The Orphan Master’s Son & 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 wonder 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.


Early in the novel, Jun Do is recruited as a kidnapper, due to his skill at seeing and navigating in the dark. He becomes part of a small team that use an antiquated vessel to travel to Japan to kidnap foreigners on the beach at night and bring them back to North Korea.

It is estimated that North Korea has kidnapped 200,000 people since 1950, of which the majority have been Japanese and South Korean nationals, although kidnappings of Jordanian, Lebanese, Thai and other nationalities have also been confirmed. Most abduction’s occurred during the 1970s and on coastal areas or close to the DMZ and North Korean border.

According to Yoichi Shimada, a professor from the Fukui University in Japan, North Korea’s reasons for abducting foreign nationals are to:

  1. Eliminate witnesses who see North Korean agents in action
  2. Steal victim identifies, so North Korean agents can infiltrate their country
  3. Force abductees to teach their local language and customs to North Korean agents
  4. Brainwash and train abductees as spies, to be sent back to South Korea or Japan
  5. Utilise their special skills or expertise
  6. Use abductees as spouses for certain unusual North Korean residents such as foreigners or other abductees

One of the most well-known abduction stories is that of South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choe Eun-hee. Kim Jong-il ordered their kidnapping in 1978. It is widely known that Kim Jong-Il was a big film buff, especially enjoying the Rambo and James Bond movies; he had a film projector in all of his residences and would watch a movie almost every night. He was particularly fond of foreign film, had a keen ear for music and also a talent for script writing. His vision was for Sang-ok to help bring North Korean film into the modern era, and soon after his capture Sang-ok was ordered to start making “good movies” for North Korea.

During their capture, the couple spent time at Kim Jong-Il’s summer villa and even got to visit the North Korean Film Archive, a very special privilege. Of the visit Sang-ok said:

“This was a controlled access area . . . we were told that 15,000 copies of films were stored here. Nearly 250 employees including voice actors, translators, subtitle specialists, projectionists, and recording specialists, were working for this facility. The films at the Archive came from all around the world—from both communist and capitalists, developed and underdeveloped countries alike. The size of the three story building measured up to that of any main school buildings in South Korea. … The width of the building was about 100 meters, and all three stories stretching 100 meters were filled with films. The room with the best equipment was the one holding North Korean films. In that room every single North Korean film ever made was stored according to chronological order.”
Shin and Choi 2001, 274–75

During the capture, Sang-ok attempted to escape several times and served more than 4 years in Prison Camp 6, which was male only and where inmates lived on a diet of grass, salt and rice. The couple both underwent “re-education” as well in an attempt to indoctrinate them. In an act of daring, the couple once recorded Kim Jong-Il speaking of their capture, during which he asked them to state publically they choose to defect to North Korea for creative freedom. The tape recorder was hidden in Eun-hee’s handbag and Sang-ok said it guaranteed their safe return to South Korea:

“I could not dare to return to [South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North. If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it”
in Gorenfeld for Salon

Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choe Eun-hee

They finally escaped after 9 years during an approved trip to Austria to attend an awards ceremony. Here they managed to outwit their guards and receive asylum at a US embassy.

You can read the stories of other victims who were kidnapped here.


In the book, the National Security Agency are Division 42, who interrogate people and consist primarily of the Pubyok who extort confessions through brute force:

“all the members of the Pubyok team had been issued gear bags that contained items designed to brutalize and punish- abrasion gloves, rubber mallets, stomach tubes…[they] close cases in forty-five minutes just by dragging people into the shop and helping them hold the confession pen in the moments before they expire.”
The Orphan Master’s Son

In part two of the book, when Commander Ga is held for questioning, he is tortured by the Pubyok as well as questioned by the narrator, head of a sub-group within Division 42 that coax people to “tell their story” before they are lobotomised (the autopilot machine) and sent to labour camps. One of the camps described in the book is Prison 33, where Jun Do is sent following his unsuccessful mission to the US. These are probably the darkest descriptions in the book, and Jun Do only survives the hard labour and freezing cold by learning some cunning from the old lady Mongnan, who takes him under her wing. In one scene she leads him to a dead light-bulb:

