Pak Jun Do is an orphan. Living in North Korea, he grows up among other wayward children, dictating where they will work, when they will eat, and so on. His father, the orphan master, keeps him and the other kids alive for as long as he can during the famine in the 90s. As an adult, Jun Do undergoes pain training, a way of withstanding severe pain–such as torture–and learns to fight without special equipment in the tunnels.
It’s been about a year since I read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, but it has resonated with me. The hard lives of the common people, the pain and suffering that Jun Do endures amazes me to this day. He undergoes starvation during a famine, survives, and is tortured several times in adulthood. Despite his intense beatings, he manages to survive. He gets a tattoo of a famous Korean actress across his chest, and he eventually falls in love with Sun Moon.
How can anyone survive in a country where everything is censored baffles and interests me. I’m so used to the luxury of my country’s sense of freedom, sense of entitlement in of itself, that the idea of what I listen to or read being controlled is hard for me to grasp. The fantastical political jargon throughout the novel, as a subplot, is as serious as it is ridiculous. What I realized after reading these sections is that this is the Korean people’s form of entertainment: a narrative in which Sun Moon and a high-ranked general fall in love, with a political slant.
Kim Jung Il appears several times throughout the novel. He is scary, because he knows that he is in control of the people around him, especially a woman who is his captive for many years. (She was an innocent woman who was sailing around the world with a good friend, when their journey was unexpectedly interrupted and went terribly awry.)
Unlike the comical appearance of the North Korean leader in Woke Up Lonely, where the main character’s wife impersonates him, this version of Kim Jung Il is terrifying. He banters with Commander Ga, and has his female prisoner translate his Korean books into English. Kim Jun Il is scary because he knows that he’s in a position of power, one that can destroy lives if he so chooses.
Pak Jun Do’s life is one of hardship. As a child, he survives a famine. As an adult, he kidnaps people and alters their lives, drastically changing the lives of the people he kidnaps.
What astounds me about Jun Do is his willingness to do whatever it takes in order to survive. When he enters a labor camp, he does whatever it takes to survive, with the help of an older woman. From there, his life takes on a drastic turn, one that I cannot talk about without mentioning spoilers.
The Orphan Master’s Son opened my eyes to what it really means to have a hard life, one in which you may never move up in the ranks of society due to the way in which the society of North Korea worked back then. There is much to learn from this novel, despite it being a work of fiction. It’s a solid novel, a good political informant, and overall a good story.
I highly recommend The Orphan Master’s Son to anyone who is interested in North Korea, or anyone who wants to read a novel that’s part thriller, part romance, and a world entirely different from the United States.