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Diane talks to author Adam Johnson about his new novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son” which follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.
- Adam Johnson Author of "Parasites Like Us" and "Emporium" a collection of short stories
Author Extra: Adam Johnson Answers Audience Questions
Q: I have a long and very deep interest in North Korea, and I would like to go. I am interested in exploring the nature of its eastern coast as well as some of its monasteries in the mountains in the northeast and southeast of the country. Will they let me travel there? I have a dual citizenship – Bulgarian and American. As a Bulgarian, will it be easier? Thank you. – From Teodora via Email
A: It is possible to visit the DPRK as an American. The KITC often works with an American travel agency:
Remember that a trip there won’t be a pleasure trip, and there will be many inconveniences. However, I think it’s one of the most stimulating and fascinating places to visit in the world. It’s safe there, without any crime, and the Korean people are famous for their hospitality. Also, bring antibiotics.
Q: Given the centrality of cinema to your novel, what do you make of reports of Kim Jon Il’s fascination with American movies? – From Martha via Email
A: Kim Jong-il was a famous collector of movies, with a library of 30,000 movies, most of them American, according to Kenji Fujimoto, who was Kim Jong-il’s sushi chef before he escaped.
Kim Jong-il was so obsessed with making movies that he kidnapped and imprisoned South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her Director husband Shin Sang-ok, imprisoning them until they agreed to make a communist Godzilla movie named Pulgasari.
Adam Johnson’s pictures from his trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea:
Pak Jun Do, the hero in “The Orphan Master’s Son” is not actually an orphan, but he is one of North Korea’s many faceless citizens. His adventure takes us from primitive villages to darkened DMZ tunnels to inhumane labor camps. But working with such grim material has not stopped Adam Johnson from writing a surprisingly fun thriller, set in one of the most mysterious countries on earth.
First Experiences In North Korea
Johnson took his first trip to North Korea in 2007. At the time, it was very hard to arrange travel there as an American, but now, Johnson said, American passport holders who can pay cash to travel there are welcomed because the place is so currency-starved. When he arrived in North Korea, he was struck right away by the fact that there were no planes in the sky. There is only a once-a-week flight from Beijing and a twice-a-month flight from Vladivostok. “It’s eerily quiet,” Johnson said – no cell phones, no pets, and few automobiles. “There’s no advertising and I didn’t realize quite how much, as an American, I was used to seeing a message for commerce on every surface,” he said.
Everyone Must “Volunteer”
On his way into town from the airport, Johnson was escorted by people he called his “minders” who were there to assist him and translate. He saw a truck coming toward them with many people riding in the back – one man carried a briefcase, and another woman wore a lab coat. When he asked his minders who they were and where they were going, the minders told him that they were volunteers who were going to harvest rice. When Johnson asked if they were really volunteers, his minders replied that everyone volunteers in North Korea.
A Different National Narrative
“As a writer and a reader and a teacher of creative writing, the notion of narrative became one of my touch points of fascination for writing about North Korea,” Johnson said. As an American, and in the stories Americans tell about themselves, each person is the center of his or her own story, he said. We’re individuals. “But in North Korea, it’s just the opposite. There’s one story. It’s written by the regime, by Kim Jong-il himself actually and Jim Il-Sung before him and now Kim Jong-un. And in that story, there’s one, beatific, benevolent leader bringing a nation forward into prosperity and that leadership assigns roles to everyone else in the country and that’s makes a nation of millions of secondary characters,” Johnson said.
“We Don’t Need Fiction To Make A 1984”
The Kim regime has already made a 1984-like society, Johnson said. “They have total control…an important thing about the country is that there’s no alternative version to the one the Kim Regime has put out,” he said. “I think what’s happening in the DPRK is the most wicked human experiment that people have ever conjured.”
You can read the [full transcript here]
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pak Jun Do, the hero in "The Orphan Master's Son" is not actually an orphan, but he is one of North Korea's many faceless citizens. His adventure takes us from primitive villages to darkened DMZ tunnels to inhumane labor camps. But working with such grim material has not stopped Adam Johnson from writing a surprisingly fun thriller.
MS. DIANE REHMHe joins us to talk about his new book. You are welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning, Adam.
MR. ADAM JOHNSONGood morning to you, too.
REHMIt's good to have you here. Adam, tell me when you first went to North Korea.