“In the dark they crouched, picking up all the moths that had fallen dead before the lamp had died. ‘Fill your mouth,’ she said. ‘Your stomach doesn’t care.’ He did as he was told and soon he was chewing a wad of them- their furry abdomens drying his mouth, despite the goop that burst from them and a sharp aspiring taste from some chemical on their wings… he and Mongnan fled in the dark with handfuls of moths- wings slightly singed but ready to keep them alive another week.”
The Orphan Master’s Son

In North Korea the worst labour camps are known as the Kwan-Li-So (translated as penal camps), which are similar to the Soviet gulags where prisoners are subject to hard labour and tortured. All the information we have about North Korean camps has been obtained through defector testimonies (either by their own personal experiences or through stories they have heard) as well as satellite images. With Google Earth you can easily identify large camps in the northern mountainous regions of the country and Curtis Melvin has carried out extensive satellite research, which you can view in detail here. Prisoners of these camps include persons suspected of wrong-doing, wrong-thinking, wrong-association or wrong class background according to the HRNK’s report, Hidden Gulag’s. The guilty person along with up to three generations of their family is imprisoned without any judicial proceedings. Typically the Kwan-Li-So camps include sections for single men, single women and for families (although only a privileged are permitted to have intimate relations or procreate) and prisoners have no access to the outside world.  The report theorises these camps evolved from Kim Il-Sung’s attempt to both consolidate political power through purges and revive the feudal practices of the former Chosun dynasty.

Satellite images on Google Earth prove the existence of camps in North Korea.

The most well-known political prison camp is Yodok, also known as Camp Number 15, for enemies of the state. It’s located 110-170km outside of Pyongyang and divided into two zones: The Total Control Zone for the worst political prisoners where no rehabilitation or release is considered possible, and The Revolutionary Zone, which has re-education facilities to correct prisoners thinking before they are released. Inside such camps prisoners survive on a bare diet of corn and grass and work 12-15 hours a day either in the fields or in construction. The fittest survive by reporting on others for edible rewards, or catching vermin and insects for food. Defectors interviewed by the HRNK reported their initial shock when arriving at the camps:

“the sight of the malnourished inmates: stick figures dressed in tattered, patched and threadbare clothing; and literally, rags. The prisoners are occasionally issued shoes, but not socks, so that rags are frequently wrapped around ankles for warmth. The prisoners are covered in dirt from the infrequency of bathing privileges, and marked by physical deformities: hunched backs, from years of bent-over agricultural work in the absence of sufficient protein and calcium in the diet; and missing toes and fingers, from frostbite; and missing hands, or arms or legs, from work accidents”.
HRNK’s report, Hidden Gulag’s

There are also stories about routine torture, rape and abortion, as well as executions, high mortality rates and mass graves. In total, the HRNK reports there are 6 Kwan-Li-So camps still active in North Korea, numbered as 14, 15, 16, 18, 22 and 25.

In recent UN talks calling North Korea to action on its Human Rights abuses, representatives emphasise these camps have existed since the 1950s, twice longer than the Soviet gulags and 12 times longer than the Nazi concentration camps, yet North Korean leaders have never been bought to answer.  It is estimated approximately 1-2% of the North Korean population are detained in such camps at any one time.

Defector Jung Gwang-Il was a prisoner at Yodok. He described the interrogation by National Security Agency the Bowibu prior to his incarceration as most brutal, during which they smashed his skull, knocked out his front teeth, and tortured him for several months until they forced a false confession from him. The Bowibu are the secret police of North Korea and responsible for uncovering enemies of the state. Not a lot of information exists about them except they were established in 1973 and were believed to report directly to Kim Jong Il during his lifetime. Jung Gwang-Il said during his period of torture by the Bowibu, he was starved and prohibited from using the toilet. He described the most painful treatment as “pigeon torture” in which his arms were pinned to metal bars behind his back, preventing him from sitting or standing properly and causing severe pain in his shoulders.

In addition to the Kwan-Li-So, there are also regular prisoners outside of Pyongyang called Kyo-Hwa-So which translates in English as “a place to make a person good through education or nurturing”. According to defector testimonies, prisoners here are educated through a three pronged approach: 1) hard labour, 2) memorizing famous Kim Il-Sung speeches, and 3) self-criticism, where prisoners kneel in front of prison officials during the evening and confess to mistakes about their work and production quotas. Conditions are similar to the penal camps, and when workers become sick or injured to the point they are no longer able to work, they are sent to the camps clinic facilities to await death (similar to Jun Do’s account of  Prison 33 in the book). The prisoners in these camps are those who have been convicted of criminal offences through some sort of judicial proceeding and are given a fixed sentence. Crimes may include stealing, murder, expressing dissatisfaction with food rations, or engaging in private enterprise.


