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

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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 unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit

174 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 2000

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Masaji Ishikawa

2 books179 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,186 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,921 reviews290k followers
November 29, 2018
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 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 Pachinko, 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 Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which documents a variety of different experiences from defectors.

A River in Darkness 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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Profile Image for Lo.
243 reviews33 followers
December 9, 2017
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 Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, 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.
Profile Image for Mischenko.
1,012 reviews97 followers
February 25, 2021
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 to talk more about this book, but more would be completely spoiling it.

This book was finished in one sitting. I highly recommend this for those with interest, and this would be great reading for high schoolers.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
651 reviews825 followers
January 26, 2022
“You don't choose to be born. You just are. And your birth is your destiny, some say. I say the hell with that...Sometimes in life, you have to grab your so-called destiny by the throat and wring its neck.”

Review: Behind the Pomp, Hunger Games - WSJ

Masaji Ishikawa's harrowing memoir, A River of 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 average North Koreans along with the extreme privation of most of the population. He also focuses on a group of people who immigrated from Japan known as returnees. This book is recommended for those who are interested in knowing more about this very isolated country!
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,686 reviews14k followers
October 5, 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 is higher than you. What the eat is barely enough to substain life, and for many it didn't. I was surprised any managed to live.

His story, which is the story of many living there, highlights how little the regime they must give constant thanks to, cares about its people. Although he says all are not brainwashed, many living there know no difference. He also says, and I hope it's true, that those who are not brainwashed, though who are tired of barely surviving, will someday rise up and end the dictatiors hold on this country.

He escapes, has no choice, but even that has lasting effects. I can't believe that all other civilized countries has let North Korea get away with the way they treat their people and not interfere. There is just so much injustice in this world, it can be overwhelming.
Profile Image for Beverly.
774 reviews266 followers
April 24, 2019
The first and only book I've read about the brutal life of North Koreans, A River in Darkness is a sad, sad tale. What this poor man went through is beyond belief. Poverty in the United States while bad, is nothing like poverty in North Korea. The worse thing about his story, is while he was able to escape and eventually moved to Japan, since he was Japanese, his children and wife, still lived there and he was unable to rescue them. Some of them ended up dying of starvation and he had to stand by, helpless.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Shaya.
248 reviews312 followers
February 10, 2020
زندگي فردي رو روايت ميكنه كه از يك مادر ژاپني و پدر كره ايي متولد شده در ژاپن،در ابتدا سختي هايي كه در ژاپن داره روايت ميكنه بعد ميگه چطور تحت تاثير تبليغات قرار گرفتن و به كره شمالي برگشتند و از سختي هاي زندگي در اونجا ميگه و در اخر هم فرار از كره شمالي.

نكته ايي كه خيلي جالب بود اين بود كه نوشته بود،اسم ديكتاتوري تماميت خواه ميشود " جمهوري "و به بردگي ميگويند " آزاد سازي " 🙃
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,651 reviews1,485 followers
June 3, 2018
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 he was born in1947, he was discriminated against because of his Korean background. Emigrating to North Korea at the age of thirteen, he was again discriminated against, now because of his Japanese background. His mother was Japanese, his father South Korean. He has lived a very difficult life as a second-class citizen without a country to call home.

Successfully escaping from North Korea in 1996, perhaps this looks like a story with a happy ending. It isn’t. This man’s life is noteworthy. His life story needed to be published. It is a memoir written not for him but for us. The book was first published in 2000, but only now has it drawn attention, twenty-two years after fleeing North Korea. The Japanese government helped Ishikawa escape, but his escape was hushed up and he was not to tell anyone. Relations between Japan and China would otherwise have been strained. Back in Japan, he was no longer on the verge of death from starvation, but he was a-g-a-i-n without job, family or friends. He escaped for the sole purpose of rescuing his family, and this he has not been able to do. The dire situation existing in North Korea is today common knowledge. The Korean leaders are faulted, as they should be, but the complicity of Japan, China, the UN, the Red Cross and other world authorities should be acknowledged too. The events in Ishikawa’s life show this.

