A River in the Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa, translated by Risa Kobayashi

Back in November when I saw that young soldier make his daring escape from North Korea , I began to wonder what motivated him to escape and also what his life would be like now that he is free. So when I saw this memoir by Ishikawa about his life in North Korea and his eventual escape I thought it might give me some insights.

Ishikawa is from a different generation than that young daring solider, but his story is nonetheless informative. Born in 1947 in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother, Ishikawa’s life in post war Japan was very difficult. It was especially hard for “foreigners” like his father who were seen by the vast majority of Japanese to be interlopers who were good for nothing. With little work available now that the Japanese soldiers had returned and with food shortages making it difficult for the whole country to eat at a subsistence level, the Koreans in Japan found themselves at the bottom of the social order with few jobs, and few opportunities.

Ishikawa’s father did not help matters. he was a drunk and had a hot temper. In the years after the war, there was tremendous social unrest and communist teaching and socialist thought permeated Japan and many Koreans in Japan were attracted to these ideologies, including Ishikawa’s father.  When the Korean war ended and the demarkation between North Korea and South Korea established, the Korean community in Japan, who mostly came from what is now considered North Korea, were recruited and induced with promises and bribery to emigrate back to their “homeland.” Ishikawa’s father, tired of his life in Japan, decided to make the move, and in 1960 they crossed the Sea of Japan into North Korea.

The next 36 years of Ishikawa’s life is so horrific it is hard to even describe it here. Needless to say the promises of a better life, the promise to educate their children, the promise of work and dignity were all lies. Not only that, Ishikawa encountered even more racism in North Korea, since he was half Japanese a product of the colonial power who had tried to conquer their country. What we know of North Korea’s inhumane authoritarian regime from the media and press only touches the surface. What Ishikawa endured, and so many others who have lived and died under this capricious and corrupt regime is appalling. That Ishikawa survived is a testament to his tenacity and indomitable spirit. Finally in 1996 he was able to escape and return to Japan.

Even though it is hard, I think it is important to read and be informed about North Korea  especially now that there is talk of rapprochement with South Korea and the US. We need to remember that there has been an ongoing genocide in North Korea for the last 65 years. We need to hold up this regime’s brainwashing, torture and deliberate starvation of its own people. We need to be witnesses, especially now, so we do not forget.

Benda’s Rating: ****(4 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Keith, Ken, Sharon, Marian and Lauren

Book Study Worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format.



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