We're introduced to Jun Do, a young boy living in a North Korean orphanage called Long Tomorrows.
Jun Do calls himself the son of the Orphan Master—the man who runs the orphanage and takes care of the boys there.
Jun Do guesses that his mother is a singer in a photograph on the Orphan Master's wall.
Jun Do knows that he's not really an orphan, for a few reasons: he's been in the orphanage longer than anyone else, he's had heavy responsibilities, and he's never been adopted. Also, the Orphan Master loves to punish him. Severely. Only a man hurting from the abandonment of his lover could treat his child that way, Jun Do thinks.
We learn about life at Long Tomorrows. The children are not really meant for families; they're meant for factories and other workplaces.
Jun Do names orphans as they arrive at Long Tomorrows. He chooses their names from a list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution.
Jun Do also assigns the orphans to work details as the need arises—like when massive flooding sweeps the area and the army needs the orphans to help "hook" people from the river.
A deaf orphan named Bo Song is dragged into the swollen river when he attempts to catch someone. They never see him again.
The Orphan Master resorts to desperate moves: he burns the children's bunks for warmth and then sends them all off with the army to begin their military career early.
Jun Do is 14 and becomes a "tunnel soldier," patrolling the tunnels that run under the DMZ into South Korea.
Officer So finds him in the tunnels, assumes he is an orphan because of his Martyr's name (Jun Do denies this) and "recruits" him into a new detail: kidnapping for the state.
Jun Do winds up on a fishing boat with Officer So and a translator named Gil. They take off for the Japanese coast.
Gil tries to teach Jun Do some Japanese to help him in this new task. Jun Do wonders why Gil doesn't do the kidnapping, since he can speak the language. But Jun Do is needed because he can fight in the dark.
We learn that Gil's former job was mapping landmines—but not with metal detectors, if you catch our drift. The crummy job makes Jun Do suspect that Gil is an orphan, but the man denies it.
Jun Do is sent onshore to kidnap a lone Japanese man who is out for a walk with his dog. It's a struggle, but Jun Do wins out. The dog is left howling on the shore after his master, and Jun Do is haunted by this.
Jun Do's also annoyed that neither Gil nor Officer So helped him out at all. He's completely over the kidnapping business. In his mind, anyway.
Back on land, the three men stay at a military base. The kidnapped man finds himself in a "hot box" while the others stay inside the infirmary.
There's a 16-year-old boy dying from something (malnutrition? tetanus?) on a cot nearby. The MPs are waiting for the boy to get sicker so that they can siphon his entire blood supply to help treat the wealthy in Pyongyang.
Jun Do thinks over his recent experience with the Japanese man. Like Bo Song and his mother, the man will now just be gone to everyone who knew him.
Jun Do allows himself to remember his mother from the picture in the Orphan Master's room. He knows this is dangerous: rousing the imagination brings the missing person back into his life.
This is not always a pleasant experience.
Officer So tells Jun Do that they have one more practice run before the real mission: to "acquire" a Japanese opera singer called Rumina.
Jun Do asks Officer So if it's true that he might be rewarded for doing a hard job. So asks if Jun Do has something in mind, but he says that he doesn't.
Then Jun Do asks what will happen to the Japanese guy they kidnapped. Officer So tells him to leave it be.
Jun Do asks if he might ask for a person as his reward. So assures him that he can.