Tuesday, May 12, 2020

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa

I picked this up last year from the Kindle store as a freebie for World Book Day because the reviews for it looked great. It took me a while to read it though, because the subject matter looked heavy. North Korea gets a lot of bad press in the U.S.-- admittedly, for good reason-- but often in a way that portrays the nation as a cartoon straw man and in a way that diminishes the psychology and the history that facilitates tyrannical rule, as well as the suffering of the people who live there.

It was interesting to compare this with the other North Korean defector memoir I read recently, THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES. This author is older than Hyeonseo Lee, and most of his time there was spent under Kim Il-Sung's rule. Unlike Hyeonseo, Masaji Ishikawa was not born in North Korea. He is half-Japanese and half-Korean, and grew up in Japan in an abusive home environment. His father, who was Korean, seemed to be without purpose after the war ended and he could not longer smuggle goods, and took out his feels of uselessness with physical violence on his wife and young children.

During this time, North Korea was trying to lure back people who had been displaced during the war, who were called "returnees." It was painted as a paradise to people of Korean descent who were being treated poorly as ethnic minorities in other Asian countries. What a hideous surprise it was to poor Masaji, who wanted to turn back as soon as they reached port. Their family was put in a small home with no bathtub, where they were bullied and targeted as being "Japanese." Ironically, this was the same treatment that they had come to North Korea to escape.

Masaji's voice-- which I'm assuming has been preserved to the best ability of the translator-- is quite a bit different than Hyeonseo's. He is acerbic and sarcastic and stark in his condemnation of what he sees as hypocrisy in the cognitive dissonance that arises between North Korea's creeds and philosophies and the way that the people there actually behave. His writings about his bullying and they way his family was taken advantage of, scapegoated, and ostracized by turns were heartbreaking. He was married twice, had two children, and had to leave them behind when he left North Korea as a defector. He writes about the famine and it seems like his caste, or songbun, was also lower than Hyeonseo's, as they were part of the "hostile" class as returnee foreigners and were forced to scrounge the earth for dropped crumbs and weeds, some of which made him violently ill.

His one advantage as someone who was of Japanese ancestry was that his defection was easier. China and North Korea have an agreement that China deports and repatriates North Korean defectors, and South Korean embassies in China comply with this in that they refuse to help (unless said defector is able to make it to South Korea, or an Asian country with looser rules regarding defectors). But because he was Japanese, and not North Korean, by birth, the Chinese officials were able to look the other way and allow the Japanese embassy to escort him back to Japan.

This is a really excellent memoir. I didn't really know much at all about North Korea bar the propaganda that I see in the news, so it's interesting to learn about this very secretive country by reading memoirs of people who actually lived there and from journalists who at least make an effort to be impartial to the best of their admittedly biased cultural lenses. Anyone who wants to learn more about North Korea should read this book. It's dark and horrible, but really well written, and the voice of the narrator is just so compelling, it's impossible not to root for him from the very beginning.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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