. He's under his own command because Sun Moon and her children are free, and he's willing to sacrifice his own life. It's not the kind of freedom that we would choose, but there it is. He also makes the astonishing observation about the power that one person can wield and how the agenda of a brutally centralized government can determine every aspect of an individual life.

    Part 2, Pages 388-407

    "I'm going to re-create one of my grandmother's songs. In America, I will discover the missing words, and this song, it will be about him. It will contain everything of this place that I could never utter, every last bit of it, and I'm going to sing it on the state channel of America's central broadcasting division and everyone will know the truth of him." (394)

    Sun Moon's idea has revolution written all over it—she's certainly ready for independence and freedom of speech—but she's still sadly confined to her ideas of what a state should be. She wants to rely on the centrality of a government that controls information (the "state channel of America's central broadcasting division") so that she can force people to listen to her message. We hope that she figures out how everything works in the U.S. of A. so that she can get that message out there.

  • Identity

    Part 1, Pages 124-143

    "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)

    Here's a telling conversation between Pilar, the maid in the Texas Senator's household, and the Senator's wife. Pilar takes the phonetic similarity of Jun Do's name with an English idiom and runs with it. What emerges is a snapshot of the hapless Jun Do, a man without a proper given name and without the ability to choose his own fate or shape his identity for himself. Jun Do's orphan's name makes a lot of choices for him in life, consigning him to crummy jobs that no one else wants and making him and outcast, since orphans are considered bad luck. The American crew hits on a sad truth to his existence here.

    Part 1, Pages 144-155

    "Whatever your file says about me," Jun Do told her, "it's wrong. I don't hurt people anymore. That's the last thing I want to do." (152)

    In this case of mistaken identity (Wanda has misidentified Jun Do as Commander Ga, from the tattoo on his chest), we learn something about Jun Do's inner life. He's no longer the desperate orphan willing to sacrifice everyone for his own self-preservation. He's hoping to shape a new identity for himself. Ironically, the one he's assigned was not a very nice dude, either.

    "None of this is his fault. He just does what he's told. You've got to understand—where he's from, if they say you're an orphan, then you're an orphan. If they tell you to go down a hole, well, you're suddenly a guy who goes down holes. If they tell you to hurt people, then it begins." (153)

    Jun Do is trying to explain to Wanda how things work in North Korea: first, you start with a story from the state. Then, the citizen complies. Neither the "Minister" nor Jun Do has a say in the deception being practiced on the Americans. Notice how seamlessly Jun Do weaves his story into his defense of the Minister.

    Part 1, Pages 156-175

    "I was a model citizen," he told them. "I was a hero of the state," he added, and then stepped through the door in his new boots, out into a matterless place, and from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do. (175)

    How many times have we heard this one? Jun Do is in the last moments of occupying his life as an orphan from Long Tomorrows; he's about to embark on his journey as a nameless prisoner—and then as Commander Ga. He has a long way to go before he's able to control his destiny or choose an identity for himself.

    Part 2, Pages 179-193

    As an experiment, the biography was a failure—where was the me in it, where was I?—and of course it was hard to get past the feeling that if I finished it, something bad would happen to me. The real truth was that I couldn't stand the pronoun "I." Even at home, in the privacy of my own notepad, I have difficulty writing that word. (188)

    It's really no wonder that a man without a proper name would also have a problem finding the "I" in his own life story. The Interrogator has fallen in lockstep with party-line communist philosophy, which say that the desires of the individual pale in comparison to the needs of the state—there is no "I" in team, yo. Another problem might be his lack of self-awareness: the Interrogator seems a bit mystified as to why he should have a bad feeling about finishing his biography. He seems to forget what happens to his "subjects" when their biographies are completed.

    Part 2, Pages 209-232

    Seeing Comrade Buc—his smile, his thumbs-up—had opened a void in Commander Ga between the person he used to be and the person he'd become. Comrade Buc was the only person who existed on both sides of Commander Ga's void... (225)

    This awkward water-cooler moment in the office has Imposter Ga wondering how to tread the fine line between believing his own charade and falling apart in front of the Dear Leader. If he's going to pull off his usurpation, he has to own it. His friendship with Comrade Buc—hatched on the trip to the U.S.—will be both valuable and devastating to him as he continues in his newly gained identity. Outside of Sun Moon, Comrade Buc and his family are his only pressure points—and the Dear Leader will have no problem pushing them.

    Part 2, Pages 272-292

    I suspected that Ga was the same person on the inside but had a whole new exterior. I could respect that. But wouldn't the real change be, if a person was to go all the way, to get a knew inner life? (276)

    A perceptive observation by the Interrogator, who is trying to figure out just how far Impostor Ga had to go to transform his identity. In fact, it is through Imposter Ga's inner life—his memories, thoughts, personality—that we link him back to the Jun Do for whom we no longer have official records in the story. Without any recollection of his name in the narrative of the second part of the book, Johnson is able to reveal this guy's true identity quite easily in this way.

    Part 2, Pages 293-305

    Mongnan pulled him to her. "Your Captain fought back," she told him. "He resisted, he wouldn't let them take his identity. He died free." (297)

    The Captain's attempt to escape Prison 33 reinforces what we know about his personality from Part One: he's not going to languish in prison again. With that decision made, he clings to that little bit of self-determination and refuses to allow starvation and exhaustion to rob him of his will. He dies a wretched death (at the hands of a compassionate Jun Do), but like Impostor Ga at the end, it's a death of his own choosing.

    Part 2, Pages 305-327

    Every consciousness has an electrical signature, and the autopilot's algorithm learns to read that script...picture a pencil and an eraser engaged in a beautiful dance across the page. The pencil's tip bursts with expression... filling the page, as the eraser measures, takes note, follows in the pencil's footsteps, leaving only blankness in its wake. (316)

    The Interrogator comments on the beauty and complexity of his form of physical torture, the autopilot. This machine does what the Pubyok can't do: it erases the personality of a subject without brutalizing that person externally. It's also what makes his work more insidious. While he's squeamish about broken bones and blood, the Interrogator is entranced by the idea of uprooting a person's inner life and replacing it with... nothing.

    Part 2, Pages 407-417

    "This used to be a place," I told him, "where meaningful work was done. Here, a citizen was separated from his story. That was my job. Of the two, it was the story that was kept, while the person was disposed of." (410)

    In an ironic twist, the Interrogator is confessor to Impostor Ga. He's got a lot of existential angst brought on by a change in his professional life—and a change in his outlook on himself and the world around him. The Interrogator realizes that the story he'd been telling about himself—that he was preserving lives, not taking them—just isn't true. And especially so in this case, when he's about to lose both Ga and his story. It's a blow to his ego that he won't be able to survive.