A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, Masaji Ishikawa

Over the past ten years, it seems as if a whole genre of memoirs has sprung up of ex-North Korean deserters. In 2016, I read the book “Dear Leader” which delved into the life of a former North Korean. It is a fascinating look into one of the most oppressive places in the world, which is also probably why these kinds of memoirs are so popular; to get an inside look at what everyday life might be like in the most secretive country on earth is a rare and privileged look.

This particular memoir is about a man named Masaji Ishikawa. His father was Korean while his mother was Japanese. In the early Imperial Japan, the Japanese sent millions of Koreas from their homeland to Japan to do various work projects. Instead of sending them back after World War II, little Korea towns dotted the landscape where the industrial parks they worked in flourished. Ishikawa’s dad was one of the bullies of the Korean town they lived in, where he routinely abused the boys mother. An opportunity, sponsored by the Japanese and North Korean governments, in the form of an expatriot program to replant Korean citizens to North Korea in the wake of the Korean War opened up. Thousands departed the shores of Japan with the promise of food, wealth, and a better life in North Korea. The Ishikawa family immigrated to North Korea.

Obviously things did not go well. There were routine food shortages; it was difficult to hold down a job; even if you had a job, you could not get paid. The family was extremely poor. This section of the book is absolutely heart breaking. The life they lived was a meager existence with little hope for things to get better.

Eventually, Ishikawa found an opportunity to escape North Korea at the height of the food shortage in the 1990s. He had to leave his family behind to save himself. The end of the book comes with a cry for justice. The Japanese government sponsored this mass exodus of Koreans from Japan to North Korea but they cannot help his family; for a long time, they he wasn’t able to hold down a job in Japan because of the systemic racism in that country against Koreans. It is a difficult ending, one that created more angst then you began with.

This was an interesting book and I was able to read it for free on Amazon Prime.

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