An Everyman in a
Adam Johnson’s hero
endures in North Korea.
BY SHEILA HIMMEL
When tyrants die, the world usually gets to
peer into their bunkers and palaces. Not so in
December, when the death of North Korea’s
“Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il was kept secret for
two days and his little-known son promoted
amid tightly choreographed mass spectacles.
“Kim Jong Il spent his life creating
a land of mysteries and secrets, and in
his death he has created his greatest unknown,” says Adam Johnson, whose latest
novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (Random
House), takes place in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Kim Jong Un inherits not a sepulcher but a shroud. Who is
the son, how old is he, is he really in power?
So the uncertainty continues.”
“I think it’s the novelist’s job to fill out hidden
Six years ago, Johnson, a professor of
creative writing and a 1999-01 Stegner fellow, became captivated
by Kim’s exploits, including his kidnapping of a South Korean
director and actress whom Kim wanted to make movies (including
a script he’d written for a communist Godzilla). Johnson started
reading the translation of Pyongyang’s newspaper and the oral
histories of gulag survivors and pondering a nation of 25 million
subjected to daily loudspeaker propaganda. ( “And you
must listen to it,” Johnson says. “If you’re caught
tampering with your loudspeaker, that’s something
that could send you to a prison mine.”) He began
to imagine the life of an ordinary citizen. What
happens to personal identity? If you have
suspicions about the regime, do you share them
with others? At what risk? Johnson also felt the
Dear Leader had to be a character in the book.
psychological landscapes,” Johnson says. And
what could be more hidden than Kim Jong Il?
To convey a human nightmare in page-turning
fiction, Johnson used a “mosaic, puzzle-solving way
of storytelling,” David Ignatius of the Washington
Post wrote in one of the many impressive reviews
the book has received. Sam Sacks, in the Wall Street
Journal, called it a “work of high adventure, surreal coincidences
and terrible violence, seeming to straddle the line between
cinematic fantasy and brutal actuality.”
Johnson knew he had to visit North Korea to put flesh on the
bones of his research. After being turned down twice for a visa as
a visiting scholar, Johnson met a Korean War orphan whose NGO
planted apple orchards in North Korea. As the orchardist’s assistant,
North Koreans listen to propaganda
ABANDON ALL WARMTH: ‘Lots of shiny
all day—because tampering
with the loudspeaker could
get them sent to a prison mine.
guns in North Korea,’ Johnson notes in
captioning his photo of a greeter at the
International Friendship Museum.
he got a tourist visa. He says getting into the DPRK has gone “from
impossible to quite di;cult, to di;cult. . . . The desperation for
[visitors’] hard currency is very clear.”
A robust 6-foot- 4, Johnson was hard to miss. And yet, he says,
“I would walk the streets and people would not even look up at me.
They were afraid to.”
A visitor’s trip is scripted to prevent genuine interaction. In
Pyongyang, Johnson stayed in the Yanggak Island hotel, staffed
by Chinese, “So we didn’t even get to meet a North Korean citizen
at breakfast.” He irritated his minders with questions about why
he saw only one shade of lipstick and no citizens in wheelchairs,
but pleased them by spending lots of time at the Revolutionary
Martyrs Cemetery, where the book has several significant scenes.