It took me awhile to get caught up in the story. I approached the book from the wrong direction. I was looking for an impersonal presentation of clear facts, and it took me a while to understand what this book offers instead. I questioned some of the information laid at my feet. I found holes in what I was given. I would ask myself why did that happen and why did that person do that?! For example, it is hard to understand why Ishikawa’s mother married his father. Neither are we given a full explanation of how and why his father ended up in Japan. This is not a book written by an impartial third party, nor a book offering a thorough presentation of documented facts and research. The author does not have full information; he is telling us what he does know, and he is telling it as if you were sitting across the table from him. He is just talking, not in fancy words, not peppered with proof or statistics. He speaks in simple words, telling how, step by step, his life unfolded, how one event lead to another and another and how it has felt to live through these events! He swears. Yes, he complains. He isn’t stoical, but I came to completely understand his anger, his disappointment and his frustration. This is an engaging personal story. We need stories such as this.

We are not told how the author came to write this book nor what he is doing today.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Brian Nishii. I have given the narration four stars. It felt as though the author was speaking to me directly. It felt as though there was nobody in between me and the author. I felt his exhaustion, his anger, his fear and his frustration.

There is a need for both non-fiction books that are well researched, without bias and provide an all-inclusive presentation of facts as well as those that have a more personal angle. It is the latter that we have here. This book shows us how it is to live through the events we hear of on the news. There, we are distanced from the facts. Here, events are brought up close, so we understand them on an emotional level.



Highly recommended reading :
*A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea 4 stars
*Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea 4 stars
*The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom 4 stars
Each gives a different perspective.

More books on North and South Korea : https://www.goodreads.com/review/list...
Profile Image for Debra .
2,126 reviews34.9k followers
July 27, 2021
It is absolutely heartbreaking to know that this book is one man's true story of living in and escaping from North Korea. Horrible to know that these things happen. in today’s world this is still occurring in North Korea. Masaji Ishikawa is half-Japanese, half-Korean. He never felt like he belonged anywhere. He never felt accepted. He spent his early years in Japan, but his family moved to North Korea when he was thirteen years old. His father, a Korean national, believed there was abundant work waiting there for him. The promise of education for his children and having a higher social standing was also enticing. Once they arrived, the family became members of the lowest social caste. n Masaji's Japanese mother began to wither. She had a sad existence. Her husband was physically abusive, and she was an outsider in Korea.

Life was brutal in North Korea. Existence there was devastating, harsh and heartbreaking. It is a brutal and horrific life and Masaji details his existence, his jobs, family life, health issues and his decision to escape.

Not an easy read but I feel a necessary one. It is gut wrenching to think about the conditions people live in. A country where you must escape because you can't willingly leave. Hard to read at times, this also shows the will to survive, the will to make a better life and the resiliency of a man who was willing to risk all in search of a better life.
Profile Image for Sara.
1,037 reviews348 followers
December 6, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Fatma Al Zahraa Yehia.
399 reviews413 followers
July 17, 2022
"إنك لا تختار أن تولد، بل تولد فحسب"

لا أجد ما أقوله سوى التعجب من الحياة المأساوية التي عاشتها كل الشعوب التي وقعت تحت نظام الحكم الشيوعي. على جهلي بتلك النظام، فإنني أعرف أنه نظام قام بالأساس لإرساء قواعد العدل والمساواة بين الناس. فلماذا إذن تحول ذلك الحلم لكابوس؟

قراءة مؤلمة لحياة عبثية لا مجال فيها للأمل. فبعد كل تلك المعاناة أصبحت أعظم انجازات ذلك المسكين-راوي الحكاية-هى الحصول على سقف فوق رأسه ولقمة يومية تسد رمقه.

كوكب تعس وبئيس. وانا كنت شاكك مع إني كنت متأكد....
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,089 reviews7,946 followers
March 11, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
853 reviews100 followers
February 5, 2019
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 things all over the world. It is not to be. But then I read that humanitarian wars cause much more suffering.

This was a story about a man and his family that had lived in Japan as displaced people and were then sent back to North Korea from their new home in Japan. North Korea was said to be the land of milk and honey, a paradise. It was nothing but. It was hell.

Masaji tried to take care of his family, but the pay was not enough to feed them. This is beginning to feel like the poor class in America who can’t afford to eat or pay for their medical expenses, but, yes, I realize that it was much worse there. People were beaten, sent to concentration camps, murdered, and literally died in the streets. Part of that reminds me of how the black and brown people are sent to prison to rot for much less crimes than the white people in this nation.