JOHNSONI traveled to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 2007. It used to be quite impossible to get there as an American. The time I went, it was quite difficult. Now, because they're so starved for hard currency, because of the desperate times there, they're advertising these summer trips from the KITC for American passport holders. They'll allow anyone of the great enemy nation to come in if you pay cash.
REHMTell me what you saw.
JOHNSONWell, I think the country is in great flux and what I saw in 2007 was probably a time capsule because I've talked to people who have been there just recently and things are different. But it's really hard to get a sense of that place.
JOHNSONFirst of all, I flew there on Air Koryo Airlines, the most dangerous airline in the world, the only one to get one star out of five for safety from the FAA. I flew on an old Soviet Ilyushin from 1963. And you know, when we went out over the sea, instead of flying over open water, they followed the coast all the way up and around until they hit the train tracks that went from Shenyang down to Pyongyang, which told me the pilots didn't really have navigational equipment.
JOHNSONWhen you arrive in North Korea, many things strike you right away. There are no planes in the sky. There's only the once-a-week flight from Beijing, the twice-a-month from Vladivostok. We, I think, are so inured to having con-trails above us. It's eerily quiet. There are no cell phones. There are no pets. There are very few automobiles so there's no need for stoplights. There's no advertising and I didn't quite realize how much, as an American, I was used to seeing a message for commerce on every surface.
REHMDid you deliberately go there because you planned to write this book or were you already in the midst of it?
JOHNSONI had been working on the book for about two and half years at that point.
REHMDid the authorities know that?
JOHNSONNot at all, not at all, that wouldn't be something that I could advertise. So I wanted to go there to get that verisimilitude, those real-life details you'd never know unless you were there.
REHMAnd one of the things you wrote about in The Daily Beast was such a stunner, a photograph that you have in your head of seeing people in the back of a truck.
JOHNSONThat's right. You know when I landed at the Sunan Airport, it's about 25 kilometers north of Pyongyang and I drove with my minders, I had just met them. They turned out to be wonderful, bright, interesting people. And as I was heading south toward the capital, I had a fascination with North Korean vehicles because they play a really important role in life there.
JOHNSONThe Soviets had built many car factories there that the North Koreans can keep running, but not improve. So they make a truck called the Sungri-58, and in 2012, they're making brand new vehicles from 1958, which is a real metaphor for the country, I believe. So when I saw my first vehicle, after driving for maybe ten minutes on an open road, I was really excited and I stuck my head out the window and it was a truck.
JOHNSONAnd it came toward me. It turned out to be one I didn't recognize, but it was filled with humans in the back, about three dozen folks. And there was no tailgate to the back of the dump truck so everyone was crowded up against the cab, lest a bump toss them out. And in just a glimpse as they passed, I saw a man in a vinalon sport coat.
JOHNSONThey have a material they're very proud of there that's made of a fiberglass-like material and he was carrying a briefcase. And beside him was a woman in a lab coat, like perhaps she was doctor or a researcher and they whooshed by. And I turned to my minder and I asked her, I said, who are those people? Where are they going? And she said, oh, they're volunteering to help with the harvest.
JOHNSONAnd I just wondered, who would take a briefcase with them to volunteer to pull rice? And I said, they are really volunteers? And she said, everyone must volunteer here. And that's when I kind of realized the reality of this place I'd researched was actually true.
REHMThe idea of everyone volunteering brings to mind the images that we hear in this country saw at the death of Kim Jong-il. Are you suggesting that everything is so regulated that perhaps those who were profuse in their grief were also volunteers?
JOHNSONWell, that's a great way to phrase it. When we think about North Korea, I think we have to think about the notion of a national narrative there that's much different than ours. As a writer and a reader and a teacher of creative writing, this notion of narrative became one of my touch points of fascination for writing about North Korea.
JOHNSONAs an American and in the stories that Americans tell themselves, each person is the center of his or her own story. We're all supposed to be the center of our own lives. And no matter how much we love the people around us, they're really secondary characters. But in American stories and in American life, we're supposed to be an individual, to define ourselves, to discover our own needs and desires and to move forward in life in an attempt to attain those things and therefore to define ourselves.
JOHNSONAnd when we meet obstacles or complications, we look inward or into the past and we grow and change and attain wisdom. But in North Korea, it's just the opposite. There's one story. It's written by the regime, by Kim Jong-il himself actually and Kim Il-sung before him and now Kim Jong-un. And in that story, there's one, beatific, benevolent leader bringing a nation forward into prosperity and that leadership assigns roles to everyone else in the country and that's makes a nation of millions of secondary characters.