Defecting is a key theme in The Orphan Master. Throughout the book, North Korean’s from various professions and walks of life are seen to contemplate and even attempt escape from the regime however are often deterred by the fear of what will happen to those left behind; torture and prison.  At the beginning of the novel, one of Jun Do’s comrades, Gil attempts to defect whilst they are in Japan to kidnap a famous opera singer. When he disappears, Jun Do and his superior Officer So start to panic about the fate that will lie in store for them if they return home alone, therefore thwart the attempt. Several years later, Jun Do becomes a radio technician on board the boat the Junma, on which the second mate defects on a small, inflatable vessel in the middle of the night whilst the rest of the crew are asleep. Jun Do and the ship’s captain invent a fantastic story to tell officials when they return to land, and Jun Do even allows himself to be bitten by a sharp to add to the authenticity, in order to avoid torture and prison. In part two of the book, Commander Ga and Sun Moon dream of defecting to the USA and concoct an elaborate scheme to do so however hesitate when contemplating what will happen if they don’t succeed, and what will happen to those who are left behind.

It is hard to assess how accurate the book is in its position that most North Koreans dream of escaping. However it is a fact that North Koreans have attempted to escape and successful defectors have testified that there is serious punishment for both defectors (if they’re unsuccessful) and the families or comrades they leave behind.

One of the most publicised stories of defection from the hermit state is that of Yeonmi Park. She escaped with her parents escaped in 2007 by paying a people smuggler to get them across the border into China. In Shenyeng, China they lived in terrible poverty until Yeonmi’s father passed away, after which Yeonmi and her mother travelled to Mongolia by crossing the Gobi dessert. They were eventually captured by Mongolian border guards and held in detention at Ulan Bator before being deported to South Korea. Today Yeonmi is a human rights activist, publicly speaking out against the North Korean regime and raising awareness of the atrocities against human rights that occur there.

Stories like Yeomni’s and Western media suggest the main reason for escape are the human rights abuses such as strict censorship, punishment without trial and laws that favour a privileged ruling class. However the DPRK have consistently maintained their society revolves around the individual, with food, medical care, education, housing and jobs being provided for all people loyal to the state. In comparison to American society, where you need money to live a decent life and ex-bankers run the government treasury, North Korea argues they are well advanced in the area of Human Rights; you can read their arguments in detail here. However Yeomni says that capital punishment without fair trial and for minor misdeeds is part and parcel of life in North Korea. One of the most harrowing scenes she witnessed was when her friend’s mother was publicly shot dead because she watched South Korean movies.

The more obvious reason for defecting seems to be economic. Even in the book, life outside the capital is described as a daily struggle of hunger and survival. In the first chapter set in the orphanage Long Tomorrows, Chongjin the beginning of the Arduous March is described, where old people died in the winter and hunger was so fierce it was inescapable:

“what was happening to them didn’t need a name- it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust”.
The Orphan Master’s Son

During the 1990s there was a great famine in North Korea caused by a combination of environmental disasters and poor planning. The UN estimated at least 600,000 people died of starvation whilst the DPKR regime obstructed delivery of aid to the worst-affected regions.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, 37.7% of defectors arriving in South Korea were previously workers whilst 48.4% were unemployed North Koreans. These groups would also have been most affected by the famine of the 1990s, which coincided with a marked increase in the number of defectors. In the late 1990s, it is estimated between 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans defected via China. Recent statistics of defectors is much lower.

According to the story of defector Gang Jiyeong, when the famine began survival was difficult. She had been working in a tailor’s shop before trying to barter goods from rural areas to city people, but it was difficult as there was not enough to go around. Gang Jiyeong escaped to China four times, often being caught and repatriated to North Korea, until finally she managed to relocate via China to the UK with her granddaughter. For Jae, a young adult who escaped in 2009, he wanted to know why although the Arduous March was over the people in North Korea continued to starve. He lived near the DMZ bordering South Korea, where balloons packed by Human Rights activists containing literature and pamphlets were parachuted across the border. At times he was so hungry that he would even eat the bark off a tree. Even with the famine over, the lack of infrastructure continues to inhibit effective farming or economic growth. The Korean People’s Army is responsible for building infrastructure and saves the best materials for monuments and buildings in the capital. In the countryside many buildings and bridges are run down, and transport and basic utilities like water or electricity are almost non-existent. There are cornfields and rice paddies, however harvests are primarily used to feed the army or for export to raise money, and anything remaining is then divided equally for citizens. Some defectors tell stories of surviving on nothing but small rations of corn porridge for years and rural North Koreans continue to appear impoverished. Defectors are noted to often have very bad teeth as a result of malnutrition and many children are stunted from undernourishment.

