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A River in Darkness summary

Masaji Ishikawa

One Man’s Escape from North Korea

4.5 (53 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa is a heartbreaking memoir of a North Korean family's struggle for survival in a society plagued by famine, poverty, and oppression.

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    A River in Darkness
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    Ishikawa’s family were promised a better life in North Korea, but they were cruelly persecuted.

    Between the late 1950s and mid-1980s, over 100,000 Koreans and 2,000 Japanese citizens left Japan aboard ships bound for North Korea. It’s a remarkable chapter in history. It was the first – and remains the only – time such a large number of people left a capitalist country for a socialist one.

    But the emigrants were soon confronted with plenty of evidence that this so-called “paradise on earth” wasn’t all that it’d been cracked up to be.

    The first sign came when they docked. The arrivals – Ishikawa’s family among them – were shocked at how poorly attired the North Koreans helping unload the ship were. Their clothes suggested that the locals were poorer than they’d ever been in Japan.

    Their first meal was another red flag. They were given terrible-smelling dog meat. Hardly anyone in their group managed more than a mouthful.

    Ishikawa’s family spent the next week confined in a small, cold room before being assigned to their future home in the village of Dong Chong-ri.

    It was a pretty out-of-the-way spot, but the family didn’t have connections in the Korean Workers’ Party or the League of Koreans. Knowing the right people was the only way of securing a residence in the capital of Pyongyang, where the best opportunities could be found.

    Things didn’t improve when they arrived in their new home, either. Their neighbors regarded them as Japanese. Discrimination was commonplace.

    Take Ishikawa’s first school day. One of his classmates called him a “Japanese bastard” as soon as he entered the classroom. Other students made snide remarks about his fancy watch and bag.

    Such items were uncommon in North Korea, and most students usually wrapped their belongings in a cloth that they carried with them. Ishikawa quickly learned to do the same.

    But he wasn’t the only family member struggling to fit in. His mother had studied mathematics and worked as a nurse – but this didn’t impress the village’s party officials. They refused to give her a job until she learned Korean.

    Not having anything else to do, she wandered the mountains looking for things she could pick and cook later. That helped supplement the meager diet the family could afford on the small salary Ishikawa’s father earned as a farmer.

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    What is A River in Darkness about?

    A River in Darkness (2000) is the harrowing true story of one man’s life in and eventual escape from the brutal dictatorship of North Korea. Born in Japan, Masaji Ishikawa was one of hundreds of thousands of Koreans who moved to the country between the 1950s and 1980s. His memoir chronicles the life of drudgery, terror and endless hardship that awaited them.

    A River in Darkness Review

    A River in Darkness (2000) is a compelling memoir by Masaji Ishikawa, offering a chilling account of his life in North Korea and his courageous escape from the regime. This book is definitely worth reading, and here's why:

    • The raw and heart-wrenching narrative gives readers a glimpse into the harsh reality of living under a totalitarian regime.
    • Through Ishikawa's personal experiences, readers gain a deep understanding of the human spirit's resilience and the lengths one will go to find freedom.
    • The book sheds light on the socio-political climate of North Korea, providing invaluable insights into a secretive and often misunderstood country.

    Best quote from A River in Darkness

    Theyd only ever known bondage. North Koreans didnt have anything to compare their country with because theyd never experienced anything else.

    —Masaji Ishikawa
    example alt text

    Who should read A River in Darkness?

    • Human rights advocates
    • History buffs fascinated by the Cold War
    • Anyone who loves true life stories

    About the Author

    Masaji Ishikawa was born in 1947 to a Korean father and a Japanese mother. in 1960, he moved with his parents and three sisters to North Korea. Promised a better life in the new workers’ state, the family found themselves trapped in a totalitarian nightmare. Ishikawa finally managed to escape and return to Japan in 1996. His memoir, A River in Darkness, is an Amazon Charts Most Read and Most Sold Book.

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    A River in Darkness FAQs 

    What is the main message of A River in Darkness?

    The main message of A River in Darkness is a harrowing account of one man's struggle for survival in North Korea.

    How long does it take to read A River in Darkness?

    The reading time for A River in Darkness varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is A River in Darkness a good book? Is it worth reading?

    A River in Darkness is a powerful and eye-opening read that offers a unique perspective on life in North Korea.

    Who is the author of A River in Darkness?

    The author of A River in Darkness is Masaji Ishikawa.

    What to read after A River in Darkness?

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