The Orphan Master's Son

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The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master's Son (book cover).jpg
Hardcover edition
AuthorAdam Johnson
CountryUnited States
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Media typePrint, e-book, audiobook
Pages443 pp.

The Orphan Master's Son is a 2012 novel by American author Adam Johnson. It deals with intertwined themes of propaganda, identity, and state power in North Korea.[1] The novel was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[2][3]


  • Pak Jun Do: Protagonist – An orphan and model citizen who struggles through life in North Korea.
  • Commander Ga: A North Korean hero and rival of Kim Jong-il.
  • Sun-moon: Ga's wife and famous North Korean actress.
  • Kim Jong-il (the Dear Leader): North Korean dictator.
  • Interrogator for the North Korean state
  • Comrade Buc: An official in the North Korean government. He helps Commander Ga through some of his journey.
  • Mongnan: An old woman who befriends and helps Pak Jun Do through a challenging time in his life.


Part 1: The Biography of Jun Do[edit]

Part 1 details Jun Do's upbringing in a state orphanage and his service to the state, including as a kidnapper of Japanese citizens, and later as a signal operator stationed on a fishing boat. Due to a 'heroic act' he displayed on the boat, he becomes part of a diplomatic delegation and travels over to America. However, as the trip to America was an unsuccessful mission, Jun Do and his team are sent to a prison mine upon returning to North Korea.

Part 2: The Confessions of Commander Ga[edit]

An interrogator for the North Korean state has been tasked with investigating the national hero “Commander Ga” who has been taken into custody for killing his wife Sun Moon, a famous North Korean actress. The interrogator compiles biographies of prisoners as a by-product of interrogation, but he realises Ga is unwilling to speak for unknown reasons. The part continues showing how Jun Do had assumed Commander Ga's identity by defeating him in a fight against him, and becoming the “replacement husband” of Sun Moon. At first, Sun Moon forces him to live in the dirt cellar under the house but soon accepts him into the house to live with her children and her. During his interactions with Sun Moon, Jun Do often questions her acting career and her loyalty to North Korea. After watching Casablanca, her perception of North Korea changes and both decide to make plans to defect.

Meanwhile, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, introduces Commander Ga to an American girl, one of the boat rowers whom Jun Do had heard about via radio when he was a signal operator. As a response to the U.S. seizing materials bound for North Korea related to nuclear development, Kim retaliated by seizing her. During her imprisonment, Kim forced her to make handwritten copies of the English translations of his collected works including his book On the Art of the Cinema. When an American delegation comes to Pyongyang to retrieve her in exchange for Kim's supplies, Jun Do puts into motion a desperate plan. When Kim Jong-il realises that Jun Do has let Sun Moon escape along with the delegation, he is arrested and later sentenced to be executed. The interrogator realises his efforts are futile when his parents point out that a propaganda version of Commander's Ga story with Sun Moon has already been broadcast.

Structure and style[edit]

Johnson has said that this book began as a short story called The Best North Korean Short Story of 2005.[4] There are three narrators in the book: a third-person account; the propaganda version of Commander Ga and Sun Moon's story, which is projected across the country by loudspeakers; and a first-person account by an interrogator seeking to write a Biography of Commander Ga.

Critical reception[edit]

The novel's reception has been highly favorable. Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, has called it "a daring and remarkable novel, 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."[5] Writing in the Wall Street Journal,[6] Sam Sacks said “stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson's 'The Orphan Master's Son', the single best work of fiction published in 2012.” M. Francis Wolff, in her review for The New Inquiry,[7] called the book "one of those rare works of high ambition that follow through on all of its promises... it examines both the Orwellian horrors of life in the DPRK and the voyeurism of Western media." David Ignatius’ review in the Washington Post called the novel “an audacious act of imagination.”[8] In the New York Times, Christopher R. Beha called it “an ingeniously plotted adventure that feels much shorter than its roughly 450 pages and offers the reader a tremendous amount of fun,” but complained that the “[propaganda] interludes are fine exercises in dark wit, but in the context of a novel that seeks to portray a country’s suffering, they’re unconvincing.”[9] On April 15, 2013, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[2]

Awards and honors[edit]


  1. ^ Hauser, CJ (September 10, 2010). "INTERVIEW: Adam Johnson". The Outlet. Archived from the original on May 24, 2014. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
  2. ^ a b Carolyn Kellogg (April 15, 2013). "Adam Johnson wins the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 2013". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  3. ^ Herald, The Korea (April 18, 2014). "Novel set in a country stranger than fiction".
  4. ^ Washington Post (January 9, 2012). "The Orphan Master's Son an audacious, believable tale". Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  5. ^ "The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson : Review". The New York Times. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  6. ^ Wall Street Journal (January 11, 2012). "A Parallel World Above the 38th". Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  7. ^ Wolff, M. Francis. "Army of Eun". New Inquiry. The New Inquiry. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
  8. ^ Washington Post review
  9. ^ New York Times (January 13, 2012). "Kim Jong-il's Romantic Rival". Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  10. ^ John Williams (January 14, 2012). "National Book Critics Circle Names *2012 Award Finalists". New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  11. ^ Meredith Moss (September 24, 2013). "2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize winners announced". Dayton Daily News. Retrieved September 26, 2013.
  12. ^ "Past Winners". Commonwealth Club.

External links[edit]