A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa - a Book Review

I thought I knew about distress, bottomless poverty and boundless miseries that many human beings under a totalitarian regime go through. I thought I understood how dehumanized many feel in every second of their brutally suppressed life. Masaji Ishikawa shattered my trifling understanding, by his slender book describing his and his family's endless sufferings in North Korea. 

This is not an easy book to read. Not easy in the sense that I was in repeated shock reading the detail description, how desperate the condition in North Korea actual is, "the land of paradise" in propaganda jargon, but in reality just the opposite for most in that mysterious nation secluded from most of the world. 

This is indeed a good book to read, in the sense that the English translation that I've read was done very well, detailing Masaji Ishikawa's misery filled life in depth. 

Masaji Ishikawa and his family, his Korean father, Japanese mother and siblings were duped in 1960s and were brought to North Korea from Japan by promise of a land of paradise where education and health care were free, everyone has freedom, everyone has plenty of food to eat. This was the time after the Korean war, about fifteen years after second world war ended. By then "2.4 million Koreans stranded in Japan. They belonged to neither the winning nor the losing side, and they had no place to go. Once freed, they were simply thrown onto the streets. Desperate and impoverished, with no way to make a living."

This desperate life in Japan pushed many Koreans living there, many of them married to Japanese, eventually move back to North Korea. Government of Japan played its role too by playing either dumb or actively motivating these families who had no idea about the reality in North Korea. 

Masaji Ishikawa's family found out from the very moment they landed in North Korea that the promise of a paradise was utterly false. They were literally fed dog food as welcome present. And their life went from bad to worse to beyond words. Here is a skin crawling description the writer puts, "But now he was scared, plain and simple. And that scared me to death. When I saw the terror in his eyes and heard the miserable realization in his voice, I knew once and for all that we’d been consigned to hell. It made my flesh crawl to think about it. My father had bought a pig, a chicken, and a sheep to feed his family, and some jealous neighbor had seen fit to rat him out for this gross misdemeanor. And that policeman would happily have killed him for it."

A totalitarian regime depends on controlling its population in absolute term. In that setting, people must have gruesome fear instilled so that no opposition ever dare to utter any word against the supreme leader or his regime. In a totalitarian regime the meaning of words becomes lopsided, like "That’s what happens to language in countries like North Korea. A totalitarian dictatorship is a “democratic republic.” Bondage is known as “emancipation.” Here is another extract relating to lopsided usage of language, "This was laughable, of course, but that’s always the way with totalitarian regimes. Language gets turned on its head. Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were “the masters of our destiny.” And if we begged to differ, we were dead."

Masaji Ishikawa writes the horrific ordeals that he and his family had to suffer. Being half Japanese and returnees from Japan and having no political connection in North Korea, they were treated like serfs, "if you had no connections, forget it. At the local level, neighbors were clustered into groups of five families each, with a leader who was tasked with reporting everything about the members of the group to the secret police. Even if you were nobody. And being nobody, you were automatically suspect. People like that got sent to remote villages to work as serfs."

The farming and economic system in North Korea as the writer describes is destined to be failure as "the real farmers had to work under these ridiculous conditions all the time. They knew that, however long they worked and however much effort they put in, they wouldn’t be rewarded for their labors; their pay would be the same. And they had to follow the instructions of amateurs who didn’t know what they were talking about. So of course they lost all motivation. Who could blame them?"

Reading "A River in Darkness", the writer's indescribable agonies, his and his family's desperation, the shameful disregards from the democratic world, may not be for the faint heart, but if you like to expand your horizon to know the truth and reality for countless many subjugated in absolute totalitarian and totalitarian leaning regimes, this actual misery filled book is a must read. My wish for the writer Masaji Ishikawa is that he gets relevant governments' assistance bringing his remaining family to live with him honorably. He and his family suffered more than enough.

Here is one last quote from this unforgettable book: "But Young’s behavior reminded me what it was to be a human being. And I came to recognize that, no matter how difficult the reality, you mustn’t let yourself be beaten. You must have a strong will. You have to summon what you know is right from your innermost depths and follow it."