A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea

A River in Darkness:  One Man's Escape from North Korea

An Amazon Charts Most Read and Most Sold book.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 Ishi...

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Title:A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea
Author:Masaji Ishikawa
Rating:
Edition Language:English

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea Reviews

  • Marilyn Hitesman

    Beyond comprehension. The atrocities are being silenced but must be made known. No one should endure what these people do.

  • Lo

    The short version: This is easily the best firsthand narrative about life in North Korea that I've found, and it's a gripping, well-written story in its own right. If you haven't read anything like this, it will be VERY educational. But be aware that it doesn't have the happy ending the title implies, and prepare yourself accordingly.

    The long version: Some years ago, I realized that my view of North Korea was overly cartoonish. I didn't want to think of it as "the most hilarious awful dictators

    The short version: This is easily the best firsthand narrative about life in North Korea that I've found, and it's a gripping, well-written story in its own right. If you haven't read anything like this, it will be VERY educational. But be aware that it doesn't have the happy ending the title implies, and prepare yourself accordingly.

    The long version: Some years ago, I realized that my view of North Korea was overly cartoonish. I didn't want to think of it as "the most hilarious awful dictatorship" anymore, so I started reading about it. There's an awful lot of political and economic posturing and maneuvering to read about, and tons of analysis about the leaders and the military, but what about the actual people who live there? What are their lives like?

    Turns out that it's pretty hard to find out. The fact that regular citizens, especially the non-elite, are essentially hostages makes it hard to get information. I found and really enjoyed

    , a collection of stories from former North Koreans living in exile. That's interesting in that the stories come from a variety of people who came from different backgrounds in North Korea, but this book is a much more in-depth picture of a single life, and has better narrative flow. The prose is spare and impressively clear, and the book is quite short.

    Ishikawa was born in Japan and moved as part of a mass migration program that essentially tricked huge numbers of Koreans to "return" from Japan to North Korea, facilitated by the Red Cross. Many had never even been to North Korea, and empty promises of opportunity were repeated for years. This program, and the subsequent ill treatment of the Japanese "returnees" by the "native" Koreans was eye-opening to discover. Because of this aspect, the story manages to be even more grim than other stories I've read, which is really saying something. Just the first few pages, while he's still a child in Japan, were enough to fill an entire teary daytime talk show. And while life after escaping is never easy for the fortunate Koreans who make it out alive, the poor guy has a worse outcome than any I've heard before.

    The horrors in the lives depicted are many, from the extreme to the mundane - starvation, long propaganda meetings, being denied opportunity due to circumstances of your birth, facing inadequate shelter, and that's all before the 90s famine. But the greatest horror is revealed gradually across many small moments: to survive people must lose their humanity, stop seeing each other as people, no longer caring if their neighbors live or die. Then the government uses the citizens as the most effective tool to oppress themselves by turning them against each other, encouraging and rewarding reporting your own family for defying the regime. The most common lament I've read (across all accounts) about the famine was, "the kind people were the first to die." As much as I found myself deeply appreciating eating dinner after reading this, I was even more moved by the love and support of my friends and family, savoring the marvelous experience of not having to fear for their lives every day.

    I would recommend that everyone read this, and probably try to convince them given the opportunity, because there's a lot more to North Korea than nuclear weapons. If more people knew what life there is like, it would undoubtedly help -- it's pretty hard not to care in the face of this insanity. But I wouldn't force this on anyone, because it really is a difficult read twice over. First, while you're reading, the events in the story are brutal. It's hard to watch an incredibly resilient protagonist be defeated again and again. Then after you're done with the book, it's depressing to watch the world let this situation continue because it's too much trouble to address. The political and economic arguments seem even more unsatisfactory. On the other hand, it's not all bad. Nothing has ever made me appreciate my life like reading this. Every time Ishikawa's story pops into my mind, and it's hard to forget, I feel a huge wave of gratitude in addition to the sadness and compassion.

    So read it, but please be ready.

  • Beverly K

    Oh god, that was the most depressing book I've read in a long time. There is literally no light at the end of the tunnel for Mr. Ishikawa. On the one hand, it was a fascinating and disturbing tale of life in North Korea. On the other hand...it was a dark and dreary tale of what happens in North Korea.

    I think I need a break from reading for a bit now.

  • Janelle

    A RIVER OF DARKNESS by Masaji Ishikawa (translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown) Thank you so much to Amazon Publishing for sending me a free copy - all opinions are my own.

