Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Like everyone else, I read through the surge in articles after Kim Jong Il’s death to learn more about his cult of personality with morbid fascination. The North Korean propaganda machine perpetuates such myths as Kim Jong Il being a demi-god able to control the weather with his mood, or North Korea being the envy of the world for its prosperity and efficiency. It does not mention North Korea’s grotesque human rights violations or painfully tight media or how these deficiencies cast it in a terrible light to the rest of the world (naturally). What makes this novel difficult is that the reader cannot evaluate what is culturally accurate and what is creative license due to the dearth of information on daily life in North Korea. The best writers fit fictional events seamlessly into actual locations, but North Korea is not an unremarkable backdrop — it steals the scene as much as any character. Adam Johnson, an American associate professor at Stanford, visited North Korea in 2007 (an interview about this visit’s impact on the novel can be found here). read more