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.
I 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”.
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.
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