    “Someone once said, ‘If a crying baby could tear down the universe, it would.’ Thats how I felt that day. I wanted to demolish the whole universe, but the sad truth was, it had already come crashing down around my head.”

    My Review:

    This story is so personal—you feel as if your friend is telling you a story. It’s not over

    A RIVER OF DARKNESS by Masaji Ishikawa (translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown) Thank you so much to Amazon Publishing for sending me a free copy - all opinions are my own.

    “Someone once said, ‘If a crying baby could tear down the universe, it would.’ Thats how I felt that day. I wanted to demolish the whole universe, but the sad truth was, it had already come crashing down around my head.”

    My Review:

    This story is so personal—you feel as if your friend is telling you a story. It’s not overly dramatic—it doesn’t need to be. The details of this little book are very upsetting and hit straight to the heart.

    Masaji Ishikawa tells his life from his childhood in Japan, up through his escape from North Korea. He was born in 1947, just after the conclusion of the Second World War, and after Japanese colonial rule in Korea ended. His father, Do Sam-dal, was Korean and his mother, Miyoko Ishikawa, Japanese. It was a tumultuous childhood, full of fear, anger, and pain. Even though his mother’s family was respected, his father was not. His father was very resentful towards his mother and took it out on her.

    When Masaji was thirteen, his father insisted they move to North Korea under the regime of Kim Il-Sung. He thought he’d have a better life in North Korea, which he had told would be “paradise on Earth”. Except, as Masaji describes it, it was hell on Earth, and after reading his story, I am in 100 percent agreement.

    His childhood was difficult but it did not hold a handle to the struggles of living in North Korea for thirty-six years and every time I saw the phrase, “Luckily I...” I couldn’t believe how optimistic he was—the human spirit is an amazing thing. I also thought it was interesting to see the change in his father’s temperament over the years in North Korea. And how Masaji finally understood what made his father who he was.

    I loved how matter-of-factly Masaji speaks. It is very well-written memoir and I believe 170 pages is all it needed to be extremely impactful. This is an important story and one that everyone should know and understand.

    For all of my reviews, please visit

  • Chandra Claypool (wherethereadergrows)

    My first love in books is horror followed closely by psychological thrillers. When I read nonfiction/memoirs, I typically stay somewhat within the same genre - true crime, etc. As a half South Korean woman, I also typically avoid reading anything regarding North Korea. I always assumed that these types of books would be the only ones that would get me "triggered"... and by that I mean PISSED OFF! However, when Ashley at Amazon Publishing gave me this book, I couldn't NOT read it.. and I'm SO hap

    My first love in books is horror followed closely by psychological thrillers. When I read nonfiction/memoirs, I typically stay somewhat within the same genre - true crime, etc. As a half South Korean woman, I also typically avoid reading anything regarding North Korea. I always assumed that these types of books would be the only ones that would get me "triggered"... and by that I mean PISSED OFF! However, when Ashley at Amazon Publishing gave me this book, I couldn't NOT read it.. and I'm SO happy she sold me on this. Turns out, it may as well be a horror book... unfortunately. Phew - I'm still trying to wrap my feelings around this one.

    Masaji takes us on his journey. That's thirty-six (36) years of him living in North Korea with his family. Decades of trying not to starve to death. Decades of trying not to get shot, beaten up or turned away simply for being 1/2 Japanese - something that is (obviously) out of his control. Decades of wondering how the government did NOTHING that it promised them. Becoming walking skeletons and deciding that dying trying to escape was better than the alternative - because clearly dying was going to happen anyways. Watching family members, children and seniors alike, dying all around you. Uff. At 178 pages, Masaji manages to put you right in there with him. At one point he even apologies to the reader .. but then saying it was necessary to say to show exactly how bad they had it.

    My heart hurts for him... for his family... for all the Koreans and Japanese living there in squalor as death surrounds them at every turn. An extremely emotional read but one that should be read. At the very least, let his story get out there. He didn't go through all of that and manage to escape just to not be heard.

  • Xavier (CharlesXplosion)

    A breathtaking real, unfiltered view of life in North Korea as a Japanese-Korean. Not all tales end happily, but Masaji Ishikawa's story exemplifies the resilience of the human spirit and importance of optimism even in the darkest of times.

  • Alaina Meserole

    I feel like I've been on a non-fiction kick lately and I've loved every minute of it.

    What first got my attention was the cover. I don't really know how else to explain it other than say it intrigued me so much that I didn't even think twice before I clicked it.