JOHNSONAnd to be a secondary character, which is your role in North Korea, as a child, you're aptitude toward certain things are ascertained from a young age and you're directed down paths where you might be a fisherman or a soldier or a singer and in that world to have your own needs and desires is a detriment to fulfilling your role.
REHMWill you read for us from the start of the book?
JOHNSONFrom the very beginning?
REHMNo, where you have chosen...
JOHNSONOh yes. "When Comrade Buc was gone, Doctor Song turned to Jun Do, where we are from, he said, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the State, everyone had better start calling him maestro and secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change. Here Doctor Song took a sip of juice and the finger he lifted trembled slightly.
JOHNSONBut in America, Jun Do, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you."
REHMTell us about Jun Do.
JOHNSONWell, he is an orphan at the beginning of the story.
REHMHe's not really an orphan?
JOHNSONWell, I've linked the perspective very close to him and limited it to what he knows of the world and it's his belief that he's actually the son of the orphan master and because my neighbor has a close allegiance to him, I don't think we can quite tell so. But he starts off as a model citizen. He's been assigned a secondary role in his nation. It's often a grim role. Unfortunately, to be an orphan in North Korea, and there are many, is to have no advocates in the world and you're not going to get adopted likely. You're really more like child labor until you're old enough to join the military and, at that point, you're assigned the more dangerous tasks in the world.
REHMAnd he is indeed.
JOHNSONWell, we see episodes in his life in which he is a tunnel soldier and the tunnels into the DMZ are quite famous. They're gigantic. They're made to move 10,000 men an hour into South Korea from the north. They're quite extensive and there's many that we keep discovering all the time in the south. He also spends time as a kidnapper of Japanese citizens.
JOHNSONWell, all the kidnappings that take place in my book are based on actual ones, and in the '70s and '80s especially because North Korea had so insulated itself, it didn't really know anything about the outside world so they couldn't even go to other countries and act normally. They didn't know the cultural nuances of other societies. So they would go and steal people, fetch them back to Pyongyang, learn about how things worked in Japan and the Philippines and South Korea and then train their agents to be able to move amongst people of other societies.
REHMBut would they keep them for years?
JOHNSONFor their lives, yes.
REHMFor their lives.
JOHNSONYes, they could never return. There were actually a couple of famous returns in 2005. The Japanese government is quite upset about this and it's really astonishing that, you know, our former president went to the DPRK to secure the release of two American journalists, but left other citizens from other countries there as well.
REHMAdam Johnson, his new book "The Orphan Master's Son." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Writer Adam Johnson has a new novel. It's all about North Korea, its mysteries, its humor, its people, its prisons. It's titled the "Orphan Master's Son." He's here in the studio with me. I do invite your calls, comments, 800-433-8850. Adam Johnson is also the author of the short story collection "Emporium" and the novel "Parasites Like Us." He teaches creative writing at Stanford University.
REHMWhy and how, Adam Johnson, did you first become interested in or obsessed enough with what was going on in North Korea to devote five years of your life to writing this novel?
JOHNSONI did become obsessed. I began just as a reader. I think I read a couple books that really surprised me that made me aware that there was the grimmest reality possible on the other side of the earth. I read the "Aquariums of P'yongyang" by Kang Chol-Hwan, the testimony of a person who was in Yodok Camp 15, a gulag that's operating right now as we speak with 50,000 inhabitants in it in the DPRK.
JOHNSONIt's a family prison so when you're sent there, your children go and your parents go. And that's how the true control takes place in North Korea, that if someone around you does something bad, the fates of everyone are included. And that begins a process of self-censorship and everyone keeping control over one another for familial safety.
JOHNSONI became just kind of obsessed with these narratives. I began reading the stories of defectors about what their lives were like, how they survived. The kind of unbelievable choices they had to make over a matter of course of survival. And I began wondering -- I began thinking that this was the most difficult place in the world to be fully human. That if anything you do can be used against you, that if spontaneity is not possible, I wondered how people shared their inner thoughts. When did they whisper their doubts or questions to others? When would they take a risk, you know, to reveal their hearts?
REHMAnd are you saying that the only way you could truly discover that was through fiction?
