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

By: Masaji Ishikawa

Star Rating:



Spoiler Disclaimer


Masaji Ishikawa was born a Japanese citizen to a Korean father and a Japanese mother. Because of his mixed blood, he was never fully accepted in Japan, and his upbringing with an abusive father was a difficult one. When Masaji was thirteen years of age, his father was lured to immigrate back to the newly formed, Communist North Korea by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a better life. Once there, though, the reality was far different than they'd expected. For the next thirty-six years, Masaji and those he loved struggled under the yoke of a totalitarian government, barely existing and always hungry. When faced with the possibility that he and his entire family might starve to death, he made the daring decision to attempt to escape from North Korea and go back to Japan, where he hoped to find work to help his family. After barely making it out with his life, his journey is fraught with the further difficulties of repatriating to his home country and the frustration of not really belonging anywhere. A River in Darkness is a shocking and unvarnished look at life in one of the most secretive and repressive governments in the world and one man's testament to the resilience of the human spirit.


A River in Darkness was our latest church book club read. It's the story of a man who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Korean father. When he was just thirteen, his father decided to immigrate to North Korea, lured by promises of a better life. What they found there was anything but what they had been told. For over thirty years, he endured abject poverty and hard labor while watching several loved ones die. Finally with the threat of starvation looming, he decided to make a daring escape and try to get back to Japan, where he hoped to find work and ultimately save the rest of his family.

With all the talk of North Korea in the news of late, this was a very timely read. It is a bleak, heartbreaking, and even depressing story, but at the same time, it's also a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit. It's hard to even imagine going through all the hardships this man and his family had to endure and still somehow manage to stay alive. It's also a very enlightening and eye-opening read for its details of life inside North Korea, one of the most secretive and repressive regimes on the planet. I learned a great deal from reading it. This is most definitely not an easy read given all the suffering contained within its pages, but I still think it's a very important one that certainly should not be overlooked.

I honestly think that books like this should be required reading for Americans (and residents of other developed nations) for the simple fact that it shows us we should never take things for granted. I believe those of us who were born in these countries tend to view the world through rose-colored glasses. I'm careful to cultivate empathy in myself, but at the same time, by virtue of my birthplace, I simply haven't experienced the kinds of adversity that those from many other nations have. The phrase "first world problems" cropped up for a reason, and we need to be more mindful of it when complaining about how bad things are. Because in places like North Korea, it's infinitely worse than anything we might experience here in the US. There's certainly poverty here at home, but at least we have charities, soup kitchens, food banks, and a government welfare program to help. In North Korea, the author of this book and his family had to resort to hunting through the countryside for anything remotely edible whether it was weeds, tree bark, acorns, or literally whatever they could find, sometimes leading to debilitating stomach cramps and nearly poisoning themselves, all out of abject desperation for food. There were even reports of some resorting to cannibalism. And despite all that, many still starve to death on a daily basis. In North Korea, if you don't work, you don't eat, so if you're elderly, sick, or disabled, you're completely reliant on the assistance of others, presuming of course they even have anything to share. It's simply almost unfathomable to our Western minds. I'm absolutely amazed that the author somehow managed to survive under such horrific conditions.

Of course, the hunger and poverty of the ordinary, every-day citizen laborers are only part of the picture. There's also the propaganda and indoctrination into the party principles that so many people actually buy into despite their dire circumstances. I think perhaps originally coming from Japan, the author had insights into what it was like outside North Korea, so he never fully believed any of the ideology he was being fed. But I can easily imagine how those born inside the country could go down that road when they know little more than what the government tells them. Still, it's an incredibly scary thought to consider how many people are incarcerated in concentration camps or even executed for small infractions against the party or the country's leadership. No matter how deeply flawed it might be, at least we have a justice system here in the US, while in North Korea, there's nothing but the military or police who might kill a person for little or nothing.

A River in Darkness was a very well-written book, and also clearly well-translated. It's fast-paced narrative flows along, keeping the reader engaged in all that happened in the author's life. It's a harrowing and heart-wrenching story that can really make the reader take a closer look at their own life, but this saddening tale is also underpinned by a spirit of dogged determination that is inspiring in its own way. After turning the final page, I realize that this book has done many things for me. It has taught me that we must always be vigilant against allowing this type of totalitarian government to ever take root in countries where democracy has long prevailed. It has taught me to be more mindful of the hardships people in other parts of the world might be facing on a daily basis. It has taught me that I should be more grateful for the things I have, many of which are by virtue of my birthplace. It has taught me that we should be vigilant against prejudice, because of how the author is a man who doesn't feel he fits either in Japan or in North Korea because of his mixed heritage. But most of all, I think it's taught me that no matter how bleak things are, hope can prevail, if we let it, and sometimes that's the only thing we have left.


Masaji Ishikawa @ GoodReads