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Review: Behind the Pomp, Hunger Games

Melanie Kirkpatrick

Emotions will run high Friday at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics when athletes from both sides of the long-divided country of Korea enter the arena together, marching under a jointly agreed-upon flag of “unification.” The North Korean delegation to the games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, includes 22 athletes who will participate in five sports. But anyone who thinks that these Olympians represent a normal country needs to think again.

The most comprehensive account of the depredations of life in North Korea is a 2014 United Nations human-rights report from a special Commission of Inquiry. The commission concluded that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations [committed by North Korea] reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” While the U.N. report provides a big-picture look at the “unspeakable atrocities” perpetrated by the ruling Kim-family regime, the dozen or so memoirs published in recent years by North Koreans who have escaped recount the horrors endured by individual families.

The latest addition to this genre is Masaji Ishikawa’s searing, swiftly paced “A River in Darkness.” Like Kang Chol-hwan’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” (2001)—the book that spurred President George W. Bush’s commitment to helping the people of North Korea—Mr. Ishikawa’s memoir recounts the fate of a family of Korean heritage that had been living in Japan. Mr. Ishikawa’s family moved to North Korea in 1960 under a resettlement program sponsored by the Japanese government.

Mr. Ishikawa’s father, who grew up in Korea when it was a Japanese colony, had been forcibly sent to Japan during World War II to work in a munitions factory. His decision to move his family to North Korea was rational, the son writes, given that in postwar Japan his father faced “endless bigotry, prejudice and discrimination.” Mr. Ishikawa’s Japanese mother objected but in the end agreed to go. The author was 13 when he arrived in the country he had been told was a “paradise on Earth.”

Needless to say, the Ishikawas’ life in North Korea was far from paradisal. Their sole “luxury” was to live in the only house with a tiled roof in the village to which they were assigned. After the house and all their possessions were destroyed in a fire caused by a drunken neighbor, the Ishikawas were left with nothing.

Mr. Ishikawa’s descriptions of North Korean poverty are chilling, as are his accounts of the corruption and repression that dominated every aspect of life there. Death by starvation or lack of medical care was commonplace. Arbitrary arrest, disappearance into prison camps and official violence were standard. “Even as people faced incredible hardship and deprivation of both the physical and mental variety and wasted away under food shortages,” he writes, “we weren’t allowed to think for ourselves or take any initiative. The penalty for thinking was death.”

Especially eye-opening is his explanation of songbun, North Korea’s apartheid system under which every citizen is assigned a status based on his perceived loyalty to the regime. A person’s songbun determines his station in life, including where he lives, how much education he receives and, most cruelly of all, how much food he will get. Because of the Ishikawas’ low songbun, Mr. Ishikawa could not go to university or marry the first woman he loved. As famine struck in the mid-1990s, the family’s low songbun meant that they began to starve—and die.

As his wife and children suffered, Mr. Ishikawa made the decision to flee across the Yalu River to China, where he hoped to find a way to get to Japan and obtain help for his family. “If by some miracle I succeeded,” he writes, “I could send money back to my family. I could save them.” He swam across the river in the middle of the night.

Once in China, he succeeded in reaching Japan with the help of the Japanese government, which persuaded Beijing to grant him an exit permit on the basis of his Japanese nationality. In Japan, however, he failed to realize his dream of rescuing his wife and children, and he remains tormented by his memories of them. “It is a terrible curse to not even know if they are still alive,” he writes at the book’s conclusion.

“A River in Darkness” was first published in 2000 in Japan, where it sold nearly 400,000 copies. The book is now available in English, thanks to AmazonCrossing, an arm of the online shopping giant that translates and publishes literature written in foreign languages.

Little has changed in North Korea since Mr. Ishikawa fled in 1996, as reports from recent escapees confirm. An exception is the availability of information. The author’s observation that a lack of access to news from the outside world meant that “North Koreans simply fell for the propaganda” put forward by the regime is less true today. A growing number of North Koreans—especially the elites in Pyongyang and those who live near the Chinese border—are better informed about life elsewhere and appear to be increasingly skeptical of the regime’s pronouncements.

As for Mr. Ishikawa’s family, the news is not good. He writes in an epilogue that his wife and daughter have died, and his literary agent in Japan tells me that the author learned recently that one son is dead and the other is presumed so.

That’s the normality of life in the nation represented by athletes competing this month in the Olympic Games. The predominant emotion at the sight of the North Korean delegation in Friday’s opening ceremonies ought to be rage at the regime that has engineered this publicity stunt and that continues to brutalize the 25 million men, women and children of that sad country.

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