Short Nonfiction Week: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa, translated by Risa Kobayashi & Martin Brown #NovNov22

The river in darkness, which gives Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir its title, is the Yalu River, which Ishikawa had to risk his life to cross in order to escape the hellish experience that was passing for life in North Korea. Faced with starving to death under a brutal dictatorship, Ishikawa made the shocking decision to leave his wife and children to try to escape firstly to China and then on to his birth country of Japan, in order to make a better life for all of them.

Uncertain if he will see his family again, and faced with the real possibility of death, this treacherous escape was still a better option than remaining in a country that had devastated its citizens.

Ishikawa was born in Japan in 1947 to a Korean father and Japanese mother. His childhood was far from perfect, with a father who drank and hit his mother and discrimination because of his Korean heritage, but he had a home, school, friends and extended family. He had always been taught by his father that North Korea’s Kim Il sung was an ‘invincible general’ and a powerful leader, so, in 1958 when said leader urged all Koreans to return home to a ‘paradise on earth’, Ishikawa’s father made the decision to uproot his family and return to the country of his birth. In 1960, as part of a mass repatriation campaign, the family said goodbye to all they knew and settled in the North Korean village of Dong Chong-ri. It was a decision they would all come to bitterly regret.

Life in North Korea was not as they had been promised. Thought was not free and everyone had to join the Worker’s Party, pledging allegiance to Kim. The education promised to children was not forthcoming and despite being an excellent student, Ishikawa was not allowed to participate in schooling. Once in North Korea, the Japanese were considered the ‘lowest of the low’, condemned to the bottom of society and forced to work the most menial jobs, if they were allowed to work at all. Anyone too old or ill to work was sent to concentration camps, as was anyone who dared speak out against the leader or his decisions. Executions were rife. Healthcare was basic and a sense of community was non-existent as people looked out only for themselves.

A free thought could get you killed if it slipped out. If you were lucky, you might get sent to some remote mountainous region to do heard labour. Or you might get sent to a concentration camp for political prisoners because you were deemed a ‘liberal’ or a ‘capitalist’ with ‘bad habits’. And bad habits had to be stamped out…Or then again, you might simply be executed.

Lack permeates their lives and hunger drives their every waking moment. The country was forced to use ‘juche’ farming principles, which meant that plants were placed in such close proximity that they could not grow properly and there were no crops. Despite farmers and officials alike knowing this would happen, concerns could not be raised, and crop after crop failed to yield any food. Ishigawa’s mother would spend her day combing the nearby hills for weeds that her family could eat and later, when Ishigawa had his own family, they too were reduced to boiling up potentially hazardous foodstuffs, just to have something to fill their gaping hunger.

Even as people faced incredible hardship and deprivation of both the physical and mental variety and wasted away under food shortages, we weren’t allowed to think for ourselves or take any initiative. The penalty for thinking was death. I can never forgive Kim Il-sung for taking away our right to think.

Following the ascension of Kim Jong-il, life got no better and finally, after thirty-six years under this brutal regime, Ishigawa made the decision to escape in the hope that he could send for his family, once he settled back in Japan.

Masaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness is told in linear, often flat prose, which can make for an uninspiring reading experience, however, the style also underlines just how ordinary a man Ishikawa is and how the most ordinary of people can find themselves in the most extraordinary of situations. The short book is relentless in its depiction of the horrors of life in North Korea, but in a way, it needs to be, in order to fully convey the conditions that seem to us in the Western world to be unbelievable. There are few books written from the perspective of someone who has escaped the regime, for obvious reasons, and it is necessary to face the reality of this experience in order to highlight the myriad injustices meted out by the North Korean government.

What makes this an even more difficult read, is that Ishigawa does escape, quite miraculously, but the transition afterwards was not an easy, or particularly successful one. A River in Darkness is a very bleak and uncomfortable read, but it is a requisite one.

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10 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I remember seeing reviews of this when it was first issued, and can well believe it’s an uncomfortable read, however unpalatable the descriptions – like the food North Koreans had to suffer. How despotic regimes quickly turn out to be the true enemies of the people, however much they might blame immigration, foreigners, conspiracies, freethinkers, lawyers, the Fourth Estate, and so on.


  2. I’ve read a few books about North Korea, but all were from something of an outsider/Western perspective (Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, and Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim). Hearing from someone who actually escaped the regime would be something different. Perhaps the novella length is the only thing that made this challenging story readable!

    Liked by 1 person

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