Anyway, by the time that Masaji crossed the river into china, he was skin and bones, and he had lost family members.

This next paragraph may be a spoiler:

After the Chinese helped him to get back to Japan, he wanted so much to get his family out of N. Korea. That would not happen. I can imagine that he had wished that he had stayed in N. Korea just to be with them and to help them to survive as best he could. The guilt he must have felt.
May 6, 2018
"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.
Profile Image for Constantine.
785 reviews120 followers
February 21, 2022
Rating: 3.0/5.0

Genre:
Nonfiction

Synopsis:
Masaji Ishikawa, a 13-year-old boy who is half Japanese and half Korean moves 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 life can be difficult in certain countries around the world, especially those countries with no democracies. North Korea is ruled by a totalitarian regime. I learned a lot from this book about living in North Korea, of course, this is one side of the story, not sure if there is another side to it if told from a different perspective. I haven't read about the country or visited it to have my own opinion or view about the things the author was talking about in his memoir.

I totally understand the devastating conditions that the author and his family lived in there. I feel many readers have already felt the difficulties that family has gone through. The book might have been getting high ratings because of that compassion. I personally felt the writing was too monotone for my taste, not sure if this is because of translation or what. There is no hope, not even a small dim light in the far. It felt very dark and negative to me. I really wanted something in the story to show or represent hope but there was none. I remember when I told a friend about this book he asked me "Why do you want to read it? I have read it and it is just an angry person who keeps whining from the beginning until end". I disregarded his remarks and still decided to give it a shot.


“Every day was like living in a nightmare. It sounds dreadful to say, but I grew immune to the horror of all the people lying in the streets. Sometimes, I couldn’t tell whether they were dying or already dead. And the awful thing was, I didn’t have the energy to care.”

While reading this I felt that the author was angry about his life there all the time, which is understandable. This was the only mood throughout the book. He channeled this anger the right way, through writing this memoir but to be honest I don't feel that reading this was a pleasant or even a beneficial experience for me personally. I will have to go with 3.0 stars out of 5.0


“In the West, I guess you’d call it corruption. In North Korea, it was just standard operating procedure.”
Profile Image for Mohamed Khaled Sharif.
732 reviews794 followers
August 27, 2022


كتاب السيرة الذاتية "نهر في الظلام: هروب رجل من كوريا الشمالية" هو كتاب لا يُنصح به إطلاقاً، ليس لأنه سيء! ولكن لأنه مؤلم، مروع، سيُبكيك حتى لو كان قلبك كالحجر، وسيجعلك تتسائل عن نوع الحياة التي تعيشها، سيُغير نظرتك لها بالطبع، سيجعلك مُتمناً أكثر لكل شيء، حتى لو كان مُجرد وجبة غذاء، أو كوب ماء، أو حتى قطعة ملابس حسنة المظهر، بالإضافة طبعاً، لمنزلك التي تقطن فيه، ولا تعبأ بأي شيء حوله.

الياباني/ الكوري الجنوبي "ماساجي إيشيكاوا"، هاجر مع عائلته إلى كوريا الشمالية، بسبب الوعود المُغرية عن جنة الأرض، بلد تحترم مواطنيها، وظيفة محترمة، مأكل وملبس، ومسكن، أنهم يُريدون تحقيق جميع الأحلام -للسخرية فهذه أقل حقوق أي إنسان في أي بلد-، وبما أن الظروف الاقتصادية باليابان ليست في أفضل حال، ولأن والد "ماساجي"، أصبحت بلطجته بلا طائل ولا نفع، فكانت البطاقة الذهبية هي الذهاب إلى كوريا الشمالية، رغم أنه في الأصل كوري جنوبي، ولكن ما الفارق؟ ليذهبوا إلى كوريا الشمالية، ليتلقوا صدمات مُتتالية، ستكون هي أبرز أحداث حياتهم، وستحول في شخصياتهم، وتؤثر فيها، وتُثقلها أحياناً، وتجلعها هشة في أحيان أخرى.

