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The True Lies of Totalitarian North Korea

When the videos of North Koreans weeping hysterically in the streets of Pyongyang circulated on YouTube last month in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death, few Western onlookers knew what to make of them. Most of us seem to have assumed that the tears were fake, produced on command—an interpretation backed up by one of the best books recently to appear on the subject of North Korea, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which describes manufactured public grief in 1994 after Kim Il-sung’s death. But in an article dissecting the phenomenon for Time magazine, Bill Powell noted that some of the public tears might have been authentic: the fact that North Koreans are brainwashed into believing that all they have comes from the Dear Leader means that they can understand their lives no other way. Philip Gourevitch, in perhaps the most sophisticated analysis, wrote that the mourning might best be understood as both false and true: “In the space of just a few minutes of videotape we see the method and the madness of the Kims’ grim dominion over North Korea enacted in miniature—we watch a lie become reality.”

Journalists have had little success in illuminating the lives of this terrorized population. The few reporters allowed access to the country in recent years—Demick among them—describe strict itineraries and relentless monitoring by government-appointed chaperones. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about his shock when he stopped to interview two rural high school girls “at random” and they began reciting political clichés in unison: “They could have been robots.” Last week the Associated Press opened a new Pyongyang bureau, but even if it weren’t located under the same roof as the “Korean Central News Agency,” one would have reason to be skeptical that it could succeed in comprehensively covering this deeply secretive country. AP CEO Tom Curley all but admitted as much with his statement that the bureau will do its best “to reflect accurately the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as well as what they do and say.”

How can you understand a people if you cannot trust either what they do or what they say? This is the most disturbing of North Korea’s enigmas: In a place where everything is monitored, nothing can be believed. But lies become reality not only in totalitarian societies, but also—quite differently—on the pages of a work of fiction. Anyone looking for light on the grim subject of North Korea would do well to examine The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s remarkable and heartbreaking new novel, which operates entirely within the dimensions of this closed world.

There is an inherent problem in evaluating this book. Instinctively, when we start to read a new work of fiction, the first thing we do is perform a reality check. Does it correspond with life as we recognize it? If so, we know it must be a realist novel, and we relax into its firm grip. But Johnson’s novel cannot be judged by this test, for the simple reason that we do not know what reality is when it comes to North Korea. Aside from a few testimonies by defectors, there is almost no impartial information available about the country. Johnson made a short trip to North Korea to research his novel, but, like anyone outside the system, he had only limited access to the people. He had to construct a believable North Korea from his imagination—and, remarkably, he managed to do it.

The plot of the book is, at first glance, fantastic—a kind of grotesque picaresque. Much of it is narrated by Pak Jun Doh, who, when we first meet him, has just been conscripted into a naval unit that travels to remote Japanese islands and kidnaps people off the beaches to serve as Japanese teachers in North Korea. Soon he will become a spy, intercepting English-language broadcasts from a fishing boat and—in a set piece that verges on hilarious—travelling to Texas on an obscure diplomatic mission. After his return, he winds up in a prison camp: for the crime, apparently, of having visited America.

This surreality is precisely the point. Every page of the book makes clear that North Korea—where loudspeakers blare propaganda from the wall of every home, the government runs recipe contests for dishes like pumpkin rind soup, and even the plants bear the dictators’ names (“kimilsungia” and “kimjongilia”)—exists in its own universe. Even the years are counted by a different numerical system, as if to emphasize that the nation is beyond the reach of normal time. And yet, as Jun Doh tells one of the Americans, “When you’re in my country … everything makes simple, clear sense. It’s the most straightforward place on earth.”

Straightforward, that is, once you have learned to interpret the code. A middle-aged person who is taller than average is assumed to have had access to meat as a child, and thus to have been a Japanese collaborator. Not long after Jun Doh (now under an assumed name) is miraculously released from the prison camp, he winds up back in prison in Pyongyang. “One look at how he ate told us all we needed to know about the conditions at Prison 33,” one of the interrogators assigned to him thinks. Sometimes the code is beyond cracking. The interrogator’s elderly, invalid parents, who are dependent on their son, are so terrified of him that they speak to him only in political platitudes. In one of the book’s saddest moments, the interrogator remembers his father teaching him as a child that “there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us.” There might come a time when they have to denounce each other for their own protection, but “if someday you must say something like that to me,” the father tells his son, “I will know it’s not really you.” Yet by the time we encounter them, this authentic feeling is gone, worn away by years of suspicion and obfuscation.

Many of the details about North Korea in this book are at least somewhat familiar from news accounts. The novel’s achievement is to explain what they mean, and this is devastatingly unfamiliar. We know, for instance, that every home, every place of work, is required to display pictures of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. But we might not have understood the significance of a place where such pictures are not on display—as Jun Doh realizes to his horror when he enters the prison camp and notices that the customary space above the door is empty: This is “a place that did not merit the gaze of the Dear and Great Leaders’ constant concern,” the ultimate nadir of existence. We know that North Koreans are starving; we might not have known that families steal chestnuts from public parks and children learn to set traps for songbirds. We know that the prison camps are brutal; we might not have known that famished prisoners eat dead moths and suck the eggs from trout in the fish ponds. (The fish are counted every day and if one goes missing, everyone will be punished.)

A novel does not need to bring news about the world; it can satisfy its artistic obligations close to home. But as it happens, the contemporary novels that have mattered most to me—Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun come immediately to mind—do bring news. That they seek to educate their readers does not suffice to make them praiseworthy; rather, they are valuable in and of themselves, as works of literature. If they also bring urgent, painful news—in Bock’s case, about the pornography industry and the lives of runaway teens; in Adichie’s, about the war in Biafra, which is not new news but is too little known outside Nigeria—that is secondary. (Mostly. Often the reason these novelists bring the news is because journalists have failed to do so, or to do so well.)

But if the political or social component of these works does not fulfill an artistic obligation, it does fulfill a humanitarian obligation. And to this very short list of exceptional novels that also serve a humanitarian purpose The Orphan Master’s Son must now be added. If North Korea were not a place of current crisis, it would simply be a remarkable book: a little flamboyant perhaps, but carefully structured, packed with big ideas, and bitterly moving. The fact that the hell it describes exists now, even as you read this, makes it the kind of book that ought to keep us all up at night.

 Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.