A screenshot of a news video by KIM Dong-cheol, a North Korean underground journalist, of a young woman in a North Korean village.

Whilst economic hardship has driven thousands to defect, there is a high price to pay. If you are caught in China, who do not recognise defectors as refugees, you will be sent back to face interrogation by the Bowibu and sent to a penal or re-education camp. Your immediate and extended family will become under surveillance and can be branded as enemies of the state, which means they and their future children will not have the opportunity to hold good jobs or join the military.

How do would-be defectors know that life is any better on the other side of the border when they contemplate escape? The national ideology of Juche preaches national self-reliance whilst testimonies such as Yeomni’s maintain that external media and information is strictly prohibited. Sources of contention come from the foreign communities living in North Korea. Felix Abt, a Swiss business man who lived in North Korea between 2002 and 2009, observed that most of his North Korean colleagues were well-aware of popular Western books and movies and especially enjoyed the tales of Gone with the Wind and The Count of Monte Cristo. It also seems to be widely acknowledged by numerous sources that South Korean soap operas are popular throughout the North.

Do people really defect because of human rights abuses? Most of the above information learnt from defector testimonies cannot always be further verified however phones and cameras smuggled into North Korea from China have been used to obtain further supporting evidence of firing squads and conditions of the people. However there are some sceptics who believe the stories from defectors are sensationalised either for personal gain or reasons, or in support of South Korean or Western political agendas. Abt stated that although he travelled throughout the region and saw poverty and poor infrastructure, he never saw dead bodies or witnessed public executions. Blaine Harden wrote Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey about defector Shing Dong-hyuk who claimed he was born in a North Korean prison camp. Although Dong-hyuk’s body has burn marks and other scars as “proof” of his experiences, sceptics find it hard to believe someone who never lived outside of a camp nor had any contacts was able to escape without hitch (defectors typically escape via China by paying people smugglers or bribing North Korean officials on the border). Blaine has also acknowledged details of Dong-hyuk’s story as relates to his mother’s death in the camp may not be completely accurate.

The HRNK point out that people who defect to escape human rights abuse are typically former prisoners who have experienced the torture and hardship of the camps and conclude they will always remain under suspicion and surveillance in North Korea therefore decide to escape.

The European Alliance for Human Rights have published a series a memories from defectors of the Secret State, which you can read here to gain more insight into the motivations of defectors.


From my reading I came across the story of a defector named Kim Yong, whose experiences and story contain a lot of similarities to that of the main character in the book, Jun Do. Kim Yong was born in 1950 in Hwanghae, North Korea. When he was a child, his father and brother were executed for alleged spying so his mother sent him to an orphanage under a false name to protect him. He grew up to become a Lieutenant Colonel for the Bowibu as well as a Vice President for the West Sea Trading Company, which operated three fishing vessels and exported fish to Japan. During this time he enjoyed a relatively good life with a chauffeur and access to foreign goods and culture. However when his true heritage was discovered, Kim Yong underwent 3 months of brutal torture by the Bowibu. He was then sent first to the penal Camp No 14 where he was assigned to coal mining and spent two years only seeing the inside of mine shafts. He was later transferred to Camp No 18 where he was reunited with his mother who convinced him to escape. Kim Yong eventually escaped by hiding in a coal train that was en route to the generating plant and then crossing the border into China.

To read more about Kim Yong’s story and life inside Camps No 14 and 18, visit this page on One Free Korea.

The Orphan Master’s Son’s depiction of National Security as relates to the treatment of its people and suspected wrong-doers rings alarmingly true. More reading about the life of everyday citizens inside the Hermit Kingdom, both within and outside of the capital, would be interesting. You can purchase the book on Amazon

The Orphan Master's Son is a great read.

The Orphan Master’s Son is a great read.