One man’s escape from North Korea. An escapee shares the brutal, vivid details of his 36 years in North Korea.
Masaji Ishikawa’s brutally vivid memoir of life in North Korea depicts sorrow, hunger, deprivation, cold and loss. This short and intense portrait which evokes the horrors he found after leaving his native Japan at age 13 in 1960.
His Korean father decided to move the family to North Korea, in hopes of finding a better life in the “promised land” described in the country’s extensive propaganda. But in fact, the family found only torment in the so called “promised land”.
In 1996, after 36 years in North Korea, Ishikawa escaped back to Japan, facing the loss of his children and his identity. This English-language translation of his autobiography, which he wrote in Japanese in 2000, provides a rare look at life in one of the world’s most enigmatic, oppressive nations.
Even with a few inconsistencies in the narrative’s timeline, Ishikawa’s saga is expressive and harrowing
Main reading points
- Masaji Ishikawa’s family moved to North Korea from Japan in 1960 when he was 13 years old.
- However, he fled from North Korea 36 years later in 1996 and returned to Japan.
- As the child of a Japanese mother and a Korean father, he felt at home in neither country. Feeling never really belong to one or the other.
- The good life that North Korea promised returnees turned out to be propaganda and lies.
- Life in North Korea included brainwashing, famine, forced labor and corruption.
- Ishikawa married twice and had three children.
- To escape his suffering, he once attempted suicide.
- With starvation imminent, he decided that trying to escape North Korea was worth the extreme risk.
- He fled by crossing into China and eventually returned to Japan.
- Ishikawa lives in Japan in limbo trying unsuccessfully to get his two remaining children out of North Korea.
The Memoir Goes Like This
“Grab…Destiny by the Throat and Wring Its Neck”
Masaji Ishikawa was never a believer in a set destiny from birth. He believes he had five births. And he fought for his life each time. In 2000, he published his autobiography in his native Japan under the pseudonym Shunsuke Miyazake to document his five lives which including spending 36 oppressive years in North Korea before fleeing in 1996.
“Born Between Two Worlds”
From the moment of he was born, Masaji Ishikawa had to live between two worlds. His mother was Japanese; his father was Korean. Named Masaji in Japanese and Do Chan-sun in Korean, he had what he calls his “first birth” in 1947 in Kawasaki.
Though his family had little money, he had a happy childhood in the farming neighborhood of Mizonokuchi, Japan. His mother, Miyoko, came from a well-respected family with close community ties.
However her family viewed Koreans as barbarians. Her older brothers had fought with the Japanese army in Manchuria and described Koreans as gorillas which are both “poor and unkempt.”
“In a sense, I still don’t even exist; I remain in limbo between two worlds.”
Just outside Mizonokuchi was a village of about 200 Koreans, including Ishikawa’s father, Do Sam-dal.
The Japanese forced villagers from Korea to work at a nearby munitions factory. Do Sam-dal was among 2.4 million Koreans in Japan who had no place to go after the Allies defeated Japan in the Second World War. He had been born in the village of Bongchon-ri, located in modern-day South Korea. When he was 14, the Japanese had kidnapped him and taken him to Mizonokuchi to work in the factory.
“You must have a strong will. You have to summon what you know is right from your innermost depths and follow it.”
Nicknamed “Tiger” for his prowess as a leader in the local Korean community, Ishikawa’s father was violent and often drunk. Ishikawa’s few memories of his father include seeing him beat his mother and attack her with a knife.
Ishikawa disliked his father and Koreans in general. As he neared his teens, Japan suffered a recession which means the family became increasingly poor. He skipped school to look for his mother, who’d run away to save her life. When he went back to school, he was often the victim of anti-Korean racism even though being a half-japanese himself.
Under the leadership of Kim Il-sung, North Korea reached out to Koreans living in Japan. Kim promised that Koreans who returned to their mother country would enjoy a fresh start and better quality of life.
We need to note that North Korea hadn’t existed as a country when Tiger was born. Repatriation promised what the family needed.
“When we lived in Japan, if anyone crossed [my father], he’d simply punch their lights out…But now he was scared, plain and simple. And that scared me to death.”
In January 1960, Ishikawa, his parents and his sisters Eiko, Hifumi and Masako left Japan for North Korea. Some 70,000 people crossed back to North Korea in the early days of the repatriation period, which continued with only a short interruption until 1984.
“All at once, the adults on the train started crying. I wondered why. After all, they were going back to their homeland, so why were they sad? It seemed to portend bad things to come.”
