Few countries on Earth are more isolated than North Korea. The term “hermetically sealed” is often applied. And as a result few first-hand accounts of life in the hermit kingdom of the Kim Dynasty have made it into print in the West. Of those that have appeared in the United States, most are third-person tales as reported to Western journalists. One of the few credible first-person stories is that told by Masaji Ishikawa, a Japanese citizen who lived as a virtual prisoner in North Korea from 1960 to 1996. Years later, he tells the tale in A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea.
A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa (2018) 174 pages
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Nearly starving to death from the cataclysmic famine brought on by the policies of the Kim regime, Ishikawa fled in 1996 to his Japanese homeland to seek a better life for his family. Ishikawa’s account of his life on the margins in North Korea is harrowing. Yet despite the seemingly exaggerated circumstances he describes, his story is entirely consistent with countless other accounts that have somehow seen the light of day in the Western media: the recurring famine, widespread corruption, growing gap between the haves of the Communist Party and the have-nots of the general population, and massive inefficiency in North Korea’s top-down economy.
It’s difficult to fathom how the leadership of a country of twenty-five million people could tolerate that much suffering for so very long. Or, for that matter, how twenty-five million people could fail to rush for the Chinese border en masse and overpower the guards keeping them in their virtual prison. How is it that one man’s escape from North Korea is such a rarity?
For further reading
Check out 10 good books about North Korea.
In an essay in the New York Times Book Review (January 1, 2018), Nicholas Kristof wrote about “What to Read if You Want to Know More About North Korea.” His recommendations include four nonfiction books I haven’t read as well as The Orphan Master’s Son, an extraordinary prize-winning novel about life in North Korea’s gulag. Check out the Kristof article if you want to dig even deeper.
You might also be interested in 20 top nonfiction books about history (plus more than 80 other good ones).
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