Media being what it is these days, there is a lot of information being broadcast regarding the situation in North Korea, all of which must be taken with a grain of salt. What is stereotype and what is truth? What is veiled jingoism and what reflects reality? For certain it is understood North Koreans live under an oppressive regime, but to what extent does the oppression extend? It is Pol Pot Year Zero madness, or a milder version of socialism like that of Cold War Poland, for example? Told from the mouth of a man who lived for decades in the country and escaped, A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa sheds a first-hand light on the realities of life in North Korea the past half-century, and it’s not a pretty picture.
Caught between two cultures and therefore not belonging to either, Ishikawa was born to a Korean father and Japanese mother in Japan in the years immediately following WWII. Looked down upon as low caste by the Japanese, his family’s fortunes only change for the worse when they give in to pressure and decide to repatriot to North Korea to live in the socialist paradise said to be awaiting them. Called a ‘Japanese bastard’ by everyone upon arrival, Ishikawa quickly learns that no paradise awaits, only a hell far worse than the low caste existence his family had in Japan. All of the relative luxuries they owned—bicycles, washtubs, running water, etc.—now gone, in their place are leaky roofs, forced indoctrination, bent-back farming, and barely enough rice to feed the family, not to mention a social environment prone to backstabbing, paranoia, and generally scrabbling, egotistical behavior. Coming to terms with the life but never accepting it, A River in Darkness describes the arc of Ishikawa’s many years living in North Korea, and his eventual escape.
Giving weight to the media’s depiction of North Korea yet adding details that complete the picture in real life, A River in Darkness portrays existence in the “Democratic Republic” of North Korea in terms that can only be described as frighteningly Orwellian. From the military turning people out of their homes to irrational farming methods that actually reduce yields, late night brain-washing sessions to paradoxical political ideologies, starvation to freezing, purges to interrogations to executions, the life described offers tangible scenes that chill. A literal hell on Earth, nobody in the Western world would wish for such an existence, likely even prisoners. Our existence is certainly not without its flaws, yet River highlights in concrete terms—nearly unbelievable detail—just how much further certain societies outside North Korea have evolved.
As many readers (and film aficionados) are aware, Unbroken is one of the most powerful stories of humanity’s survival in the face of subjugation. A River in Darkness hits harder. Incapable of not evoking in the reader fear, sympathy, and understanding for the lives of North Koreans, it likewise induces deep questions regarding the human ego and its capabilities, the effect of totalitarian rule and oppression, and the meaning of human power paradigms and how we fit into them. Impossible not to stick in the mind long after…