Thursday, December 28, 2017

'A River in Darkness': Masaji Ishikawa's escape from North Korea

A River in Darkness, a memoir to be released Jan. 1, 2018, is a harrowing account of a man's immigration to North Korea in 1960 and his escape back to Japan in 1996.

Korean-Japanese immigration to North Korea, 1959-1984

Masaji Ishikawa grew up in Japan with a Korean father and a Japanese mother. In Japan, Koreans "were at the bottom of the pile" socioeconomically and were discriminated against. They were originally brought to Imperial Japan "to serve as slave laborers and, later, cannon fodder," and by the mid-twentieth century Japan feared that this group "might become a source of social unrest".

When North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung, who presented himself as the liberator of North Korea from South Korea and the United States, said he would welcome expatriate Koreans into the socialist country he was building, many people took the offer. Ishikawa called it "a mass repatriation campaign in the guise of humanitarianism" which, from Japan's perspective, "was a solution to a problem. Nothing more." North Korea, for its part, needed laborers to rebuild following the Korean War. In 1959, the Red Cross Societies of Japan and Korea negotiated the details, and soon after, people began emigrating from Japan to North Korea by boat. About a hundred thousand people made this journey until 1984. They were promised a better quality of life than they could reasonably expect in Japan.

Arriving at North Korea's immigration hub in 1960, the six-member Ishikawa family was given a single cold room and was not permitted to leave the center. Ishikawa, then a teenager, immediately noticed that the residents "were infinitely poorer than we’d ever been during our tough life in Japan." The promised "year's supply of rice" given to his father was mostly inferior grain. In general, the Koreans from Japan were not welcomed warmly as immigrants. The usual term for them was "Japanese bastards."

Work and ideology

In North Korea, adults were expected to work in conformity with the motto: "No work, no dinner." Officially, able-bodied people were to be given 700 grams of food each day, and the elderly and sick were to be given less than half that, but in actuality people who didn't work were given nothing. The state distributed food to people who had officially recognized jobs. Ishikawa's mother never had an official job because she only spoke Japanese, not Korean. She assisted childbirths and gathered mushrooms and firewood. For many others, the most likely alternative to an official job was becoming a thief or vagrant. "So old people had to work until they died. They truly did."

Children were also expected to work. For example, the school expected the children to produce two rabbit pelts each year. Rabbits were difficult to catch, and each pelt was worth about two weeks' of an average worker's income at the market. Ishikawa performed physically strenuous farm work as a teenager.

Ishikawa was a member of the Youth League. They were required to pledge allegiance to Kim Il-sung and socialism and were given membership cards. His birthday on April 15 was the biggest national holiday and in the 1960s resulted in a ration of pork, fruit and dessert for each family. When Kim Il-sung committed an atrocity, people rationalized it with whataboutist comparisons: "'Remember the time of Japanese colonial rule!' 'Never forget the cruelty of American imperialism!'" A stray comment against North Korea's leadership or principles could result in hard labor, a concentration camp, or execution. (He said: "I never witnessed a public execution myself, but it wouldn’t surprise me.") The ideological way of doing things was always called Juche, which could be translated as "self-reliance, autonomy, independence, or responsibility — all the things we weren’t allowed to have....that’s always the way with totalitarian regimes. Language gets turned on its head. Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were 'the masters of our destiny.' And if we begged to differ, we were dead." Everyone was told that the US occupied South Korea. US intervention in Korean national boundaries was blamed for North Korea's starvation. The North Koreans were told that the solution was to unite with South Korea, but they were given inconsistent information about whether South Korea was also starving. To him, this made no sense: If both nations were starving, unity could not save them, and if only one nation was starving, it wasn't obvious how only the U.S. and not North Korea itself was to blame.

Standard of living

None of the houses had bathtubs, and he resented that he couldn't bathe daily. His family installed their own makeshift bathtub and changed their clothes daily. The neighbors, "native" North Koreans, perceived these hygiene habits as "Japanese decadence." The neighbors also resented that the Ishikawa house had a tile roof. Conditions worsened over time. Three-and-a-half decades later he noted that "Turning the light on at night in North Korea was tantamount to high treason."

