Happy New Year! One of the lead stories in our January issue is an interview with novelist Adam Johnson, whose new book set in North Korea became even more topical after the sudden death of the “Dear Leader” whose regime it details. Johnson was one of the few Westerners to visit the country. He spoke about the trip extensively during his chat with our interviewer Alden Mudge; here, Alden shares a few extra details from their conversation.
An American novelist in Pyongyang
guest post by Alden Mudge
During the seven years Adam Johnson spent writing his spellbinding new novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, he became pretty knowledgeable about the country and its Dear Leader. Or as knowledgeable as an outsider can be about the place. As the news coverage of Kim Jong Il’s death shows, very little is known about what really goes on in North Korea. And what does leak out tends toward the crazy preposterous, as in this funny New York Times article about Kim Jong Il’s outlandish sporting achievements.
Ridiculous? Yes, but North Korea is no joke for its citizens. During our conversation about the new novel, Johnson told me that he worried about his safety before his trip to North Korea in 2007. But his sponsor assured him that North Korea was probably the most crime-free nation on Earth. Even the slightest infraction landed you in the Korean gulag, where life was at best nasty, brutish and short.
“Another thing that was terrifying to me,” Johnson said, “was this notion that no one has written a literary novel there in 60 years. You cannot write anything that doesn’t glorify the regime, so the novels are state-sponsored. They’re approved and distributed. And even of those, there are very few. People don’t have much reading time. It’s bizarre. There’s no other subject matter besides the glorification of the Kims. That means that not only has no one written a literary novel, but no one has read a novel whose goal is to enlighten the human condition in three generations.”
To explain the hierarchical mindset promoted in North Korea, Johnson told me about the national airline. “I discovered in my research that the reason North Korea’s Air Koryo is the most dangerous airline in the world is not because of its ancient planes—mine was from 1963 or 1964—or poor maintenance, but because the copilots weren’t allowed to correct the pilots. An FAA study I read concluded that in three big crashes North Korean copilots hadn’t felt able to point out a pilot’s mistake. They had inherited that dictatorial sense of top-down power that an obvious reality could not be contradicted.”
Johnson also noted that North Korea is slowly opening up the country to tourism (under very tightly controlled conditions) to attract hard currency. I’m very curious, but I think it will be a longish while before I apply to go there.
Don’t miss the full interview with Adam Johnson.