Sunday, May 6, 2018

A story of escape

"...our house didn't have a bathtub. Nobody's house did. In 1960. In paradise on earth." 

To celebrate World Book Day on April 23, Amazon was making available some free Kindle books from international authors. I downloaded a selection of them and read the first one earlier this week. It's called A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea, by Masaji Ishikawa. This book is an autobiography.

There has been more attention to North Korea in the news recently. Honestly, I did not know many details about the Korean War even though I live in a post-Soviet country and my home country was involved as well. I guess I have been focused more on Russian history.

Even though I'd heard rumors of starvation in North Korea, this book, written by a survivor, erases any doubts. As I was reading it, I kept thinking about periods of starvation in Russian history, such as Collectivization under Stalin (with estimates of anywhere from 7-20 million casualties), or the Siege of Leningrad (over 1 million dead in one city, from starvation and other related causes). It is hard enough to believe that such mass starvation happened within the last century, in countries that were not undeveloped/Third World at that time.

But the shocking thing about reading this story was that it happened in my lifetime and is still happening now. Ishikawa was born in 1947 and his kids are (were) my age. His kids grew up at the same time as me and never had enough to eat in their lives. Ishikawa's experience was complicated by the fact that he was a so-called "returnee" who was actually born in Japan and brought over to Korea by his Korean father. He was one of those who had perhaps the worst treatment possible, going from a simple (if challenging at times) life in rural Japan to famine/prison-like conditions in Korea with no way to make a case for better living conditions. In addition to having the lowest social status possible, I would think that the shock of the transition would make it even more challenging. As a discussion point, I wonder who would have more of a will to live: someone who has never known anything but poverty, or someone who has already tasted a glimpse of the "outside." On another level, we observe how Ishikawa's own father's character changes, as he escapes from racial discrimination as a Korean in Japan, only to plunge his Japanese wife into isolation and culture-shock as they relocate.

Unfortunately there is no happy ending for now, as Ishikawa was the only one of his family to escape, hoping to rescue the rest of his family eventually. It is sobering to be reminded that someone who has overcome tremendous obstacles is not always able to move on. At best, the victory itself can be celebrated and the next generation given hope for a better life. Those recovering from the horrors of war, rape, loss of a loved one, life-changing injuries, etc. will never be the same. When the war ends, the surgery site has healed, and the adoption is completed, the trauma may still be there.

I recommend reading this book. There is nothing very poetic about it, and it's translated. But it is a compelling, thorough account that will make you think.

While writing this post, I realized how little I know about the politics, history, and geography of most regions of the world. I didn't spend a lot of time on fact-checking, so feel free to go find out more if you have gaps in your knowledge like I do.


2 comments:

  1. I either heard him interviewed on public radio, or heard quite a lengthy discussion of the book - it was fascinating, and eye-opening as you say. You have reminded me that I would like to read the book.... I think. Sometimes I long for the days when our worries were local.... Knowing so much about the troubles of the entire world can be so overwhelming.

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  2. Yes, it is mind-boggling to think of all the pain and suffering around the world. I do try to protect my heart from being too preoccupied, but one thing that stops me is the knowledge that my First World lifestyle and home country's politics play a role somehow contribute to worldwife suffering, whether it's cheap labor or armed conflicts or just an unwillingness to help. So as a U.S. citizen I do have a sense of responsibility, but where do you even start with focusing in on one area of need, and how do you know if/when to stop? Only with the Lord's guidance, I suppose! But then there will always be that activist friend who directs your attention to something else!

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