October 20, 2021
10 Minutes

A River In Darkness

Book summary of A River In Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa. Read this book summary to review the important takeaways and lessons from the book.

Ishikawa On Caste Systems

  • I learned that after high school graduation in North Korea, there were three paths to choose from - except there weren't. In reality, your way got chosen for you. If you were smart and your birth and background were good enough, you got sent to the university. If you were physically healthy, you went to the military academy or became a common soldier. The rest got sent to workplaces as labourers. The most crucial factor in path determination was not how hard you worked but your assigned caste.

  • The three castes were "nucleus" (or "core"), "basic" (or "wavering"), and "hostile".

  • Three criteria determined your caste: your birth and background, your perceived loyalty to the party, and your connections. Academic achievements had nothing to do with it, no matter how excellent they were. Your whole life was determined by which caste you'd got consigned.

Ishikawa On School

  • Teachers and every other adult I knew tried to brainwash us into becoming slavish members of their pseudo-religious cult.

  • Once beyond school age, individuals were all expected to carry out two functions: to contribute to the production and to take part in military operations.

  • The whole system got based on the "Four Military Lines". The fundamental tenets were "arm the entire people," "fortify the entire nation," "build a nation of military leaders," and "complete military modernization".

  • If you got deemed "core," a rosy future awaited you. But if you got considered to be "hostile," you were the lowest of the low and would remain so for life.

  • Let me tell you what we got taught in school in North Korea. "People in South Korea can only survive by stealing things and selling their blood".

Ishikawa On Family

  • I didn't give a whit about socialism. I just wanted to improve my life and that of my family.

  • It is a terrible curse not even to know if my family are still alive. But I believe they are. I have to think so; otherwise, I couldn't go on.

  • One thing I learned around this time was that while some people - people like my father - like to show off their physical strength. Others have a particular reason for being violent.

  • I often think about what would have become of me if I'd stayed in North Korea. I would probably have starved too. But at least I'd have died in someone's arms with my family gathered around me. We'd have said our goodbyes. What chance of that now?

  • Kids are like that - they can break your heart with a smile.

  • I used to hate violence, especially since I had witnessed my father brutally beating my mother when I was a child. But after the confrontation with the doctor, my attitude changed - violence began to seem like the only answer. I felt so helpless as I stood by, watching good people being purged and exiled and destroyed.

  • Even as I carried my mother's coffin, I mulled over whether she'd got granted a single day of pure happiness. But I couldn't think of one. Maybe she could finally be happy in death.

  • The little things usually tie families together with the bonds of familial love.

  • I'd carry my son off to try to find someone who could breast-feed him. I'd go from house to house, asking for help. I couldn't pay anything, so all I could do was hope to find some kindhearted soul.

  • I guess my mother was right; you can't solve anything with violence. But I had gotten told my whole life that since I was Japanese, I was less than human. I'd had enough.

  • After my nephew died, I kept asking myself the same question: Why did my mother and an innocent baby have to die? What point was there to a life that consisted entirely of pain? Ever since coming to North Korea, I had experienced only cruelty, starvation, and despair.

  • My father had so many friends throughout his life and had helped so many people along the way. But, not one of them was there to lay him to rest.

Ishikawa On Fleeing North Korea

  • It wasn't easy to get a train to Pyongyang or the border. You needed particular travel documents, and they were more challenging to obtain than ever. There were too many people like me trying to escape to China.

  • The Yalu River separates China and North Korea. A lot of people try to cross over it.

  • After the Korean War, China and North Korea had a "friendship signed in blood" in which they agreed to a "Border Security Cooperation Protocol". Fancy words for a simple process: if you escaped from North Korea but your luck ran out, and you got caught, you got sent back.

  • For South Korea, trade with China was all that mattered. That was far more important than helping your brother.

