A River of Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa details the horror one man had to go through in order to survive the clutches of the North Korean regime. It’s a brutal story with a mixed range of emotions as expected. While thinking that spending a lot of time researching and reading about World War II stories would prepare me for what I was about to discover here, that was anything but the truth. It’s obviously different in many ways but there are also many similarities. It was a good learning experience as well because there were definitely some things that I haven’t learned before in regards to North Korea and its regime so that in itself made the book and story worth reading. It’s just depressing and tragic that so many people actually had to go through this living nightmare.
What initially started out as a normal story about a boy’s family living in Japan quickly turned for the worst once his violent father was duped into “migrating” back to North Korea, his motherland. Being half Japanese and Korean, Masaji was basically stuck in the middle. This part was particularly interesting to me because I never knew that so many Koreans actually lived in Japan during that era. They were often looked down upon in society and had to form their own special groups and community to look out for each other. It was partly because of this that led to Masaji’s father finally persuading his family to move back to his home country. That and also the many lies and propaganda spread throughout the community about how North Korea is thriving as a country and that everyone who migrates there will have a much better and prosperous life for their family. Nothing will be for wanted. Of course, this was a big lie and Masaji’s family along with thousands more paid dearly for it.
Living in North Korea is brutal and you’ll hear first hand of just how so with Masaji’s retelling here. Everything from lack of food, work and lack of basic utilities for everyday survival that many take for granted makes life difficult day in and day out. It’s sad really. Imagine how as a family to be able to survive on food rations that barely amount to anything. Having to work all day and night just to earn a bit of food to put in your stomach. Or worst of all, having to live in constant fear and paranoia that everything you say and do is being monitored and watched by the state secret police. One wrong move or say something suspicious and you could be red flagged as being a traitor and put into a concentration camp. Although my opinion is that these are common knowledge to many of us due to the stories and news we read and hear about North Korea, its quite another thing to actually read about it first hand from an actual survivor which many of us probably hadn’t done before. It really puts things into perspective similar to how I felt when I first read about the retelling of WWII stories from actual survivors.
Masaji’s story is short, well written and gets straight to the point: it horrible living in North Korea. While he was able to physically escape the nightmare that was North Korea, he’ll never be able to break free from the mental and psychological trauma of having to live there for 30 plus years. Honestly, I doubt I’d have the willpower to continue living as long as the author did under such harsh and terrible living conditions. That’s why I love recommending books and memoirs such as A River in Darkness simply because it can both be a depressing and uplifting story at the same time for the reader.
Thank you Masaji Ishikawa for having the bravery of retelling your story to the world. Not only that but having the courage and willpower in doing everything you could to not only endure but actually survive that horrible ordeal you were put through. We know not everything came out as expected in the end and so we’re hoping you find inner peace one day if you haven’t done so already.