This is a startling memoir of a man who escaped a life of misery and starvation in North Korea, where he had lived for 36 years under the brutal reign of Kim Il-sung and then his son, Kim Jong-il.
Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother. By virtue of being half-Korean, he and his family were treated with disdain and he was bullied at school. His father, perhaps because of the humiliation he suffered in the workplace for being Korean, took his frustration out on his wife and beat her regularly while Ishikawa and his sisters watched, unable to do anything. Despite this, the family lived a comfortable life, Ishikawa began to make friends and enjoyed himself in his own small way.
Life changed, however, when in 1958 the communist North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, urged all Koreans to come home, promising them a better life in ‘paradise on earth’. Ishikawa’s father, lured by the idea of living a more lucrative life in a society where he would be accepted, packed up the family and returned home to Korea with them.
Here they were sent to a small village where Ishikawa soon learned that communist North Korea was ‘hell on earth’. Having expected excellent education, a better standard of living and abundant food, they soon realised that none of this would ever happen. Kim Il-sung was a ruthless dictator who ran the country as a brutal totalitarian regime. In a cruel turn of fate, as Ishikawa’s family was now considered Japanese, they were treated with contempt as the lowest caste in North Korea. The only positive in the move was that Ishikawa’s father stopped beating his mother and became a gentler person towards all of them.
Ishikawa tells the details of his life in North Korea in a straight-forward, honest, and not overly-dramatic manner, and in this way makes the narrative an excellent tool to carry such an horrific story. The translation from Japanese is well done and his voice stays authentic. It is impossible to relate in total here the brutality of his family’s existence, which seems to worsen with every chapter. His family was initially given a house but, because they were Japanese, it was burned down and they had to fashion a makeshift shack out of spare wood. His family lived in complete squalor (like the majority of the population) with no heating, no new clothes, and hardly any food – the government was supposed to supply food parcels but only did so sporadically; or any food that was successfully farmed was taken away. Ishikawa’s father found it difficult to find work and so their income was virtually non-existent. His mother foraged the land every day for something to eat and they often managed to stay alive by eating boiled bark and weeds.
The tragic ludicrousness of the North Korean regime is often highlighted by Ishikawa, one of the examples being the farming methods forced upon farmers. They were instructed to plant the rice seedlings as close together as possible, in order to produce large quantities of rice. However, the plants were unable to flourish because of being squashed together, and crop after crop failed, only adding to the dire food shortages.
Ishikawa never bought into the propaganda with which so many citizens were brainwashed, however he went along with it, for to cross it was to lose one’s life or be sent to a concentration camp.
“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.”
Despite his intelligence, he was never able to get a good job because he was Japanese, and was finally reduced to working in the coal mines; the dirtiest, hardest labour. He married – an arranged marriage – and had children who proved to be a constant source of anguish for him as he was unable to provide a good life for them.
When Kim Il-sung died, his son Kim-Jong il took over and, although it seemed not possible, life became even worse for North Koreans. Ishikawa’s family – and others – literally started starving to death:
“Ever since setting foot in North Korea more than thirty years before, I’d known nothing but hunger. Everyone had been halfway to starvation for decades. But things had taken a turn for the worse starting in 1991. From 1991 until Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, extremely cold weather wreaked havoc on the fragile food supply.”
People became walking skeletons, Ishikawa’s family included, and he watched his children become weaker and thinner, and then his mother die of hunger, her exhausted body unable to keep working.
After 36 years of this hell on earth, Ishikawa decided he had to escape to Japan and then try to get his family out of North Korea. He knew that the only alternative was death. Despite his weakened state, he eventually left North Korea by swimming over the Yalu River in the dead of night, through a ‘river of darkness’; he was knocked unconsciousness by a rock in the flooding waters and landed up barely alive on the banks on the Chinese side of the river. Once well enough, he contacted the Japanese authorities who negotiated with the Chinese to bring him safely into Japan.
The tragedy of his story is that, once in Japan, Ishikawa hoped to earn enough money to get his family out of North Korea. In an ironic twist, however, he was unable to find substantial enough work as he was now regarded as being North Korean. He never saw his family again.
The book – however horrific the details – is a testament to Ishikawa’s resilience and determination to stay alive with dignity. This needs to be read by Westerners – in a time where North Korea appears in the news as being ‘normal’ enough to walk into the Winter Olympics with South Korea, this story is a stark reminder of what life really is like in North Korea. Perhaps, too, it serves as a warning of what a country under a populist leader is in danger of becoming.