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An Everyman in a Unique Dystopia

Adam Johnson's hero endures in North Korea.

Photo: Robert Durell

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By Sheila Himmel

When tyrants die, the world usually gets to peer into their bunkers and palaces. Not so in December, when the death of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il was kept secret for two days and his little-known son promoted amid tightly choreographed mass spectacles.

"Kim Jong Il spent his life creating a land of mysteries and secrets, and in his death he has created his greatest unknown," says Adam Johnson, whose latest novel, The Orphan Master's Son (Random House), takes place in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "Kim Jong Un inherits not a sepulcher but a shroud. Who is the son, how old is he, is he really in power? So the uncertainty continues."

Six years ago, Johnson, a professor of creative writing and a 1999-01 Stegner fellow, became captivated by Kim's exploits, including his kidnapping of a South Korean director and actress whom Kim wanted to make movies (including a script he'd written for a communist Godzilla). Johnson started reading the translation of Pyongyang's newspaper and the oral histories of gulag survivors and pondering a nation of 25 million subjected to daily loudspeaker propaganda. ( "And you must listen to it," Johnson says. "If you're caught tampering with your loudspeaker, that's something that could send you to a prison mine.") He began to imagine the life of an ordinary citizen. What happens to personal identity? If you have suspicions about the regime, do you share them with others? At what risk? Johnson also felt the Dear Leader had to be a character in the book. "I think it's the novelist's job to fill out hidden psychological landscapes," Johnson says. And what could be more hidden than Kim Jong Il?

To convey a human nightmare in page-turning fiction, Johnson used a "mosaic, puzzle-solving way of storytelling," David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote in one of the many impressive reviews the book has received. Sam Sacks, in the Wall Street Journal, called it a "work of high adventure, surreal coincidences and terrible violence, seeming to straddle the line between cinematic fantasy and brutal actuality."

Johnson knew he had to visit North Korea to put flesh on the bones of his research. After being turned down twice for a visa as a visiting scholar, Johnson met a Korean War orphan whose NGO planted apple orchards in North Korea. As the orchardist's assistant, he got a tourist visa. He says getting into the DPRK has gone "from impossible to quite difficult, to difficult. . . . The desperation for [visitors'] hard currency is very clear."

A robust 6-foot-4, Johnson was hard to miss. And yet, he says, "I would walk the streets and people would not even look up at me. They were afraid to."

A visitor's trip is scripted to prevent genuine interaction. In Pyongyang, Johnson stayed in the Yanggak Island hotel, staffed by Chinese, "So we didn't even get to meet a North Korean citizen at breakfast." He irritated his minders with questions about why he saw only one shade of lipstick and no citizens in wheelchairs, but pleased them by spending lots of time at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, where the book has several significant scenes.

The minders' spiel describes the DPRK as the most democratic nation in the world. "They'd say to me, 'How many people turned out to your last election?' About 60 percent. 'We're 100 percent. We're more democratic!' "

On the island where tourists are housed, Johnson's hotel is open two weeks a year, for the Airirang festival celebrating the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founding autocrat. Even then, only two floors were occupied. One day Johnson took the emergency stairwell to the 49th floor, and found only remains of cannibalized fixtures, doors and carpets. It is impossible to get parts in North Korea. Cars run without lights at night. People go hungry. Johnson saw old women eating a lunch of onion stalks, and a family in a tree, stealing chestnuts.

But at the festival in Rungrado May Day Stadium, there were 50,000 gymnasts on the field and another 50,000 middle-school students in the stands holding colored cards to make displays on one side of the stadium, a human pixilation. "I watched for an hour and a half," Johnson says, "and not a single human made a misstep." Johnson tried to put himself in the mindset of the performers. "Each is a little human, holding a card, hiding behind it. To me it illuminates everything that is wrong in this nation. Not one human here has a choice."

Sheila Himmel is a writer in Palo Alto.


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