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Review

A River In Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: One man’s escape from North Korea

One man’s escape from the hermit kingdom, North Korea

Translated by Martin Brown & Rise Koyabashi

I looked up the author online. That’s the first thing I did when I finished reading the book. There’s no trace of him anywhere. No clue as to how the book came into being. As Masaji writes in his memoir, he felt invisible in North Korea, people looked through him, as if he wasn’t there. And in real life too, perhaps, he is invisible.

In what can be called a cursed fate, Masaji’s world was divided as soon as he was born; His mother was Japanese and his drunk, wife-beating, abusive father was Korean. He spent most of his childhood in Japan where his family lived from meal to meal but there was dignity in his daily life. During 1950s mass propaganda by the Japanese government led to most Koreans living in Japan to believe that North Korea was ‘a paradise on land’, ‘a land of milk and honey’ , where ‘a first-class education for your children’ was guaranteed. Most Koreans were racially discriminated, poverty gnawing at them at every step. Naturally, the promise of a better life, and most importantly, food, was enough for people to reconsider. Kim Sung II proclaimed he was building a socialist utopia known as the Chollima Movement. This period saw mass repatriation, in fact the only time in history where people moved from a capitalist country to a socialist country. When Masaji’s father announced they were repatriating to North Korea, he knew it would be the end of his family.

North Korea is a totalitarian government, functioning on mass paranoia of people, uncontrollable propaganda, barbaric laws and policies that get you killed, or sent to camps as political prisoners for being a ‘capitalist’ or a ‘liberal’. Since Masaji wasn’t born in NK, he knew what a liberal democracy looked like unlike the people living there. They were brainwashed to become slaves to a pseudo -religious cult as soon as they were born and came to revere their supreme leader as god. Masaji’s life only got worse. Starvation was the number one reason. There just wasn’t enough to eat. They barely scrapped through by boiling rice gruels, eating tree barks, sometimes cabbage that had rotten, other times stealing or picking up leftovers from trashcans. Since they had moved from Japan, they were called ‘returnees’, the lowest of the lows. Despite over-working, they barely got enough food ration. His family was barely surviving, the bodies of his children looked like skeletons. That’s when he decided to escape North Korea, after 36 years. Masaji left his family in hopes for a better life in Japan but his home country didn’t do anything for him either. There’s still no information if he was able to get his family back with him. His wife died a futile death, waiting for him. I have no idea where his children are. I want to say that the book is a testimony to indomitable human spirit but why must humans be reduced to such a pitiful state? Why are thousands upon thousands of North Koreans surviving because they have nowhere else to go? It’s a gross violation of human rights and absolute contempt of a county for its citizens. It’s a harrowing tale of one man’s escape from the evil, evil country that is North Korea

By Shumaila Taher

I am Shumaila Taher, editor and writer.
I exist in between the pages of a book.

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