The Orphan Master’s Son Accuracy & Its Depictions of North Korea

I recently read the Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, an absorbing and addictive novel that is set in North Korea. The story is divided into two main parts; the first part introduces the character of Jun Do and paints a picture of the life, ways and hardships of rural North Korea. In particular, we feel the affect of the great famine during these chapters. The second part ventures into more imaginative territory, as Jun Do realises his own strengths and challenges the all-knowing leader Kim Jon Il within the established framework of Pyongyang. Although it is a fictional tale and an unconventional love story, it is also a commentary on human strength and endurance, and a very damning portrayal of the totalitarian regime. The detail with which scenes are depicted and historical facts and figures are referenced, makes it read like a genuine popular history novel. It made me question how realistic this portrayal of the hermit kingdom really was. Johnson had never previously written about North Korea and had only visited the state once during his preparation for the novel. Below I explore some aspects of what the book tells us about North Korea compared to facts and information learnt from defectors and found in the news and on agency websites. You can decide for yourself on the Orphan Master’s Son accuracy.