Born to a New Life in North Korea
Repatriation to a new country filled Ishikawa with joy. After a train ride, a bus ride and two days at sea on an old Soviet ship, the family arrived in Chongjin.
The ghostly port’s rusted ships and barren mountainsides made it apparent immediately that the reality of their destination didn’t match the propaganda promising a good life in North Korea.
Ishikawa learned he wouldn’t be eligible to go back to Japan without authorization from its authorities. Thus, his second birth happened at age 13 when he stepped off the gangway of the ship and entered North Korea which was then, a propaganda based false advertising.
His family spent a few weeks in limbo. All six of them slept on the freezing floor in a room at a reception center, waiting to find out how and where they would live. The Koreans eventually assigned them to a home in Dong Chong-ri, a village 12 hours away via steam train and oxcart.
Officials assured his family that being assigned to live in the only tile-roofed building in the village was a significant honor. The cracks in the walls of the ramshackle place told a different story. The electricity was weak, the house had no gas hookup and water came from a well.
“The school principal was just another party apparatchik. On that particular day, his job was to inform me of which caste I’d been assigned to. I was told that I’d been deemed ‘hostile’.”
His fellow students welcomed Ishikawa to school by acting out a play that portrayed his life story. The drama was propaganda showing how the “kind efforts of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the good old League of Koreans” had made it possible for Ishikawa to return to his mother country. He understood only a small amount of Korean, but he recognized when other people called him a “Japanese bastard.”
“In the end, all that mattered was whether our loyalty toward Kim Il-sung appeared credible. So we became masters at faking it. Everyone did.”
Ishikawa learned that expressing his thoughts could land him in a labor camp or a concentration camp. Neighbors snitched on neighbors to the secret police. Koreans ostracized his Japanese mother. All adults had to work, but party officials didn’t assign his mother a job because she couldn’t speak Korean.
The family’s only glimmer of hope was the transformation Ishikawa saw in his father. Tiger did what he could to provide food for the family, even when he didn’t understand the dire consequences of doing so, including someone informing on him to the police.
Once Tiger learned to fear the system, Ishikawa recognized the reality of the hell that his father, his family and other returnees had to accept.
“That’s the trouble with propaganda. It constantly contradicts itself.”
“Something in My Brain…Struggled Desperately to Survive”
In North Korea, Ishikawa lived under constant brainwashing and orders to “protect the foundations of socialism and strive for the triumph of the revolution.” The rigid juche agricultural systemgenerated only meager rations. People tried to subsist on weeds.
They faced famine, forced labor, no freedom of movement, mandatory military service, theft, widespread corruption and limited supplies. Ishikawa wore the same pair of pants for more than a decade.
“Rigidly uniform agricultural policies were passed off as universal truths.”
Before high school graduation, the principal assigned Ishikawa to the lowest caste in the country’s rigid system. Being deemed a “hostile” meant he would have no opportunity to improve himself and no chance to study physics, as he’d hoped. Six years after his arrival, Ishikawa started working as a tractor driver. His work assignments changed in subsequent years.
Adulthood meant knowing people who were executed or who committed suicide. Doctors didn’t help the ill and dying. Everyone had to pay unwavering adherence to the “Ten Commandments…of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.”
Ishikawa’s personal life included a surprise arranged marriage to a woman named Lee He-suku, with whom he had a son, Ho-chol. His wife left Ishikawa soon after the birth of their baby, so Ishikawa had to find a wet nurse to feed his baby. After burying his mother, who died at age 47, Ishikawa felt that his son was his only reason to live. In 1976, he remarried; he and his second wife, Kim Te-sul, had two children: daughter Myong-hwa and son Ho-son. When his father died, Ishikawa was the only person present to lay Tiger to rest.
“We placed [my mother] in her coffin the following afternoon. I tried to hammer the lid down, but the stupid nails were inferior and wouldn’t go in straight.”
Ishikawa struggled “to do something honest and pure” that would provide for his family and not lead to reprimand. Living away from his family, he worked as a charcoal burner. One day, as he cut a tree to feed into the kiln, he decided to give up on his earthly hell. He made a noose, secured it over his neck, tied it to a tree, stepped onto a rock and jumped. But the noose stuck on his chin, and he lived. Though annoyed at his inability to kill himself, something within Ishikawa drove him to struggle to survive.
He decided to live to protect his family and to hold onto hope. Ishikawa was born yet again – for the third time.
“I buried the baby and headed back down the mountain, bellowing like the lunatic I’d become.”
