Adam Johnson, the author of an award-winning fictional novel depicting the ordinary people of North Korea, participated in a talk yesterday as part of the Macau Literary Festival where he described the Korean state as the “cruelest psychological experiment anyone could have dreamed up.”
Speaking about his extensive research on North Korea in preparation for his novel, Johnson said that the country was fascinating, full of contradictions, and best described as a cruel psychological experiment.
The book, entitled “The Orphan Master’s Son,” is fictional, although “a lot of the portraits are based on non-fiction.” It went on to earn Johnson a Pulitzer Prize and a Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as being named a bestseller and best book of the year by various publications and other literary associations.
Johnson, who is an associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University, said that while researching and writing his novel he tried to understand and re-live the perspective of the isolated country’s ordinary citizens.
“I don’t think anyone can know what it’s like to grow up there [North Korea]… until they’re [the North Koreans] free and they start to write their own books.”
He had attempted to gain entry to North Korea on numerous occasions, adding that a number of initial half-hearted efforts had been unsuccessful. The author initially applied for entry on the basis of scholarly work but was refused. He then invited a North Korean professor to spend a year at Stanford University – an offer that he admits was not approved by the education institution – but received no reply.
Finally, after liaising with an aged Korean professor in the U.S., Johnson managed to get a permit into the country in 2007, where, like all foreigners, he was escorted by a group of handlers who were keen to offer a carefully scripted tour of the country.
Citizens of North Korea are acutely aware of how their own actions – or inaction – can result in state-sanctioned punishments like being sent to work camps (gulags) or allegedly being murdered by organs of the North Korean government.
These allegations, often brought to the outside world by North Korean defectors, are not unimaginable given the state’s apparent disinterest in relieving the starvation of millions of its citizens. “It is a parasitic society, where the elites live off the peasants,” Johnson explains.
Commenting on the pervasive and widespread use of propaganda in the Northeast Asian country, Johnson said that he found the language and imagery “boring, funny and bizarre” at the same time.
When he visited Pyongyang in 2007 he saw a newspaper in the city with a story about Kim Jong Il on the front page. It described a scene where the North’s leader was walking along a river with doves circling above his head, apparently, in an effort to provide him with shade.
“I wasn’t sure whether to put Kim Jong Il [in the novel] because of the stereotypes portrayed of him,” said the award-winning author, adding that in the West he is portrayed often as both a cold-hearted lunatic and as a comedic, parodied figure.
“But as I came to learn that he was not only aware [of the crimes being committed against his people] but that he was directly involved in them and perpetrating them, I knew that he had to be included.” Daniel Beitler
N Korea warns of pre-emptive strikes against the South
North Korea said Saturday its military is ready to pre-emptively attack and “liberate” the South if it sees signs that American and South Korean troops involved in annual joint military drills are attempting to invade the North.
The declaration from General Staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army on state media is the latest outburst over the drills that the U.S. and South Korea say are defensive and routine. At the start of the drills last week, the North warned of an indiscriminate “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” on Washington and Seoul.
The Korean People’s Army said it will counter the drills by the United States and South Korea it says are aimed at advancing into Pyongyang with plans to “liberate the whole of South Korea including Seoul” and also that it is capable of executing “ultra-precision blitzkrieg” strikes against enemy targets.
In response to North’s statement, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff called for North Korea to stop its threats and “rash behavior” and warned that a provocation from the North would result in the destruction of its highest leadership.
A pre-emptive large-scale strike by North Korea against the South is highly unlikely when that would almost certainly bring to an end the authoritarian rule of leader Kim Jong Un given the likely military response of the U.S. and South Korea. Analysts say the North’s bellicose rhetoric is also intended for its domestic audience to display government strength ahead of a major meeting of the ruling party in May. AP