Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Politics

By Adam Johnson

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 f***ing 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.

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