When I read the synopsis for this book, I was a bit surprised. Stories by defectors from North Korea are not uncommon, but the name of the author caused my interest to rise. The surname is clearly Japanese but the connection to North Korea was the part that pulled me in. Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Korean father. In 1959, the Japanese Red Cross Society and the Korean Red Cross Society secretly negotiated a “Return Agreement”, allowing any native born North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland. The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, then initiated a repatriation campaign which reached the Ishikawa family. His father was convinced by the league to return to North Korea in 1960, the family moved to North Korea under the illusion of a bright and prosperous future.
Soon after their arrival, the Ishikawas soon realize that North Korea is no paradise. In fact, it was a far cry form life in Japan and over the next thirty years, they would endure trials and tribulations that will cause the reader to recoil in shock at the extent to which humans can degrade each other. In Japan, life was good and although the family was not wealthy, they lived a stable and middle class lifestyle. In North Korea, the facade easily cracks and the Ishikawas are now just another family in the communist regime under Kim ll Sung (1912-1994). The rhetoric is strong and the propaganda endless. The people are taught that American invaders could attack at any minute and one must use Juche to become a good party member. Young Masaji is forced to navigate this new world as a foreigner who does not speak Korean and is routinely called derogatory terms for Japanese returnees. This was the reality that many Japanese faced while living as minorities in North Korea.
I have read other books about defectors from North Korea but this one stands out. The author reveals life in the country and all of its gritty reality. There are no moments of joy. In fact, as Ishikawa points out on several occassions, it is like being in hell and the misery with which the people live will undoubtedly shock some readers. While the tanks rolled in Pyongyang and the Dear Leader gave his speeches attacking the West, the people lived a much different reality. To readers who live in a western culture, there will be many things that make no sense at all. However, Ishikawa discusses this and explains very frankly how and why North Koreans believe what they do. His observations about the North Korean mindset and the actions of Pyongyang are keen and an inside look into the fallacy of the Dear Leader.
One question I have always wondered to myself is if things were so rough, how did the population continue? Ishikawa reflects on this as well. His personal life took many twists and turns before his defection, including marriage and fatherhood. He discusses the many challenges of bringing a child into the world and then finding support to raise a new family. His plight and that of others who had the misfortune of coming down with an illness, highlight the climate of distrust and deception created by Pyongyang. Human nature is on full display in the book, at times in its its ugliest form. The actions of neighbors and those who are part of the system are a reflection of the deep social dysfunction that plagued a country in which people were simply trying to survive. The State was succeeding with its divide and conquer technique working perfectly.
On July 8, 1994, Kim II Sung died and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il (1947-2011). At this point in the book, things take an even sharper turn. What was already hell becomes Dante’s inferno. Ishikawa recalls the descent into further misery for many Koreans as food became even more scarce, work non-existent and fear more prevalent. Mentally he is at the breaking point and soon makes a decision that changes his life and those of his family forever. He makes the difficult decision to defect but knows that it is a one way ticket with no such thing as returning to visit. He is a father and husband about to leave his family behind in a country sealed off from the rest of the world. But he is also determined to escape misery and certain death in North Korea, and his journey to return to Japan is nothing short of miraculous. Readers will find this part of the book uplifting and confirmation that at times, hope and faith are indispensable. Ishikawa’s story is incredible and I believe that anyone can find many things to learn in this short but appreciated memoir.