  • According to the Japanese government, people like me who'd moved to North Korea but not changed their nationality were still Japanese citizens. But the North Korean government had other ideas. According to them, all Japanese people who'd immigrated to North Korea were now, ipso facto, North Korean.

  • It took me thirty-six years to get home, but I finally did it.

Ishikawa On Il-Sung's Commandments

  • Thou shalt give thy all in the struggle to unify the entire society with the revolutionary ideology of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.

  • Thou shalt honour the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung with all thy loyalty.

  • Thou shalt make absolute the authority of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.

  • Thou shalt make the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung's revolutionary ideology thy faith and make his instructions thy creed.

  • Thou shalt adhere strictly to the principle of unconditional obedience in carrying out the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung's instructions.

  • Thou shalt strengthen the entire party's ideology and willpower and revolutionary unity, centring on the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.

  • Thou shalt learn from the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung and adopt the Communist look, revolutionary work methods, and people-oriented work style.

  • Thou shalt value the political life given by the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung, and repay his great trust and thoughtfulness with heightened political awareness and skill.

  • Thou shalt establish strong organizational regulations so that the entire party, nation, and military move as one under the leadership of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.

  • Thou shalt pass down the outstanding achievement of the revolution by the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung, inheriting and completing it even unto the very end.

Ishikawa On Japan

  • During the period of the Japanese Empire, thousands upon thousands of Koreans had got brought to Japan against their will to serve as slave labourers and, later, cannon fodder. Now, the government was afraid that these Koreans and their families, discriminated against and poverty-stricken in the postwar years, might become a source of social unrest. Sending them back to Korea was a solution to a problem.

  • After I returned to Japan, I visited the town where I was born. I yearned to regain a sense of belonging, and I thought that the once - familiar scenery would bring back memories of my childhood and help heal my pain. But no. The town had become unrecognizable. And the view that I thought would comfort and console me had gone. I'd lost not only my country but also my birthplace. And so here I remain, in a place where I don't belong.

  • In a sense, I still don't even exist; I remain in limbo between two worlds. The Japanese government hasn't officially admitted that I ever returned to Japan at all. Here I am, officially "not living". A life of "not living." That seems to be my curse.

Ishikawa On Kim Il-Sung

  • We got taught that Kim Il-sung was "the king who liberated Korea from colonialism". He'd waged war against US imperialists and their South Korean lackeys — and had won. It got thoroughly drummed into us that Kim Il-sung was an invincible general made of steel.

  • Everyone had to understand the words of Kim Il-sung and have knowledge of the party's policy.

  • Harvest got known as the "autumn battle". I don't know who came up with that expression, but it has the stamp of Kim Il-sung all over it. Everything was a "battle" or a "march" or a "war".

  • Week after week, we got inundated with the thoughts of Kim Il-sung, the heroic history of the Korean Workers' Party, or earnest analysis of some ridiculous party newspaper article.

  • In the end, all that mattered was whether our loyalty toward Kim Il-sung appeared credible. So we became masters at faking it.

  • We also had to memorize Kim Il-sung's Ten Commandments and then repeat them endlessly until they got chiselled into our brains for all time.

  • Kim Il-sung had never fulfilled any of his promises. Not one. He promised us "paradise on earth" and instead consigned us to its very opposite.

  • Kim Jong-il's hold on power was tenuous at best. After the death of Kim Il-sung, the leading members of the party changed allegiance and took off to South Korea. And then the top members of the military who were close to Kim Il-sung disappeared too. Kim Jong-il knew all the talk of unification was just a farce. He only cared that he was on the world stage and that he finally got taken seriously.

Ishikawa On Mass Migration

  • The General Association of Korean Residents was deemed a terrorist group and ordered to disband in 1949.

  • In the early days of the so-called repatriation, some seventy thousand people left Japan and crossed the sea to North Korea. Except for a brief three-and-a-half-year hiatus, the process continued until 1984. During this period, some hundred thousand Koreans and two thousand Japanese wives crossed over to North Korea. That's one hell of some mass migration. It was the first (and only) time in history that so many people from a capitalist country had moved to a socialist state.