ليذهبوا إلى جنة الأرض ليكتشفوا أنها ليست سوى.. جهنم الأرض!
بيوت أقل من متواضعة، طعام شحيح، وظائف غير متوافرة، ظلم لكونهم من جانب ياباني، مرتبة اجتماعية مُتدنية مهما اجتهدت في العمل، لا يحق لك الاعتراض على أي شيء وإلا مصيرك سيكون الموت الفوري، وصايا للحاكم يجب أن تحفظها مثل اسمك، مهما كانت مُختلة وتجعل من الحاكم البشري إلهاً، وبالطبع جنوده وجيوشه لا تُخطأ فستعيث بك أضراراً وتسرق منك، ولا تستطيع الشكوى -هذا حال مُشابه لبعض البلاد في الوقت الحالي :)-، بإختصار كُل الوعود التي ذهبوا من أجلها لم يجدوها، بل وحياتهم أسوأ مما كانت عليه، حتى أن الأب الغاضب القاسي الغشيم، لان، لما فهم الورطة التي وضع عائلته فيها.

ولكن ما أهمية هذا النوع من الكتب؟
هناك العديد من الفوائد لهذه الكتب، فبالإضافة إلى أنها ستجعلك تُقدر كُل شيء حولك كما ذكرت، فهي ستجعلك تُفكر في محنة العديد من البشر، الذي أصبحت الحياة بالنسبة لهم هي سلسلة من النجاة، هو لا يعيش، هو ينجو، تلك النوعية من الحياة التي تجعله يُجاهد من أجل أن يأكل، أي لقمة، اتجهوا إلى الأعشاب المفيد منها والضار، كلوا بقايا الطعام الموجود بالقمامة، لقد وصف الكاتب نفسه بأنه سعيد الحظ عندما وجد بقايا تفاحة! أتتخيلوا معي ذلك؟ بقايا تفاحة جعلته يشعر بأنه محظوظ! يا الله، لماذا يوجد من يعيش بكل هذا البؤس؟

بالطبع ستتوقع أن هذا الشخص حاول الانتحار، بالطبع حاول، ولكن بعد العديد من الخيبات، ضاقت به الحياة ذرعاً وسبيلاً، لا يوجد مُتنفس، حتى حكومة البلاد لا تُساعد، ماذا يفعل؟ أن حتى حق الخروج من هذا الجحيم غير موجود! ألا يكفي أنكم تمتصون كل نقطة دم بنا؟ يبدو أنه لا يكفي لتلك البلد الاشتراكية، التي تُحول سكانها إلى شيئاً من اثنين، أما عبد، أو ميت، وهناك البقية حول حاشية الحاكم وحكومته، هي الطبقة المُنتفعة الوحيدة بخيرات البلاد! لاحظ يا عزيزي القارئ أن كُل ذلك قبل العام 2000! فتخيل معي الوضع الحالي هناك بعد كُل التطورات التي حدثت التي ستساعد في تعتيم أكثر، وسرية أكثر، وبكل تأكيد بؤس أكبر.

المُرعب في هذه السيرة الذاتية، أنها سيرة ذاتية، أي يعني أنها حدثت لشخص بالفعل!
أحياناً تقرأ روايات تكون مؤلمة، ولكنك تُعزي نفسك بأنها خيال كاتب، لكن ليس هذا هو الحال مع هذا الكتاب، فكل حدث هو حدث حقيقي، مر به الكاتب وعائلته وأناس أخرين، مما سيجعلك تتساؤل، ما المغزى من حياة ليس فيها شيء سوى الألم؟

Profile Image for Nicki White.
Author 1 book35 followers
January 22, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Books on Stereo.
1,268 reviews174 followers
February 24, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Negin.
591 reviews151 followers
June 6, 2021
I’ve read a few other books on North Korea. All of them riled up my emotions, but this one left me sobbing. The author was born in Japan. His father was Korean, and his mother was Japanese. Along with many others, they believed that they would have far greater opportunities if they were to move to North Korea. They believed all the lies and empty promises of a paradise on earth, a utopian Communist state – free healthcare, free university tuition, and jobs galore. It was heartbreaking and frustrating to read. You may wish to scroll down and read the quote that I have on the mass repatriation that occurred all the way up to 1984.

