A River in Darkness
One Man’s Escape from North Korea
Masaji Ishikawa, translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown
AmazonCrossing, Seattle, 2018, 172 pages
Book Review published on: March 16 2018
Masaji Ishikawa’s A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea provides a gripping first-person account of the author’s life in and subsequent escape from North Korea. The story was originally published in Japanese in 2000 and then translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown for its first English publication in 2018. Ishikawa’s story has renewed relevance given the tensions between the United States and North Korea. His story may only be anecdotal, but it clearly describes one person’s life and his family’s struggles in both Japan and Korea. This book also details his escape through China en route back to Japan.
The book contains three sections. The first section discusses how Ishikawa’s parents, a Korean father and a Japanese mother, came to live in Japan. After World War II, there were several million Korean prisoners freed, but they had no options for returning to Korea. They often formed associations based on their shared culture and common interests. By 1949, the Koreans who were part of some organizations were considered terrorists and forced to disband. These actions provide a backdrop for the author’s poor and turbulent childhood, where being less than 100 percent Japanese subjected him to racism and discrimination. By the time he was thirteen, he was living in a broken home with an alcoholic father and his father’s abusive mistress.
The second section discusses the family’s decision to move from Japan to North Korea. According to the author, Japan was in a serious recession during the mid-1950s. Around the same time, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung was recruiting people to join his socialist utopia. In 1958, there was a mass repatriation initiative started for returning Koreans from Japan back to their homeland. The following year, a return agreement became final, and many Koreans were transported to North Korea even if they were originally from South Korea. The historically interesting thing is that the repatriation program continued until 1984. Ishikawa describes how the decision to move to North Korea was biased by Koreans having no voice in Japan if they stayed and by promises of a better life on the other side. He did not want to leave but saw no other choice.
The third section discusses the horrific living conditions and the broken promises of the North Korean regime. This part of the author’s life was the most interesting part for me personally. However, this is also where the story violated some universal intellectual standards. I assume some of this might be due to translation issues. I recall several times where the author said it was the “worst day” in his life. Logically, you can only have one worst day. I also found instances where the author stated he never (fill in the blank); yet, he described other events that clearly fell into that category. So, there were several instances of contradiction in his story. Hopefully, those were not intentionally written to deceive the reader and can instead be attributed to poor translation or to just being the oversights of a man who suffered a life of trauma.
The book was an overall page-turner with a compelling story of personal strife and hardship inside North Korea told by a person who lived it. The escape part of the story was a bit anticlimatic, as the life journey leading up to the escape was much more interesting. This book offers great insight into everyday life in North Korea from a single source. A River in Darkness would be a good read for historians who want to understand the human-suffering aspect of geopolitical events following World War II and the Korean conflict.
Book Review written by: Paul Sanders, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas