Read this book! 'The Orphan Master's Son' author Adam Johnson talks North Korea

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All the thousands of people who defect defect from the countryside. If you live in the countryside, that’s where all the people died in the famine in the late 90s. Food scarcity is a real issue. Commodities like clothing, tools, fuel of all sorts, heating is a real issue. To survive, people in the countryside have to take risks the people in Pyongyang don’t have to take. They have to forage the countryside which means they’re leaving their living zones unauthorized. They have to cross the border back and forth to engage with the black markets. There’s a concept in the North called Songbun, which is your family’s loyalty rating. The people are very aware of these ratings—it’s maybe the most important thing about you. And they’re based on: Has anyone in your family since the revolution committed an infraction against the State? If that’s a good score, if everyone’s been loyal to the regime for the past 60 years, then your family can live in PyongYang. The lower your rating, the lower your station in society. It’s very stratified despite North Korea’s rhetoric of equality. So if you’re in the countryside and your family has a low Songbun rating, and you get caught listening to illegal South Korean radio broadcasts, you can go to the gulag with your family. Whereas if you live in Pyongyang, and you get caught doing something wrong, your rating is going to get lowered a little bit but at worst you’ll spend a week or two on a labor farm. I say this just because what happens is that to survive, people from the countryside risk their lives to escape — and the lives of everyone they know — whereas in Pyongyang you have it relatively good. You’re not going to starve, your kids are going to get really educated rather than spend years memorizing Kim Il Sung speeches. You might have a real job that’s meaningful. You’re going to go to movies. You’re going to have a decent life. People do not defect from the capital. It’s very, very rare. So they don’t bring their stories with them. For people in the countryside we have a really full portrait of how many calories they eat, how they spend their days, what they do for fun. What adversities they face. It’s really Pyongyang that is the utter mystery. And because everything we know about that society is based on oral testimony, everything is also unverifiable. It’s only through the accumulation of stories that we feel confident about things.

How do North Koreans experience pop culture?
This is a fascinating question. When I went there in 2007, I could see cell phone towers. I told my minders, “Hey, there are cell phone towers, how come no one’s using a cell phone?” And they’re like, “Oh those aren’t cell phone towers.” I say, “I’m from California — we dress our cell phone towers to look like trees too.” I recognize that. But I didn’t see a single person in the capital use a phone. So they were using them but only out of sight. Were they hiding them from their fellow citizens, or from us, from each other? We know that in January, the Egyptian company that built the North Korean cell phone network announced their one millionth user in the capital. So right now probably 50 percent of people in the capital have a cell phone. I talked to someone who went there in November and she said people were using them openly and using iPads openly. The regime can change a rule one month and change it back the next, so everything’s really arbitrary in that way.

When I went there, you could go out and take a nap on the street in Pyongyang, and this woman who I talked to got briefly caught in a traffic jam. There are so many new vehicles. So you hear reports that people are using a lot of thumb drives, watching South Korean soap operas. Barbara Demick said that when she was there in early 2011 — it was 2010 before the book came out, so she’s banned now — the hot book in Pyongyang was an American book and it was the only time she’d ever seen an American book there: It was Gone with the Wind. The regime had obviously given it their approval. If you think about it, it’s a book set in the Civil War and it’s a love story and it’s told from the perspective of people who are on the inhumane side of humanity. That supposedly really spoke to them. [Laughs] It had quite a commentary on Americans and their rapacious natures.

What has the reaction overseas — or specifically from Korea — been like?
This is a question that’s of interest to me too. The book is coming out in 15 languages soon, so internationally, we’ll have to see. It’s funny — while I was writing it and showed it to a Korean-American friend of mine and he’s like, “Dude, I’m from California, I don’t know anything about life on the peninsula and whether you got this stuff right, you know?” I showed it to a South Korean friend, and she was like, “Man, I don’t know anything about the North!” So it was very hard for me to verify what I was doing. Since then, I had a couple students of mine at Stanford who are from South Korea who’ve read it and said, “You know this really feels true to the Korean stoicism of this male character.” I’ve had positive responses and I had one woman who wrote me an e-mail and said she was Korean-American and she said, “You got a lot of the personal interactions wrong. No one would ever refer to a superior in this way.” And I kind of knew that going in that I could never get another culture completely right.

I know there’s some inherent trespass when you write about something other than your own experience, but as someone who teaches creative writing and encourages it, I think there’s no better way to get to know the experience of some other person than to write across gender, class, race, or time.

I find it really rewarding to contemplate what it would be to live in a world of propaganda. The Japanese translate the Rodong Sinmun, which is the Pyongyang Worker’s Party newspaper. Every morning for six years I read the North Korean communist newspaper daily and those propaganda broadcasts are so mind-numbing. There’s nothing like it in America. It’s so useless. It’s pointless. Your mind wanders after just a couple of sentences, but I felt I had to get that sense of oppressive propaganda in the book. Because people have it piped into their houses and they have no choice about it. So the only thing I could do was try to parse it into small doses and make it a little funny because I do find it funny. A lot of the craziest propaganda in the book, there are lines I took straight from North.

What are some recommendations for further reading?
Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, which is the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only person we know of who was born in a gulag in North Korea and made it out. It’s a quick and engrossing read — a rare, rare portrait of the gulag system. I can’t speak highly enough of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. She went after what I went after, which is the human dimension. There are so many books about economics or nuclear issues, and things like that. And I would probably say the third one I’d recommend is the one I first started with: The Aquariums of Pyongyang, which is a moving story of a nine-year-old going into a gulag, and he brings his goldfish with him because he doesn’t understand what’s about to happen to him. Kang got out and is now a South Korean legislator. So he’s actually working hard to really improve things. My experience was that North Korea was the most fascinating thing I’d ever read about, and I became mildly obsessed to say the least.

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