Reading books such as this remind me as to how blessed we are, most especially those of us living in countries with basic freedoms. I’ve said this before in other reviews and I’m sure that I’ll say it again. We need to remember to act nobly and to have an attitude of gratitude and humility. I wish that this book would be required reading in high schools or colleges. It would be such an inspiring and refreshing change when compared to all the negativity these days. It would be eye-opening for many. My two favorite books on North Korea are this one and Nothing to Envy, which, I believe should be read first. Since they’re both quite similar and depressing, I would let some time pass between each.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts and quotes:

Health Care in North Korea
“Health care in North Korea is supposedly free, but in reality it isn’t free at all. Poor people can’t get treatment without some form of payment. If you don’t have any money—bring some alcohol. Bring some cigarettes. Bring some Chinese medicine. Or forget it.”

The Mass Repatriation – an Absolute and Utter Nightmare
“In the early days of the so-called repatriation, some seventy thousand people left Japan and crossed the sea to North Korea. With the exception of a brief three-and-a-half-year hiatus, the process continued until 1984. During this period, some one hundred thousand Koreans and two thousand Japanese wives crossed over to North Korea. That’s one hell of a mass migration. In fact, it was the first (and only) time in history that so many people from a capitalist country had moved to a socialist country. The Japanese government actively promoted the repatriation, supposedly on humanitarian grounds. But in my opinion, what they were actually pursuing was opportunism of the most vile and cynical kind. Look at the facts. During the period of the Japanese Empire, thousands upon thousands of Koreans had been brought to Japan against their will to serve as slave laborers and, later, cannon fodder. Now, the government was afraid that these Koreans and their families, discriminated against and poverty-stricken in the postwar years, might become a source of social unrest. Sending them back to Korea was a solution to a problem. Nothing more.”

“… the mass repatriation was great news for both governments (North Korea and Japan) —the perfect win-win situation for everyone except the real human beings involved.”

“Did the International Committee of the Red Cross know anything about this? Did the United States? The UN? Yes, yes, and yes. And what did they do about it? Nothing.”



The System
“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.

“We were taught that the United States brutally slaughters our brothers and sisters in the south. That we must free the people of South Korea. That their country is occupied by the enemy, the United States.”

“If you suffer long enough, it almost becomes funny, and you can find yourself laughing at the most miserable situations.”


Profile Image for Repellent Boy.
478 reviews495 followers
March 28, 2022
Masaji Ishikawa es mitad coreano y mitad japonés, y esto marcaría su vida de una manera que no podía ni imaginar. Su padre, un coreano afincado en Japón tras ser retenido, llevado a Japón y esclavizado allí durante la ocupación japonesa de Corea, sufre el rechazo de la sociedad en la que malvive. Casado con una mujer japonesa a la que maltrata, crea un clima de terror en la más tierna infancia de Masaji y sus hermanas. Mientras tanto, llegan mensajes cada vez más fuertes desde Corea del Norte, que engatusan a este hombre y a tantísimos otros coreanos que anhelaban una vida decente, sin pasar necesidades, ni discriminación. Corea del Norte promete sanidad, trabajo y alimentación para todos. Corea del Norte se vende así misma como “El cielo en la tierra” y anima a todos estos coreanos que fueron obligados a salir de Corea, a volver a la madre patria que los recibirá con los brazos abiertos. El padre obligará a toda la familia a trasladarse, sin embargo, cuando Masaji y su familia lleguen allí, se darán cuenta de que estas promesas idílicas, poco tienen que ver con la realidad.

No es la primera vez que leo sobre la situación tan horrible que se vive en Corea del norte, pero sí es la primera vez que la persona que cuenta la historia, en este caso su propia historia, crítica sin ningún tipo de reparo a este oscuro e implacable sistema que actúa como si despreciara a las propias personas que conforman su sociedad. Y es que Masaji Ishikawa ataca, e incluso no repara en usar insultos, para describir a los culpables de toda esta barbarie y al resto que la permite, normalmente por intereses propios. Así señala a los gobiernos, tanto de las dos Coreas, como el de China y el de Japón, y cuenta cosas que realmente te hacen replantearte que clase de demonio hipócrita e interesado es el ser humano. Esas son sus cualidades naturales, la excepción a la norma es no serlo.