Once, after hosting a party and inviting officials, the Ishikawa family's house burned down. The same officials responded to the family's request for aid the next day: “we will grant you special dispensation to cut down some trees so that you can build a new house for your family. That is the party’s pronouncement." They also gathered their own stones, mud, and straw. They were left with two outfits each and no underwear.

Among the initial promises by North Korea to Japanese immigrants were free healthcare and free education. Neither of these were realities. Doctors demanded bribes of money or cigarettes. University education was only made available to those to whom the party wanted to give it. Toward the end of high school, Ishikawa was told that he'd been assigned to the lowest of three castes — presumably because he was Japanese, and having nothing to do with his academic effort — and so would not be able to attend university. Instead, he was asked what trade he would like to pursue. He said he'd like to work in a factory, but he was assigned to work on a farm. Farming was frustrating to him. Farmers were required by party ideology to plant rice very close together, ostensibly for efficiency, even though most farmers knew that rice needed more space to thrive. Crops failed year after year. Also, regardless of what farmers produced, the party took the entire crop and gave farmers a fixed ration of food. (In the early 1990s, the last few years of Kim Il-sung's life, this was less than was given to party officials, and less in actuality than was officially promised.) This meant that workers had no incentive to do their jobs well and indeed were often punished severely for attempting innovations. They could be fired for making comments or suggestions, and loss of a job could mean starvation. Workers had to attend twice-weekly ideology meetings, sometimes until ten o'clock at night. Anyone who missed a meeting was "put under surveillance by the secret police."

Famine and escape in 1996

In one moment when he decided he could not bear to be around people anymore, he asked to be transferred from his farm job to a more isolated job as a charcoal burner far away. While few people would have wanted such a job, it gave him more freedom: "The party didn’t seem to care whether I was alive or dead. To them, I ceased to exist altogether."

His family stories are at the extremes of survival: Selling blood to buy rice, childbirth without medical assistance, burying an infant whose mother had been too weak to feed it and for whom it had been difficult to afford a little cornstarch and rice to make a weak formula, stealing work pants off a clothesline to replace the work pants on a corpse to give it more dignity in burial, an old man beaten to death after being tricked by a thug and a cop, a man being cut down from a noose while trying to hang himself. In the famine of the early 1990s, children stopped going to school to help search for food. They boiled plant substances found in the woods that were fatally toxic if not prepared correctly, tasted terrible, and caused painful constipation. Corpses lay unclaimed in the road. Ishikawa says he believed rumors of cannibalism. In 1995 people were given no grain ration at all, and his family collected acorns to survive the winter. From eating weeds,

"our faces grew swollen, and our urine turned red or even blue. We all suffered from chronic diarrhea. We couldn’t even walk in that condition. No one thought or talked about anything except food....When you’re starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose. Once your lips disappear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog. Your nose is reduced to a pair of nostrils. I wish desperately that I didn’t know these things, but I do."

In 1996, he made a successful break across the border into China. Getting caught on either side of the border would have meant execution. He identified himself as "the first" to have escaped North Korea (he is indeed one of only a few) and managed to convince Japan to take him home, although he had partly forgotten how to speak Japanese. The Japanese government asked him not to admit that he was helped. "The Japanese government still hasn’t officially admitted that I ever returned to Japan at all," he said. He has been able to send a little money back to surviving relatives in North Korea but has not been able to rescue them.

What got him through

He said "I didn’t really believe in God" but, in the worst of times, would — and still does — pray for a better outcome. What really helped, though, was a general will to survive despite occasional flashes of hopelessness. Being the recipient of a single act of human generosity in dire circumstances "reminded me what it was to be a human being. And I came to recognize that, no matter how difficult the reality, you mustn’t let yourself be beaten. You must have a strong will. You have to summon what you know is right from your innermost depths and follow it."

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