A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa (Book Review)

An Amazon Charts Most Read and Most Sold book.

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.

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One man’s escape from North Korea. An escapee shares the brutal, vivid details of his 36 years in North Korea.

Masaji Ishikawa’s bru­tally vivid mem­oir of life in North Korea de­picts sor­row, hunger, de­pri­va­tion, cold and loss. This short and in­tense por­trait which evokes the hor­rors he found after leav­ing his na­tive Japan at age 13 in 1960.

His Ko­rean fa­ther de­cided to move the fam­ily to North Korea, in hopes of find­ing a bet­ter life in the “promised land” de­scribed in the coun­try’s ex­ten­sive pro­pa­ganda. But in fact, the fam­ily found only tor­ment in the so called “promised land”.

In 1996, after 36 years in North Korea, Ishikawa es­caped back to Japan, fac­ing the loss of his chil­dren and his iden­tity. This English-language trans­la­tion of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, which he wrote in Japan­ese in 2000, pro­vides a rare look at life in one of the world’s most enig­matic, op­pres­sive na­tions. 

Even with a few in­con­sis­ten­cies in the nar­ra­tive’s time­line, Ishikawa’s saga is ex­pres­sive and har­row­ing

Main reading points

  • Masaji Ishikawa’s fam­ily moved to North Korea from Japan in 1960 when he was 13 years old. 
  • However, he fled from North Korea 36 years later in 1996 and re­turned to Japan.
  • As the child of a Japan­ese mother and a Ko­rean fa­ther, he felt at home in nei­ther coun­try. Feeling never really belong to one or the other.
  • The good life that North Korea promised re­turnees turned out to be pro­pa­ganda and lies.
  • Life in North Korea in­cluded brain­wash­ing, famine, forced labor and cor­rup­tion. 
  • Ishikawa mar­ried twice and had three chil­dren. 
  • To es­cape his suf­fer­ing, he once at­tempted sui­cide.
  • With star­va­tion im­mi­nent, he de­cided that try­ing to es­cape North Korea was worth the ex­treme  risk.
  • He fled by cross­ing into China and even­tu­ally re­turned to Japan.
  • Ishikawa lives in Japan in limbo try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to get his two re­main­ing chil­dren out of North Korea.

The Memoir Goes Like This

“Grab…Des­tiny by the Throat and Wring Its Neck” 

Masaji Ishikawa was never a be­liever in a set des­tiny from birth. He be­lieves he had five births. And he fought for his life each time. In 2000, he pub­lished his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in his na­tive Japan under the pseu­do­nym Shun­suke Miyazake to doc­u­ment his five lives which in­clud­ing spend­ing 36 op­pres­sive years in North Korea be­fore flee­ing in 1996.

“Born Be­tween Two Worlds”  

From the mo­ment of he was born, Masaji Ishikawa had to live be­tween two worlds. His mother was Japan­ese; his fa­ther was Ko­rean. Named Masaji in Japan­ese and Do Chan-sun in Ko­rean, he had what he calls his “first birth” in 1947 in Kawasaki.

Though his fam­ily had lit­tle money, he had a happy child­hood in the farm­ing neighbor­hood of Mi­zonokuchi, Japan. His mother, Miyoko, came from a well-respected fam­ily with close com­mu­nity ties.

However her fam­ily viewed Ko­re­ans as bar­bar­ians. Her older broth­ers had fought with the Japan­ese army in Manchuria and de­scribed Ko­re­ans as go­ril­las which are both “poor and un­kempt.”

“In a sense, I still don’t even exist; I re­main in limbo be­tween two worlds.”

Just out­side Mi­zonokuchi was a vil­lage of about 200 Ko­re­ans, in­clud­ing Ishikawa’s father, Do Sam-dal.

The Japan­ese forced vil­lagers from Korea to work at a nearby mu­ni­tions fac­tory. Do Sam-dal was among 2.4 mil­lion Ko­re­ans in Japan who had no place to go after the Allies de­feated Japan in the Se­cond World War. He had been born in the vil­lage of Bongchon-ri, lo­cated in modern-day South Korea. When he was 14, the Japan­ese had kid­napped him and taken him to Mi­zonokuchi to work in the fac­tory.

“You must have a strong will. You have to sum­mon what you know is right  from your in­ner­most depths and fol­low it.”

Nick­named “Tiger” for his prowess as a leader in the local Ko­rean com­mu­nity, Ishikawa’s fa­ther was vi­o­lent and often drunk. Ishikawa’s few mem­o­ries of his fa­ther in­clude see­ing him beat his mother and at­tack her with a knife.

