Inside the Hermit Kingdom: A Revealing Memoir of Life in North Korea and a Perilous Journey to Freedom
Masaji Ishikawa’s A River in Darkness is a captivating chronicle of life in totalitarian North Korea, one that often times is hidden beneath the regime’s show of force and menacing threats.
And while visitors and tourists to the hermit kingdom are closely monitored and only shown what the regime wishes them to see, Ishikawa has been brave enough to escape its clutches.
He gives us an insider account of what it’s really like growing up in this far from ideal environment, from schooling at a North Korean institution, to the heartbreaking tale of why thousands left Japan for North Korea, and his own perilous journey to freedom.
This is truly a captivating memoir for anyone wishing for greater insight on life within the most infamous nation on the planet.
Discriminated and Struggling to Fit In: The Reality of Immigrating to North Korea
Ishikawa’s family were promised a better life when they left Japan aboard a ship bound for North Korea.
However, this “paradise on earth” turned out to be far from ideal.
From the moment they docked, the family was confronted with harsh realities that showed how much worse their living conditions were going to be in North Korea.
They were given terrible-smelling dog meat as their first meal and were greeted by poor North Koreans wearing very meager clothing.
Next, they were assigned to a small village in Dong Chong-ri where they quickly encountered discrimination and prejudice from their neighbors who regarded them as Japanese outsiders.
At school, Ishikawa was called a “Japanese bastard” simply because of his nationality.
Even his mother struggled to fit in – she had worked in mathematics and nursing in Japan but lacked any connections with the Korean Workers’ Party or League of Koreans which meant she was unable to find work until she learned Korean.
After not having anything else to do, she spent her days wandering the mountains looking for items she could cook later to supplement their meagre diet.
The Harsh Reality of Growing Up in a North Korean Stratified Society
When Ishikawa was growing up in North Korea, his school years were defined by strict obedience, endless propaganda and rigidly enforced social distinctions.
His future had already been mapped out for him before he even entered the doors of the school.
The authorities identified three paths; those from good families would go to university, those who were strong would enter the military, and all others became laborers.
These social rules were intense in their enforcement; pupils who did not fulfil their obligations such as submitting rabbit pelts on time or failed to show appropriate respect to figures of authority, were subject to harsh punishment.
Alongside math and science classes there was an ongoing attempt to brainwash students with endless ideologies prescribed by “the Great Leader” Kim Il Sung.
Ishikawa knew that if could study hard he might be able to attend university and improve his family’s lot in life, but of course this is impossible due his apparent unsuitable class rank.
Even if he worked towards a factory job instead, this too was denied him, so it looked like he would have no choice but to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer.
North Korea Under Kim Il-Sung: A Reign of Terror and Government Intimidation
The story of Ishikawa and his family portrays the oppressive atmosphere in North Korea when Kim Il-sung was in power.
The inhabitants of Ishikawa’s village were subjected to a strict regime of repression; things such as military trucks arriving without warning, all their possessions confiscated, soldiers who laughed in their faces – these all show how much power the government had over its citizens, and how arbitrary that power could be.
But it extended beyond physical control.
The state held tight control over food distribution, meaning those with connections to powerful figures could get more than those who needed it most.
People had to resort to bribes and theft just to get the basics they needed – a system which eventually led to total dehumanization.
It’s clear that life under North Korea’s hardline dictatorship was incredibly difficult for everyone involved; so severe, indeed, that any semblance of human decency quickly evaporated away.
The Great Leader’s Death Unveiled North Korea’s devastating Famine: How Desperation Drove People to Crime and Cannibalism
The great famine in North Korea from 1991 to 2000 was a dark chapter in the country’s history.
It is estimated that around 3 million citizens lost their lives due to starvation and hunger-related illnesses.
This situation was exacerbated by extreme cold weather, coupled with floods which destroyed crops and farming infrastructure, leaving the nation with an already fragile food supply stretched beyond its limits.
People were forced to make do with only three days of rations per month and soon enough, hunger gripped the entire nation.
As despair set in, people resorted to desperate measures just to survive – crime quickly became part of everyday life as citizens searched for whatever means necessary to make it through another day.
Even acts of cannibalism occurred and were punishable by public execution.
It is no surprise then that many North Koreans succumbed and died where they stood.
This only goes to show the dire situation they were facing at the time and how powerful crime had become as a mean of survival during this crisis period.
Ishikawa’s Near-Death Experience for the Chance at a Better Life
Thousands of North Koreans take the risk of crossing the Yalu river every year in order to escape the horrific conditions in their home country.
It’s a deadly journey, one that requires a lot of courage, but for many it’s their only hope for a better life in China.
The Yalu river marks the joint border between North Korea and China – however Chinese authorities regularly return those who get caught crossing the river back to North Korea, where they often face an horrific death.
In fact, Ishikawa heard the story of one family who was dragged back and then linked together by inserting a wire through each of their noses.
Subsequently, they were all shot upon re-crossing into Chinese territory.
Desperate to escape, Ishikawa made his way from Pyongyang to Hyesan – a city on the border of both countries – before hiding in some bushes close to the banks of the Yalu River.
After one stroke of luck which saw heavy rain obscure soldiers’ views along its banks, he decided to swim across – despite knowing he’d be risking his life doing so.
Luckily enough for Christopher Ishikawa, his determination paid off and after two days unconscious he awoke in China surrounded by friendly strangers and pets – allowing him to truly understand that his struggle had been worth it as could now provide money to his family safely from abroad.
For thousands more though, these risks remain ever present as they continue their search for better lives in neighbouring countries like China.
The Perils of Escape: How Fear & Hunger Drove a North Korean Defector to Risk His Life for Freedom
After managing to escape from North Korea, even entering China wasn’t enough for Ishikawa.
His journey back to Japan proved more perilous than his life in North Korea.
Knowing the stakes, he contacted the Japanese Red Cross and told them of his rare story which was quickly verified by their embassy.
Though they secured a visa to Japan for him, Ishikawa feared that being immobile could open him up to be caught again by the secret police who still might be searching for him.
He made sure to stay alert and never leave his room apart from five minutes after someone knocked on it every time.
He also had extreme caution when receiving a ticket back home from Dalian; suspecting that even talking about his travel plans on the phone could risk exposing him.
To smuggle himself out unseen, he has given a suit from the Japanese consul’s wife so he can pretense as her husband and crawl through a specially dug tunnel away from any nearby guards or spies.
Finally reaching home on October 15th after 36 years apart, Ishikawa wasgreeted by an unfamiliar world with many obstacles ahead of him to become fully assimilated into it; particularly when rumour of his background persisted that cost every job he gets and restricted how much money he could send back to his loved ones who eventually passed away due to starvation before ever hearing of Yamada’s freedom
A River in Darkness is the astonishing, autobiographical memoirs of Masaji Ishikawa.
Ishikawa, who was born in Japan, moved to North Korea with his family after being promised a better life.
Unfortunately, upon arriving in North Korea they found themselves trapped in a harsh and oppressive regime, where basic human rights were denied and where famine was a reality.
In an attempt to flee this totalitarian regime and make it back to Japan alive, Ishikawa hatched a daring escape plan.
After eventually making it back home, he wrote his memoirs; an incredible chronicle of both suffering and courage that stands as an inspiration to us all.