A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This tragic memoir tells the story of a man of mixed Japanese – Korean heritage who was, as a boy, moved to North Korea under a “repatriation” program that was designed to provide North Korea with laborers while conveniently reducing a minority problem for the Japanese. During the Second World War, Japan had imported labor from Korea for the war effort. As it happens, Ishikawa’s father was from South Korea, but – in the wake of the Korean War — it was North Korea that was looking for rank-and-file laborers.
The author’s father was eager to get out of Japan because he was treated as minorities frequently are – especially ones as rough around the edges as he, and so he swallowed the propaganda of Kim Il Sung’s regime hook-line-and-sinker. The author’s mother (and the author, himself) didn’t want to leave Japan because she didn’t speak the language and was ethnically Japanese (putting her in the minority shoes.) Little could any of them have known how bad life in North Korea would be, and how dire a mistake it was to agree to the move.
Life in North Korea was hard on everybody (except the party elite), but it was particularly hard on this family because: a.) they were discriminated against and could only attain the lowest-of-the-low in farm sector jobs; b.) they were accustomed to life in Japan and so they knew exactly how backwards North Korea was compared to its neighbors; and, c.) the wife’s family in Japan disowned them, and so even when other transplanted families began to be able to receive wealth from their kin in Japan, their family was cut off (but assumed by neighbors to be receiving packages.) From constantly having to game the system to get enough calories to survive to a series of tragic events that were largely tied to the country’s impoverished nature (e.g. inadequate healthcare,) the book features one soul-wrenching turn of events after the next.
Ishikawa grew to manhood in North Korea, married twice, and had children, but when the famine struck in the 1990’s he fled the country into China across the Yalu River, leaving his family behind. The book’s last chapter deals with Ishikawa’s challenges living in an expensive first world country – Japan – while trying to get his family back. It’s difficult to know whether Ishikawa ever serious could have thought he could get his family out once he was gone. Certainly, he proposes that he did think that, and he spoke to Japanese diplomats (who felt horrible about what had come of people like him) about it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how he could have thought so, being familiar with how the Kim dynasty operated. Still, one may have to grant a man his delusions when he makes such a hard decision while he is literally starving to death. Ishikawa was able to discover what happened to at least some of his family members, and that information is in an epilogue.
I found this book gripping and fascinating. It’s depressing reading throughout, there’s no getting around that, but it gives insight into how people live in the villages of North Korea that is not so extensively described elsewhere – not to mention what it’s like to be a member of a minority group, labeled a “hostile” and essentially relegated to a low-caste life. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. It’s one the best books of 2018 that I’ve read this year.
I just ordered this from my library on your recommendation. I’ve read several books about North Korea from various viewpoints and I look forward to this one. I just finished See You Again in Pyongyang by Travis Jeppeson, which is an account by a Westerner about a month-long study trip he took there. Very different perspective from this book and you might find it interesting.
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I’d read Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Escape from North Korea.” That book was fascinating but more of an overview of the “underground railroad” that operates in the DPRK. The Ishikawa book really gives on an idea of how relentlessly brutal life is there, particularly if you are in the countryside. Thanks.
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