Aunque por el subtítulo podemos imaginarnos que el libro nos va a hablar de los sufrimientos que vive el protagonista para escapar de este régimen, no es así. Realmente, el libro nos habla de su vida en Corea del Norte y se centra en ella. Llega un momento en que nos hablará también del escape, pero no es la trama principal. Y es algo que me ha gustado mucho, porque lo que había leído por ahora se centraba mucho en el escape y poco en describirnos lo que realmente padece la gente que vive allí.

Es un libro durísimo que te destroza el ánimo, y creo que el hecho de que se note que Masaji no es escritor, influye incluso más en esa sensación de tristeza que te deja. Esta historia no está contada bellamente, aunque cuente grandes sufrimientos, cosa frecuente en la literatura asiática y que me suele encantar, sino que da la sensación de que estás escuchando a un amigo que, entre café y café, te cuenta la historia de su vida, con un lenguaje normal, sin florituras. Un largo monólogo escrito de manera directa, que te impacta tres veces más que si estuviera más estilizado, porque se siente más real. Su verdad traspasa las páginas. No está maquillado, todo se pone sobre la mesa y el lector solo tiene que empaparse de ello.

Recomiendo mucho esta historia para todos los que quieran descubrir un poco más de uno de los regímenes totalitarios más horribles de la historia de la humanidad. Cuesta digerir que estas cosas sigan ocurriendo en la actualidad, pese a todas las barbaridades que vemos al día. Pero también la recomiendo a todos los que no tengan un interés especial, porque la historia refleja muy bien la naturaleza humana, te remueve todo y toca donde hay que tocar. Eso sí, reservarlo para un momento en el que tengáis un ánimo alto, porque te destruye un poquito.
Profile Image for Chandra Claypool (WhereTheReaderGrows).
1,529 reviews314 followers
January 3, 2018
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.
December 2, 2017
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.
Profile Image for ✨Bean's Books✨.
648 reviews2,916 followers
May 10, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Caro the Helmet Lady.
756 reviews341 followers
June 19, 2019
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 never abandoned hope for better tomorrow for his family. He was a true hero in my eyes. Victimized by the system, by the governments in one way or another himself he was never a victim, he always was looking for the light in the end of the tunnel.
But was it worth it in the end? I don't know... But that's just my pessimistic point of view.
I's a sad book and very hard to read, because of the feeling of complete hopelessness and darkness, but somehow you just can't put it down.

Definitely recommended for everyone in the first world who thinks his glass is half empty because of some shitty tiny problem.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,391 reviews926 followers
April 9, 2018
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 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.
Profile Image for Christy.
620 reviews
January 7, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Alaina.
5,928 reviews216 followers
February 3, 2018
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 from me: there is no happy ending.

Nope, not here. If you want one.. look somewhere else.

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea was such an amazing book. It definitely tug at my heart strings and I'm pretty sure there were some tears falling down my cheeks as well. Since I already mentioned one spoiler about this entire book I'm going to try really hard not to spoil anything else.

Masaji, the MC, takes you on this heart wrenching journey of him battling through North Korea. Fair warning, you will cry at some point in this book. He goes through starvation and trying to fight to keep food on the table for his family. He went through discrimination for being half-Japanese. This resulted in him getting beaten up, shot, or turned away from everyone on a daily basis.

I probably cried the whole book - or shed tears throughout some chapters. Okay, all of the chapters. OKAY, THE ENTIRE BOOK. Seriously, I don't think I've ever cried so much from one book. I loved everything about this book and the story that was told. It definitely helped me see a more definite side of North Korea. I felt for Masaji and his family so much.

I wish this book had a happy ending. Truly I do. I'm so glad that I got to read this book and that it was available on Kindle for free. I'm moved. I'm touched. I have no idea how I'm going to fall asleep right now after that book.

I'm shook guys.
Profile Image for Asskaitau.
41 reviews
August 6, 2019


"Nuoširdžiai troškau jo paklausti: "Ar tempei įkalnėn jau atšalusį savo motinos kūną?""


Kartą mano istorijos mokytoja pasakė mums, mokiniams: patys žiauriausi yra lietuvių vaikai. Kadangi vyko su savo auklėtiniais į Aušvico koncentracijos stovyklą ir jeigu kitų tautybių vaikai baisėjosi viskuo, tai lietuviai buvo susižavėję vieta.