JOHNSONWell, I do believe that that's the great power of literary fiction is to fill in the human dimension, you know, where it's not easily obtained. One of the first things I did was try to find a book by a North Korean. And, you know, I went to Stanford's green library and asked them for a novel by a North Korean and they just rolled their eyes. I did get my hands on a few books, but they were state sponsored, commissioned by the state with the approval of the censors. And of course, the whole point of them is to glorify the regime, which they did.
JOHNSONBut to my knowledge, from my research, we don't have a literary novel written by someone in the DPRK in the last 60 years, which means either the books are being written and they don't get out or no one's risking it. And that means no one's read a book as we understand it.
REHMSo when you were there in 2007, aside from or in addition to being with your minder...
REHM...did you have any other contacts?
JOHNSONWell, it's not legal for a citizen of the DPRK to interact with a foreigner without special training. So I knew that if I attempted to have, like, a genuine interaction with someone, it could, you know, put them in jeopardy.
JOHNSONThat was the last thing I would want.
JOHNSONSo really I had to look through the veil of my minders to try and glean something about themselves, even though they'd been trained to not reveal anything of that nature to me. When you're in the capitol -- you can see me now and your listeners probably can't, I'm a big guy. I'm 6'4". I'm kind of linebacker sized. And as I would walk through the streets of P'yongyang with my minders in tow, who were obvious officials, as I'd move through throngs of people walking fast and very determined, they wouldn't even glance at me.
JOHNSONSomething in them understood that there was something different ahead. And they wouldn't even risk taking an interest in an unknown thing. They've engrained that sense of censorship so deeply within themselves.
REHMIt sounds as though you're writing kind of a Korean version of Orwell's "1984."
JOHNSONWell, you know, we don't need fiction to make a 1984. The Kim Regime has done it. They have total control. The country's quite geographically isolated. And I think an important thing about that country is that there's no alternative version to the one the Kim Regime has put out. There are no magazines there. There are no other newspapers. The radios come off the assembly line without a dial 'cause they're preset to the government station. And if you tamper with them, that's the kind of thing that can get you and your family sent to Camp 15.
REHMWhere did you stay?
JOHNSONOh, the P'yongyang hotels are really a very interesting topic in and of themselves. I stayed on the Yanggakdo Hotel on Yanggak Island. It's the Yanggakdo Hotel. It's a 47-story building. It's in the middle of the Taedong River. So you have to take a bridge from the city out to it. You need a permit to get an off ramp onto the island. And to leave the island, you have to be with an official minder.
JOHNSONWhen I was at the hotel -- and they love to make these show hotels to make themselves look worldly and urbane and prosperous. But at the hotel, all the staff were Chinese workers on contract. So there, I couldn't even meet a North Korean receptionist or a wait person in the lobby. I was to have no contact.
JOHNSONThey only open up the DPRK a couple weeks a year, unless you're there on diplomatic or business, you know, purposes. I was there as a tourist. And even so, at the height of these travel seasons when they turn on the power all night and make the city look like a showcase -- they start up all the fountains and turn on all the lights -- even then there were only enough tourists to fill the 32nd floor, which I was on and the 6th floor. And the whole rest of the hotel was dark.
JOHNSONAnd one of the strangest creepiest things I've done is I went to the top of the hotel. And they didn't watch me there because they assumed I could get into no trouble on that island. And I went down the fire escape through all those dark floors and started wandering them. And what I discovered was that they'd been cannibalizing the other floors, stealing the fixtures and the toilets and the doors and ripping up the carpets from the unused parts of the hotel to keep a couple floors showy and looking new, which also seemed like a metaphor for that whole nation.
REHMWas there anything akin to room service?
JOHNSONWell, the Korean people are a wonderful people. They have a great sense of hospitality. I only met that through the minders. The Yanggakdo Hotel famously has no fifth floor. The elevator button goes from four to six. And I didn't dare go on the fifth floor. But, you know, people have snuck onto the fifth floor and put their videos on YouTube. And you can just, you know, YouTube up Yanggakdo Hotel fifth floor. And that's where they have all the surveillance equipment and all the rooms where they monitor the rest of the hotel. But really I think their spy measures are fairly primitive and fairly limited.
REHMYou know, you spoke in your article in the Daily Beast about the photographs you took and realized almost immediately that other people who had been there had taken the identical photographs because those are the only ones available.
