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

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  44,186 ratings  ·  4,337 reviews
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 Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittin
Kindle Edition, 174 pages
Published January 1st 2018 by AmazonCrossing (first published 2000)
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Lo That's a good question. I also wondered if there might be negative consequences for him having this published, since the Japanese government seemed ag…moreThat's a good question. I also wondered if there might be negative consequences for him having this published, since the Japanese government seemed against him telling the story of his escape from China, and he still lives in Japan.

This was published through AmazonCrossing, which is a translation service that Amazon runs that I'd never heard of before. This explains why there have been so many foreign Kindle First selections over the past year! There's an article about it here:

So Amazon invited the author to submit the work, and the two translators are freelancers working for Amazon. It's a total mystery how they heard about the story... maybe it was originally published in Korean or Japanese, but I don't know either language and so can't really look. The author is presumably getting paid like any other Kindle direct self-publisher, thought probably not a ton of money. It's a fair question, though, whether the author is doing all this himself, or if someone is helping/exploiting him.

Hopefully someone will come along with more info! I'd love to see an interview with the author, but haven't found anything yet.(less)
Marianne K Yes, I agree with Bettina. In the book it was requested he “wait” before implicating Japan. He escaped in 1996 and the book was published in Japan in …moreYes, I agree with Bettina. In the book it was requested he “wait” before implicating Japan. He escaped in 1996 and the book was published in Japan in 2000. I’ve read many memoirs written by escapees from NORK and I have no doubt that this is truthful. (less)

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Emily May
Feb 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were “the masters of our own destiny.” And if we begged to differ, we were dead.

This is one powerful little memoir. 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
Dec 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 20, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, nonfiction
A River in Darkness is an incredibly disturbing true story about a man’s life in North Korea after being forced to move from Japan around the age of 13. The life that was expected becomes something totally different, and by then it’s too late to get out.

This was so hard to read at times, but I just couldn’t put it down. I had so many feelings—mainly helplessness and a complete loss of hope for this family. It just seemed to get worse and worse. I truly cannot imagine living like this. I’d love
Diane S ☔
Oct 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5000-2019
A simply told, but harrowing take of one mans anguish and desperation, living in North Korea. We find how how he came to live there and the toll it took on his family, then and in the future. It is beyond a horrible existence for those who have no status, live on the fringes of the country, forced to work in whatever job is given. Work for food, but even that little bit of substinance is not provided. Starting, living in hovels, at the mercy of whoever is in authority, anyone with a status that ...more
J.L.   Sutton
Sep 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Masaji Ishikawa's harrowing memoir, A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea, is astounding! I recently read Suki Kim's Without You: There is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite. I really liked Suki Kim's work and thought there were great insights on the mindset of North Koreans. A River of Darkness has remarkable insights on North Korea as well, but it is completely different. Ishikawa focuses on the mindset of average North Koreans along with the extreme priva ...more
Apr 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: korea, audible, 2018-read, bio
I liked A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea a lot. It is a personally told story. The author is speaking from his heart of what he has experienced—first ostracism in Japan due to his dual Japanese and Korean background, then the horror of the thirty-six years of his life spent in North Korea from 1960-1996 under the rule of Kim Il Sung and then Kim Jong Il, why he had to flee, how he did it and finally what happened when he returned to Japan. During his youth in Japan, where h ...more
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
Apr 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: translated
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 Pachinko and In Order to Live. ...more
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a disturbing true story about conditions in North Korea, so much so that I find that I don’t wish to go back and listen to parts of it again in order to make a better review.

If only the world was not so full of suffering. If only people were not beaten, killed, starved or worked to death, what a better place this would be. But what happened in North Korea, and could still be happening for all I know happens in many countries, and it makes me wish that the U.N. could step in and correct
Aug 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: z2019-08, x-3-star
Rating: 3.0/5.0


Masaji Ishikawa, a 13-year-old boy who is half Japanese and half Korean move from Japan to North Korea with his family. Once in Korea, they will have to adapt to a completely new life and a new world.

“There’s a saying, “Sadness and gladness follow each other.” As I see it, people who experience equal amounts of sadness and happiness in their lives must be incredibly blessed.”

