New book draws on reality to make fictional portrayal of life in North Korea

The Takeaway

To citizens around the world, what goes on in North Korea is largely a mystery.

Though the human rights abuses, extreme food rationing and hunger, arbitrary violence by the state and the impossibility of traveling past the country’s borders are well known, the daily reality of living within those strictures have gone undocumented. 

Adam Johnson wrote a fictional book, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” about living in North Korea under those rules. And though the book is fictional, it’s rooted in years of research, including a trip to North Korea.

He said visiting North Korea is almost a surreal experience, with people wearing the same clothes, the same lipstick and trudging on in the same way.

“People wouldn’t even dare take a glance at me, they wouldn’t take the slightest risk to do something spontaneous, because to do something spontaneous there is to do something unconsidered and therefore dangerous,” he said.

Johnson’s efforts in writing the book was to create a protagonist who was the North Korean model of the typical person: obedient, follows directions, an orphan used to do some of the least desirable work there is.

“I wanted to take a character who did right by the national narrative,” Johnson said.

But eventually, over the course of the narrative, he begins to realize the cracks in the system.

“He begins to become more like a western character,” Johnson said. “He takes life into his own hands.”

Johnson tried to base his book on the people he met and learned about in North Korea — being accurate to how much they had to eat and the choices they had to make, just to survive.

“I remember reading a narrative and one young woman and the day she realized she was starving,” Johnson said. “She was scavenging for food with four of her relatives and when they found a rotten peach on the ground, her father cut it into four pieces and let her know there wasn’t enough for her.”

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