  • I'm not convinced that naive utopianism was the force behind people's decision to migrate.

Ishikawa On North Korea

  • It was the second half of the twentieth century, for pity's sake, and they still saw communism as the road to utopia.

  • Once we arrived in North Korea, we were interviewed by officials who decided each person's future occupation and accommodation.

  • I soon learned that thought was not free in North Korea.

  • At the time, all railroads, roads, and rivers were military secrets. You revealed their locations at the peril of death.

  • If you were sick or old, you got penalized.

  • Soldiers picked fights with people for no reason and beat them severely.

  • The system had dehumanized them completely.

  • Health care in North Korea is supposedly free, but in reality, it isn't free at all. Poor people can't get treatment without some form of payment. If you don't have any money — bring some alcohol. Bring some cigarettes, bring some Chinese medicine, or forget it.

  • It was the early eighties, and the food situation went from bad to worse.

  • Given how hard it was to survive the winter in North Korea, "battle" was an appropriate term.

  • I often got called "Japanese bastard" because I couldn't speak Korean.

  • Our poverty stemmed from racial discrimination, pure and simple.

Ishikawa On Perseverance

  • You don't choose to be born. You are. And your birth is your destiny, some say. I say the hell with that. And I should know. 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.

  • As I see it, people who experience equal amounts of sadness and happiness in their lives must be incredibly blessed.

  • If you suffer long enough, it almost becomes funny, and you can find yourself laughing at the most miserable situations.

  • And I came to recognize that, no matter how difficult the reality, you mustn't let yourself get beaten. You must have a strong will. You have to summon what you know is right from your innermost depths and follow it.

  • Human beings are nothing if not irrational, so I did what people had done before me - prayed.

  • People's kindness had gotten ground out of them. They were struggling to survive themselves.

  • When you're starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose. Once your lips disappear, your teeth get bared all the time, like a snarling dog. Your nose gets reduced to a pair of nostrils. I wish that I didn't know these things, but I do.

  • The life of an outlaw was a kind of liberation.

Ishikawa On Propaganda Machines

  • I remembered the ridiculous notice issued by the League of Koreans in Japan: "If you go to North Korea, you will be able to obtain everything you need".

  • When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you do what you get told.

  • Bathing was an act of bourgeois self-indulgence; so was changing our clothes every day.

  • If you were dirty, you got told off for poor hygiene. But if you admitted you bathed frequently, you were equally told off, in this case for "Japanese decadence". As usual, you couldn't win.

  • North Koreans got indoctrinated to think that all Japanese were cruel.

  • As you question whether they could have been so wholly brainwashed, keep in mind that North Koreans had never experienced a liberal democracy.

  • That's always the way with totalitarian regimes - the 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.

  • That's the trouble with propaganda. It continually contradicts itself.

Ishikawa On Work Life

  • The big difference between regular workers and farm labourers was that the farm labourers couldn't earn a fair salary. They received a little cash, but their primary form of payment was a share of the harvest every autumn.

  • When I was a kid, I sometimes used to watch farmers at work in Japan. Even at the time, it struck me that growing crops was a bit like raising children. The farmers cherished and nurtured their crops, treating them with love and care. In North Korea, our instructors said the Japanese system was hopelessly inefficient.

  • They didn't understand that driving that tractor was the only freedom I had, my only respite from the orders and insults that assaulted us day in and day out.

  • A doctor who didn't help people was worse than useless - he was a mockery.

  • It seemed the more messed up a country became, the more the black market prospered.

  • Any job connected with food was a ticket to a better life. Not only did it give you access to food for your family, but it also gave you access to party bigwigs. If you played your cards right and sent enough goodies their way, you could get televisions and other perks in return. In the West, you'd call it corruption. In North Korea, it was just standard operating procedure.

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