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Literature / The Orphan Master's Son

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The Orphan Master's Son is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2012 novel by Adam Johnson, set in North Korea.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on Pak Jun Do, the son of an orphan master in the city of Chongjin. Jun Do is recruited by government officials to work in intelligence, first kidnapping Japanese civilians, and then as an intelligence officer on the Junma, a fishing boat. This eventually leads to his joining a diplomatic mission to the United States.

The second part of the novel focuses on Commander Ga, a national hero and minister for prison mines. The chapters are split between the perspective of a government torturer, the narrative coming from the government's propaganda speaker and the actual narrative portraying Ga's relationship with his wife, the actress Sun Moon.

The Orphan Master's Tropes:

  • Arc Words: "[Jun Do's/My] mother was a singer."
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Commander Ga, a Colonel Badass and much-lauded taekwondo champion. Jun Do also excels in taekwondo, and bests Ga in a fight in the prison mine, killing him.
  • Becoming the Mask: Jun Do assuming the identity of Commander Ga after he kills him in the prison mine.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: Many characters, including Jun Do (who among other things gets some experience kidnapping foreign nationals for Kim Jong Il) and the government torturer, and even Sun Moon, who works in the state-run film industry.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Commander Ga/Jun Do helps Sun Moon and her children defect with the American delegation, but at the cost of his own life.
  • Blatant Lies: Used throughout the novel. When something goes wrong, the reaction of most characters is to try and concoct a story to tell government officials.
  • Broken Bird: Sun Moon, so very much.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • There is an offhand reference to a peach cannery that was closed when it was discovered to be contaminated with botulism toxin. Later Comrade Ba reveals that he kept a case of the tainted peaches as a suicide device.
    • The before-and-after pictures of inmates at the mine, taken by the old lady who helps Jun Do escape, are used to document the atrocities taking place.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The American girl Jun Do listened to while he was doing his radio surveillance—one half of a two-woman team that was attempting to row around the world—pops up unexpectedly in the second part of the book and proves crucial to the climax.
  • Crapsack World:
    • North Korea. Cross the government the wrong way, and you'll be off to the prison mines, along with the rest of your family. Even those in government work under the risk that one day the Dear Leader will simply decide they're no longer useful and simply make them disappear.
    • The chapters told from the perspective of the propaganda loudspeaker make North Korea sound like a Crapsaccharine World.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: What Jun Do does after he kills Commander Ga in the uranium mine. Also the plot of the movie script that Kim Jong Il sends to Sun Moon.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Ga is married, but he also has a gay porn stash and tries to rape Jun Do.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Commander Ga/Jun Do. He manages to raise the power level on the autopilot to a fatal level.
    • Subverted with the torturer- he doesn't want to die, but he decides to wipe his own memories so he can be sent into the country and do simple farm labour.
  • Eagleland: North Korean propaganda would have you believe that the US is flavour 2. When Jun Do visits Texas however, he discovers it's more of a mixed flavour.
  • Electric Torture: The torturer uses this to wipe out his victims' personalities, leaving them empty shells.
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques:
    • The torturer who narrates chapters in part 2 describes his work as writing biographies. His team write the life story of their prisoners and turn them into books.
    • On the other hand, the Pubyok use more traditional methods of getting answers.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Jun Do's father ran an orphanage (where the boys were used for slave labor) and was called the Orphan Master.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: When Jun Do and Gil are kidnapping an opera singer, and transporting her in a truck to the beach, a dog notices them and stares at them.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • The prison camps. Maybe the worst is a coal mine that doesn't even have any guards besides the ones at the gate, and nothing inside but the mine, where they chuck you in and give you food if you push ore through the gate.
    • The torturer's electronic device ("the autopilot") turns you into an Empty Shell, with your whole personality wiped out. The torturer doesn't see it that way, though; he actually regards his methods as more humane than the Pubyok torture group and their beatings.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Kim Jong Il is awfully cheerful.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The torturer's narrative makes clear that Jun Do and Comrade Buc are arrested, while Sun Moon and her children get away.
