Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, now available in paperback, is one of the most highly acclaimed novels of the year so far. The riveting and heartbreaking novel, set in North Korea, follows a man named Pak Jun Do, who spends his early years in a harsh orphanage, then gets thrust into a series of wildly improbable adventures (kidnapping Japanese citizens, toiling in a prison mine, meeting North Korea’s most famous propaganda-film actress) that eventually lead to an unforgettable endgame involving canned peaches and Kim Jong Il. EW’s Rob Brunner wrote in a review, “[Johnson's] book is a triumph of imagination. Johnson has created such a convincing universe that it doesn’t really matter if he’s accurately captured every detail. It feels real, often terrifyingly so.” Although no one can really know the ins and outs of daily life in North Korea, Johnson certainly did the research to create as truthful of an account as possible. As you’ll see below, North Korea is nothing short of an obsession for Johnson. Read on for Johnson’s fascinating views on the subject, tangents and all.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the opportunity to visit North Korea?
ADAM JOHNSON: It used to be really, really difficult to get there — impossible, actually. Now, before Kim Jong Il died in December, the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] advertised a trip for American passport holders this summer, and they’ve had several trips since. Since I went five years ago, the need for hard currency has grown so much that they are allowing in the great enemy — Japanese and Americans. The only people they’re barring now are South Koreans, but they can hate no one on earth more than us and the Japanese, but they just need money.I was just at the cusp of that transition when they were entertaining allowing people in, but it was more about who they’d let in and how they’d go about it.
The first person I interviewed for the book was from the North. He was an older gentleman, and he was born before the Korean War. During the war, he was orphaned. He spoke to me about what it was like to lose his family in the war. He was adopted by an American tank crew who let him sleep on the back of the tank in exchange for helping them navigate the countryside. Even as a young boy of 10, he knew some English. When they got to an air force base, they put him on a cargo jet and he landed in Seattle. That was back when I guess you could take a child and just put him on a plane. [Laughs] All I knew when I was beginning the book was that my character was beginning to have such an origin. I was so moved by his story. Since then he went on to become one of the founders of Holt International. He had his own orphanage in South Korea dedicated to disabled children. In the North, he had an NGO planting apple orchards, and he and his friends had planted 14,000 apple trees in the North. He was friends with a man named Kim Myung-gil, who was the DPRK ambassador to the U.N. So my friend — I don’t want to say his name — was trusted in both the North and the South. He was professor of international relations. He knew that I was working on this book. I actually showed him most of the book before he died a year and a half ago. He just really believed in the project. He said there was nothing quite like this, and he said I think I can get you into North Korea. So he personally took me there.
Where did the seed of the story come from, and how did you research it?
I was writing what I thought was another novel, and when I write fiction I usually read nonfiction, just because I want to use the other side of my brain. I just picked up a book about North Korea in early 2004, and it was Chol-hwan Kang’s memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang about going into a North Korean gulag called Yodok, Camp 15, which is the family camp. He went in with his family when he was nine, so he went in with his grandmother and his mother and his sister and his aunt and an uncle, and it was about their nine years in a camp and their unlikely escape from it. I just remember thinking, I’m kind of an educated, aware person of the West, and I didn’t even know really that this gulag system existed — let alone that it had existed for 50 years, that it was this extensive and that even right now they’re just going to bed after working in the gulags. They’re really there right now, and Yodok has 50,000 people in it. Camp 14 and 18 have another 50,000, those two alone. I read the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, I read David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag, and I just went down the wormhole of fascination. I honestly didn’t even know I was researching a book. When I have a lot of material in my head, I just kind of play with it. I write voices and dialogue and sketch scenes and I found myself working with the material and I didn’t take it seriously. I think I was writing a book for about a year before I realized, “Holy shit, I’m writing a novel!” Which is usually a bad discovery because it means the next several years of your life are screwed. I just backed into it via curiosity. I didn’t have any big initial intentions.
There’s a facility in South Korea called Hanawon — people from the North have such a difficult time transitioning to life in the South, socially, economically, just epistemologically. So they built this facility in the South. They are probably several thousand people coming per year now, and so Hanawon is partly a debriefing facility where the ROK [Republic of Korea] secret service interviews everyone to see who’s a spy. And they’ve found a couple. Then its workers take the oral history of everyone who comes through. But actually, the number one expense at Hanawon is dentistry. North Korean refugees get their health needs attended to. It’s like a medical facility slash university. Most people stay six weeks to four months, and they’re taught what rent is, why you have to pay for your food, how to have a checking account, how traffic works — there are still no stoplights in the North. They have defectors come in and speak who’ve made the transition and help people because unfortunately in the South, there’s a real stigma against Northerners. They’re seen as bumpkins, and the truth is, they haven’t had real education. They’ve been indoctrinated, and they’re naïve. But also the Northerners — and this is borne out by many people I’ve talked to — they’re from a dog-eat-dog world. They can be aggressive and demanding and they don’t live in a world of pleasantries. So if you ask someone who’s from the North, “Hey, hows it going, how’re you doing,” that’s a dangerous question to them based on their upbringing, to reveal personal feelings above notions of their role in the State. If someone were to communicate personal feelings, those could be used against them.
Every day interactions in the Western culture are very — I say Western as kind of a modern, hip culture — very confusing. Media is very difficult for them based on what they have to say. Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy is a really amazing book. She was the LA Times correspondent for North Korea and her testimonials were really useful to me while I was writing my book. And she’s fashioned a book that’s nonfiction based on interviews of six people about their interviews growing up their whole lives in the north and also in their transitions to the South. She followed them for years.
No matter how much research you do, North Korea is still a place that’s still very much a mystery. As a writer, did you sometimes feel like you were writing about a speculative, fictional realm?
It didn’t quite feel like I was writing about a place that was far away as much as it felt far ago. The heyday of North Korea — when it was really prosperous — was when the Soviet Union invested in them heavily and built many factories there, which are still running. There’s a Soviet refrigerator factory from 1963 working in North Korea, and they don’t have the technology to modernize these factories, but they can keep them going. So they’re in 2012 putting out brand new 1963 refrigerators. It’s kind of like Cuba in a certain way. Just South and a little east of Pyongyang, there’s a vehicle factory called Sungri where they’re putting out brand new pickups from 1958, and you see them driving down the road. It’s like time travel. It’s the last kind of Stalinist state. It’s filled with 1960s and 70s housing blocks. Like I said, it doesn’t even have stoplights — there are human beings with batons.
NEXT: How do North Korean’s experience pop culture?