The Orphan Master's Son By adam Johnson

Meet the Author

Adam Johnson, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winner of 2012, currently lives in San Francisco and works as a writer and associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University.

About the Book

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.” -Goodreads

“North Korea is the most fascinating, mysterious place in the world and it is utterly captivated my imagination." -Adam Johnson

Reviews & Research

The articles that reviewed The Orphan Master's Son gleaned upon three major tributes to its success including:

  • The magical realism displayed throughout the novel
  • The ability to relate to a morphing character
  • The fascination with a country many are unfamiliar with

Magical Realism

Magical realism is when fantastical elements blend seamlessly into the real world. Johnson creates a realistic reality in The Orphan Master's Son. He visited North Korea on a tourist visa and was able to observe the strict regime for two weeks. He read books about North Korea, talked with defectors and translated the North Korean propaganda to try to encompass and capture the life in North Korea. Johnson writes his novel with the idea that the events are plausible under a dictatorship but not an exact portrayal of what truly happens.

"Johnson’s description and insights provide a fascinating portrait of life in this tragic land.”- Rachel Martin of NPR

Examples from the Text: Magical Realism

  • Orphanage lifestyle (pg. 1-20)
  • Thought process of citizens (Part II of Novel)
  • The "Dear Leader" persona (Part II of Novel)
  • Prison Camp culture (pg. 160-end)
“I tried to prevent too much of that dark reality from seeping into the book because I didn’t want to outweigh the humanness of my characters" - Adam Johnson

Relatablity to a Morphing Character

Jun Do, the main character, is an orphan at the beginning of the novel. He then migrates in position to be a tunnel solider, a spy and then an unexpected hero. He travels to Texas via assignment from the government, upon his return, he is then tossed in a prison camp where he overcomes the odds and steals the identity of Commander Ga, a famous military leader among North Korea. He falls in love with Commander Ga's wife, Sun Moon, the pure actress and star of all the North Korean films.

Examples of Reliability

  • Jun Do is a wordplay on "John Doe," He is not considered a missing person but a person missing an identity. (pg. 140)
  • Jun Do's realization that he has no one that matters to him or loves him. (pg. 72)
  • The lack of freedom the characters feel. (pg. 120-121, 275)
  • The hope and reassurance Jun Do demonstrates while living in the Orphanage. (pg. 1-20)
"Johnson's ability to elicit empathy makes the individual’s struggle for identity against an oppressive North Korea powerfully human and authentic." -John Tyler Allen (World Literature Today)

Fascination of a Mysterious World

North Korea, officially know as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a mysterious country that outsiders know little about. One of Johnson's goals was to unveil, expose, and enlighten readers about the dark realities that are hidden behind the borders of North Korea. He was able to visit the country briefly but was unable to interact with citizens. Readers pick up the book hoping to find insight about the country and the look to confirm rumors they have heard regarding the country's manner and behavior.

  • The Orphan Master's Son was released soon after the death of Kim Jong Il sparking curiosity.
  • Johnson integrated his observations into the novel including the loud speaker announcements, the starvation of citizens, and the lack of resources for civilians.
  • Johnson references and sets the story in real geographical locations.
"The Orphan Master's Son is a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.” -Michiko Kakutani (NYT)


After reading the novel and examining the sources, there are a few points to consider that the book elicits for readers.

  • To what extent does our government control or influence our lives?
  • How does the media influence our actions, thoughts, and feelings?
  • To what extent is our government involved in our privacy and personal lives?
  • What in our lives is censored for use to view a certain way?

The characters of The Orphan Master's Son are all oppressed by the government's reign and terror whether that be Sun Moon's lack of freedom to choose an acting role or Jun Do's sentence to life at Prison 33 for apparently failing his "mission." The oppression the characters feel eventually guides them to turn against their government and choose to break away from the bondage.


Although the majority of the novel reveals the devistation of a strict government it does allows readers to reflect and be grateful for the freedoms often neglected and taken for granted.

  • The freedom to use electricity at night
  • The freedom to travel to other countries
  • The freedom to stargaze
  • The freedom to choose your occupation
  • The freedom to choose your hairstyle and makeup
  • The freedom to use the internet, phones, and devices
  • The freedom to read books, watch movies and listen to music from other countries
“The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.” -The Orphan Master's Son
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