Ishikawa dis­liked his fa­ther and Ko­re­ans in gen­eral. As he neared his teens, Japan suffered a re­ces­sion which means the fam­ily be­came in­creas­ingly poor. He skipped school to look for his mother, who’d run away to save her life. When he went back to school, he was often the vic­tim of anti-Korean racism even though being a half-japanese himself.

Under the lead­er­ship of Kim Il-sung, North Korea reached out to Ko­re­ans liv­ing in Japan. Kim promised that Ko­re­ans who re­turned to their mother coun­try would enjoy a fresh start and bet­ter qual­ity of life.

We need to note that North Korea hadn’t ex­isted as a coun­try when Tiger was born. Repa­tri­a­tion promised what the fam­ily needed.

“When we lived in Japan, if any­one crossed [my fa­ther], he’d sim­ply punch their lights out…But now he was scared, plain and sim­ple. And that scared me to death.”

In Jan­u­ary 1960, Ishikawa, his par­ents and his sis­ters Eiko, Hi­fumi and Masako left Japan for North Korea. Some 70,000 peo­ple crossed back to North Korea in the early days of the repa­tri­a­tion pe­riod, which con­tin­ued with only a short in­ter­rup­tion until 1984.

“All at once, the adults on the train started cry­ing. I won­dered why. After all, they were going back to their home­land, so why were they sad? It seemed to por­tend bad things to come.”

Born to a New Life in North Korea 

Repa­tri­a­tion to a new coun­try filled Ishikawa with joy. After a train ride, a bus ride and two days at sea on an old Soviet ship, the fam­ily ar­rived in Chongjin.

The ghostly port’s rusted ships and bar­ren moun­tain­sides made it ap­par­ent immediately that the re­al­ity of their des­ti­na­tion didn’t match the pro­pa­ganda promis­ing a good life in North Korea.

Ishikawa learned he wouldn’t be el­i­gi­ble to go back to Japan with­out au­tho­riza­tion from its au­thor­i­ties. Thus, his sec­ond birth hap­pened at age 13 when he stepped off the gang­way of the ship and en­tered North Korea which was then, a propaganda based false advertising.

His fam­ily spent a few weeks in limbo. All six of them slept on the freez­ing floor in a room at a re­cep­tion cen­ter, wait­ing to find out how and where they would live. The Ko­re­ans even­tu­ally as­signed them to a home in Dong Chong-ri, a vil­lage 12 hours away via steam train and ox­cart.

Of­fi­cials as­sured his fam­ily that being as­signed to live in the only tile-roofed build­ing in the vil­lage was a sig­nif­i­cant honor. The cracks in the walls of the ram­shackle place told a dif­fer­ent story. The elec­tric­ity was weak, the house had no gas hookup and water came from a well.

“The school prin­ci­pal was just an­other party ap­pa­ratchik. On that par­tic­u­lar day, his job was to in­form me of which caste I’d been as­signed to. I was told that I’d been deemed ‘hos­tile’.”

His fel­low stu­dents wel­comed Ishikawa to school by act­ing out a play that por­trayed his life story. The drama was pro­pa­ganda show­ing how the “kind ef­forts of the Work­ers’ Party of Korea and the good old League of Ko­re­ans” had made it pos­si­ble for Ishikawa to re­turn to his mother coun­try. He un­der­stood only a small amount of Ko­rean, but he rec­og­nized when other peo­ple called him a “Japan­ese bas­tard.”

“In the end, all that mat­tered was whether our loy­alty to­ward Kim Il-sung ap­peared cred­i­ble. So we be­came mas­ters at fak­ing it. Every­one did.”

Ishikawa learned that ex­press­ing his thoughts could land him in a labor camp or a con­cen­tra­tion camp. Neigh­bors snitched on neigh­bors to the se­cret po­lice. Koreans os­tra­cized his Japan­ese mother. All adults had to work, but party of­fi­cials didn’t as­sign his mother a job be­cause she couldn’t speak Ko­rean.

The fam­ily’s only glim­mer of hope was the trans­for­ma­tion Ishikawa saw in his fa­ther. Tiger did what he could to pro­vide food for the fam­ily, even when he didn’t un­der­stand the dire con­se­quences of doing so, in­clud­ing some­one in­form­ing on him to the po­lice.

Once Tiger learned to fear the sys­tem, Ishikawa rec­og­nized the re­al­ity of the hell that his fa­ther, his fam­ily and other re­turnees had to ac­cept.

“That’s the trou­ble with pro­pa­ganda. It con­stantly con­tra­dicts it­self.”

