Book Review -A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea


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.

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.


From before I can remember, I’ve always been very curious about life in North Korea. That being said, I’m not sure I would have read this book if it wasn’t free through the Kindle First program.

Thanks to the author, I now have a better idea of something I’ve always wondered about. A River in Darkness paints a bleak picture. Life in North Korea is brutal, cruel and hopeless.

The book touches a little bit on the history of North Korea alluding to it’s earlier subjugation and then war with Japan. I wish that more of this history had been outlined in the book. It seems crucial in understanding both the mindsets and responses of the citizens of North Korea as well as the governments of Asia. A River in Darkness points out one of the reasons the people of North Korea don’t rebel. It is not just because they are brainwashed, but also because they have no concept of freedom or democracy. They have never actually experienced such a thing, so they don’t know to demand it.

For this story of one man’s struggle and survival there are thousands, maybe even millions more like it. North Korea itself sounds like a massive concentration camp where people are literally starving to death. Corruption, bribery and theft are an everyday way of life. Beatings, disappearances and corpses on the street are common. The people literally eat whatever they can find, which inevitably poisons them. Some even resort to cannibalism.

This is both an easy and difficult book to read. The whole story is under 200 pages and written in a style that is both conversational and factual. It is not in spite of but because of the subject material that I say this is a must read.

This book is a must read for anyone, who like, me has been curious about North Korea. It is a must read for those who like biographies or non-fiction. But truly, it is a must read for any person with a soul. Hopefully, in our lifetime, we will see North Korea set free. Only then, will the world know the full cost paid by it’s people.

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