A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa


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.

I always like hearing about cultures and events from a personal perspective, and with North Korea being in the news more and more the past year I think it is important to understand the people whose lives are being manipulated in the global game of chess.

I have heard all the North Korean horror stories, the starvation, the camps, the brutal punishment for even the slightest sign of dissent. But, hearing these things in the voice of a man who lived through them for 36 years is particularly harrowing.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between A River in Darkness and Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father. Both were raw and moving, and both filled me with a mixture of disgust and awe at what the human body and spirit can actually endure.

Someone once said, ‘If a crying baby could tear down the universe, it would.’ That’s how I felt that day. I wanted to demolish the whole universe, but the sad truth was, it had already come crashing down around my head.

I realized reading this that there is a lot of recent Japanese history that I am unfamiliar with. Japan has always fascinated me, but like all places, it has its moments of dark history. It’s important to both understand the failure and appreciate the successes of any group or nation. We can’t change an ugly past, but we can honor its victims by remembering them.

This book is a truly important read. Not only from a historical perspective but also as a guide for what is really important. There are places in the world where people cry with joy at a good meal, or the smallest act of kindness. It’s a hard read, but one that I recommend to everyone.

My Rating: 5/5


5 thoughts on “A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa

  1. I completely agree, this was such a hard read but an excellent one. I’ve read several memoirs by North Korean defectors and this was by far the best, after the group biography Nothing to Envy (not a memoir but really the best on this topic, in my opinion). There was something so haunting and raw about this man’s story, and like you I was intrigued by Japan’s role. Great review!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I haven’t even looked, just kind of filed it away in my brain as something I know so little about and should be on the lookout for more of. Let me know if you come across something good!


  2. I was curious about this when I saw your progress with it on Goodreads. I did an essay in my last year at uni (last year) on North Korea and ever since then I’ve really wanted to make more time to read books by North Koreans, about their experiences and about the culture more generally. Obviously I read some academic texts on North Korea, as well as many interviews with people who fled the country but it’s very different from reading an actual book about it. There’s one that I really wanted to read called Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea by Sandra Fahy which I looked at briefly for my essay and it seemed really interesting! It was also interesting learning about China and Japan’s roles in what happens in and around NK. I didn’t know that a lot of dissenters actually got returned to NK if they were caught in China when fleeing 😦


    1. What I didn’t realize was that from Japan helped ‘repatriate’ Koreans in Japan to North Korea with some crazy promises about life there. The really sad thing is that apparently, 97% of those repatriated were from South Korea. The US knew what was going on but turned a blind eye, the US ambassador to Japan was quoted as describing the Koreans in Japan as “a poor lot including many Communists and many criminals” which is terrifyingly close to what they say about immigrants today 😦

      Liked by 1 person

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