“We moved to North Korea to escape from our life of poverty in Japan. We didn’t see ourselves as taking part in some heroic endeavor to build a future socialist utopia.”
Thirteen year old Masaji Ishikawa, half Korean and half Japanese, was hauled to North Korea with the assistance of the Japanese Red Cross and dumped on its shores in 1960. His father was tired of being persecuted for his Korean race in Japan. He had grown to believe the pernicious lies told by the League of Koreans in Japan. That it would be like returning home, to a paradise where there would be jobs aplenty and opportunities everywhere.
After being deposited on the shores of North Korea, they were met with a harsh reality. It was anything but paradise. It was hell. Their first meal in that coveted motherland was dog food, which they attempted to swallow with noses pinched. It was an omen for how the government treated its people. Like beasts to be controlled and humiliated.
“The landscape was dreary, still scarred by bomb craters left over from the Korean War. Once we arrived, we were interviewed by officials who decided each person’s future occupation and accommodation.
They were stripped of their few valued possessions. Electric appliances, watches, semi-decent clothing. The secret police knew it would make fellow citizens acutely aware of their poverty to be exposed to such.
Masaji Ishikawa struggled in school, but applied himself while grappling with the new Korean language. He was bullied for being part Japanese. He despised the mantras they had to recite. The leader of Korea, Grand Marshal Kim Il-Sung, had a Ten Commandments (inspired from the Abrahamic) that was drilled daily into the young children. We must stay loyal to the Great Supreme Leader. To his revolutionary ideas and to the glory of socialism.
Masaji wished to study physics. The subject fascinated him. But he was denied the privilege of pursuit. He was in the lowest caste of the social strata, the public official told him. He would never be able to attend the university, or even serve in the military. Therefore, he was given the role of farm laborer.
Secret police constantly monitored every family. No matter how much effort you put forth in your assigned job, you always received the same payment for your work.
For thirty years, Masaji endured unimaginable horrors. He lost his parents to undiagnosed and untreated conditions because they couldn’t afford the hospital and doctor visits. He stole clothes off a neighbor’s clothesline in an attempt to dress his 47 year old deceased mother in clothes that weren’t ridden with holes. The clothes he took were still tattered, and the nails he tried to drive in her coffin were not straight like the ones in Japan. He cried over the way he couldn’t even secure the lid properly. He cried as he took his motherless-newborn son door to door, humiliated to inquire, but desperately seeking a wet nurse for his newborn.
That’s when I broke down reading this book. I shoved it face-down and heaved hollow sobs into my hands. In our culture, men who cry are viewed as an anomaly. Men who freely acknowledge their tears are even more so. But this author, in all his 74 years of lived experiences with horrors unimaginable, articulates these hideous moments with a sincere frankness.
His family survived on acorns and roots and weeds. He marveled at how starvation turns the human face into a ghoul, how lips recede and reveal teeth that appear bared at all times- how noses turn into two slits. People were constantly perishing in the street. It got to the point where he stopped stopping to see who it was. Rumors of cannibalism abounded. He tries to commit suicide by hanging, only to have his death thwarted by a coworker who came back early from lunch and heaved him off the noose.
I haven’t felt so sickened by a memoir since Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have grown up richly blessed with health, family, resources. Reading these accounts is brutal, but necessary. I have never known what it was like to wonder where my next meal is coming from. Or wonder if secret police might come steal the chickens my father bought, because “you can’t have more than your neighbors are assigned to their weekly rations.” Or be told I absolutely cannot ever work in my dream field, because my caste is the wrong one. This world is so unbearably dark, and certain corrupt men in power have ravaged entire generations. And will continue to do so. Masaji did the unthinkable and managed to escape from North Korea, but left behind his family. To this day, he doesn’t know entirely who is still alive and who has died from hunger.
“I often think about what would have become of me if I’d stayed in North Korea. I would probably have starved too. But at least I’d have died in someone’s arms with my family gathered around me. We’d have said our goodbyes. What chance of that now? People talk about God. Although I can’t see him myself, I still pray for a happy ending.”
There is a line from one of my favorite tales from childhood that I cling to in The Return of the King. It is uttered by Frodo’s loyal friend Sam Gamgee.
The Lord of the Rings saga in its grand finale depicts the ageless trope of the ultimate fairytale.
That a King, a hero, will rise up and bring healing to the land and its people.
A similar thought is encapsulated in a poem of Wendell Berry, another author whose body of work I’ve grown to cherish:
And this, then,
Is the vision of that Heaven of which
We have heard, where those who love
Each other have forgiven each other,
Where, for that, the leaves are green,
The light a music in the air,
And all is unentangled,
And all is undismayed.
In this time of Advent, my thoughts leap to this hope of a Redeemer. This glorious wonder that is the Incarnation of Christ. That He would deign to become fully human and join us in all our miserable, vulnerable state. As a tiny, helpless infant, hungry for milk, possibly cold, in want of clean water for a bath, and placed in a manger. (And despite popular decorations purporting otherwise, a barn is a disgusting place with fecal matter embedded in the wood and ridden with rodents. When a video of an inmate giving birth in a Lysol splattered jail cell caused great viral consternation earlier this year, think of the utter insanity of it all that the King of the World should be subjected to worse. But that is entirely the point.)
A man of sorrows. Despised and rejected by mankind.
Our King. Our Victor to bring everything sad untrue.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a hymn that perfectly represents this Advent season.
As we sing this in church, we reflect on his first coming, but we also intensely anticipate Christ’s second coming.
Where our King will make everything sad come untrue.
Where all will be unentangled, and all will be undismayed.