JOHNSONThe trip there is quite canned. Everyone is shown the exact same things. So, you know, what I experienced there was what they wanted me to experience. But when you're there, it's so surreal. It's unlike anything you've ever seen before, so it feels like you're having an utterly unique genuine experience. And when I came home and put my pictures up on Flicker and saw that everyone had taken the picture of the same bell hanging from the roof of the International Friendship Museum, et cetera, it was only then in my own office that I realized completely how canned it was.
JOHNSONAnd yet, you know, there are things that they don't -- that are so surreal they don't understand it. The first place they took me in P'yongyang was to the Korean History Museum. And the first exhibit was a big room. And in the room, there was a pedestal and on top of it was a Plexiglas box. And in the box was a brown piece of what looked like bark. And the docent of the museum, who has no PhD in history, she's someone who's trained to read a script -- all the minders were watching me -- and she explained to me that this was a skull fragment and that it was 4.5 million years old and that it was found in the Taedong River.
JOHNSONAnd when there's no evidence for something in North Korea, they make a big painting as proof in a diorama. And with a pointer, she showed me how humanity had evolved in P'yongyang and it had spread up through Asia, out through Europe and finally down into South Korea, America and Africa last was the last place Koreans colonized. And she ended her lecture by saying, so we are all Korean. And she informed me that I was actually Korean.
REHMWhat is your background?
JOHNSONYou know, my family's from South Dakota, Norwegian farmers. My grandmother was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux. So all American Midwest folks, I suppose.
REHMSurely they must have done a thorough investigation of you before allowing you into the country, and the fact that you were a writer, a teacher at Stanford University, wouldn't that necessarily put a red flag on your visit?
JOHNSONWhat happens in P'yongyang, I think, is deeply mysterious. The thing about North Korea is it's almost impossible to verify anything you've learned about that place. The death of Kim Jong-il, we don't know it's circumstances. There was no autopsy. We don't know anything about how, when, where, why it happened.
JOHNSONAbout the average people in North Korea, the normal citizens who are outside of P'yongyang, the center of power, I think, we know a great deal. Six thousand people defected last year. It's a very arduous thing to defect. The country's quite mountainous. You have to cross the Yellow with the Duman River. Once you get to Southern China, because of a repatriation agreement, it's easy to become enslaved, to become a forced wife. Because all one citizen of China has to do is make a phone call and you're sent back to North Korea to face perilous consequences for that. Then you have...
REHMHow do you know that?
JOHNSONOh, there are, you know, tons and tons and tons of missionaries and NGOs. Actually, the missionary community are one of the most active communities attempting to help North Koreans through their defection. But the way we know these things is this. Once people finally make it to South Korea, there's a facility called Hanawon. And at Hanawon, the thousands of people who make it out live there for a month to four months, depending on their age and circumstances. And there, the first thing that happens is they're debriefed by officials to see if they might be agents posing as defectors. They caught two in October who were attempting an assassination in South Korea.
JOHNSONBut more importantly, they make a little portrait of every single person. And it's through these that we know how many calories of food people get a day, how many hours they work, what possessions they had, how much they had to volunteer their group criticism sessions. Also in Haniwan, people are prepared for a different kind of society, one with stoplights and ATM machines, where you have to pay rent for where you live and basic social interactions. In the West, we might walk up to someone and say, hey, how's it going? That's a dangerous and aggressive question for someone who's freshly from North Korea.
REHMAdam Johnson. His new novel is titled "The Orphan Master's Son" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Adam, tell us more about Jun Do . I must say that name does sound an awful lot like John Doe. But tell us about his life as it evolves in the novel.
JOHNSONWell, earlier, I mentioned this notion of in America, we're supposed to define ourselves and take risks and chances to become our best possible selves. But in North Korea, you must fulfill a role. And so this character starts off as a model citizen. He does what he's told, when he's told. He doesn't ask questions. He might actually seem like a flat character for a Western reader at the beginning of the book.
JOHNSONBut he meets some Americans in the Sea of Japan and he gets a look at a different narrative of how people might live. And he is assigned to a listening post where he's supposed to intercept messages. And really, he can listen to news and stories out there that he didn't know existed. And it plants the seeds in him that there might be a different way. Still, he does not defect. It's only when he's shown that he's truly disposable by that regime.
