It does not surprise me with all the latest news that is going on about North Korea that I stumble upon this beautiful and tragic novel. Words cannot begin to express the amount of agony I felt learning about Masaji Ishikawa life in North Korea and his journey towards freedom. I have known for years that North Korea’s regime has a blatant disregard towards human life and what makes this novel powerful is that we get a first person account of what it truly means to be living in North Korea under Kim Il-Sung reign.
Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan, his mother is Japanese and his father is South Korean. Living in Japan during the 1950s was severe for his family because of the bad blood relations between the Japanese and Koreans. His father was essentially a thug who could not find any work and abused his wife any chance he got in order to cope with the harsh struggles of life. Thanks to the propaganda that circulates about North Korea, Masaji father decides they are moving for a better life. Immediately upon arrival Masaji realizes that the Japanese government has lied about the promises of North Korea and they just signed their life to the Devil.
Over a period of three decades we get to witness the horrors that Masaji’s experiences under this dictatorship. The amount of suffering that is accurately described in this novel makes the reader wonder how is this possible? How can governments around the world allow this amount of human suffering to take place in this country and not bother to do something about it? Isolation and loneliness is a theme that the author suffers through his lifetime. Being Japanese in the North Korean government is consider the lowest of the low and institutional racism becomes apparent when every opportunity he tries to elevate himself in Korean society Masaji gets knocked down every time because simply he is Japanese.
We see how the events that transpires in Masaji’s life chips away his soul and that is what breaks my heart the most. Even when you think things could not possibly get worst trust me on this one it does. I cannot begin to imagine what I would do if I was in his shoes and the level of degradation that Masaji’s deals with on a daily basis in order to survive showcases no one in this world deserves to suffer. Water, food, roof over your heard, and clothes are the essential components of living that we take for granted. Another thing that is actually shocking is the power of thought. We all have opinions about any topic and we have the luxury to think what we want. In North Korea, the idea that you have a thought is treason itself against the government and speaking out is one step closer to signing your own death certificate.
The idea that you have no control over the chaos that is your life resonated a lot with me in this story and I hope no one ever has to experience what Masaji and myself had to go through. During my final years in High School, I was currently living in a mobile home with a roof that was slowly collapsing, a family that did not have the funds to fix it, no running hot water, and a bipolar uncle off his meds and refusing to work. My uncle asked to move in and mentioned that he was going to live with us for a few months to get back on his feet and in the end he lived with us for almost 4 years. I witnessed a few of his manic episodes and living in my own home was like walking on egg shells.
I tried to find ways of escaping from this nightmare of my life and no matter what I did to get myself out of the situation I always found myself back to square one. Having no friends, no way to prosper and find an escape it made me bitter about life for years. Fortunately I am not in that situation anymore and have a proper support system that can help me but imagine if I had to suffer like that for 30 years? What would be the reason of living if I had to resort to this awful nightmare? Honestly I do not believe I would be able and for Masaji to live in harsher conditions than myself only showcases the valiant human spirit and the art of not giving up on hope.
I found it interesting how the idea of escaping North Korea never fully crossed his mind until the death of Kim Il-Sung and the famine that erupted in North Korea. No matter what he tried to do in order to put food on the table was never enough and the poisonous foods that they were forced to eat portrays them as starving animals. There is no happy ending in this novel and even when he was finally able to escape in 1996 the aftermath of his actions leaves a bitter taste for Masaji and the audience. I hope he is able to find some peace in the end of his life. The scene of how his mother passes away left me in tears and angry that no one could do anything for Masaji and his family.
Being a son of a Cuban immigrants allows me to understand and grasp the terror of this regime. There are moments throughout the novel that resonates deeply to the fascist regime of Cuba. When Kim Il-Sung passes away and this famine breaks out is literally history repeating itself. Around the same time when the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1992, Cuba was one of the countries that was receiving major aid. Cubans began to starve for years because there was no money to buy food, if you were lucky to have money then you were shit out of luck in the grocery stores because there was barely any food available to eat. The difference with this type of famine is for North Korea, thousands if not millions of individuals died from this famine wiping a huge chunk of the population.
I hope with this book it can teach people the true account of what is happening in North Korea and the reality that basic human rights are being violated on a constant basis. I highly recommend everyone to pick up this relatively powerful short novel and discover this epic story. His writing flow felt like I was reading poetry and it blew me away for being such a short book you learn a lot of about Masaji and North Korea. I hope someday Masaji can be reunited with his family and my heart goes out to all North Koreans who are suffering and I hope someday this fascist regime will end and the Koreans could finally be reunited in peace and harmony.