Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford University, tried to create an account of the mental life of the citizens of Pyongyang with his new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. It is the story of the many vicissitudes of a North Korean everyman, Pak Jun Do: raised as an orphan, he enters the army, joins a special forces team to kidnap Japanese, learns English, and gets sent to a gulag, from which he mysteriously emerges as a high-ranking official.
Two months into the reign of Kim Jong Un, North Korea remains impenetrable. "I’d much rather trade my story for a North Korean telling his own story," said Johnson. "We won’t know if my version is right until North Koreans are able to tell their own stories."
What follows is an interview with Johnson about the gulags, fictions, and lacunas of North Korea, edited and condensed for clarity:
"In the stories we tell ourselves in the West, we expect to be the central character in our own narrative; we are a society of individuals and no matter how much we love others, they’re secondary characters. The DPRK is exactly the opposite. There’s one national narrative, tailored and maintained by script writers and censors. In a totalitarian world that script writer is responsible for everything that happened.
If you’re a secondary character in North Korea, your aptitude for certain things and your class background sends you down paths, maybe to be a doctor, or a peasant farmer, or a soldier, or a music player. Your own wants and desires are only going to get in the way of the role you’ve been given and that you have to play if you’re going to survive.
We have pretty clear information about citizens outside of the capital. We know how much food they eat, how much they ‘volunteer,’ how much propaganda they consume; we have a portrait of the average person. Pyongyang is the mystery. Residents of Pyongyang tend not to defect because they’re the top 3-4 percent of the nation. If you’re in Pyongyang you’ve made it. These people are the unknowns.
It makes me dubious about people claiming to be experts there. Maybe they’re getting briefings-but what we have publically is testimonies from defectors that are completely unverifiable.
My character starts off as a real DPRK model citizen. He does what he’s told when he’s told, he doesn’t complain. I read lots of accounts of perfect citizens who went to the gulag.
In Yongdak, the prison for families, when you go in your kids strip bark, your wife works at the soy sauce factory, and you cut timber. The old people go to the ‘respect for the elderly’ furniture factory: that creepy Nazi habit of naming something the opposite.
Often the executions in the camps were done with sticks and stones. Every single person in the camp had to contribute to the slow death-even if it was a show punch to someone hanging, almost dead.
After the gulag (Jun-Do) starts to change and becomes a more Western character; he starts to decide what matters to him.
I had to keep the real darkness out of the book. The character goes into the camp one page and comes out the next; I tried to keep much of the darkness and absurdity out of the book.
I don’t think of myself as a political writer. I think giving the regime money (by visiting) was worth it for being able to tell this story. Because I couldn’t hear the stories of the North Koreans I saw on my trip, because I couldn’t talk to them, I was filled with an overwhelming desire to individuate them. And because I couldn’t do that that filled me with a desire to try to do it right.
How do I measure the version I created? It’s something I wondered many times. I just kind of went with the idea that everyone is human, and I tried to fit many of my fears as a parent. I’m surprised with such a mysterious, fascinating place, such a place that needs to be filled in, I’m surprised that more people haven’t taken up the mantle and attempted it themselves. There’s the valid argument that if you write across your culture, or your gender, or your age, you’re bound to make some transgressions. I knew I got something wrong-but does that work making the endeavor?
When defectors come out it is very difficult for them to tell their own stories. They’ve been trained their whole life to have someone tell their story for them. More importantly, they’re completely traumatized. When people tell the story traumatized it’s hard for them to tell it in a non-broken way. The distance to keep the causality out of them. They switch to the third person. They don’t want this story to brutalize them again.
And it’s not over. When Qadaffi died, when Saddam died, we went into their bunkers, we went into their files. The citizens took pictures in their bathtubs. They were completely cut down to size. But the death of Kim Jong Il only intensified the mystification."