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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jo (A rather Bookish Geek )❤️

    "Her desperation, her fear, her exhaustion-all of it seeped through her thin clothes and straight into my heart."

    This is not the first non fiction book that I have read, regarding real people's lives in North Korea. It probably won't be my last, either. Much of the information in this particular account wasn't new to me, but this did not stop the utter disbelief washing over me, as I was reading.

    This very personal memoir is just gut-wrenchingly tragic, and it is told with such honestly, that the

    "Her desperation, her fear, her exhaustion-all of it seeped through her thin clothes and straight into my heart."

    This is not the first non fiction book that I have read, regarding real people's lives in North Korea. It probably won't be my last, either. Much of the information in this particular account wasn't new to me, but this did not stop the utter disbelief washing over me, as I was reading.

    This very personal memoir is just gut-wrenchingly tragic, and it is told with such honestly, that the horrors Masaji Ishikawa endured over all of those years, is all the more vivid and harrowing for the reader to digest. This memoir gives a powerful insight to what life was actually like in North Korea. I think countries know enough about this and should do more rather than simply turning a blind eye to it, in order to protect themselves.

    This really is harrowing, and at the same time, compelling. It makes you sit up and appreciate the liberties you have that are quite often these days, just taken for granted.

  • Cia Black

    While the life that Mr. Ishikawa live was horrifying by anyone standards, I found that at time the book was difficult to read. At moments it seemed as though a cohesive thought was not entirely transformed from reality to word. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that this book was written from translation, so I can’t really fault it.

    I’m not a history buff, I will never claim to be. I know enough that I was able to graduate from school but never really gave much thought to what was being

    While the life that Mr. Ishikawa live was horrifying by anyone standards, I found that at time the book was difficult to read. At moments it seemed as though a cohesive thought was not entirely transformed from reality to word. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that this book was written from translation, so I can’t really fault it.

    I’m not a history buff, I will never claim to be. I know enough that I was able to graduate from school but never really gave much thought to what was being taught to me. I find the memoirs have become a much more effective way for me to comprehend the history throughout the world as opposed to reading from a textbook that seemed to just ramble facts off. For instance I’m sure I learn of what was happening in Korea prior to reading A River in the Dark. But as I read I became more invested in the journey, more invested in the political aspect, the trying nature of the events that unfolded.

    I was left elated and heartbroken as I reached the end of one man’s journey to just return home to a life that was striped from him because he was a child. The worst part is that even though this is part of our global existence not enough is being done to rectify the situation for him and everyone who has and still are suffering. One can only hope that something even if it small can be accomplished with that talks between South and North Korea. Yes, after reading this memoir I found myself wanting to know what was happening. This was the first time in a long time that I voluntarily looked up anything along the political line.

    Now with all the positive being said I still had one question left unanswered. Once you draw to the conclusion of the story Masaji Ishikawa openly tells that he is not suppose reveal that the Japanese authority helped in him in anyway. But by writing this novel is that not what he did. Did he not reveal the one part of the agreement that was the most crucial. There are also other questions that sort of had been left open. While some information was given to the whereabouts of his family that was left in Korea, there really wasn’t a complete conclusion.

    This was an eye opener for me. I think starting of my year with this has really grounded me. It has really made me realize just how lucky of a person I am in life. I don’t think I could have been as strong as Masaji Ishikawa or his sister or even his children who grew only to know one world.

  • Emily May

    It's a true story that sounds like dystopian fiction - for most of us, it is difficult to imagine families being lured to a new "paradise", only to be met with famine, concentration camps and violence. It's hard to accept that this is still part of our world.

    I, like many, am fascinated a

    It's a true story that sounds like dystopian fiction - for most of us, it is difficult to imagine families being lured to a new "paradise", only to be met with famine, concentration camps and violence. It's hard to accept that this is still part of our world.

    I, like many, am fascinated and horrified by North Korea. Recent news stories have only fuelled that particular fire of fascination. I've read fiction about the history of Korea in books such as

    , which showed many Koreans migrating to Japan during colonization and being seen as second class citizens. Then, later, when their home country was split in two, many were unable to return. I have also read

    , which documents a variety of different experiences from defectors.

    complements both those books and adds something very unique - a detailed first person account of what it was and is really like to live in this secretive nation.

    Ishikawa was born in Japan but his Korean father was seduced by promises of "paradise" and having "everything you need" in North Korea. The Red Cross shipped Japanese families to North Korea; something which the Japanese government and the UN were all too aware of and made no effort to prevent. So Ishikawa's family packed up and got on the boat. They arrived in a wasteland of horrors and were given a shack to live in with no electricity or running water.

    For over thirty years, Ishikawa and his family suffered and starved. No one dared to speak out against the system, and it would have done no good if they did. As Japanese nationals, they were labelled as "hostiles", which meant they were given the worst jobs and worst homes. Ishikawa lost loved ones, his freedom, and most of his life to North Korea.

    It is a deeply sad memoir and even the ending brings little relief. Ishikawa admits that he can feel nothing but bitterness. It's a dark, haunting, and eye-opening look into one of the greatest atrocities of our time.

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  • Holly

    This isn't the first non-fiction book I've read about real people's lives in North Korea (the first was

    ), so some of the information wasn't new to me this time around. However, this still was gut wrenching and captivating and horrifying. I can't imagine how so many people can endure so much needless suffering. I highly recommend reading either book - I think there's not enough people who realize how bad it really is in North Korea and why other coun

    This isn't the first non-fiction book I've read about real people's lives in North Korea (the first was

    ), so some of the information wasn't new to me this time around. However, this still was gut wrenching and captivating and horrifying. I can't imagine how so many people can endure so much needless suffering. I highly recommend reading either book - I think there's not enough people who realize how bad it really is in North Korea and why other countries turning a blind eye to it as long as they don't threaten their own welfare is a humanitarian atrocity we are now all complicit with.

  • Maxwell

    A devastating account of one man's life in North Korea. This also has the added element of examining North Korean life from the perspective of someone who is half-Japanese, half-Korean. A good companion piece of

    and

    .

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