Dear Leader: Thoughts on “The Orphan Master’s Son”

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Photo courtesy of amazon.com

“Citizens, gather ‘round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors — wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume!”

The opening lines of Pulitzer Prize winning “The Orphan Master’s Son” give readers a brief glimpse into the unique narration style used by the author Adam Johnson. The book is told from three perspectives: the proclamations of the loudspeakers in North Korea, the third person account of protagonist Pak Jun Do, and the first person narrative of an interrogator for the state. 

Published in 2012, this work of contemporary fiction follows the life of Jun Do, a model citizen and hero of the state, who, after an unsuccessful mission to the United States, is thrown into a North Korean prison mine to starve, freeze, or work to death — whichever comes first. His love for the North Korean actress, Sun Moon, is challenged as he realizes that totalitarian regimes do not allow for anything to compete with one’s loyalty to the state.

This masterpiece transports readers to life in a socialist state, exposing the horrors that befall family and friends of men who defect, men who fail and men who speak. Every decision citizens make is watched. One slip up, one misspoken word could mean unimaginable consequences; there is no trust between men bound by friendship or even by blood. 

Although the book is fiction, Johnson writes in the reader’s guide at the end of his novel, “I have a rationale for every artistic decision I made in the book, but … the shocking aspects in my book are sourced from the real world: the loudspeakers, the gulags, the famine, the kidnappings … I actually had to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea.” 

The book is set during the rule of Kim Jong Il, the second supreme leader of North Korea, who is referred to by citizens as “Dear Leader.” Johnson writes about the Dear Leader that his “ … regime stole every drop of life from citizens it had sentenced to an eternity of slave labor.”

While every page of Johnson’s book draws readers deeper into the atrocities of the North Korean state as a result of his excellent writing and its daedel plot, the addition of a third perspective told systematically throughout by the loudspeakers was an ingenious decision. 

Readers are shocked by the absolutely false propaganda spouted by the speakers, but in the book, the citizens in North Korea, most of whom have never left the country, have no reason to believe what they hear is untrue. These loudspeakers are an integral part of their lives because the government has mandated their existence.

Johnson calls his novel a “trauma narrative,” a book written from fragmented, disoriented perspectives to give the reader a sense that the characters are mentally and emotionally suffering as deeply as they are physically. 

He writes, “North Korea … is a trauma narrative on a national scale … The reality is that we’ll know the true way to write a novel set in North Korea when North Korean novelists become free to tell their own stories.”

It seems that with every passing day, Americans long more and more for books which they can read to escape their own mundane and unhappy existence. This desire stems from ingratitude for the privileged lives they lead, and a false idea that American injustices compare to those suffered by individuals in places like North Korea. 

While happy endings are wonderful to an extent, they should not be expected. “The Orphan Master’s Son” is an imperative read for all Americans precisely because it does not conform to the Western reader’s expectation. 

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