My Thoughts:
This memoir is very hard to read for several reasons. It shows how l
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
"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
Nicki White
Jan 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Books on Stereo
Jan 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
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 ...more
Caro the Helmet Lady
Winston Smith was a pussy. After reading this book his misery doesn't seem like a big deal to me. After all he only had to take care of himself, didn't have kids or relatives to take care of in the imaginary world of 1984. Love interest? Oh please. Masaji Ishikawa did have a family and was a caring son, father and brother. And he really tried to make lives better no matter what in that hell of a country and the hell of a system. Betrayed and left on his own for more than a couple of times he nev ...more
Marilyn Hitesman
Dec 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The horror of life in North Korea

Beyond comprehension. The atrocities are being silenced but must be made known. No one should endure what these people do.
✨Bean's Books✨
May 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
A memoir that will tear your heart right out. Very eye-opening account of a man's life and escape from North Korea. A short read but very, very sad. ...more
This is the true story of Masaji Ishikawa's life and escape from North Korea. He moved to North Korea when he was 13 years old, and spent 36 years living in horrific conditions with his family and children before fleeing with his life. It's so heartbreaking, appalling, and full of sadness and despair. However, If you like nonfiction or memoirs... I highly recommend. Bonus = It's a book in translation and I was able to learn about a place I knew nothing much about. ...more
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
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This isn't the first non-fiction book I've read about real people's lives in North Korea (the first was Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea), 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 ...more
Aug 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I wasn't sure what to expect as I began to read A River in Darkness One Man's Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa but I have to say that I was so glad I decided to read it. Some people are dealt challenges in life. These people are not necessarily looking for them or have done anything to deserve them but it is their fate. It is almost as if they are being tested to see how much they can endure.

Masaji Isikawa grew up in in the city of Kawasaki, south of Tokyo with his Japanese mother and
Janelle Janson
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
Zuky the BookBum
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I honestly think this book is the modern day Night. It's just as harrowing a story and is something that needs to be talked about and pushed into the public eye more. I'm sat here worried about Brexit but at the end of the day, I'm going to have my family, food and a place to live - millions of people living in North Korea have none of these things. I know you can't always compare your situation to situations such as this but it puts things into perspective and makes you realise just how easy yo ...more
Joy D
May 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Memoir of Masaji Ishikawa wherein he relates the details of his life from being born in Japan in 1947 to moving with his family to North Korea, where they were promised “paradise on earth,” to his escape to Japan in 1996. Unsurprisingly, the so-called paradise never materialized, and his family’s standard of living gradually diminished until it reached starvation-level.

Ishikawa tells his story in a very straight-forward conversational manner. This memoir delivered educational information about l
Sep 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a short book, but what a harrowing, thought-provoking story it tells! It is not an easy read, this man's account of life in North Korea, his escape back to Japan and the terrible losses he and his family suffered in the process. I kept feeling stunned when the author mentioned the dates - so recent! - and that people dying of starvation seems a fairly common occurrence in North Korea. he paints a bleak picture, made bearable by the fact that he felt close bonds with his family. An eye-op ...more
Nenia ✨️ I yeet my books back and forth ✨️ Campbell
May 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Nenia ✨️ I yeet my books back and forth ✨️ by: Emily May

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I picked this up last year from the Kindle store as a freebie for World Book Day because the reviews for it looked great. It took me a while to read it though, because the subject matter looked heavy. North Korea gets a lot of bad press in the U.S.-- admittedly, for good reason-- but often in a way that portrays the nation as a cartoon straw man and in a way that diminishes the psychology and the history that facilitates tyrannical rule,
Laura Noggle
Jan 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
One Word Review: Harrowing

"So there we were—the beneficiaries of smug humanitarianism—prisoners in paradise on earth."

After reading this book, my first inclination is: What right do I have to judge Masaji Ishikawa's life story? Not much as far as I can see, my opinion is irrelevant.

"I soon learned that thought was not free in North Korea. A free thought could get you killed if it slipped out."

This is a raw, honest story of extreme suffering told in a unique voice—I'm not sure if it was the tran
Ieva Andriuskeviciene
May 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio-books
A story about half Japanese man who moved to live in North Korea with his family when he was a child. It supposed to be a promised communistic wonderland. His heroic escape back to Japan after 35 years and facing the reality is shocking.
Sad. Very sad book. I was expecting an optimistic story how he ran away and everyone is happy.
Unfortunately it is nothing like that.
He is a hero with survivors guilt.
Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've long been interested in North Korea - writing my undergraduate dissertation on female North Korean refugees and their treatment in China - so I always try to check out any new memoirs or non-fiction books on the country. I've previously read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, This is Paradise!, Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home and parts of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty ...more
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