Book Review: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea
by Masaji Ishikawa, Risa Kobayashi (Translator), Martin Brown (Translator)

Publication date: January 1st 2018
Publisher: AmazonCrossing (first published 2000)
Pages: 174


The harrowing true story of one man’s life in—and subsequent escape from—North Korea, one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes.

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit

Source: Goodreads


“A River in Darkness” is a powerful memoir about a family man escaping from starvation and suffering in North Korea. I read Yeonmi Park’s memoir ‘In Order to Live’ several years ago and it was a real eye opener for me. I didn’t really have any proper knowledge of the situation in North Korea until reading that book and this one has helped me understand even more.

Differently from Park’s memoir, in the opening pages of this book Ishikawa is a young boy and his family are actually living in Japan. Half-Korean and half-Japanese, his family moved from Japan to North Korea when he was thirteen, promised a luxurious, stable life in a paradise country.

I was fascinated by this story and the history behind it. At the end of the Second World War, 2.4 million Koreans were left living in Japan, having been brought over to work during the war effort. Once the war was over, many of these people were poor and uneducated with no real future ahead of them. North Korea was promising a better life, education, money and good jobs for all.

“Korean people were at the bottom of the pile, and circumstances that had merely been difficult soon became dire for many families. Meanwhile, in North Korea, Kim Il-sung proclaimed he was building a socilaist uptopia.”

Masaji Ishikawa and his family were just one of many to make the journey back to North Korea and seventy thousand people did exactly the same. Sadly, the reality they faced when they arrived couldn’t have been further from the propaganda they were enticed by and the family suffered in more ways than one.

“If you went there . . there are jobs galore! Think of it! You’ll get to send your kids to university.

I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this story as what the family went through was and is terrible and I’m not sure that a single positive thing happened in the 36 years the author lived in North Korea. Instead this is an important education for people like me, who don’t really think about the lives of people in this and similar situations. Can you even imagine being so hungry that you had to eat weeds that foraged from the mountain? Or being told that you can’t follow your dreams because the nation has decided you aren’t worthy? I certainly can’t.

While the story was well told I felt that the writing wasn’t great. That said, this is hardly surprising given the life Ishikawa has had, and I wonder if some of this falls with the translation too. And though I don’t wish to compare the two too much, I also found that I couldn’t connect with this story as much as I could with Park’s memoir. I think this is simply because Park is a young woman rather than a middle aged man, but obviously the author is not at fault for this!

Overall rating: Despite being short in length, “A River in Darkness” is a really heavy and difficult read. This is an educational story of one man’s journey to and from North Korea, following propaganda offering paradise when they arrived. If you’re not up to speed with this aspect of history and (even more sadly) the current political climate, I’d recommend picking this up.


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