JOHNSONWell, he is sent to prison. And a lot of people who travel overseas, who get too much bad influence from other cultures that might spread this to other people in the nation, this alternative narrative, are often sequestered on labor camps. And, you know, we have many examples of that. And then, once he sees the darkest place of his own nation, he decides to define himself, write his own script. And the story becomes one about love. There's the nation's actress Sun Moon. She's a fantastic character. I loved writing her. She's a diva of North Korean propaganda movies. And our character, Jun Do, falls in love with her.
JOHNSONAnd she has acted only in movies that have glorified the state and she has never seen a real movie. And together, in a wonderful moment, they watch an American movie. The movie's "Casablanca." And she sees that in this movie, stories -- a story can be about a character. It can be about a love...
REHMAnd a choice.
JOHNSON...and a choice. And she realizes that she has to go to -- she has to become a real actress, that everything she's ever done has been a lie and that she has to get to Hollywood. And she says to our character, Jun Do, you must get me there. And he begins to rewrite the whole script of P'yongyang to make that happen.
REHMWhen you worked on this female character, on whom did you draw?
JOHNSONWell, I drew on a lot of narratives. I drew on the love part for the love I have between my wife Stephanie and myself. She's the love of my life. And I try to, you know, incorporate that as the basis of these two. But opera is beloved in P'yongyang, as are the movies. They're really worth watching, so I had lots of models.
REHMAdam Johnson and his new book is titled "The Orphan Master's Son." When we come back, we're going to open the phones, take your calls, read your email, look at your postings on Facebook and Twitter. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. It's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Raleigh, N.C. Good morning, John.
JOHNYes, good morning. And what a great humanitarian service you both are, both for writing the book and focusing on it. You know, we always hear about North Korea in terms of nuclear weapons. I wish we heard more often about human rights. It doesn't matter the weapons they have if the purpose of those weapons is to preserve a system that has work camps of hundreds of thousands of people. I have nothing to do with Korea, but it's almost become a passion for me. And I cannot understand why our country and the world is so mute on the issue.
JOHNAnd second, you mentioned Orwell. And I'm just hoping this book will also be like "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a book which really created an emotional connection in the United States against slavery. I hope that the same thing will happen here, that enough people will read it to feel that, you know, this is something that is just not happening 100 years ago. Well, you know, we're well advised not to mention Stalin and Hitler as, you know, comparisons, but this is one case where it's not too far off, if not right on point.
REHMDo you agree with that?
JOHNSONI think what's happening in the DPRK is the most wicked human experiment that people have ever conjured, actually. And thank you, caller, for those comments. I really tried to capture the human dimension as best I could, but you know what? I needed lots of research and lots of imagination to do it. And we won't know whether the version I've created is accurate or not until freedom does come to the DPRK.
REHMAnd that is precisely what Carol from Reston, Va. emails. She says, "Adam Johnson's description of North Korea today reminds me of my travel experiences in China …
REHM… in the early '80s. At that time, few westerners would have imagined how far and how fast China would come, thanks largely to the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. What does Adam Johnson imagine for the next generation of North Koreans?"
JOHNSONHum, well, this is a difficult question, one that I've pondered a great deal. The idea here is that the control is absolutely total right now. The only way people can have an alternative possibility there is to escape. It can't happen within the confines of the nation right now.
JOHNSONWe don't know who's in power. Pyongyang is a total mystery because very few people defect from there. So we don't get their information. We don't have human intelligence there. We have like satellite images. All I do know is that the Kim story is necessary. Whoever's in power needs Kim Jong-Un because the people don't know any other possible narrative for how their lives might work. So we don't know if he's in charge, if it's a military junta, if it's the aunt, if the uncle, but something will happen. It must break at some point.
REHMAnd are they simply -- is their acquiescence simply ingrained from generation to generation?
JOHNSONWell, at what point to do people remember having a land with art, with books, with their own family traditions, where they were allowed to follow their own heritage? You have to remember that the Japanese brutally occupied Korea from 1910 to end of the war, 35 years in which they conscripted five million Koreans to be slave labor that totally decimated the culture of the entire peninsula.
JOHNSONAnd on top of that comes World War II, then the Korean War, then a repressive regime for 60 years. So it's really been a century since people have been allowed to lead their own lives for their own purposes.
REHMAnd I asked you while, we were off the air, where you were staying. You told me -- you said you had enjoyed going into art galleries. What kind of art galleries are there in North Korea?