Praėjo gal 17 metų po šių žodžių ir aš iki šiol juntu pyktį. Smalsumas, žingeidumas, noras pažinti istorinius įvykius? Taip. Atrakcija ir žavesys? Nemanau.

Nesvarbu ar tai būtų kankinimų muziejus Pakruojyje, filmas apie armėnų genocidą, ar knyga apie komunistinę Kiniją. Noras visą tai pamatyti/perskaityti nėra žiaurumas. Priešingai, tai leidžia suvokti, jog kiekviena tauta/valstybė turėjo savo tragediją.

Aš baisėjausi skaitydama H. Miuler "Amo supuoklės", E. Shafak "Stambulo pavainikė", man buvo sunku skaityti A. Min "Raudonoji azalija" ar A. Solženicyn "Viena Ivano Denisovičiaus diena". Man taip pat dabar sunku rašyti apie neseniai perskaitytą M. Ishikawa knygą "Upė tamsoje".

Aš džiaugiuosi kiekviena naujai pradėta skaityti knyga. Bet jau po kelių puslapių pradėjau jausti, kaip mano lūpų kampučiai svyra, atsirado gniužulas gerklėje, skaitau stipriai sukandus dantis. Aš seniai bejutau tokią empatiją knygos veikėjui. Kuomet norėjosi net apkabinti jį, verkti kartu, klausti kodėl lemta iškęsti šitiek kančių. Perskaičiusi knygą aš net ieškojau informacijos, kaip autoriui sekasi dabar, kaip baigėsi visa jo ir šeimos istorija.

"Gyvenime tikriausiai man lemta tik bliauti." - rašo autorius. Sunku tai skaityti, sunku kuomet mirtis, neviltis, badas tampa tokia norma ir kasdienybė. Kai nebėra jėgų ne tik kovoti, bet ir pakelti ranką prieš save.

Tai nėra ta knyga, kurioje norėtųsi vertinti rašymo stilių, veikėjų portretus ar literatūrinę prasmę. Visą tai absoliučiai nesvarbu. Tai yra kančios, žmogaus tragedijos, bet tuo pačiu ir tvirtybės istorija.

Manau suprantate, jog nerekomenduosiu knygos atostogoms, bet neišsigąskite to emocinio sunkumo. Knyga tikrai verta skaitymo. Liūdna, bet jaudinanti ir šokiruojanti. Man dar prireiks laiko, kol nuridensiu tą likusį akmenį nuo širdies.
Profile Image for Marilyn.
748 reviews199 followers
December 6, 2020
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 Korean national father and three younger sisters. He was born in 1947. He had nothing to do with his Korean father until Masaji started elementary school. His father had been in prison. When his father was a boy of fourteen years old he was kidnapped by the Japanese and brought to Japan to work in a munitions factory along with about 200 other Koreans. His mother's family, although not wealthy, owned a shop where they sold chickens. Masaji's grandparents were very opposed to their daughter marrying his father. They believed it was a terrible mistake. Their fears proved to be justified. His father was physically and verbally abusive to his mother and he drank a lot. One night his father got so drunk that he actually pushed his mother over the side of a cliff at knife point. Thankfully, Masaji had followed them and was able to save his mother after his father left. Masaji's mother knew she had to leave her family and find work so she could save money to help her children. Somehow Masaji found his mother working in a restaurant. At about this time Masaji's father decided that Masaji should attend a Korean school and he invited his Korean girlfriend to live with them. The children at his new school were poor but he realized that what his grandparents had told him about Koreans being monsters was wrong. Masaji befriended on boy in particular. His name was Lion. Their friendship meant a lot to Masaji. Masaji's father was told by the League of Koreans to change. He was told to make things work with his mother and to find work. Masaji's mother returned home.


