Who is the little man in the elevator shoes?


He is the boogeyman in our worst nightmares. Kim Jong-un, absolute ruler, Dear Leader and beloved Father of North Korea, is the 30-something strongman who inherited his power from his father and his grandfather before him. The Kims have ruled North Korea for some 70 years. Before that, Japan occupied the peninsula for three decades until the country was divided into north and south at the 38th parallel after World War II.

Look at your newspaper today. Mass kidnappings of Nigerian girls? Pirate raids on ships on the high seas? Read the news and catch a glimpse of the horrors taking place in North Korea, a rogue nation that presents a great threat to our security. Recently Kim Jong-un revved up plans to test more nuclear weapons. He denounced President Obama using the most despicable, racist epithets. He is full of sound and fury; however, it does signify something. We ignore his bizarre strutting and muscle flexing at our own peril.

The simple facts don’t begin to tell the shocking story, which features a population of more than 25 million people held under rigid control by a national policy of terror, famine and secrecy. The story of a hermit kingdom seems incredible, not possible in this day and age of cell phones and Internet; however, the truth of life in North Korea is worse than we can imagine.

How do we get to this truth? By reading fiction, of course, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson, a writer who can imagine life in Pyongyang and beyond.

Think of blurring boundaries — the boundary at the 38th parallel that has kept families separated, igniting conflicts including the Korean War in 1952, and other boundaries, like the soft edge where truth seeps into fiction, the other edge, where fiction imagines the hard facts that can’t be verified, the boundary where a child’s love for his parents is subordinated to his devotion to the state, the boundary where a husband’s devotion to a wife turns into a self-serving need to denounce her.

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