“Some­thing in My Brain…Strug­gled Des­per­ately to Sur­vive” 

In North Korea, Ishikawa lived under con­stant brain­wash­ing and or­ders to “pro­tect the foun­da­tions of so­cial­ism and strive for the tri­umph of the rev­o­lu­tion.” The rigid juche agri­cul­tural sys­temgen­er­ated only mea­ger ra­tions. Peo­ple tried to sub­sist on weeds.

They faced famine, forced labor, no free­dom of move­ment, manda­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice, theft, wide­spread cor­rup­tion and lim­ited sup­plies. Ishikawa wore the same pair of pants for more than a decade.

“Rigidly uni­form agri­cul­tural poli­cies were passed off as uni­ver­sal truths.”

Be­fore high school grad­u­a­tion, the prin­ci­pal as­signed Ishikawa to the low­est caste in the coun­try’s rigid sys­tem. Being deemed a “hos­tile” meant he would have no op­por­tu­nity to im­prove him­self and no chance to study physics, as he’d hoped. Six years after his ar­rival, Ishikawa started work­ing as a trac­tor dri­ver. His work as­sign­ments changed in sub­se­quent years.

Adult­hood meant know­ing peo­ple who were ex­e­cuted or who com­mit­ted sui­cide. Doc­tors didn’t help the ill and dying. Every­one had to pay un­wa­ver­ing ad­her­ence to the “Ten Com­mand­ments…of the Great Leader Com­rade Kim Il-sung.”

Ishikawa’s per­sonal life in­cluded a sur­prise arranged mar­riage to a woman named Lee He-suku, with whom he had a son, Ho-chol. His wife left Ishikawa soon after the birth of their baby, so Ishikawa had to find a wet nurse to feed his baby. After bury­ing his mother, who died at age 47, Ishikawa felt that his son was his only rea­son to live. In 1976, he re­mar­ried; he and his sec­ond wife, Kim Te-sul, had two chil­dren: daugh­ter Myong-hwa and son Ho-son. When his fa­ther died, Ishikawa was the only per­son pre­sent to lay Tiger to rest.

“We placed [my mother] in her cof­fin the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon. I tried to ham­mer the lid down, but the stu­pid nails were in­fe­rior and wouldn’t go in straight.”

Ishikawa strug­gled “to do some­thing hon­est and pure” that would pro­vide for his fam­ily and not lead to rep­ri­mand. Liv­ing away from his fam­ily, he worked as a char­coal burner. One day, as he cut a tree to feed into the kiln, he de­cided to give up on his earthly hell. He made a noose, se­cured it over his neck, tied it to a tree, stepped onto a rock and jumped. But the noose stuck on his chin, and he lived. Though an­noyed at his in­abil­ity to kill him­self, some­thing within Ishikawa drove him to strug­gle to sur­vive.

He de­cided to live to pro­tect his fam­ily and to hold onto hope. Ishikawa was born yet again – for the third time.

“I buried the baby and headed back down the moun­tain, bel­low­ing like the lu­natic I’d be­come.”

Cross­ing to China 

For decades, North Ko­re­ans starved. Hunger was Ishikawa’s con­stant com­pan­ion. Things grew more dire in 1991, when ex­treme cold made the pal­try food sup­ply even worse. Fol­low­ing Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, the food pro­duc­tion in­fra­struc­ture col­lapsed. In the sum­mer of 1995, when fear of death by hunger was a daily con­cern, a flood de­stroyed grain pro­duc­tion.

By au­tumn, peo­ple were col­lect­ing bit­ter acorns to stay alive. By the fol­low­ing spring, even the cul­ti­vated land near their home was no longer vi­able; peo­ple had no fer­til­izer and no seeds or seedlings.

“The barely liv­ing dead” thought and spoke only of food. Ishikawa’s chil­dren grew thin­ner, their faces sank and their eyes be­came huge. Ishikawa lacked the en­ergy to cry about the state of their mal­nour­ished bod­ies.

If death were around the cor­ner, Ishikawa rea­soned, he should die try­ing to re­turn to his home­land. He didn’t take time to con­sider be­cause he was afraid he’d change his mind. With his wife and kids’ sup­port, he grabbed his few pos­ses­sions and left for Hamju Sta­tion to take the night train to the bor­der city of Hye­san. Tick­ets were dif­fi­cult to get and he knew the of­fi­cials would check his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pa­pers, so he jumped onto the train and hid.

“When you’re starv­ing to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose. Once your lips dis­ap­pear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog.”

After ar­riv­ing in Hye­sen, Ishikawa care­fully ob­served the nar­row Yalu River, the bor­der be­tween North Korea and China. Guards pa­trolled the North Ko­rean river­bank all day and night. Ishikawa’s three nights of sur­veil­lance paid off. He seized an op­por­tu­nity to cross while the guards changed shifts.

