This is the story of a Pak Jun Do, who insists he is not an orphan, but was raised like one in an orphanage called Long Tomorrows. It was run by his father. After his mother’s disappearance, his father was very cruel to him, and he grew up believing that his father could only show his love for his mother by treating him with brutality. Perhaps the author wants to make the point that North Koreans have no separate identity other than the collective, for he gives Pak Jun Do a name without meaning. It is a name chosen for orphans from the names of government appointed martyrs; so essentially, they do not have an identity of their own. They know nothing of their own backgrounds.
Jun Do’s life passes through many incarnations from child to adult and the author takes us on the path that finally brings him to a position in the government. His life is one of duplicity. Like his name that has no meaning, his individual life is meaningless. Orphans are looked down upon by the rest of the North Korean Society and are given the lowliest of jobs, the most heinous of tasks to perform. From one moment to the next, none of the citizens can be sure that day will follow night, or that their lives will not be plucked from them. They are part of the collective being and it moves as one.
We learn that the author believes that North Koreans use convoluted reasoning to explain away their problems. The biggest example of this bizarre method of thinking is the belief in the idea that North Korea is “the most democratic nation in the world”, although they really have no way of knowing the meaning of a true democracy; another is the idea conveyed to the reader, that an example of freedom is actually not the ability to think for oneself but the elimination of the need to make one’s own decisions. Freedom for Jun Do and his fellow citizens is a life of being ordered around, told what to do, what to eat, where to work, how to live, when to sleep, how to love and how to die. They are told that there is health care for all, but there is no health care at all. They believe in the power of the “dear leader” whose only object in life is to give them all that they need. They don’t realize he takes as easily as he gives and what he gives is hardly worth the taking.
Jun Do accepts his father’s rejection and ill treatment stoically and with the same twisted logic the North Koreans seem to be taught to use to explain away everything. For instance, when a parent retires, they are sent to a village where they are so happy they never write; they don’t ever again get in touch with their relatives. (It sounds kind of like our idea when a camper does not write home, but these campers are never seen or heard from again.) The citizens accept this reasoning, although they have never seen the island where they are sent to retire and live this happy life, and they have no proof of its existence. They are taught strict obedience on pain of punishment and banishment. What the loudspeakers announce is all they know and all they believe and trust. The Supreme Leader tells them this and the Supreme Leader is responsible for their well being in all his beneficence. He is always right.
When Jun Do is given to the military by his father, he moves quickly from orphan to soldier, to government worker, to kidnapper, to radio listener and transcriber on a fishing vessel, to prisoner, hero and enemy, and finally to a commander in Kim Jong Il’s government. How he gets to these places is the subject of this book and the journey is tortuous. Who is Jun Do? If the book contains any truth, he is a product of a totalitarian government ruled by a madman, a product of continual suffering, under the continuous control of a barbaric ruler. He is part of a country in which he has no individual identity he can claim as his own.
Concurrently, another story runs through the book. It is the winning story in a contest, supposedly created by a citizen who will be well rewarded for the effort. It is broadcast over the loudspeakers which disseminate propaganda all day long. It is told in short segments so the citizens eagerly look forward to the next edition of the story. It parallels the story of Jun Do from another vantage point, from the vantage point of the government of North Korea, of Kim Jong Il. It fills in the empty spaces and connects the dots for the reader. It is confusing, at times, but without it, the true impact of the story’s message would not be felt.
Life in North Korea, as described by Adam Johnson, who has only visited there briefly, is one of powerlessness, starvation, brutality and treachery. There is no rule of law except for that declared by the Supreme Leader, and that can change as the wind blows with whatever whim he may dream up next. The book is so well written, it is hard to leave it. If it only partly reveals true life in North Korea, it is still quite an expose. It may not be a non-fiction account of life in North Korea, but from what little we know of it, it pretty accurately represents the despotic regime and the tyrannical approach of the leader.
If there is even the slightest semblance of reality in the descriptions of the prisons there, they are horrific places. It is a country where torture is acceptable, propaganda is a given and truth has no bearing on reality. If the treatment of the citizens described in this book, has even a minimal amount of truth, it is a bleak window onto their horror screen of life. In North Korea, truth is simply what they are told is truth and it has no bearing or influence on the real world. A hero is a hero because they say he is. His story doesn’t have to make sense. The hero depends on the man, not the tale, If the powers that be say he is a hero, the story is true and he becomes a hero. He can just as easily fall into ignominy as quickly. This is a story not only about the rise and fall of a citizen, it is about the suffering and deprivation of a whole society of people.