In this story we meet young Jun Do, (John Doe) whose closest claim to an identity is that he is the only child living at Long Tomorrows who is not an orphan. His father is the orphan master. In the orphanage Jun Do is trained to be a loyal, unquestioning subject of North Korea. He’s singled out for special privileges such as, deciding which orphan gets to eat first, and being given training in pain endurance. When he becomes a young teen, he is sent off to perform unpleasant assignments, digging tunnels, kidnapping Japanese, even killing. At some point, he is singled out to learn English and is assigned to intercept radio communications on a fishing boat. An incident occurs that results in Jun Do concocting a ridiculous lie made more convincing by horrible self-inflicted mutilation. The lie is well liked, although hardly believed, by the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, because it can be used to embarrass the Americans. Eventually, Jun Do ends up in a labor prison, where he kills a legendary hero, Commander Ga, and unwittingly assumes Ga’s identity. This doesn’t fool anyone, but it’s more useful to the State that Commander Ga be alive than dead, at least for the time being.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson is a very complex tale in which North Korea emerges as a dangerous and loony place. But readers are not just asked to look at the DRNK’s failings, but to look at their own ideas about freedom and captivity, truth and lies, how propaganda is generated in every situation where someone has too much power – but at its core, it is the story of identity and who controls an individual’s story.
Warning: bloodshed and brutality can make this a tough read, and book groups will find no end of discussion topics to cover.