A River in Darkness
by Masaji Ishikawa
AmazonCrossing

Rightly or wrongly, now Masaji Ishikawa’s landmark memoir is in English, it may assume its due position as the standard work on the hell of North Korea.

Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a violent, abusive Korean father, but uprooted as a boy in 1960 to “North Korea […] paradise on earth!” after Kim Il-sung encouraged repatriation.

Unlike his new compatriots, Ishikawa could spot a brainwashing programme when he saw one. In his recollections, subtitled “One Man’s Escape from North Korea”, accounts of his life and appalling times follow, unspooling like a slow-rolling movie teaser back to the beginning of the book and his quivering, traumatised self on the banks of the Yalu River – which roars defiantly between him and China, and, perhaps, eventual passage to Japan.

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From dread on arrival in his new “homeland” to “dog meat … yes, dog meat” for his first North Korean meal, to being “the lowest of the low” and a reviled “Japanese bastard”, Ishikawa uncovers the ghastly realities of life in the Hermit Kingdom.

Eating weeds to beat starvation, and other horrors, were still to come – and were to force the despairing Ishikawa’s hand.