  • Glorious Leader: The Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Truth in Television.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • The fate of Commander Ga according to the propaganda broadcasts- after the American delegation 'kidnap' Sun Moon, Ga chases after their jet and manages to hold onto the wing as it takes off. However, upon sighting an American warship in North Korean waters below, Ga jumps from the wing to target the warship as a human torpedo.
    • Jun Do does this, deliberately staying behind to make sure that Sun Moon and her children get safely on the plane.
  • Historical Domain Character: Kim Jong Il, mostly referred to as Dear Leader in the narrative.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It: As in Real Life North Korea, the years are dated as Juche years, with Juche 1 being 1912, the year of Kim Il Sung's birth. The floods and famine that closed Jun Do's orphanage happend in Juche 85, aka 1996.
  • In a World…: Said word-for-word as Dak-Ho the film producer describes to Sun Moon the plot of her next movie.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Pak Jun Do. "John Doe".
    • Also invoked with Sun Moon. Dear Leader chose her stage name because of how it would sound to the Americans.
  • Mercy Kill: While imprisoned in the uranium mine Jun Do encounters the captain of his fishing boat, who is being stoned to death for an escape attempt. Jun Do embraces the captain, then throws a rock hard at his temple to knock him out.
  • Mind Rape: What the autopilot does to captives. The intent is to wipe their memories completely, reducing them to Empty Shells that will be sent to work in rural collectives.
  • Missing Mom: Jun Do's, believed to be working as an opera singer in Pyongyang. His driving purpose in part 1 is to reunite with her.
  • Near-Rape Experience: Commander Ga tries to rape Jun Do when they are in the mine. It goes badly for Ga.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Comrade Ba's wife to Park Jun Do, whose scheming is endangering her family.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Jun Do gets one from a government interrogator after he explains the disappearance of the Second Mate from his ship (he's defected, but the crew agree to explain that he was killed by Americans). Because of his pain training, Jun Do is able to get through the beatdown and stick to the story.
  • No Name Given:
    • Jun Do never learns the names of his shipmates aboard the fishing boat, instead calling them by their ranks (Captain, First Mate, etc.). This becomes a plot point when the fishing boat is boarded by the U.S. Navy and a South Korean intelligence agent challenges Jun Do to name his shipmates.
    • Sun Moon's son and daughter won't tell Jun Do their names when he comes home in the guise of Commander Ga. Towards the end the boy wants to tell Jun Do his name but Jun Do stops him, saying that names aren't important.
    • The government torturer who narrates much of the second half of the book is never named.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The narratives from the perspective of the propaganda loudspeaker are full of this.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Hoo boy.
    "And don't forget, citizens: the ban on stargazing is still in effect." (first page of novel)
  • Porn Stash: The torturer finds the gay porn stash of the original Commander Ga—magazines featuring South Korean taekwondo fighters.
  • Released to Elsewhere: Retirees are described as having retired to Wonsan, believed to be the site of a vibrant retirement community at the seaside. When Jun Do's ship sails past Wonsan, he sees no such thing; the beaches at Wonsan are empty and deserted and there is no town. More than one character is troubled by the lack of any word from old friends and relatives who supposedly are living comfortably at Wonsan. The old guys in the Pubyok torture unit are deeply disturbed when Jun Do reveals that one of their colleagues is actually imprisoned in the uranium mine, instead of retired to Wonsan as they had been led to believe.
  • Robotic Torture Device: The autopilot, used by the biographer's team. It's used for Electric Torture.
  • Self-Made Orphan: The torturer kills his parents by feeding them tinned peaches poisoned with botulinum toxin.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Discussed by Dear Leader and Commander Ga. Dear Leader wonders if his American captive is falling in love with him.
  • Switching P.O.V.: After a brief prologue written as a news announcement, the first part of the novel is third-person from Jun Do's POV. The second part of the novel switches back and forth between Jun Do's POV, the first-person narration of the unnamed government torturer, and third-person omnisicient written in the style of North Korean propaganda.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The date is vague, but it's several years after the famine of 1996 but before the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011.
  • The Unreveal:
    • The fate of Jun Do's mother, although this is North Korea, so it was probably bad. His father's fate is also a mystery, although given the circumstances—the orphanage closing as North Korea's infrastructure collapses during the 1996 flooding and famine—Jun Do is almost certainly correct in presuming his father dead.
    • What happened to the Second Mate after he stole the life raft and tried to defect. The Pubyok torturer said that they caught him, but continues to pummel Jun Do while interrogating him about the incident and at the end seems to think Jun Do might be telling the truth. Jun Do later tries to find out what happened to the Second Mate but fails.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Jun Do admits this towards the end of the book. Given the fact that his chest set off a Geiger counter after he was imprisoned in a uranium mine, his days might have been numbered anyway.