Heartbreaking, Illuminating North Korean Defector’s Memoir that Lingers

Book review: A River in Darkness, by Masaji Ishikawa (Amazon)

What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever…But I’ll tell you what I do recall. It’s drizzling. But soon the drizzle turns to torrential rain. Sheets of rain so heavy, I’m soaked to the skin. I collapse under the shelter of a bush, utterly incapable of measuring the passage of time. I am weary to the core.

I’ve read several of these North Korean defector memoirs, but this one was something different. At times during reading it, I found myself just staring into space thinking, trying to process it, I don’t know. It’s intense. Not that the others aren’t, but this one is told in a different voice than I’ve read before. The pain seems so raw, the anger is so fresh, the regret is palpable.

Masaji Ishikawa is born to a Korean father and Japanese mother in Japan. His parents have a turbulent relationship but eventually patch things over just in time to get caught up in the Japanese government-approved repatriation wave to North Korea. They’re won over by the propaganda promising plenty of work, food, and paradise-like living conditions. Even the Red Cross was involved in the movement.

His storytelling is enhanced by how thoroughly he explains things, providing a sort of running commentary to his own tales.

I’m not convinced that naive utopianism was the actual driving force behind people’s decision to migrate. For most displaced Koreans living in Japan at the time, the key point was a much simpler promise: “If you come back to your homeland, the government will guarantee you a stable life and a first-class education for your children.” For the countless Koreans who were unemployed, underpaid, and laboring away at whatever odd jobs they could get, the abstract promises of socialism held far less sway than the hope for a stable life and a bright future for their children.

As soon as the ship approaches the port in Chongjin (a city thoroughly described in Barbara Demick’s incredible Nothing to Envy), some of those onboard realize the mistake they’ve made. The city’s stark appearance, and that of the North Korean citizens, are nothing like they’ve been led to believe is the norm in the country. But it’s too late, they disembark and their life in the “hellhole” as he calls it, begins.

Ishikawa’s family was in the unique position of being Japanese, not native, thus their songbun (determination in the caste system) was automatically the lowest of the low. That’s saying a lot for North Korea. They struggled for decent jobs, housing, wages and food, always in vain or never enough to meet their most basic needs. All North Koreans suffered and struggled, especially during these decades of famines, but the Japanese “returnees” were in a particularly bad position and some of the few possibilities available to born citizens were denied them, making their situation and chances for survival even worse.

Ishikawa tells their stories in a blunt but still emotional, sensitive, and descriptive language – I found this one much better written in translation than others I’ve read. I also liked that despite some of his choices seeming strange to a western reader with an entirely different background and sensibility, he’s honest in his motivations and transparent in explaining why he did or felt certain things.

The narrative follows much the same thread as other defectors’ tales inevitably do – work to the point of exhaustion, try to play the system’s games, fail, things get worse, deaths, starvation, disappointment, disillusionment, theft, anger, illness, and eventually the decision that it’s better to escape or die trying. Ishikawa had experienced extreme loss by the time he decides to attempt the extremely dangerous border crossing over the Yalu River into China, and despite much of his family still being alive, they face certain death if they stay in place. The kind of choice no one ever wants to have to consider.

This isn’t a novel with a climax and happy resolution, it’s real life in a troubled zone with complicated political entanglements and necessities. That is to say that it doesn’t entirely have the shining happy ending any reader would hope for – that’s not a spoiler, as his tone throughout is clear that escaping North Korea isn’t the equivalent of waving a magic wand and all the problems disappearing. I don’t think it lessens the impact of his story at all. It’s important to understand all the ugliness and what’s at stake in a country that our own leader continues to taunt in a kindergarten pissing contest, acting like it’s all a big joke and another opportunity for his asinine nickname game instead of one of the biggest human rights catastrophes in the world today. But I digress.

Ishikawa has a sarcastic, biting sense of humor that both enlivens the narrative and helps to drive points home. I loved a passage where he lays out Kim Il-Sung’s “Ten Commandments,” which had to be memorized and repeated ad infinitum in the 70s. After listing the instructions each commands, every single one somehow referencing the Great Leader, Ishikawa quips, “Much later, I checked out the Ten Commandments of the Abrahamic religions. You know how many of them contain a reference to God? About five. So it seems that God could learn a thing or two from the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-Sung.”

Heartbreaking but illuminating account of defecting from the hermit country, with some truly shining moments of humanity and humor amidst the bleakness, that stays with you long after reading.

Verdict: 4/5

A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea
by Masaji Ishikawa
translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown
published January 1, 2018 by AmazonCrossing

Book Depository

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