April 4, 2012
Stanford author Adam Johnson on truth and totalitarianism in North Korea
This month's scheduled rocket launch says a lot more about consolidating the Kim Jong Un regime than it does about any global aspirations, according to the author.
By Cynthia Haven
Adam Johnson's novel is the result of nearly six years of research.
In a nation of lies, sometimes only fiction tells the truth.
So Adam Johnson's new novel, The Orphan Master's Son, already a New York Times bestseller, may offer new insights about North Korea, the country he says is too often dismissed as a mélange of "buffoonery, madness or evil."
With the launch of a long-range rocket scheduled around April 15, the world is turning its eyes again on North Korea. An outraged world clamors to know what can be done to contain a dangerous pariah state.
Johnson's prediction? "They're going to send up a big-ass rocket and whatever happens, the North Koreans will call it a startling success."
"It's not about science," the Stanford associate professor of English explained. "It's about the consolidation of power so Kim Jong Un doesn't get murdered in the night." Johnson suggests we look to the country's new leader, the third generation in a totalitarian dynasty, to explain the newest flare-up of celestial ambitions.
"In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it's a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it's just a message."
Johnson's novel, published by Random House, traces the career of Pak Jun Do, a homonym for "John Doe," the son of a kidnapped singer and a man who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. He becomes a soldier patrolling the dark tunnels beneath the DMZ, the "demilitarized" zone between North and South Korea. He's a professional kidnapper, a surveillance officer and eventually a player in the circles closest to the nation's leader. The book is part romance, part adventure story, part spy novel and mostly the dark, absurdist drama for which Johnson is celebrated – though the parts that sound like comic-book excess often hew closest to the truth.
But is it over the top? Vindication came from award-winning author and Korea expert Barbara Demick, who read a published excerpt from the book last year and wrote in The Guardian: "I assumed it had to be part of a memoir by a North Korean, so accurate were the details . . . Johnson has made just one trip in his life to North Korea, but he's managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I've read."
The Orphan Master's Son was published a month after the December death of the longtime dictator, Kim Jong Il, an event that heightened interest in the book.
"With the passing of Kim Jong Il, we've had the first serious discussion of the place in a long time," said Johnson.
"North Korea is the most extensive national psychological experiment ever created. What is this place? Is it really this crazy? What's its future?"
The April 15 event provides a clue: Johnson said the date will be "the biggest party ever" in the lives of most North Koreans. Not because of the satellite that will purportedly be put into orbit, but rather because it's the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the current dynasty.
"He's the eternal president of the nation," Johnson said, but insisted that the title is not just a flowery Asiatic honorific. "Seriously, seriously. It sounds absurd to us. If you were in North Korea and said he was not the eternal president, you would be sent away."
"You always know that a country has gone off the rails when they invent their own calendar," said Johnson. The Juche calendar, introduced in 1997, resets the calendar to 1912 – just like Pol Pot's "Year Zero" recalibration in Cambodia, or the French Revolutionary Calendar two centuries ago.
Satellite maps and propaganda
The Orphan Master's Son is the fruit of nearly six years of research – a research carried out with a stunning absence of reliable data.
"There are great books about the economy of North Korea, its military dimensions, its geopolitics, and its nuclear issues. But the human dimension? About that there's little," said Johnson. "We have satellite images, propaganda, and the stories of people who have escaped."
For example, we don't know when or how Kim Jong Il died. We've heard rumors of four or five coup attempts, Johnson said – but who knows what the truth is?
The truths that wash up on foreign shores are scary: North Korea's economy apparently depends on state-sponsored organized crime, a mafia class that runs counterfeiting operations for international currency (the United States purportedly had to change its $100 notes for that reason) and which has run a global international insurance scam, involving hundreds of millions of dollars. It reportedly also deals in heroin, opium, methamphetamines and munitions.
The nation has had a long tradition of international kidnappings – including one South Korean film director who was imprisoned until he agreed to make a series of bad movies for Kim Jong Il, who acted as executive producer.
Such accounts invite parody. In his research, however, Johnson focused on devastating accounts of those who have escaped: "Every story is gripping, heart-rending, and utterly unverifiable," said Johnson. Every citizen makes some variation of Sophie's Choice just to survive in North Korea. Those are the stories he's reinvented for his book.
War, war and occupation
The bizarre enigma of North Korea is less incomprehensible in view of its history. "What they remember is war, and war and occupation," said Johnson.
These historical traumas are so deeply engrained that Pyongyang streets are 100 meters wide to allow quick evacuation in the event of another, always-feared American attack.
But for a while the postwar dream worked. In the 1960s, North Korea was even more prosperous than the South.
The dream worked, that is, if you ignored the nation's massive gulag system that was born with it. It incarcerates perhaps 200,000 people, including entire families. Starvation, forced abortions, execution and infanticide are routine, said Johnson.
The fall of the Soviet Union meant that North Korea lost both a market and a source of foreign aid. The 1990s brought a famine that killed about 10 percent of the population, as well as floods of biblical proportion. In a grimly comic note, the loss of Soviet fertilizer meant "the whole nation now has to save feces for fertilizer," said Johnson.
Johnson's previous books include a collection of short stories, Emporium, which featured a bomb-defusing robot and a teenage sniper – in that, he explored "autobiographical" material, he said. His first novel about an apocalyptic plague, Parasites Like Us, took on "my family issues for three generations."
This time, he decided, "I'm going to write fiction, instead of writing about my own life." The research he did filled him with a sense of obligation.
"My first duty is to the novel," he said. "We have a duty to tell the stories of others. Even if we have to invent them."
Cynthia Haven writes for Stanford's English Department.