When North Korean President Kim Jong Il died last month, media outlets around the world tried to cover the story with very few facts. That's because there really are no clear facts about North Korea. It's arguably the most closed society in the world — run as a hereditary fiefdom by a family of dictators.
We're now on the third generation of that family, the newly installed Kim Jong Un. Journalists and writers are rarely granted access to North Korea, and when they are, they're escorted by official minders and see mostly what the regime wants them to see — leaving a whole lot to the imagination.
That's where Adam Johnson comes in. His new novel is called The Orphan Master's Son. In it, Johnson uses his own imagination to reveal a more nuanced picture of what life for North Koreans may be like.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. When North Korean President Kim Jong Il died last month, media outlets around the world tried to cover the story with very few facts, because there are no clear facts about North Korea. It is arguably the most closed society in the world, run as a hereditary fiefdom by a family of dictators. We're now on the third generation, the newly installed Kim Jong Un. Journalists and writers are rarely granted access to North Korea, and when they are they are escorted by official minders and they see mostly what the regime wants them to see, leaving a whole lot to the imagination. That's where Adam Johnson comes in. His new novel is called "The Orphan Master's Son," and in it, Johnson uses his own imagination to reveal a more nuanced picture of what life for North Koreans may be like. Adam Johnson joins me now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Adam, thanks so much for being with us.
ADAM JOHNSON: My pleasure.
MARTIN: So, I understand that as part of your research for this book, you actually got a visa. You actually traveled to North Korea. First off, how did you manage to get in and what was it like?
JOHNSON: It used to be impossible to get in and then it became very difficult and now it's actually possible to do it as an average citizen. But I applied to go as a visiting scholar and then as a professor exchange and finally I went in with a friend who has an NGO there in North Korea. Though we were covered by five minders, the two of us, and there wasn't a moment that went unregarded by them.
MARTIN: So, what did you see?
JOHNSON: Exactly what they wanted to show us. When I showed an interest in a certain place in Pyongyang, they took us to Myohyang. When I became fascinated with Myohyang, they took us to Pemanjang. When I wanted to stay longer in Pemanjang, they took us to Kaesong City. I had probably done a couple of years of research on my novel and was deeply into it at that point, so I knew the exact things that I wanted to see that I was hoping to depict in the book. But still there were surprises that I never could have imagined, like seeing a family scrambling in a public park to steal chestnuts and to run away with them in a plastic bucket - at great peril, I would assume.
MARTIN: I want to hear more about how your trip informed your writing. But first, can you just give us a sense of the story that you've written here. Tell us a little bit about it.
JOHNSON: Well, in this novel we begin with a model citizen of North Korea, Pak Jun Do. He does as he's told, when he's told, often dark and sinister things. He's an orphan. He's at the lowest run of society, out on the farthest fringe in the city of Chongjin. Unfortunately, orphans there are really young laborers, and when they are turned into the military at a young age, they're often given the most dangerous tasks. And it is through coincidence that our orphan, Pak Jun Do, comes to encounter the American Navy out on the Sea of Japan. And here he gets the first look at an alternative way of being a human being. And the doors opened to a new possibility for the second half of the book.
MARTIN: Did you have any experience with North Korean orphanages? Is that something you saw on your trip?
JOHNSON: Well, the person I went to North Korea with managed orphanages in South Korea and was connected to orphanages in North Korea. Unfortunately, because of the famines and the floods, there are many orphans in North Korea and they honestly just become of the lowest caste of the workforce because there's no one in the world to advocate for them.
MARTIN: Can you talk a little more about what happened on that trip? You say you were looking for specific things to help you fill in the blanks in this story.
JOHNSON: Well, the book features the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, there were a couple of government offices that I wanted to see. And they were very reassured that I wanted to see some of the things that they showed me. But I also asked questions that were deeply troubling to them. I said where are all the handicapped people? I wanted to know where the fire station was. I said where were the mailboxes? It was deeply surreal to walk among thousands of people in the streets of Pyongyang and see that the men all have the same exact haircut. They wear the same blue shoes. And the women, perhaps one of the more surreal things I've ever seen is seeing thousands of women wear the exact same shade of lipstick.
MARTIN: The book itself is an epic adventure. You tell the story of this orphan, Jung Do, but there's another perspective in the book, that of a government interrogator. His family calls him a torturer.
JOHNSON: The book starts far out in the hinterland of North Korea in Chongjin. And it's slowly moves towards the center of Pyongyang and the center of power and toward Kim Jong Il, who's the black hole that warps all the reality around him. And so I wanted to get a character who lived normal Pyongyang life so we could look at the clangbak(ph) buses racing by and see the Moranbong Theater and walk along the Taedong River with him. And so he was the main communicator of Pyongyang to my reader.
MARTIN: And you keep this man anonymous. We never learn his name. But we do learn about him and the peculiar nature of family life in North Korea as you've characterized it. And I wonder if you wouldn't mind reading a passage for us from the book. It's page 275.
JOHNSON: Certainly. (Reading) There's a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say. But inside, we are still us. We are still family. I was 8 when my father had this talk with me. We were under a tree on Moranbong Hill. He told me that there was a path set out for us. On it, we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way. Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside we would still be holding hands.
MARTIN: It's a lovely paragraph and it's really one of the moments in the book that illustrates life in North Korea. But there's also this disconnect. Can you talk a little bit about what he's trying to communicate with his son.
JOHNSON: Well, he's preparing his son for the realities of the world that they live in. He's letting him know that the innocence is going to end and preparing him for the fact that dark things may happen, that saying something at the wrong time could result in the worst peril, the gulags.
MARTIN: People who speak out or refuse to out their neighbors as somehow betraying the regime often end up in prison camps, in these work camps. And you spend a good portion of the story painting that picture, describing these camps and some of these passages are hard to read.
JOHNSON: The State Department has an incredible list of Google maps of all the gulags on its website. Seeing the satellite images of the huge barracks and the prison mines and the graveyards and the execution yards, it's just terrifying. Reading about the amputations and forced abortions, it filled my mind with darkness for a year. And honestly, I tried to prevent too much of that dark reality from seeping into the book because I didn't want to outweigh the humanness of my characters.
MARTIN: I mean, Adam, a lot of us - the reason we pick up a book, a novel in particular, is to escape ourselves in some way. And I have to admit that when I was first handed this book, I thought, I don't know if I want to live in this world. I don't know if I want to devote my imagination to North Korea for the time it would take to read this book.
JOHNSON: Well, in terms of the fact that the book is maybe not a beach read, escapist enterprise, I would say that North Korea is the most fascinating, mysterious place in the world and it utterly captivated my imagination. And I believe that the look behind the curtain is something almost no one has seen in the world.
MARTIN: What if you got it wrong? Is there a part of you that wonders, you know, I don't know, I'm using my imagination here to fill in the blanks.
JOHNSON: Well, the way we would know if we got it wrong is that freedom comes to the DPRK; is that artists there are allowed to tell their own stories. And that would be the greatest thing in the world, is to find out from them, from their artists about their own experiences. And I hope that happens.
MARTIN: Author Adam Johnson. His new novel is called "The Orphan Master's Son." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Adam, thanks so much for talking with us.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.