JOHNSONWell, the National Museum is in Pyongyang. It's a really fantastic facility. It has like 400 grand paintings in there. You walk into the first room -- and can I ask you what subject matter you think would be on the paintings?
REHMSomeone in military guard.
JOHNSONThat's right. There's an entire large first form of paintings of Kim Jong Il. He's on horseback, he's staring boldly out at the waves, he's saluting the people, peasant children are hugging him. And then you go into a room with paintings of Kim Il Sung and then Kim Jong Suk. And so there's no subject matter for an artist there except that glorifies the regime.
REHMHum, all right. To Houston, Texas. Good morning, Robert.
ROBERTYeah, good morning. This is a very fascinating program, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
REHMGood. I'm glad you're enjoying it.
ROBERTWhat I wanted to ask your guest and we have -- I’m on a landline, but we have a bad connection.
ROBERTSo I'll take the answer on the air.
ROBERTWhat I wanted to ask your guest is how can such a poor country afford a nuclear weapons program?
JOHNSONUm-hum. Well, I'm not an expert on the weapons program. There are people who are very dedicated to that who would be able to answer that question better, but the key that we see at every turn is just a reckless disregard for the value of the lives of the people there. And, you know, in the '90s that was a terrible decade for that nation. The Soviet Union discontinued much of the support that had kept the country going.
JOHNSONThere were some horrible floods in '95 and '96. And the great famine, you know, came during that period. And we don't even know how many people died. We don't know how many people actually live in North Korea, but the estimates range conservatively from 600,000 and they go all the way to three million, but probably 10 percent of the population was allowed to just starve to death during the promulgation of this nuclear program. So the priorities of the regime are clear.
REHMYou mention that your character Jun Do does go to prison. Would you read for us? And this particular portion is not Jun Do speaking, but one of his interrogators.
JOHNSONThat's right. This is from later in the book. I'll read the excerpt. "There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we're still us. We're still family. I was eight when my father had this talk with me. We were under a tree on Moranbong Hill. He told me that there was a path set out for us. On it, we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way.
JOHNSONEven if we walk this path side-by-side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside we would be holding hands. On Sundays the factories were closed so the air was clear and I could imagine this path ahead stretching across the Taedong Valley, a path lined with willows and vaulted by singular white clouds moving as a group. We ate berry-flavored ices and listened to the sounds of old men at their Chang-gi boards, slapping cards in a spirited game of Go-Stop.
JOHNSONSoon my thoughts were of toy sailboats, like the ones the yangban kids were playing with at the pond. But my father was still walking me down that path. He said to me, I denounce this boy for having a blue tongue and we laughed. I pointed at my father, this citizen eats mustard, I said to him. I had recently tried mustard for the first time and the look on my face had made my parents laugh. My father addressed an invisible authority in the air, this boy has counter-revolutionary thoughts about mustard. He should be sent to a farm to correct his mustardy thinking.
JOHNSONNow, take my hand, my father said to me. I put my small hand in his and this his mouth became sharp. He said to me, I denounce this citizen as an imperialist puppet who should be remanded to stand trial for crimes against the State. His face was red and venomous. I've witnessed this boy spew capitalist diatribes in an effort to poison our minds with his filth. The old men turned from their game to observe us. I was terrified, on the verge of crying. My father said, see, my mouth said that, but my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me in order to protect the two of you, know that inside, she and I are holding hands.
JOHNSONAnd if someday you must say something like that to me, I'll know it's not really you. That's inside. Inside is where the father and son will always be holding hands."
REHMWow. If Jun Do is able to somehow break away and rise up and escape...
REHM...is it the love inside that he has that gives him finally the power to do that? And if he has that power, why is it that many more do not?
JOHNSONWell, the Korean people are just as human as we are. All people are the same, I believe. They have the same motivations and desires, the need to have hope and love. This section I wrote here was about me thinking about my three children who are nine, seven and five. I was trying to think about what it would be like to live in a land where they might see some grim outcome from one of our family members. How would I prepare them for that?
JOHNSONYou know, how would I get them -- would I risk telling them that I thought everything was a lie or would I let them believe the lie because it would allow them to more safely traverse the society and be less likely to be imperiled. And then there's the question of what does it mean to survive if you have nothing to live for? That's the choice that the character in my book must finally make. Is he gonna be a survivor or is he gonna have something that is worth living for?
REHMLet's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Michael, you're on the air.
