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Inside North Korea With The Orphan Masters Son

Inside North Korea.  We talk with the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “The Orphan Master’s Son.”

North Koreans walk bicycles along a street in Kaesong, North Korea, north of the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP)

North Koreans walk bicycles along a street in Kaesong, North Korea, north of the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP)

In the same month that North Korea has unleashed its giant barrage of fury and nuclear threat, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction has gone to a novel deeply set in North Korea.

The Pulitzer committee commended Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son” as “an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader… into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.”

North Korea’s still blustering.  And we’re still curious.

This hour, On Point:  Imagining North Korea, with newly-minted Pulitzer Prize winner, Adam Johnson and “the Orphan Master’s Son.”

- Tom Ashbrook


Adam Johnson, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his book “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Professor at Stanford University.

Kim Kwang-Jin, defected from North Korea in 2003 with his wife and son.

From Tom’s Reading List

Associated Press: Fiction Pulitzer Returns and Adam Johnson wins it – “Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a labyrinthine story of a man’s travails in North Korea, has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, restoring a high literary honor a year after no fiction award was given.”

Stanford Daily: Q&A With Pulitzer Prize Winner Adam Johnson — “It was a really challenging book to write, though very rewarding. I had to go far outside my own experience [in] writing about another culture in a very different kind of society that sees the world much differently from me. So I had to leave my comfort zone. But it was very, very rewarding to try to capture lives of other people that are so much different than my own. That sounds like a pretty lame answer. It was really hard to write.”

The Washington Post: The Orphan Master’s Son an Audacious, Believable Tale — “A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of ‘The Orphan Master’s Son.’ Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mache creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable.”

Excerpt: ‘The Orphan Master’s Son,’ by Adam Johnson

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  • AC

    i totally loved this book!! it was brutal, dark and comical all at the same time – brilliant job!
    & i think i mentioned it on another show, that even though it is fiction, i completely bought that it portrays the reality of N Korea. The mentions of no mailboxes and no old people are coming back to me right now…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=923432 Kelsey Shannahan

    Kelsey in Cambridge: I was about 50 pages into this book when it happened to win the Pulitzer last week! A fantastic read. I had to go slowly and savor all the details because the rare glimpse into North Korean life was simply fascinating.

  • ToyYoda

    OT: Could you please do a show about the awful 30% unemployment rate in Spain?  Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christine.leccese Christine Leccese

    “Nothing to Envy” was a great book about North Korea, too!

  • mvgreader

    This is a must read.  When asked what I’ve read and what I suggest, The Orphan Masters Son immediately comes to my mind…loved it.

  • burroak

    I wonder, how, in the coming decades, the human curiosity of 23 million interacts with one?
    What degree of interplay will occur?
    And, how will this new technological era tickle their curiosity?

  • simonpark

    I am a Korean American who spent five weeks teaching in a special university to develop future leaders of North Korea. I taught International Finance and wanted to fill in the gap or to connect the dots.  They were quite knowledgeable in technical issues but lacked contextual understanding.  When I asked for the issues they lacked good understanding, they looked at each other and replied “nothing”.  They all learned what they were taught and they were taught identical things, thus they did not know what they did not know.  I would assume this phenomenon is very typical of the entire society.

    I shared my experience in a series of reports at

  • MaryJeanette

    Great show, as always.  My husband is from South Korea.  He was a young child during the Korean War and has told me many horrible stories about that time.  It is his hope that soon there will be just one Korea, not two.
    For those interested in reading more, I can recommend the memoir ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang:Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag’ by Chol Hwan Kang and Pierre Riqoulot is very good.  Also, ‘The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War’ by David Halberstam is a great account of the Korean War.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1155042916 Mike Hanson

    North Korea, where the DPKR took 1984 and used it as a how to manual instead of a cautionary tale. Makes me wonder why so many leftists (Robert Scheer) held it so dear to their hearts once upon a time. 

  • buddhaclown

    Thanks for the excellent show Tom. 

  • Lusitan75

    Sorry, this is not about today’s show, but just posting an idea for a future show:

    http://applicants.mars-one.com“Mars One is a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars through the integration of existing, readily available technologies from industry leaders world-wide. Mars One intends to fund this decade-long endeavor by involving the whole world as the audience of an interactive, televised broadcast of every aspect of this mission, from the astronaut selections and their preparations to the arrival on Mars and their lives on the Red Planet.”This has been getting a good bit of mainstream press in the past few days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1178770003 Mary Barber

    Have not read this new fiction, yet. But I highly recommend Nothing to Envy http://nothingtoenvy.com/reviews/. True life stories. I had a difficult time enaging at first, but then couldn’t put it down as I realized I was an oblivious American with no comprehension about what life was (is) like in North Korea. You will be surprised by how it unfolds. Each one of the six people have a story about their quest and attainment of “freedom” that will surprise, lift and sadden you all at the same time.

  • bmchan

    The book is fiction.  

  • bmchan

    I could not find the link for the english translation of the worker’s party daily.  Can someone post?  Appreciated.

    • simonpark


  • Regular_Listener

    I have often wondered what life is like inside North Korea.  Thank you for this broadcast.

Apr 23, 2014
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