book reviews

Repost: A review of A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

This book review appeared on my original blog on March 13, 2018. I am reposting it as/is.

I am fascinated by true stories, especially ones that involve survival against all odds.  I just finished A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, a book written by Masaji Ishikawa and beautifully translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown.  This book was published on January 1, 2018 and already has a couple thousand reviews, most of which are very positive.  I am about to add my own very positive review of this very harrowing tale of survival.

Born in 1947 in Kawasaki, Japan, Masaji Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a South Korean father, along with two sisters.  Ishikawa’s father was a violent alcoholic who brutalized his family and his enemies.  Because of his tendency to get into fights, Ishikawa’s father was known as “Tiger”.  He was belligerent and had few friends in Japan, which is likely why he was lured to repatriate to North Korea when his son, Masaji, was only thirteen years old.

Although the senior Ishikawa was not from the north, he was attracted by the claims that North Korea was a worker’s paradise.  And though his wife and children were not that enthusiastic about the move, it was settled and the Ishikawas were soon on their way.  It wasn’t long before they realized what a mistake it was to go back to Korea.  They left a life of relative comfort for one of abject poverty.  Very soon, “Tiger” found out that he couldn’t fight his way out of sticky situations anymore.  The government took everything from them.  Very soon, what little they brought with them from Japan was gone and they had to struggle hard every day just to survive.

Making matters worse was the fact that the Koreans looked down on the Japanese people who were there and the “returners”; that is, Koreans who repatriated to North Korea from Japan.  They were relegated to worse jobs and not educated as well.  Ishikawa’s family was given a “nice” house– nice, only because it had a tiled roof.  One day, a friend of the family’s came over, got drunk, and smoked a cigarette in bed.  He passed out and his cigarette caused a fire.  The house went down in flames and the family was forced to build a new one completely by themselves, right down to cutting down the trees used for the walls and roof.

Ishikawa writes of the trouble he had finding love.  He fell in love with one woman, but her family wouldn’t accept him because he was Japanese.  Later, he was paired up with a woman whom he described as “not beautiful”.  Their union lasted a year, long enough for her to present him a son.  Then she begged for a divorce and left him with the boy to raise on his own

He did manage to find a second wife, one with whom he was more compatible.  She could not live with him for some time, though, because she was caring for her grandmother.  They eventually had two more children.  Meanwhile, one of his sisters came home, having been cast out by her husband.  She was pregnant and had his two sons from a prior relationship with her.

I’m not sure how much input the translators had in how this book was written, but I found Ishikawa’s writing very compelling.  The book is written in the first person and is in a conversational tone, as if he’s sitting next to you talking to you about his experiences.  He seems like a very likable person, even when he becomes so desperately unhappy that he contemplates suicide.  Indeed, he was in the middle of his attempt when a co-worker– a guy who had the same job burning coal– came upon the author and saved his life.

That was only the first of several times when Ishikawa avoided what should have been certain death.  The story leads up to his dramatic and unlikely escape from North Korea in 1996.  Originally, he’d planned to try to save his family.  They were all starving to death.  Since Ishikawa was actually Japanese, he got help from unlikely sources… and ultimately, he lived to tell the tale.

Honestly, what really got to me was his description of what it was like to slowly starve.  He explains the desperate lengths people went to simply to subsist in a place where there simply wasn’t any food at all.  He writes of boiling pine bark for as long as possible to prevent the toxins from poisoning him.  Then, once he choked down the pine bark, which had been fashioned into something roughly resembling a rice cake, he suffered through gut pain and constipation so severe that he had to manually dislodge his fecal matter from his anus.  He explains how frustrating it is to read posters made by the government, instructing people on how to make their meager rations last longer so they could keep working.  And, of course, all of the posters included multiple exclamation points.  They were probably made by people who had relatively plenty to eat.

Ishikawa describes the physical changes that occur when a person starves.  For example, the fat on the lips and nose go away when starvation is extreme.  When the lips are gone, the teeth are plainly visible in a macabre fashion.  Ishikawa had to see his children looking like that.  He escaped because he wanted to rescue them.  Alas, escape to Japan was not all it was cracked up to be, either.  Now he’s left wondering what has become of his two surviving sons; he learned that his wife and daughter died, but lost contact with the son who had informed him.  He also has grandchildren languishing in North Korea.

