Review: The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson

On this 1 January 2012, I wish a happy and prosperous New Year to all my readers.  

I’m starting this year with a book which isn’t available in the book stores until April.  However, I wanted to publish the review while the subject is so topical following the death last month of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

9780857520555I started to read The Orphan Master’s Son just before Christmas not realising that our television screens would feature so many images of North Korea following the death of Kim Il Sung and his replacement as supreme leader by his young son Kim Il Un.  As I watched the news reports of weeping crowds and saw the podgy face of the new “supreme leader”, I found myself reading grim passages in Adam Johnson’s book about the pitiful state of the the bulk of the North Korean population as they face forced labour and near-starvation.

It is rare to find a book set in North Korea, that vast prison-house of a nation which seems to be a giant personality-cult backed-up by the fourth largest army in the world.  North Korea is such a closed-off land with such difficult access for Western people that very few books about North Korea have been published – one notable exception in recent years being Barbara Demick’s excellent Nothing to Envy which documents the accounts of six real-life citizens of the city of Chongin.

In order to write this highly detailed account of a life in North Korea, Adam Johnson immersed himself in  whatever information was available about the country including defectors’ oral histories and any other material he could get his hands on.  The first few pages of his book are the product of “a year’s investigation into North Korean orphanages, the floods of 1995 and the resulting famine, the city of Chongin, Soviet factories, Songun policy, military vehicles and so on”.  He has also travelled in North Korea (under the watchful eye of State-employed minders of course) and this has filled in some of the gaps left by eye-witness accounts and the written literature.

The story tells the life of Jun Do, the son of an orphan master.  Because he was brought up in an orphanage, he tends to be thought of as an orphan – something which apparently makes for a life-long stigma.  Life in the orphanage was grim in the extreme and Jun Do’s father granted him no favours, “When the rabbit warren was dirty, it was Jun Do who spend the night locked in it.  When boys wet their bunks, it was Jun Do who chipped the frozen piss off the floor”.

Collective Farm - image from MSN

Occasionally a factory would adopt a group of boys and employ them as a ready-made labour force. Indeed, anyone who could feed the boys and provide a bottle for the Orphan Master could have them for the day as an impromptu work-gang.  At the age of fourteen many of the boys were recruited into the army and Jun Do became a tunnel soldier, trained to patrol the border with South Korea deep inside the vast network of tunnels that extend under the border into South Korea.

Eventually he is recruited as a low-level intelligence officer and is sent to work as a radio operator on a fishing vessel.  The ramshackle trawler had another job to do – abducting innocent Japanese citizens from the beaches where they walked at night (yes, this really happened – see the Wikipedia article).  During one of the ship’s voyages they are stopped and boarded by an American naval vessel, an event of such humiliation for the proud North Koreans that they dread returning home to account for themselves.  Inevitably, the return to North Korea is traumatic for Jun Do for he faces one of many brutal interrogations which leaves him seriously injured.

Eventually Jun Do is sent on a trade visit to Texas – perhaps an unlikely scenario, but one which gives the author the opportunity to highlight the contrast between the two cultures.  I was reminded of Chuck Palahniuk’s hilarious novel Pygmy in which a North Korean child is sent on a cultural exchange to the USA.

In the course of the book we read much of daily life in North Korea.  The slightest deviation from the rules of citizenship can result in the appearance of a military vehicle at the door of the apartment block to whisk its occupants away to a labour camp (a whole family is punished for the transgression of an individual). Life in the camps is so terrible often involving labour in mines with no tools of equipment other than bare hands.

Even ordinary citizens can be conscripted to a day’s labour in the fields, which has to be undertaken with heroic enthusiasm – lorries cruise the streets of the cities and collect anyone they find even though they may be on their way to work or returning home for their evening meal.

A united nation!

The second part of the book, “The Biography of Commander Ga” shows what life is like for a senior military officer with the privileges of rank – but with the ever-present threat of being purged by the regime.  Jun Do plays a major part in this story too, and we even meet up with the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, a fascinating narrative which seems all too credible.  Its impossible to give more details of the story at this point without spoiling it, but its enough to say that it is almost bewildering in its ingenuity.

This is a big book (450 large-format pages) and took me quite a few days to read over Christmas.  The reading experience was not among the happiest I have had recently because while there is much humour in the book the story is at times harrowing and Adam Johnson does not stint on the graphic detail.

