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

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  30,602 ratings  ·  3,295 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

Hardcover, 172 pages
Published January 1st 2018 by Amazon Crossing (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…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)
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)

Community Reviews

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4.26  · 
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 ·  30,602 ratings  ·  3,295 reviews

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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 a
Dec 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
Apr 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: translated, kindle, 2018
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.
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
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
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
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
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"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
Books on Stereo
Jan 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  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.
Marilyn Hitesman
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.
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
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
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
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
Zuky the BookBum
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
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
Laura Noggle
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
Janelle • She Reads with Cats
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
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
Jan 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A mortifying account of a man's escape from North Korea - that will leave you hollow inside. How little does man actually need, and how often even that is deprived.

An emotional memoir.

Ishikawa’s account of life in North Korea reads like a chilling dystopian novel.
Dec 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2017
Tragic. That one word sums up this entire memoir.

I've read both Fiction and Non-Fiction books about North Korea which has provided me a pretty good background about what life is like there. What I didn't know until reading this memoir is nearly 80,000 Japanese moved to North Korea after WWII. They were told North Korea was a land of paradise. The author was born in Japan and moved to North Korea in 1960 when he was 13 years old. He lived there for 36 years. It is truly astounding that so many mo
I you think you have it tough go and read this book. The author is born in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother. In the early 60s his family happily accept the propaganda that life back in North Korea was a paradise. On their return reality was a life of poverty, corruption, ostracism, starvation, homelessness, unemployment and despair. After 38 years, the author escapes to China to find a country that will return escapees. Luckily some local Japanese government officials help him get ba ...more
Trigger warnings: domestic violence, violence, death of a parent, death of a child, starvation, brainwashing.

Wow. Like...woooooooow. I bought this book on a whim when it was a Kindle deal of the day earlier this year. And then I promptly put off reading it up until now. And I'm sorry I put it off for so long because this book was astonishing.

There've been quite a lot of biographies published recently about North Koreans escaping through China. This one was actually published back in 2000 in Jap
Sep 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, non-fiction
I saw 'North Korea' on this memoir and had to read it. I don't think I even fully got through the synopsis and new I was going to read it in one sitting. There is a huge curiosity when thinking about the average person living in North Korea. What this man and his family went through was unbelievable. It's a real life horror story and if it doesnt give you the 'feels,' I dont know what will.

I'm giving this 5 stars because I am absolutely not qualified to review or rate this book. A true glimpse
Beverly K
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Oh god, that was the most depressing book I've read in a long time. There is literally no light at the end of the tunnel for Mr. Ishikawa. On the one hand, it was a fascinating and disturbing tale of life in North Korea. On the other was a dark and dreary tale of what happens in North Korea.

I think I need a break from reading for a bit now.
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