Over the past few months, North Korea has hosted a surreal basketball “diplomacy” trip with Dennis Rodman, threatened war and held celebrations with flowers, missiles and music. But very few have an inkling of what the Hermit Kingdom is really like from the inside.
Stanford University professor of English Adam Johnson has made a very ambitious attempt to answer that question in his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction earlier this week. After an absence last year, literature buffs breathed a collective sigh of relief to see the award return this year. Previous winners include Nobel laureates Ernest Hemmingway (The Old Man and the Sea), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) and Toni Morrison (Beloved).
Johnson’s book has won near universal acclaim among critics, being called “exceedingly readable” in a review by The New York Times, which took home several Pulitzers of its own. The Guardian also published a rave review of the book, comparing it to 1984 and Brave New World, in which the writer said that Johnson “managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I've read.”
Pulling off this level of believability and eliciting such praise was no simple task for Johnson. In the process of writing the book, he made a closely chaperoned visit to the reclusive state and did copious research, devouring history books, propaganda and the testimonials of defectors. "Once I started reading these stories, everything changed," Johnson said of his investigations during a talk for Stanford’s “How I Write” lecture series. "There was a weight of them in me … They were real people."
When the research could go no further, Johnson let his mind's eye take the wheel in a process that he describes as “extending my imagination as far as I trusted and then going back to the sources.”
The result is the story of a young man named Jun Do (a Korean “John Doe”) who lives under the reign of Kim Jong-Il. Throughout Jun’s journey, he finds himself working in the worst possible jobs: tunnel soldier, kidnapper, naval spy, before ultimately ending up in Prison 33.
One passage of the best-selling tome reads: “Inside, I’m assaulted by the evening propaganda broadcasts coming over the apartment’s hardwired loudspeaker. There’s one in every apartment and factory floor in Pyongyang.”
Another: “Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous.”
Writing a book about a country about which we know so little raises many questions about accurately portraying life under such menacing conditions. Andray Abrahamian, Executive Director of the Choson Exchange, a Singaporean NGO that promotes business development for young North Koreans, has been to the North nine times since 2010. The Choson Exchange team has been a combined total of 25 times since 2009. Yet, he feels that the place remains an enigma.
Through the course of actually working – not only traveling – to the North, “we get a chance to really meet people, talk with them and get to know them,” Abrahamian told The Diplomat. “That is also possible on tours, but is tough if you don't speak Korean.”
Imperfect they may be, but Abrahamian still vouches for tours to North Korea as a means of getting some grasp on the realities of life in the country.
“There is certainly value to seeing it first hand after reading about it, even if it serves to confirm your preconceptions,” he said. “I can do a ton of research on chocolate cake and be quite certain I know how it tastes, but it isn't the same kind of knowing as actually eating one.”
Abrahamian continues, “That doesn't mean that there is one true way of knowing North Korea, but certainly my understanding of North Korea has been greatly enriched since I started going. This doesn't mean by any stretch I've seen the totality of life there, but when and where do you ever?”
Johnson is also keenly aware of this predicament, but was driven to push on despite gaps in his knowledge. The point of a fictional account is not to create a facsimile of life anyway, but to grasp its essence. In other words, there is truth and then there is Truth.
"One of the things I discovered through my research is that most North Koreans can't tell their story,” Johnson said. “It's important for others to hear it, though. So I had a sense of mission to speak about the topic.”
He added, "It's an unverifiable place. But to the fiction writer, the myth, the legend, the fables are all powerful tools to create a psychological portrait."