Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Generally, I think that people control their own fates, but in a country as repressive as North Korea, maybe not.  Jun Do (John Doe?) grows up in an orphanage and then finds himself buffeted from one bad situation to another.  Along the way, however, he manages to spend a year in a school where he learns English and joins a delegation of diplomatic imposters who travel to Texas.  His exposure to American culture serves him well, especially in the second half of the book.  In a nation where a single comment can cause someone to disappear, and women routinely find themselves with replacement husbands chosen by the state, Jun Do takes the place of Commander Ga, who is married to the beautiful actress Sun Moon.  North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, is the scriptwriter for all of Sun Moon's films, and he obviously scripts and directs the lives of all his citizens, who live in constant fear and whose knowledge of the outside world is only as accurate as the propaganda that blares from the loudspeakers in their homes.  One of the main characters in the second half is a prison interrogator who lives with his parents.  His parents must be constantly vigilant, aware that their son could turn them in for the slightest infraction; they behave like robots in his presence, never divulging any personal opinions that might be construed as seditious.  The best that the North Korean people can hope for is survival, but for what?  Physical torture, famine, loss of loved ones?  The regime recognizes that there is a strong sense of comradeship among the people that can be used as a deterrent to defection.  If someone defects, his friends and family will suffer the consequences.  Therefore, a defection has to be camouflaged as death or kidnapping or whatever.  It's hard to conceive of such a society, but the author uses vivid imagery to draw us into the horror.  One section describes some of the things the protagonist eats to keep from starving, and I found that section even harder to stomach than the physical brutality.

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