A rain­storm had trans­formed the river into rag­ing, muddy tor­rent, but he had to take the chance. In the process, Ishikawa bashed his head on some­thing. Un­con­scious and lack­ing a sense of how much time had lapsed dur­ing the dark night, he woke up on the bank of the river. Nearby, a light was on in a house which was some­thing that would have been trea­son in North Korea. Then Ishikawa heard a dog bark. He fell asleep and when he awoke, a man was car­ry­ing him. A dog was there, too, wag­ging its tail.

Ishikawa re­al­ized the dog was a pet. In North Korea, dogs are food. The pet dog meant Ishikawa had made it to China. His fourth life began in that mo­ment.

“We were on the verge of star­va­tion, but the bonds of fam­ily love re­mained in­tact.”

Ishikawa’s res­cuer was an el­derly Ko­rean named Kim. He ex­plained that other es­capees (na­tive North Ko­re­ans) re­ceived a very cold re­cep­tion at South Korea’s Bei­jing em­bassy. Thanks to the Bor­der Se­cu­rity Co­op­er­a­tion Pro­to­col that North Korea and China signed after the Ko­rean war, China sent refugees back to North Korea.

South Korea cared about its trade pol­icy with China and not about peo­ple. But Ishikawa was Japan­ese, and Kim was will­ing to help his ef­forts to re­turn to Japan.

Ishikawa knew the Japan­ese Red Cross helped peo­ple con­tact lost rel­a­tives. He reached the Red Cross in Japan, which con­tacted the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs. Of­fi­cials doubted Ishikawa’s sta­tus as a Japan­ese na­tional, in part be­cause he was out of prac­tice when he tried to speak Japan­ese. But he was able to ver­ify the de­tails of his birth.

“Sud­denly, it came to me. Peo­ple didn’t keep dogs in North Korea. They ate them. This dog was a pet. This wasn’t North Korea. It was China. I’d made it.”

They made a plan to move Ishikawa fur­ther west to Shenyang, China. Kim’s sons, Choro and Cho­rusu took him on the two-day drive through the Chang­bai Moun­tains. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Japan­ese con­sulate met him.

He waited in Shenyang for about two weeks be­fore mov­ing south to the port city of Dalian, where he waited in a li­ai­son of­fice until the au­thor­i­ties from China would per­mit him to leave. When the time was right, the Japan­ese con­sul shook his hand and gave him $500 to help him start his new life even though the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment made it clear that if any­thing went wrong in China, it would not help him.

The of­fi­cial line was that Japan­ese of­fi­cials in China had never heard of him. When it was time to leave, Ishikawa saw a large plane on the air­port’s run­way. Two flight at­ten­dants greeted him; the plane held no other pas­sen­gers. The gov­ern­ment had given him a char­ter flight for his re­turn trip to Japan.

“The Plane Touched Down in Tokyo” 

On Oc­to­ber 15, 1996, when the plane landed in Tokyo, Ishikawa was “born again” for the fifth time. Ec­sta­tic to have left North Korea, he looked for­ward to de­sign­ing his own fu­ture. When he had fled from North Korea, Ishikawa had promised his chil­dren that, if his es­cape was suc­cess­ful, he’d get them out, too.

Mak­ing that hap­pen be­came his pri­mary focus.

His new life back in Japan however was full of strug­gles. The gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who helped him flee didn’t help his fam­ily or other re­turnees leave North Korea. The Japan­ese gov­ern­ment never of­fi­cially rec­og­nized Ishikawa’s es­cape, so tech­ni­cally, he doesn’t exist in Japan. Ini­tially given shel­ter in a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­ity run by the Min­istry of Health, Labor and Wel­fare, Ishikawa lived with al­co­holics and other peo­ple too ill to work. His ma­ter­nal rel­a­tives didn’t want to see him. Find­ing good work was im­pos­si­ble; he hated his in­abil­ity to send sup­port to his chil­dren and wife.

What if Ishikawa had re­mained in North Korea?

If he had died of star­va­tion there, as his wife and one of his daugh­ters even­tu­ally did, he feels he would at least have died sur­rounded by fam­ily, and he could have said good­bye. He still hopes to res­cue his other two chil­dren, but their once in­fre­quent let­ters no longer ar­rive. In the end, Ishikawa con­tin­ues to live in a state of limbo.

His “only true pos­ses­sion [is] bit­ter­ness at the cru­elty of life” – but he still prays for a “happy end­ing.”

An Amazon Charts Most Read and Most Sold book.

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.

Buy the Book

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Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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