Okay, so there are two books this week, but I’m including them together because they’re both memoirs about North Korea. There’s a good reason why I read them both, which I’ll get into…
A River in Darkness was on a list of recommended reads that I came across, and I picked it up through Kindle Unlimited. The story begins in Japan, with a boy named Masaji Ishikawa. His mother is Japanese, and his father is Korean. His father is also abusive, largely in part because of the second-rate status he believes he’s been given as a Korean man in Japan. When the opportunity to take his family to North Korea presents itself, he doesn’t hesitate to go. Masaji, who is thirteen at the time, is forced to go as well, and his description of their first sighting of North Korea, post-war and in the stronghold of communism, is chilling. What follows is one of the most depressing stories I think I’ve ever read. Life in North Korea is not what was promised to those immigrating from Japan, and the lengths to which the government goes to control and brainwash its people is shocking. Poverty, starvation, and hopelessness – this characterized the great majority of the book. Just when it looks like things couldn’t get worse, they always get worse. Over and over again. Masaji, who had never trusted the North Korean government, recounts how he found himself hysterically weeping along with everyone else when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, noting that the propaganda had become so strong and the people so weak from just trying to survive that no one was even sure what they believed anymore or why they were so distraught. The situation only gets worse under Kim Jong Il. At this point in the book, Masaji laments that there was no longer any remembering “who we were” as the Korean people because it had all been wiped out by the Kim Dynasty and their oppression. Eventually, Masaji escapes from North Korea and is able to get away because of his Japanese nationality. That should make for a happy ending, right? No, because he’s left his wife and children behind, attempting to escape to get them help, to bring them to be with him, only to find it impossible once outside of North Korea to do anything for the people still there. Heartbreaking.
I wanted to read a second book about North Korea after this one, desperately wanting a more positive, hopeful perspective. (What was I thinking, right?) I decided to read Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America. Surely that would be more uplifting, right? (Not so much.) It’s the story of Kwang Jin, a boy who was born in North Korea in 1990. His father was actually a member of the party, which made for at least a few reasonably comfortable years for his family. That soon changes, though, as Kwang Jin’s family is starving as well. Kwang Jin and his sister, Bong Sook, manage to survive the worst of the famine, but eventually, after begging from relatives for help and being thrown out again and again (because no one can help when everyone’s starving), their father passes away, their mother sells Bong Sook into what is essentially slavery in China, and Kwang Jin becomes a homeless street kid/thief for what’s left of his childhood. As a teenager, he escapes from North Korea to attempt to find his sister (and he takes the same route as Masaji takes, crossing the river between North Korea and China), only to meet several dead ends. He talks about how stealing is no longer stealing in North Korea (because it’s complete chaos there), how basic survival has nearly made him inhuman, and how confused he is to be homesick for a place that he was desperate to leave. In all of this, he meets a group of Christians, comes to live with one of them in a servant type of capacity, and though the concept of God is entirely foreign to him (because there is no god in North Korea, he says, heartbreakingly enough), he finds himself praying anyway, begging God to make things clear for him. Eventually, he ends up as a refugee in America at the age of seventeen. I will say that this one ends a little more positively because he’s so young, he has hopes for the future, and there’s a chance that the organization that helped him escape might also be able to locate his sister. But the overall feeling at the end of the book is almost one of tentative optimism, which you would expect given the hardships that have been endured and the uncertainty of making a life in a culture so far removed from North Korea. It’s almost like, as he’s writing in his words, you expect him to say, “Well, things are good now, but that never lasts long.” It certainly didn’t for any part of his life in North Korea, and I can’t imagine that anyone who has lived through that can ever fully move on.
So, all that said, WHY did I read these depressing books? Why am I suggesting that you read them? Because Kwang Jin (who changes his name to Joseph in the last part of the book) immigrated to the US in 2007. 2007, y’all! And Masaji Ishikawa wasn’t too far ahead of him. These are true stories from our modern day. These stories of what’s happened in North Korea aren’t from centuries or decades ago. These are stories of what’s happened recently, and nothing has changed in North Korea. (They’ve probably gotten worse now that Kim Jong Un is in charge!) Stories just like these are happening RIGHT NOW. It’s so easy for us to be oblivious to what’s actually going on in the world around us, and reading things like this help us to be informed. I’m not even sure how to help or what to do, but you better believe my eyes are going to be open to the opportunities God shows me now that I know what’s really happening half a world away.
These two books are definitely worth your time, friends.