On December 19, 2011, one of the main characters in Adam Johnson’s new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, died. His name was Kim Jong Il. Had Kim lived, he might have approved of the impish, devious, and dangerously mercurial simulacrum that Johnson summons in his epic about modern North Korea, published by Random House this month. He may have been less pleased that an ordinary citizen named Jun Do usurps him as the hero of the book—springing from a labor camp in a doomed quest for freedom.
Johnson, who teaches fiction at Stanford’s Stegner Program and grew up in South Dakota and Arizona, has written about characters caught in dystopian settings before (he is the author of a short-story collection, Emporium, and a novel, Parasites Like Us) but never on such a grand scale or in such unfamiliar territory. Earlier this month I caught up with him by phone to ask how he came to write about North Korea, and about the perils of researching a place about which so little is known.
You spent seven years researching and writing this book and even visited North Korea once. Did you have an emotional reaction when you learned that Kim Jong Il had died?
The book was done. Kim Jong Il felt very alive to me when I was writing it, but of course that’s one of our illusions. I was really just filled with concern for twenty-four million people. Will they be freed, is the transition going to happen, is there going to be a coup? Just before Kim died, North Korea announced that they were starting special tourism for American passport holders in 2012—that’s how desperate they were for cash. The country’s been opening up. You can use cellphones now and they have a brand-new fancy-pants department store in Pyongyang.
Still, the mystery of North Korea only deepened with the passing of Kim. We saw Gaddafi be apprehended and we know what he did and his files were unearthed and that’s that. But there was no autopsy for Kim. How did he die? Did a bodyguard knife him, was he poisoned, did he have a heart attack—will we ever know the truth? It made people more curious about the topic.
Why did you choose to write about North Korea in the first place?
Around the 2004 [U.S. Presidential] election I became fascinated with propaganda. The Bush administration was weighing heavily on me, and I remember they had the Healthy Forest Act, which actually called for increased logging and the destruction of forests. I had it in my head that such things were spin, but in studying North Korea I realized, oh no, that is propaganda.
There’s a prison in North Korea called Yodok, or Camp 15. We know a lot about it because of Kang Chol-hwan’s memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang. You go in there with your entire family—your kids, brothers, uncles, aunts, parents—and you never come out. There are about fifty thousand people in Yodok right now. Inside it they have the Respect for Elders furniture factory, where you make furniture until you croak. Just the impulse to name it Respect for Elders is so unthinkable.
You’ve said elsewhere that a friend helped you gain access to North Korea for a government tour of the country. Who was the friend and how did he get you in?
My friend was part of an NGO planting apple orchards in North Korea. He also worked with orphanages in the South. He was originally from North Korea and was an orphan of the Korean War. He had good relations with both sides and had done nothing but humanitarian work for decades there, so he was trusted. He believed in my book and used his influence to help me.
What was your stated purpose for the visit?
There were four of us, and we were officially called VIP tourists. My friend was treated with great enthusiasm. I was just ignored, which was wonderful. I was looking for bits of verisimilitude and I was free to collect that. I wanted to know: Are there trashcans on the street? Are the streets concrete, pavement, or brick? Were there fire stations? Did people have mailboxes on their houses? What type of shoes did people wear?
The North Koreans were quite nervous about having an American around. So we had a main minder, an associate minder who was hilarious, a driver who paid a lot of attention to things, and a young man who said nothing but who had a big video camera from the eighties, a big Sony, and who followed us around recording everything we said—“for a tourist DVD.” Because we were Americans, the director of the KFA, the agency that runs the minders, dropped in several times to mind the minders. In North Korea it is illegal to have an interaction with a foreigner and so I knew, going there, that I wouldn’t have a genuine interaction with a citizen.
When you go on a government tour, you stay at the Yanggakdo hotel on Yanggak island. You need a special pass to get on the island—no citizens can get there. In the hotel they have Chinese workers on contract as the receptionists and waitstaff and cleaning staff, so you only meet Chinese people.
Did any of your North Korean minders ask you about America?
Not at all. They expressed no interest.
Did you read other totalitarian literature while researching your novel?
I read exclusively about North Korea. I didn’t go look to the Soviet gulags or to Eastern Europe because it’s very different. In East Berlin people wanted to wear blue jeans—they knew there was a different life out there and they wanted it and they were willing to take risks for it. In North Korea I think the people know everything they are being told is a lie but they have no idea what the truth may be.
I noticed that many of the secondary characters in the book are sarcastic, perhaps as a response to repression. Is that tenor of dialogue something you picked up in your research?
When I went to North Korea I discovered that there’s no irony there at all. To speak on a secondary level of meaning, on an ironic level, is a dangerous thing. One of the first places they took me in Pyongyang was the National Museum of Korean History, and the first exhibit there was an old skull fragment in a Plexiglas box. They informed me that the skull was 4.5 million years old and that it was found on the shores of the Taedong river in Pyongyang. Then they showed us a painting about how humanity had begun in Pyongyang and a diorama of the diaspora with all the arrows moving out of North Korea down into South Korea, up into Asia, across into Europe, and finally into Africa and America. So I asked our docent—who of course doesn’t have a Ph.D., she was just reciting a speech she’s not allowed to deviate from—didn’t people originate in Africa in the rift valley? She said, “No, Pyongyang.” I said, “So is this a skull fragment from an australopithecine?” She said, “No, Korean.” Then she ended her lecture by informing me that therefore I was Korean. When I ironically agreed, my seven North Korean minders all nodded in approval.
In the book, my characters were not allowed to be ironic, but because the Western reader recognizes that, that imparts a level of dramatic irony. When you’re in North Korea and they give you propaganda, things with sinister undertones are said with no irony at all. “Hey, its seaweed harvest season!” or “Charles Taylor sends his well wishes!” or “Robert Mugabe sent a basket of flowers!”
You began your career as a writer of speculative fiction—the stories of Emporium are set in the near future, and Parasites Like Us is something of a post-apocalyptic satire. Does The Orphan Master’s Son represent a move away from that style and genre?
You don’t think North Korea is science fiction? I keep waiting for Kim Jong Il to come back to life, because this is the one country where that could actually happen. I’ll admit that when I began being curious about North Korea I was really drawn to the absurdities, the sci-fi-ness of it—tales from Kenji Fujimoto, who was Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef, about Kim’s love of jet skis and his addiction to the show Iron Chef. When I learned that Kim had kidnapped a South Korean actress Choe Eun-hui and her husband Shin-Sang Ok and imprisoned them for a couple of years until they agreed to make the communist Godzilla movie Pulgasari, I thought it was one of the most absurd things in the world. When I began writing, though, these things fell away. They were too absurd to be made real in fiction. Honestly, I kept ninety percent of Kim Jong Il’s craziness out of the book because I felt that my duty was to make him as real an individual as possible.
Life in North Korea is unrelentingly dark and grim. There’s a book coming out in March about Shin Dong-hyuk, a man who was born in camp 14, and it is the grimmest story I’ve ever encountered. But I had to leave much of the darkness out of my book. The real darkness of the gulag there was so bleak that I had to cut it out. You couldn’t read it.