Crossing to China
For decades, North Koreans starved. Hunger was Ishikawa’s constant companion. Things grew more dire in 1991, when extreme cold made the paltry food supply even worse. Following Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, the food production infrastructure collapsed. In the summer of 1995, when fear of death by hunger was a daily concern, a flood destroyed grain production.
By autumn, people were collecting bitter acorns to stay alive. By the following spring, even the cultivated land near their home was no longer viable; people had no fertilizer and no seeds or seedlings.
“The barely living dead” thought and spoke only of food. Ishikawa’s children grew thinner, their faces sank and their eyes became huge. Ishikawa lacked the energy to cry about the state of their malnourished bodies.
If death were around the corner, Ishikawa reasoned, he should die trying to return to his homeland. He didn’t take time to consider because he was afraid he’d change his mind. With his wife and kids’ support, he grabbed his few possessions and left for Hamju Station to take the night train to the border city of Hyesan. Tickets were difficult to get and he knew the officials would check his identification papers, so he jumped onto the train and hid.
“When you’re starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose. Once your lips disappear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog.”
After arriving in Hyesen, Ishikawa carefully observed the narrow Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. Guards patrolled the North Korean riverbank all day and night. Ishikawa’s three nights of surveillance paid off. He seized an opportunity to cross while the guards changed shifts.
A rainstorm had transformed the river into raging, muddy torrent, but he had to take the chance. In the process, Ishikawa bashed his head on something. Unconscious and lacking a sense of how much time had lapsed during the dark night, he woke up on the bank of the river. Nearby, a light was on in a house which was something that would have been treason in North Korea. Then Ishikawa heard a dog bark. He fell asleep and when he awoke, a man was carrying him. A dog was there, too, wagging its tail.
Ishikawa realized the dog was a pet. In North Korea, dogs are food. The pet dog meant Ishikawa had made it to China. His fourth life began in that moment.
“We were on the verge of starvation, but the bonds of family love remained intact.”
Ishikawa’s rescuer was an elderly Korean named Kim. He explained that other escapees (native North Koreans) received a very cold reception at South Korea’s Beijing embassy. Thanks to the Border Security Cooperation Protocol that North Korea and China signed after the Korean war, China sent refugees back to North Korea.
South Korea cared about its trade policy with China and not about people. But Ishikawa was Japanese, and Kim was willing to help his efforts to return to Japan.
Ishikawa knew the Japanese Red Cross helped people contact lost relatives. He reached the Red Cross in Japan, which contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials doubted Ishikawa’s status as a Japanese national, in part because he was out of practice when he tried to speak Japanese. But he was able to verify the details of his birth.
“Suddenly, it came to me. People didn’t keep dogs in North Korea. They ate them. This dog was a pet. This wasn’t North Korea. It was China. I’d made it.”
They made a plan to move Ishikawa further west to Shenyang, China. Kim’s sons, Choro and Chorusu took him on the two-day drive through the Changbai Mountains. A representative of the Japanese consulate met him.
He waited in Shenyang for about two weeks before moving south to the port city of Dalian, where he waited in a liaison office until the authorities from China would permit him to leave. When the time was right, the Japanese consul shook his hand and gave him $500 to help him start his new life even though the Japanese government made it clear that if anything went wrong in China, it would not help him.
The official line was that Japanese officials in China had never heard of him. When it was time to leave, Ishikawa saw a large plane on the airport’s runway. Two flight attendants greeted him; the plane held no other passengers. The government had given him a charter flight for his return trip to Japan.
“The Plane Touched Down in Tokyo”
On October 15, 1996, when the plane landed in Tokyo, Ishikawa was “born again” for the fifth time. Ecstatic to have left North Korea, he looked forward to designing his own future. When he had fled from North Korea, Ishikawa had promised his children that, if his escape was successful, he’d get them out, too.
Making that happen became his primary focus.
His new life back in Japan however was full of struggles. The government officials who helped him flee didn’t help his family or other returnees leave North Korea. The Japanese government never officially recognized Ishikawa’s escape, so technically, he doesn’t exist in Japan. Initially given shelter in a rehabilitation facility run by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Ishikawa lived with alcoholics and other people too ill to work. His maternal relatives didn’t want to see him. Finding good work was impossible; he hated his inability to send support to his children and wife.
What if Ishikawa had remained in North Korea?
If he had died of starvation there, as his wife and one of his daughters eventually did, he feels he would at least have died surrounded by family, and he could have said goodbye. He still hopes to rescue his other two children, but their once infrequent letters no longer arrive. In the end, Ishikawa continues to live in a state of limbo.
His “only true possession [is] bitterness at the cruelty of life” – but he still prays for a “happy ending.”