On a Daily Special from Audible, I grabbed it because I really was interested in North Korea a couple years ago – prior to the new foreign relations and other political messes – and read several books. Although my interest has waned, this book was different and riveting. This one is about the lives of fairly average people – not quite, but … in more detail than I’ve read before.
A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea
by Masaji Ishikawa (translated from Japanese)
2018 / 172 pages (Amazon Crossing – pub.)
read by Brian Nishi – 5h/54m
rating: 8.5 / memoir
Ishikawa writes clearly and with ease – there is a nice tension because although the reader knows he will move with his family to North Korea and then much later succeed in defecting, we don’t know how this transpires. So the story progresses chronologically.
Ishikawa’s story starts out in Japan where he lives as the child of a Japanese mother and a Korean father. This is hard because no one really accepts his Korean heritage and his father can’t seem to stay sober, employed and non-abusive.
Then in 1960 Dad decided a better life could be had in North Korea – there were North Korean promoters in Japan in those days, encouraging immigration to the paradise of Kim Il Sung, the new leader there. The family went.
Dad was better but life was much harder for Mom because now it was her heritage which was oppressed – and that of their children. (This idea is explored in the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – link to my review).
Ishikawa goes through his life and the telling rings totally true although the poverty is almost unbelievable. It generally aligns with other accounts I’ve read of no food and no jobs, families split and the camps. One new thing here is the corruption of the common people in getting more food for themselves and their families.
There’s very little humor to break the tragic sadness and fear, but there are life changes, jobs with promotions and difficulties, help from and troubles with neighbors, romances, weddings, children, hunger, deaths, work, police, the stuff of life. But we know he makes it.
Although most of the action takes place prior to 2000 the epilogue brings the reader up to date – to 1/2018.