The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The cruelest psychological experiment ever cooked up’: Author Adam Johnson on North Korea

North Korean soldiers walk past a portrait of Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in February. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Several books released in the past few years — notably Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14” and Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” — give a vivid, if partial, picture of repression and trauma in North Korea. But Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Orphan Master’s Son" is different: It’s fiction, and it turns an elusive society into a three-dimensional world that facts alone can’t inform. (Also, Kim Jong Il appears in the book — as a fully formed, utterly non-cartoonish character.)

Johnson spent six years working on the book, researching North Korea through defectors' oral histories and eventually visiting the country. I won't describe much about the book here, other than to recommend it, but fiction clearly serves a purpose with North Korea, at least when it comes to helping the outside world form feelings about it. (You can read The Post's review here.) Johnson talked with The Post about North Korea — and the way we perceive it — on Friday before a speaking engagement in Seoul at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College. Here are excerpts from that interview.

The Washington Post: The problem with North Korea journalism is that you can write almost anything and almost nobody knows if it’s bunk. Then you have North Korea fiction, where you can paint a very vivid reality and readers, I imagine, will want to believe that it’s 100 percent true. Do you welcome that reaction or does it make you uncomfortable?

Adam Johnson: Representing the place is very difficult. One thing about nonfiction and journalism, it’s impossible to verify or confirm anything. It’s really gathering an oral history. That’s what makes it hard for anybody to cover the topic. It also allows for caricature and weird rumors. You know this, almost every year or two there are stories about cannibalism in North Korea and I think people want to believe the worst sometimes.

With fiction, I would suggest that there is a position at the table for trying to give a voice to the most voiceless people in the world. The literary endeavor, the humanist endeavor, is based on the premise that we're all the same, and I believe that. When you talk to North Koreans or read their stories, you can be shocked by things they’ve seen in the famine or traumas they have been through, but what strikes me the most is how much we have in common. They want the same things: safety, security, a better future for their kids, self-definition, everything I want. So I think that a fiction writer can project humanity inward, based on the assumption they are just like us.

I asked questions: What if I had been born in North Korea? What would I have to write as a writer? As a father — one of the questions that really bugged me — there’s a point at which parents have to decide whether they're going to share the truth about North Korea with their children. Because even if the world is a mystery to them, they know they're not in a Workers’ Paradise, they know they're not in the most enviable nation in the world. So if you were to tell your child, “It’s all a lie,” it would instill in them a quest for meaning and truth that we see as defining. But it would also put them in a world of scrutiny because they would ask critical questions.

WP: And it would put them in a world of danger.

AJ: Absolute danger, a danger that would be counter to survival. But what’s interesting to me about North Korea, it is an extreme of the scale of life. I think it’s the cruelest psychological experiment ever cooked up. But by looking at people living out at the edge, you can think about things anew. And the question North Korea asks in my mind is, What does it mean to live versus to survive? Am I just going to survive, or am I going to live? Meaning, to be human, to realize one’s self.

WP: I know you interviewed defectors as part of the writing process. But were there elements of North Korean life that you felt were sealed off to you — that were unknowable, despite those interviews?

AJ: For most of the book, I sourced it through other people’s interviews of defectors. I did speak to a lot myself, but that started toward the end, as I got more access. But one of the things about representing North Korea, we're dependent on human stories. The state doesn’t report anything that can be trusted. And if you think about North Korea, two-thirds of all defectors come from North Hamgyong province. From one dangerous corner. It’s where the famine was the worst. It’s where there were two fairly unhappy gulags, at least when I was writing. And people came out with crushing stories. If one in 100 North Koreans are in political prisons, only 1 in 1,000 perhaps defect. So these are very rare people. They are self-selecting. And often they are the ones in the worst jeopardy who have seen the worst. I think it skews our picture toward the horror show. What we don’t see as much are fairly well-adjusted people who follow the rules, quash their own desires and live their lives. When I interviewed defectors, I always tried to ask: What do you do for fun? I interviewed one just this morning: He said “I loved to go bowling. I was a great bowler in North Korea.” We don't hear those stories. I think those are elusive.

WP: Your book takes place in the Kim Jong Il era. Would the book be different if Kim Jong Un was in charge? The backdrop or the way North Koreans are portrayed thinking about their leader?

AJ: I don’t think it’s possible right now to make a portrait of Kim Jong Un. For a fiction writer, something half-seen is what stimulates the imagination. Stories that have big questions about them — and there’s probably no bigger question than North Korea right now — get my mind to work. Kim Jong Il was a figure that was quite a mystery, but we did have some incredible sources about him. There was a sushi chef who’d spent 18 years with him. There was a South Korean actress, Choi Eun-hee. Kim Jong Il’s professor, Hwang Jang-hyop, who came out to South Korea and wrote 12 books. There were just enough portraits that I felt comfortable to complete it with imagination.

WP: So you’re saying, with Kim Jong Un, you don't even have the dots to work with where you could fill in the rest? And if I could go even further, if you imagine Kim Jong Un, is he having fun? Is he terrified? What’s it like for this 30-year-old to be running a country?

AJ: I would say, if I saw somebody on a subway, got a glimpse of them and they looked interesting, I would feel comfortable going home and writing that story — knowing next to nothing. But this is another culture, it’s on the other side of the world, so the portraits we make of them come with a lot of responsibility. He is the head of a state. The portrait would influence a lot of people. So I wouldn’t do that ad hoc thing. With a portrait, I would feel a need to keep a foot in reality. And I don’t know what the source would be for that.

WP: One of the decisions you made in the book was to not put the lens directly on the gulags. As your main character heads to one of the camps, it’s almost like you use that movie trick where you hear the screams but the camera turns away. Why did you make that choice?

AJ: There are many poor outcomes in North Korea, from the agricultural farms to the labor farms, the labor camps to the kwanliso camps, which are irredeemable ones. The camps are real. There are people in them right now, just a couple hundred kilometers from us.

And you know, there is Abortion Day in Yodok [camp] where all the impermissible pregnancies are terminated with injections of saline. Child executions. Group executions. All the horrors you could think of. I found it very difficult to even read all that material. I don’t feel like, in the Western world, we have a bridge to [conceive] those kind of horrors. I tried to write it, but I didn’t want to read it after I wrote it. In the end, I decided that my character goes into a gulag one page, and the next page he’s out.

WP: So there’s a director’s cut version somewhere, a part of the book that you cut out, that takes place in a prison camp.

AJ: Yes. Like I said, it was humorless. The definition of sentimentality is unearned emotion. That a writer asks you to feel something that isn’t born out of the story. And I wanted the reader to feel very heavy emotions, but I couldn’t make it be born out, because I was just so far from that [prison camp] experience. You can look at me, I'm a big guy, I'm not lacking for calories. I tried to not eat for a couple days. I didn’t like it, but you know what, I had a cupboard of food, I knew I could quit any time I wanted. I couldn’t even capture it, the torture, the hunger, just me personally.