Masaji Ishikawa’s Incredible Escape From North Korea

Tragic. Heartbreaking. Powerful. Riveting. Brutal. These are some of the words that readers have used to describe Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape From North Korea. First published in Japan in 2000, the book spans Ishikawa’s entire life, from his birth in Japan in 1947 to his escape from North Korea in 1996. What happens in between is a harrowing and critical look at what it means to live in a totalitarian state.

Born to a Japanese mother and a Korean father, Ishikawa’s story takes a turn when his father decides to move their family to North Korea. Attracted by the stories of prosperity, and tired of being treated as a second-class citizen in Japan, Ishikawa’s father was convinced that this was the best decision for their family. Once there, the family goes through countless hardships, humiliations, and tragedies. Ishikawa’s firsthand account of every turn of his life, from adolescence to adulthood, is vivid, frightening, and eye-opening for someone who’s lived in America all their lives (like me).

After reading this book, it became clear to me that I know nothing about North Korea. I have a Wikipedia entry’s worth of knowledge, mixed with the pop culture references we’ve seen throughout the decades. To the west, North Korea is a mix of Kim Jong Un memes and a James Franco movie. We laugh at the Twitter wars between Trump and Un, and I’m quite confident that nobody’s really stopped to think about the people of North Korea and the realities of their day to day struggles. I know I didn’t, but now I can’t stop thinking about it.

A River in Darkness is filled with so much pain and loss that it’s hard not to feel both guilt and gratitude as you read. Guilt because America has been indirectly complicit in all of this, and gratitude because, despite all of our own day-to-day challenges here in America, our lives aren’t nearly as bad as what’s described herein. Stories like this are exactly why we need diverse voices in publishing and why we, as readers, must make a greater effort to seek them out. For years I relied on bestseller lists to dictate what I should read next, but when we do that we remain blind and ignorant of the realities of the rest of the world.

Below are a few selections from the book that I found to be particularly impactful. SPOILERS AHEAD!

“I was born not just once but five times. And five times I learned the same lesson. Sometimes in life, you have to grab your so-called destiny by the throat and wring its neck.” (pg. 3*)

This selection appears at the very beginning of the book, so at that stage, I thought he was speaking metaphorically, but by the end of the book I realized that this statement is quite literal. The turns that Ishikawa’s story takes shape him into a different man throughout the various stages of his life. As a child, he hated violence because he witnessed his father mistreat his mother for so many years, but as an adult, he oftentimes had to result to violence to literally save his life and the lives of his family members. This culminates in the final chapter when he finally decides to escape North Korea in order to find a way to save his starving family. Along the way, Ishikawa makes life-changing decisions in which he has to circumvent fear and the threat of death in order to survive, but without those choices he would have died years ago. Truly an inspiration and a reminder that change never comes easy.

“During the war, they had only two grim choices: they could either become soldiers in their enemy’s army or slave away as civilian war workers. The soldiers would be sent to the front to be used as human shields against the shells. The laborers would be worked to the bone–and sometimes death–in coal mines or munitions factories. The life of an outlaw was a kind of liberation.” (pg. 7)

This passage is a reference to WWII in which many Koreans fought on the Japanese side. After the Japanese defeat, 2.4 million Koreans were left stranded in Japan. They lived a purgatorial existence because they were neither part of the winning nor the losing side, and so they had no place to go after the war. Once they were freed from their fighting duties, they were thrown on the streets and left to figure it out on their own. Many Koreans turned to violence and thievery, stealing food from Japanese armed forces and selling it on the black market. The life of a criminal, one that Ishikawa’s father participated in, was a way to be set free.

“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.” (pg. 36)

This observation was made by Ishikawa shortly after their family moved to North Korea in 1960 when he was thirteen years old. Having been brought up in Japan, he was shocked at the blind obedience of North Koreans. For some reason, this passage reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s quote from The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” They’re not quite the same thing but they’re related: You go along with things because what else can you do, but it’s a recipe for total chaos later down the line.

“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.” (pg. 67)

This selection is in reference to a Mr. Young who was one of the few people to show any kindness to Ishikawa and his family. Ishikawa notes that the people around them had all been dehumanized by the system to the point where everyone was solely looking out for themselves. He didn’t blame them either, everyone was starving or sick and with limited resources to go around, there was no room for humanity. It’s why when Mr. Young (a friend from his father’s past) appeared with food and money, Ishikawa was grateful to the point of tears. It’s also why when Mr. Young was later killed for misspeaking about a party official, that he was absolutely devastated.

“In a sense, I still don’t even exist; I remain in limbo between two worlds. The Japanese government still hasn’t officially admitted that I ever returned to Japan at all. So here I am, officially ‘not living’ here. A life of ‘not living.'” (pg. 158)

When Ishikawa finally makes it out of North Korea and is safe in Japan, he reflects on the fact that, once again, he’s stuck between two worlds. Because of political alliances between Japan, China, and North Korea, the Japanese government could never acknowledge that they helped Ishikawa escape. At the same time, his family remained in North Korea after he fled, and for all his efforts, he was never able to help them escape. He sent money and letters to them, but his wife died of starvation before they got to them. He kept in touch with his sons, but after a short while, he lost contact with them as well. So although he managed to escape, he wondered whether it was better to live without his family or to have died surrounded by them. Truly tragic.

Ishikawa’s story was first published in 2000 in Japan. The English translation was published in 2017, so I’ve been trying to find more information, hoping that there’s some happy ending somewhere. But all I’ve seen is the editor’s note which states that he’s still living in Japan, hoping that this story will reach his family in hopes that at least one son is still alive. Sometimes in life, there are no happy endings.

*I’m reading the Kindle edition published in 2017, translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown. Page numbers may vary slightly if you’re reading a different edition or hard copy.


  1. Getting ready to read this book now. I believe I saw an interview on TV with this person, but at the time I was not familiar with his name. I too would like to know what he is doing and if with all the publicity of the book, anything has happened with his relatives in N. Korea. There is very little information on this author, but perhaps its best that he remain in seclusion

    1. I’d be very curious to see where he is now, but you’re right, perhaps for his safety it’s best we don’t know. I hope he’s happy wherever he is. ❤

    1. Thank you for the update, as disheartening as it is. This poor man…

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