We read of forced organ donations, life in the Gulag prison camps and numerous brutalising interrogation sessions.  While these are not lengthy passages in themselves, they show what awaits any North Korean who attracts the attention of the authorities for the wrong reasons (something it is only too easy to do when every block of apartments has a warden with responsibility for ideological correctness).  In some ways the book has echoes of Alexandr Solzhenytzin’s work such as The Gulag Archipelago or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, but at least the Orphan Master’s Son has a fast-moving story and plenty of humour to lighten the tone.

The book is a remarkable achievement and perhaps give more idea about daily life in North Korea than anything else on the market.  It is a work on an epic scale and I think it is going to attract a lot of attention in 2012.

Rating:  8/10 –  A unique, ” must-have” read for those with an interest in these topics

23 thoughts on “Review: The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson

  1. Wow, Tom, this sounds brilliant. I read Nothing to Envy in 2010 and it still remains one of the best works of non-fiction I’ve ever read. Who’s publishing it?

    I think North Korea is one of those intriguing places that is hard to view through Western eyes without putting a Western slant on it, if you know what I mean. Glad to hear the author immersed himself in research to give the story a ring of authenticity about it…

    Happy New Year to you! :-)


  2. Happy New Year, Tom! My daughter was in the US Military Intelligence stationed on the DMZ between North and South Korea. She spent the years before that learning Korean. Although, that is all behind her now–she is an art professor now–she is really interested in this book. Thanks! I am just getting around to reading The Rape of Naking. Hard to do, too. Ever since I saw the film “Empire of the Sun” with a very young Christian Bale, I have wanted to read it–so it’s been awhile.


    • Kathryn – thanks for visiting. I’ve got the Rape of Nanking and found it just too painful to read. I gave up on it part way through I’m afraid. That’s saying something because I’ve read plenty of similar books in my time


  3. Tom, delighted that you found The Orphan Master’s Son such an interesting read and thank you for your review. Of the many books I work on, this is one In particular I keep thinking about since I finished reading it. As you say, there is a lot of surreal humour in the book alongside some truly horrific scenes. It’s about to be published in the States and it will be interesting to see the response it gets there. I do have some book proofs for other bloggers who might like to read it.

    Would you, by the way, like a proof of John Irving’s new book, In One Person, which Doubleday publishes in May?


  4. Thanks for introducing this one to me! I love Nothing to Envy and I think I’m going to check out this one and read it as well. I’ll have to have a better stomach to take in those harrowing parts. Thanks for the recommendation.


  5. Sounds like life under the Stasi multiplied 7 times. My son lived in Niigata prefecture (not during these abductions) but I was aware of the abductions and of the increased tensions between Japan and North Korea. Horrendous stuff.

    How was the writing Tom … does he have a good style? Your description of it brings to mind Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance … one of my alltime favourite novels.


    • Hi Sue – its very well written and should be a contender for any of the major literary prizes. The research is impeccable. Yes, definitely the Stasi multiplied many times. Such total control over every aspect of life and thought. Apparently its alread getting worse under Kim Il Un


  6. TOM, Please give to Patsy Irwin: I would very much like to have a book proof of The Orphan Master’s Son. Are you able to send it electronically? Thanks.


  7. Sounds like a fascinating read Tom, and as you say, very topical. Do you know if there are any plans to produce it as a Kindle? Like Whisperinggums, A Fine Balance is at the top of my list of best-ever reads – heart-breaking but inspirational.


  8. Just finished it this morning. I had downloaded it on my Kindle. Very difficult to put down, but am not sure about what it did to my current attitude on life. Am hoping that life there in North Korea is not really like it is depicted. But the book would get my vote for Best of the Year. God I hope they do not try to make a movie of this tho.


    • Hi Don – thanks for visiting. Its quite a book isn’t it. Its hard to think of anything that will have more impact in 2012 – the problems of making a film of it would be immense I think


  9. My brother who lives in Japan read this book and had this to say about it ” It’s set in North Korea. So haunting. So inventive. So shocking. I can’t stop thinking about it.”


  10. Hi, I loved ‘Nothing To Envy’ and recently read Barbara Demick’s review of this book, which she broadly welcomed. Your review echoes her sentiments, so it is definitely something I am going to seek out. Thanks.


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