    Second, the title makes you think it will be a happy-ish book. Or that it will have a happy ending after all of the doom, sadness, and torture thrown upon you. Don't get your hopes up high people because this is one spoiler you will get fr

    I feel like I've been on a non-fiction kick lately and I've loved every minute of it.

    What first got my attention was the cover. I don't really know how else to explain it other than say it intrigued me so much that I didn't even think twice before I clicked it.

    Second, the title makes you think it will be a happy-ish book. Or that it will have a happy ending after all of the doom, sadness, and torture thrown upon you. Don't get your hopes up high people because this is one spoiler you will get from me: there is no happy ending.

    Nope, not here. If you want one.. look somewhere else.

    was such an amazing book. It definitely tug at my heart strings and I'm pretty sure there were some tears falling down my cheeks as well. Since I already mentioned one spoiler about this entire book I'm going to try really hard not to spoil anything else.

    Masaji, the MC, takes you on this heart wrenching journey of him battling through North Korea. Fair warning, you will cry at some point in this book. He goes through starvation and trying to fight to keep food on the table for his family. He went through discrimination for being half-Japanese. This resulted in him getting beaten up, shot, or turned away from everyone on a daily basis.

    I probably cried the whole book - or shed tears throughout some chapters. Okay, all of the chapters. OKAY, THE ENTIRE BOOK. Seriously, I don't think I've ever cried so much from one book. I loved everything about this book and the story that was told. It definitely helped me see a more definite side of North Korea. I felt for Masaji and his family so much.

    I wish this book had a happy ending. Truly I do. I'm so glad that I got to read this book and that it was available on Kindle for free. I'm moved. I'm touched. I have no idea how I'm going to fall asleep right now after that book.

    I'm shook guys.

  • Sara

    It's been a while since I read anything in one sitting, but this was utterly heartbreaking and compelling.

    Masaji Ishikawa and his family moved to North Korea during the great migration of Japanese/Korean immigrants to the communist state in the 1960s. Promises of a paradise and jobs for all duped many a family at the time, but the reality was far from what was expected.

    This is by far one of the best first hand accounts I've read of life in North Korea, and in some respects it completely overwh

    It's been a while since I read anything in one sitting, but this was utterly heartbreaking and compelling.

    Masaji Ishikawa and his family moved to North Korea during the great migration of Japanese/Korean immigrants to the communist state in the 1960s. Promises of a paradise and jobs for all duped many a family at the time, but the reality was far from what was expected.

    This is by far one of the best first hand accounts I've read of life in North Korea, and in some respects it completely overwhelmed me. The outpouring of grief, bitter regret and disappointment Masaji feels for himself and his family is palpable on every page. It's his passion to tell his story, and shame both the Korean and Japanese governments for their failings, that make this so readable - but never enjoyable. It follows Masaji from that fateful journey across the sea to North Korea, to his life as a tractor driver and endless search for a happy life with his growing family, to the famine of the late 1980s and early 90s which ultimately leads to his desperate escape.

    The desperation of a whole nation is described so eloquently here, it's hard to read at times. But it should be read. The cruelty of human nature is all too evident, and shouldn't be ignored. I admire Masaji Ishikawa for the courage it must have taken to recall his past, and defy a nation in doing so. I can only hope that by doing so he's finally found some peace.

  • Staci

    Tragic. That one word sums up this entire memoir.

    I've read both Fiction and Non-Fiction books about North Korea which has provided me a pretty good background about what life is like there. What I didn't know until reading this memoir is nearly 80,000 Japanese moved to North Korea after WWII. They were told North Korea was a land of paradise. The author was born in Japan and moved to North Korea in 1960 when he was 13 years old. He lived there for 36 years. It is truly astounding that so many mo

    Tragic. That one word sums up this entire memoir.

    I've read both Fiction and Non-Fiction books about North Korea which has provided me a pretty good background about what life is like there. What I didn't know until reading this memoir is nearly 80,000 Japanese moved to North Korea after WWII. They were told North Korea was a land of paradise. The author was born in Japan and moved to North Korea in 1960 when he was 13 years old. He lived there for 36 years. It is truly astounding that so many moved their families to North Korea. The details the author shared about his life in North Korea was heart breaking. I've read about the famine of the mid 90s, however the author shared details I had not previously heard.

    This memoir was incredibly interesting and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting a better understanding of what life is like in North Korea. The memoir is available as a Kindle First offer to Amazon Prime members in December 2017. The book releases in January.

    There is some foul language and disturbing details in the pages.

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