MICHAELYes, good morning, Diane. A big fan of the show.
MICHAELI was just going to -- in 2003 I went to North Korea. I worked on board merchant ships that delivered food for the World Food Program. And I got to go to Nampo, Changyang and another port city on the east coast. And what really fascinated me and what really kinda, you know, captured me was the brainwash -- the people, the general population, how they were brainwashed into, you know, I guess believing that North Korea was the best country in the world. And it was interesting to see how they looked at us.
MICHAELHere we are, well dressed in our Carharts, our clothes and, you know, giving them food. And here they are in their, you know, clothes that are, I mean, sewn 100 times and no shoes on and, you know, you can see through (word?) but yet they'll stand there and tell you how great they are and how horrible we were. And it was just -- that really took me, you know, in that -- and it's kinda almost sad how, you know, they only had -- the only thing they knew is what their government told them.
JOHNSONI experienced the exact same thing that the caller spoke of. I was constantly told how North Korea was a worker's paradise, that they had universal healthcare. They often said that they were the most democratic nation in the world. They told me that their voter turnout was 99.9 percent while in America it was often a paltry 50 or 60 percent.
JOHNSONThey had lots of, you know, stock moments to enlist responses. For instance, one of my minders kept using little prompts. He would say, what do you think of terrorism, Professor Johnson, you know. And I would say, I think terrorism is bad. And he would say, let me tell you what Kim Jong Il thinks of terrorism. And they were constantly promulgating all these notions of self glorification. And yet, it was obvious that we had cameras, that I had, you know, and iPod. They were very curious to look at that device.
JOHNSONAnd, you know, on some level, I believe -- and this is the feeling I got, that I can't verify, when I was there, I believe that they knew the lone version that they get there was not true, but because there's no alternative they don't know what is true, what life might be like in other places. In Pyongyang we don't know. Supposedly, there were cell phone towers everywhere. So someone's using cell phones, which means they can have the internet, which means they can have movies, et cetera.
REHMAdam Johnson's book is titled, "The Orphan Master's Son." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm wondering about the reviews that you've gotten on this book. One reviewer felt...
REHM...you shouldn't be writing such a fun novel about one of the worst places on Earth. What do you feel about that criticism?
JOHNSONWell, I would say that, you know, what is a society without humor? Are those humorless people? And I also think humor is everywhere in life. And it's a necessary, uh, balancing element to darkness. And that the true darkness of North Korea, the reality of it was, you know, so heavy that I had to keep a lot of it out of the book. But there are grim moments in the book. There are black portraits. And I think a tension builds in the reader that needs to be released. And without humor the humanity of the people wouldn't be complete, that I was trying to depict.
REHMEven with your minders present, were you able to talk to ordinary people?
REHMNot at all?
REHMAnd how long were you there?
JOHNSONWell, you know, they only open up North Korea certain times in the year. They tell you when you're gonna arrive and when you're gonna leave. So I was there for, I believe, about six days.
REHMYou must have gotten lonely?
JOHNSONWell, I was fascinated every moment. Even when I had a spare moment in my hotel, I just stared out Pyongyang at night and looked at the Quangbok Express busses racing by. And...
REHMDo you speak the language?
JOHNSONWell, if I would have known I was gonna spend six years writing a novel on North Korea...
REHMYou would have learned it.
JOHNSON...the first thing I would have done was learn Korean.
REHMBut you didn't?
JOHNSONNo. No, I didn't. And I wish I would have. It's such a beautiful culture. I think it's a beautiful language. I became, you know, fascinated with, you know, Sanjo music and all the cultural traditions. I don't know how I got so obsessed about this culture, but the more -- even being Pyongyang and seeing all those people I couldn't talk to, that I couldn't get to know, whose stories I couldn't hear, amplified my desire to individuate them, to bring them to life.
JOHNSONAnd I had to use my imagination and research to do that because it was impossible. And I don't know if my version is the right one. Only when North Korean artists and painters and filmmakers are finally free enough to tell their own stories will we finally know.
REHMHow long do you think it will be?
JOHNSONOh, I hope change comes. I hope it comes slowly, honestly, gradually, because there's so much for them to learn that it might be very chaotic to happen quickly.
REHMAdam Johnson and his new novel is titled, "The Orphan Master's Son." It's published by Random House. Congratulations.
JOHNSONIt's been a wonderful interview. Thank you for having me here.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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