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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

A Conversation with Adam Johnson

by | February 7th, 2014 | 07:06 am

The line between the social sciences and the humanities is overblown. A good narrative account—one that is empathic and thoughtful—has as much chance of capturing the truth about the North Korean system as social science and history. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is testament to this point. The complex story of a (possible) orphan who assumes a myriad of different roles during his life—from a prisoner in the gulag to diplomat and even confidante of Kim Jong Il—says as much about the convoluted logic of authoritarian systems as anything we have seen.

Seth Lehrer, Dean of the Arts and Humanities at UCSD, and I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with Adam about his book thanks to the initiative of my colleague Susan Shirk. The biggest surprise—beyond Johnson’s overall Menschlichkeit—was his passion in trying to unravel North Korea’s mysteries. As our conversation revealed, he is also devoted to getting the North Korean story out to a wider audience, and in reminding us about the capricious underbelly of authoritarian rule. If you are interested in North Korea and haven’t read this book, do.

The Vimeo of our conversation—which leads with a foreboding reading by Johnson—introduces one of the major characters in the second half of the book: an interrogator committed to modern methods, in effect a kind of reformist torturer, who ultimately goes astray. The subsequent conversation ranges over the full landscape of issues we discuss in this blog, but from a refreshingly humanist perspective.

The Orphan Master’s Son was the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.