I have read a lot of books about life in North Korea.  This book is one that will probably stay with me for a long time.  It’s not a story about being in a concentration camp, though those are compelling enough.  This is a story about a group that we don’t often hear about.  This was a man who, unlike most North Koreans, had knowledge of what it was like to be outside of the country.  He remembered a good life in Japan, even if his father was a brute.  He spent 36 years behind the fortified borders in North Korea, living the life of someone less than the average joe, yet not truly incarcerated.  

Needless to say, I heartily recommend A River in Darkness, if you can stand to reach such material.  It’s a very blunt look at what people in North Korea are living with under their current regime.  Perhaps it’s also a cautionary tale of what could happen to any of us if we allow tyrants to maintain power.  Five stars from me.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon.com from sales made through my site.

Standard
book reviews

A review of The Girl With Seven Names…

Hi, folks. I am currently on tiny Hebridean Princess in Wick, Scotland. We’re on a whisky themed cruise, so we’ll be hitting eight distilleries this week. We visited our first one, Old Pulteney, this morning. I probably won’t be writing so much over the next few days, but I did want to write a review of The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyenseo Lee and her ghost writer, David John, before I forget too much. This story, which was published in 2015 in the wake of Lee’s riveting TED talk, is one that is almost too hard to believe. And yet, it’s a true story of one woman’s unlikely exodus from North Korea.

Hyenseo Lee, now married to American Brian Gleason, was born in North Korea in 1980. Her birth was complicated, not because her mother went through serious medical issues, but because of songbun. Songbun is a Korean concept of social order. Lee’s mom had met the love of her life on a train to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, where only the most loyal, highest ranking North Koreans are allowed to live. She was on her way to see a relative when she ran into a North Korean soldier who was charmed by her ability to sing. They traded addresses, but lost touch for awhile. When Lee’s grandmother found out, she was against the relationship because the soldier didn’t have enough songbun. Lee’s mom was married to another man– a handsome, high ranking man, with whom she had no chemistry. They conceived Hysenseo– given a different name at birth– but the marriage disintegrated soon afterward. A few years later, when Lee’s mom married the soldier from the train, her name was changed again.

Lee grew up thinking her mom’s second husband was her real father. She was devastated when she learned the truth, particularly since she had a brother who was only her “half” brother. The family suffered a house fire, but Lee’s dad was careful to remove the portraits of beloved North Korean leaders. If he hadn’t, the family would have been punished. They had to hang the portraits in their home, clean them lovingly, and guard them with their lives. And when Kim Jong Sung died in 1994, everyone had to look gutted, even if they weren’t. Because not looking gutted by the death… not crying or being hysterical… could mean imprisonment, torture, or even death.

Then, when she was still young, the man she knew as her father was murdered by the North Korean government. Officially, it was called a suicide, though, and that was very shameful and had a deleterious effect on the family’s songbun. Lee’s mom paid a bribe to get the cause of death changed. Lee witnessed many atrocious acts against people. She saw her first public execution at age 7, and writes that people felt obligated to attend the executions of people they knew. It was kind of like going to a funeral.

When she was nearing 18 years of age, in 1997, Lee decided she wanted to cross the Yalu River into China. She was friends with a border guard who really liked her, and because she wasn’t yet 18, she could get away with things adults couldn’t. One night, after dinner, she slipped out and cross the river into China. She decided to stop by the home of a smuggler, with whom her mother had business dealings. She got a wild idea to see family she hadn’t seen in years, even though it was 8 hours away. She went to see her family, who weren’t expecting her. She saw what a much easier life they led. She learned that she’d been told lies her whole life and that there was a whole world out there for her. She stayed… and turned 18, which made potential punishments much worse if she had gone back home. She missed home, especially her family, but she had to find work in China.

Fortunately, Lee’s father had taught her to write in Chinese… fortunately, she was uncommonly bright and resourceful. Lee found her name changing again, as she posed as a Korean Chinese woman, hiding her North Korean identity. I was amazed as I read about how the winsome Lee managed to escape so many situations that could have either gotten her imprisoned or killed. Her name would change four more times before she finally settled on one that worked.

The Girl With Seven Names is truly an amazing story. I used to be able to read books quickly, but lately that’s been more of a challenge. This book was quick and easy to read, even though it’s a very convoluted tale that includes many concepts, like songbun, that have to be explained. Lee’s ghostwriter, David John, has done a fantastic job making this story seem as if it came straight from Lee herself. I was marveling at how well written it is, and what a pleasure it was to read this book.

Pictures are included, even in the Kindle version. If you like books about North Korea, or North Korean defectors, this is a very good one to have. I was continually surprised by how smart, resourceful, tough, and determined Lee is… even to the point of getting her family out of North Korea.

Highly recommended!

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard