Searching for truth in North Korea

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Searching for truth in North Korea

Adam Johnson’s "The Orphan Master's Son" reflects perceptions of equality

by Shannon Eddy on Friday, December 21, 2012 - 8:15am

Adam JohnsonAs a communist country, North Korea prides itself on keeping everyone on equal footing. When author and Stanford English professor Adam Johnson took a tour of the country, he noted that women in the capital city were dressed professionally just as often as the men. In particular, he noticed there appeared to be more female than male doctors. But like many stories coming out of North Korea, what he saw wasn’t unequivocally “true.”

“You see women in lab coats,” he says, “but you can’t speak with them because it’s illegal.”

In North Korea, a country trapped in the propaganda-fueled deception that Johnson calls the “national story,” it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Similarly, it was difficult for Johnson to know whether the women were really doctors or simply actors sent to impress him on his tour.

Johnson’s New York Times best-selling novel, "The Orphan Master’s Son," challenges our concepts of truth while also casting a light on the true status of women in North Korea. The Clayman Institute invited the public to an Artist’s Salon featuring the book, where Johnson read from his novel and answered questions for a crowd that spilled out into the halls.

Sifting through stories

Adam Johnson and book audienceThe novel follows the life of Pak Jun Do as he rises through the ranks of North Korean society, taking on positions from professional kidnapper to diplomat to the United States and eventually filling the perilous role of Kim Jong Il’s political rival. He must grapple with the national story, struggling to distinguish reality as he tries to save the wife that he loves. The uncertainty of truth in his life is reflective of the uncertainty of the status of women in North Korea as they struggle with their own place in the national story.

Johnson paints a picture of North Korea that seems like a fantasy world. Values seem outlandish, as in the case of an elderly couple who are terrified of voicing a single opinion beyond state-sponsored propaganda, even in front of their own son. Marriages can be assigned, with the most beautiful wives awarded to national heroes. Loudspeakers in homes broadcast propaganda every day. If a single member of a family commits a perceived act of dissent, their entire family can be sent to work camps. In one particularly painful scene, Johnson writes of a pair of friends scavenging dead moths in the middle of the night to avoid starvation at one of the work camps.

Johnson came to grapple with the same issue that North Koreans face every day – the struggle to separate the truth from myths, and true stories from lies.

But this world isn’t a fantasy, and it is no figment of Johnson’s imagination. "The Orphan Master’s Son" was the product of six years of research, a journey sparked when Johnson assigned "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag" to his class about novels. It was the first of many accounts of North Korean defectors that he would read over the years, each adding new details or individual stories that captivated Johnson. He found that nothing coming out of the country could be confirmed, so while there were many things that stories agreed upon, it was hard to label anything as completely true.

Adam JohnsonJohnson therefore came to grapple with the same issue that North Koreans face every day – the struggle to separate the truth from myths, and true stories from lies. When loudspeakers in each house are permanently set to the government station and outside movies are replaced with propaganda-fueled productions out of Pyongyang, North Koreans are so thoroughly surrounded by the “national story” that they have little concept of the outside world. More sinister than propaganda, even the mildest dissenters – and their entire families – can be sentenced to work camps, often a death sentence. But there is a sense of what is real and what is not, especially for characters in Johnson’s novel, who become tangled in lies of the government’s national story.

So how much do North Koreans caught up in the national story actually believe? “You don’t believe it,” Johnson says, “but it’s all there is.”

Communism values people being on equal footing. As such, gender equality has been part of the national story from the beginning.

Truth in equal footing?

Communism values people being on equal footing. As such, gender equality has been part of the national story from the beginning. As propaganda against capitalism, the North Korean government calls attention to social issues in America. A favorite issue is gender equality. “The status of women in America is something North Koreans point to in order to disparage the United States,” Johnson says.

According to Johnson, “In the countryside, women are equal in their subjugation and the degree to which they have almost no value to the state.” In one scene, men and women are indiscriminately rounded up into trucks to participate in a back-breaking harvest in the fields. Every woman in the book has the same mandatory army service as the men, and – as Johnson noticed on his visit – women appear to be in professional positions just as often as the men.

Johnson signing books

But as we know, the plot of the national story can be deceiving. As Johnson notes, in both the book and real life, men hold all political positions of power. And in terms of social boundaries, North Korean women are especially restricted. While North Koreans may criticize the lack of equality of women in the United States, they also cite sexual freedom and the women’s ability to dictate their own lives as signs of, as Johnson says, “an uncivil society.”

So, while a proclamation of gender equality is a large part of Johnson’s depiction of the national story, it appears that its truth is just as shaky as the rest of the propaganda coming out of the loudspeakers. Johnson’s page-turning novel calls attention to the struggle that women face in North Korea. They may or may not believe that they have any sort of equality, but like other parts of their lives over which they have no control, what they are told may be “all there is” for them to believe.


Book cover for "The Orphan Master's Son"Adam Johnson is an award-winning writer and associate professor in Stanford University’s English department. He has been a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow as well as a Stegner Fellow here at Stanford. In addition to "The Orphan Master’s Son," Johnson’s books include the novel "Parasites Like Us" (California Book Award) and the short story collection "Emporium."



Shannon EddyShannon Eddy is a sophomore at Stanford University planning to major in International Relations. She is a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team