At about this time, Japan began experiencing a recession. Lots of people were out of work and Koreans were considered the lowest of people in Japan and so were the last to be offered jobs. Kim Il-sung began to build his socialist utopia at around this same time. Then in 1958, Kim Il-sung made a speech that focused on the inequalities of Koreans living in Japan and the injustices that they had to suffer. He was giving Koreans living in Japan the opportunity to return home to North Korea. They were promised a better life, with free housing and education. Shortly after that a Return Agreement was put in place in 1959 between the Japanese Red Cross Society and the Korean Red Cross Society. Then members of the League of Koreans started putting pressure on Masaji's family to return to North Korea. His mother refused at first but gradually the League was able to persuade her. In January of 1960 Masaji's family departed for North Korea. He was thirteen years old.

The realities of Masaji's life in North Korea were unreal and the worst nightmare anyone could possibly imagine. To know that those conditions and circumstances actually exist should open everyone's eyes. Something must be done! A River in Darkness was a gut-wrenching, but well written account of Masaji's life. Everyone should read this book. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Serge.
116 reviews24 followers
January 26, 2022
Actual Rating: None.

“And I came to recognize that, no matter how difficult the reality, you mustn’t let yourself be beaten. You must have a strong will. You have to summon what you know is right from your innermost depths and follow it.”

We all like to believe that in the vast distance somewhere, despite all of the difficulties life throws at us, there is a happily ever after forever sparkling faraway, a happily ever after we will all reach sooner or later. We like to believe that all our life struggles have a purpose, and that purpose is that ever-elusive light at the end of the tunnel, that rainbow on the other side of the mountain. Sometimes, that is indeed the case, but at other times, like in Masaji Ishikawa's life, there really is no happy ending, and the purpose of life seems to be nothing other than endless tribulations that lead to even worse ones, like a growing cancer that just keeps spreading until the host is destroyed.

Little Masaji Ishikawa didn't have the best childhood, being part of a toxic family dynamic where his father beat his mother up regularly, because she came from a well-off Japanese family, while he was Korean, a nationality frowned upon and seen as brutish and barbaric by a great portion of the Japanese population back then. His father was resentful for being an outcast, and he channeled that resentment into rage and violence. Little did Masaji know that things were about to get a lot worse, when the regime in North Korea would use the weakness of people like his father to get them to leave Japan and go somewhere even worse, where the notion of liberty and freedom is non-existent, where instead of keeping dogs as pets, you had to eat them, and instead of spending stormy winter nights in cozy homes, warm by the fire with a hot drink in your hand, you were forced to come together with your other household members and use your body heat as a shelter from the freezing weather, even taking your shirt off to warm your babies, lest they die from the cold.

“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.”

This is a dark and brutal story, and what makes it more chilling is that it's not fiction. The only takeaway I had when I was done with this book was how insane human beings can be. Knowing that life is finite, and we are all destined to die eventually, why, just why, must we make life this difficult? Why must we be this cruel to each other? Yes, it is true that the people who are abused and are left with quite literally nothing, having to salvage trash to get some food during the best scenarios, and having to resort to cannibalism during the worst, will have little room in their hearts for kindness, however, what about the people at the top, who put these people through this misery? With what conscience can people commit such acts of cruelty, and continue doing so to this very day? The North Korean regime still stands, and armed with nuclear power, it is more robust than ever, and its 25.78 million population still live under this dictatorship. The soldiers, instead of rising up against this regime and liberating the people, continue to be the henchmen of this cruel rule. They have been brainwashed to believe the lies their regime wants them to, which leads me to believe that, for most people, committing these heinous acts of cruelty can only be done if they truly believe that what they are doing is right.


“If you suffer long enough, it almost becomes funny, and you can find yourself laughing at the most miserable situations. I guess it’s a kind of hysteria.”


I will not spoil Masaji Ishikawa's story, not because it is meant to be an entertaining read and knowing the ending will deprive the reader of the fun, but because experiencing this story yourself will likely give the needed emotional impact, and the least the more privileged people like us could do, is feel that impact completely. I thank all possible deities out there for the blessing of not being born in North Korea, and not having to experience that kind of hardship. These types of stories can make one feel grateful, regardless of how bad their life is. However, I finished this book with a deep feeling of sadness in my heart.

I will not be giving this book an actual rating, because how can I rate something this dark that is an actual real depiction of an unfortunate human being's life? However, I will give it 5 stars simply to let others know that this is a work I do recommend them to read, because the least we can do for this man is to know his story.



“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.”
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