Misunderstanding North Korea in ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’

When I heard the news last week that North Korea’s National Symphony might mount an American tour if the governments of both countries sign off the trip, I was reminded of the first terrific novel I read this year, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. A story about Jun Do, the son of the administrator of a North Korean orphanage who becomes a signal operator on a ship, then a national hero, before facing a spectacular downfall, it’s a profound meditation on the uncertainty of identity in a totalitarian state. But in an extended sequence of the novel, Jun Do visits Texas as part of a North Korean diplomatic mission, where he’s assumed to be a high-ranking member of the North Korean government. What’s fascinating about his experiences there is the mutual inability to understand. It’s not just a portrait of naive North Koreans introduced to a land of plenty, but of American inability to fathom the wants and constraints of life in North Korea, what American interactions with North Korea mean for their sense of their own country.

It’s absolutely true that there are things in Texas that are a revelation to Jun Do. Seeing the Senator who’s hosting the visit give his dog a treat, “Jun Do understood that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.” The things he’s profoundly moved by have less to do with plenty, than with information. When he finds a phone book in the room where he’s staying, “It took him a while to understand that everyone in central Texas was listed here, with their full names and addresses. He couldn’t believe that you could look up anyone and seek them out, that all you had to do to prove you weren’t an orphan was to open a book and point to your parents.” And he’s entranced by the Senator’s family photo wall, wondering “Was this what a family was, how it grew—straight as the children’s teeth? Sure, there was an arm in a sling and over time the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons, without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.”

These aren’t the kinds of things that the Americans who meet Jun Do think must be new to him. A PhD candidate wants to know if Jun Do knows that South Korea won the war. The Senator’s wife assumes he might have issues receiving medical treatment from a woman, manages to miss why Jun Do stitches might be made of non-Western medical establishment-approved monofilament material, and can’t seem to understand why burning international minutes isn’t the only reason it might be wildly inadvisable to ring up the woman Jun Do claims is his wife. Wanda, “the shadowy intelligence figure” at the gathering approaches Jun Do’s ignorance more as a matter of anthropology and less as a matter of deprivation. “You’re looking at me like maybe I never saw a black person before,” Juno Do tells her. “It’s possible,” Wanda tells him. “I met the U.S. Navy before,” Jun Do says. “Lots of those guys are black. And my English teacher was from Angola. The only black man in the DPRK. He said it wasn’t so lonely as long as he gave us all African accents.” Jun Do’s North Korea is both poorer and experientially richer than Wanda or the Senator’s wife can possibly imagine:

Wanda turned to him. “Do you feel free?” she asked. She cocked her head. “Do you know what free feels like?” How to explain his country to her, he wondered. How to explain that leaving its confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan—that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with other boys in the slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere, because there were guards everywhere—that was the purest freedom. How to make someone understand that the scorch-water they made from the rice burned to the bottom of the pot tasted better than any Texas lemonade? “Are there labor camps here?” he asked. “No,” she said. “Mandatory marriages, forced-criticism sessions, loudspeakers?” She shook her head. “Then I’m not sure I could ever feel free here,” he said. “What am I supposed to do with that?” Wanda asked. She seemed almost mad at him. “That doesn’t help me understand anything.” “When you’re in my country,” he said, “everything makes simple, clear sense. It’s the most straightforward place on earth.”

It is, and it isn’t. As Dr. Song explains to Jun Do, “Where we are from. stories are factual…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. But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” Both the North Koreans and the Americans are straightforward, but their entirely different interpretive rules mean they’re doomed to misunderstand each other. It’s true for both of them, for a few days in Texas, that Jun Do is a powerful man. But what that means to each side is so different as to be unbridgeable.