The Orphan Master’s Son

There has been a TON of talk about Adam Johnson’s book about North Korea. So much so that I could not ignore it. It was reviewed in the New York Times Review of Books. Books on the Nightstand’s podcast dedicated a segment to it. So, I had to buy it and read it. I have mixed feelings about the book. Very mixed feelings.

The book follows Pack Jun Do – the son of the orphanage master. Pack names the boys, decides who eats the good food or at all, and gives them job assignments. He is conscripted into the military and when he is mistakenly assumed to be an orphan, he is sent into the tunnels. He spends his time in the tunnels at the DMZ looking for defectors and checking on the South. He is next assigned to a man who goes to Japan and kidnaps citizens for various purposes at the request for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il. He kidnaps a photographer, an opera singer, and a girl drowns.

Once his mission kidnapping people is over, he is assigned to a boat to eavesdrop on the Americans and Russians and Japanese in the sea near North Korea. He listens at night. He hears people with short wave radios telling stories, the men on the space station playing chess, and two American girls attempting to row across the ocean. He is particularly fascinated with the girl who rows at night. She talks into her headset while rowing.

The Americans board the ship and cause all sorts of problems when the steal the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The crew and Park weave a story and the one crew member is said to be a hero. Their next trip out, the hero steals a life raft and disappears. A shark bite later, Park is a hero. He goes to Texas with a delegation to meet a Senator. Park is given a cell phone/camera that sends pictures to the CIA agent he meets. When he comes back, he is sent to a mine camp.

At the mine camp, Park escapes. I’m not going to divulge the rest of the story because that is where the book starts to get….interesting.

I will say that I had a hard time with the first 75 or so pages and the last 50 or so pages. Adam Johnson is a good writer and he has studied and been to North Korea. The biggest problem I guess I had with his book is the over-the-top torture and violence. It’s not prevalent throughout the book, but it appears enough times to make one uncomfortable reading it. I’m not sure if it was meant as over-the-top satire or deeply black humor or seriousness.

I struggled with this book a lot more than I expected. I expected it to be sometimes funny and mostly a story of life in North Korea. And to some extent it is. I just has some issues with the torture scenes and some of the outlandish plot twists.

That having been said, if this book is an actual depiction of life in North Korea, I cannot be more thankful to not live there. Food is scarce. Peoples lives mean nothing. Electricity is scarce. The government, which is really a cult of personality, does not allow for individualism at all. It is an Orwellian society that even exceeds Orwell’s imagination. It is a terrifying picture, even if half-true, of what the place is like.

So, the question is, do I recommend this book? I suppose I would if you are interested in North Korea or dystopian stories. If you are sensitive to torture and violence, however, I would not recommend it, especially toward the end.

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