Book Mention: A River in Darkness . . .

. . . One Man’s Escape from North Korea is the memoir of Masaji Ishikawa, born in Japan in 1947, taken to North Korea by his parents at the age of thirteen, who survived, to escape in 1996.

His father, a native of southern Korea, had been virtually kidnapped by the Imperial Japanese during the colonial period and taken to Japan to bolster the labor force. His mother, Japanese with education and prospects, nonetheless went along with the plan to take the family to North Korea in 1960. Why did she agree to this? I have no answer.

Why did his father consider such a plan? His father was not allowed to assimilate, study, or advance. An organization of Koreans in Japan worked on people in his situation to get them to answer the call of Kim Il-sung to come to North Korea and enjoy paradise on earth. They got on that boat, were dumped off onto a cold concrete floor, and hell began.

So who organized these boats? Let the man tell the story:

After Kim Il-sung’s statement, the General Association of Korean Residents started a mass repatriation campaign in the guise of humanitarianism.  The following year, 1959, the Japanese Red Cross Society and the Korean Red Cross Society secretly negotiated a “Return Agreement” in Calcutta.

Secretly? Calcutta?

Four months later, the first shipload of returnees left the Japanese port of Niigata.  Shortly after that, people affiliated with the League of Koreans in Japan started showing up on our doorstep, eager to persuade us to make the journey.  They were all in favor of mass repatriation. 

Did the International Committee of the Red Cross know anything about this? Did the United States?  The UN?  Yes, yes, and yes.  And what did they do about it?  Nothing.

The Wayback Machine dredged up a 2007 article in Japan Focus, which contains a great deal of Cold War history related to this mass emigration. Big players were busying themselves with Cold War tactics, strategies, and what sound like games, while refraining from blinking a few times and actually looking at what they were actually doing. Here is one snip from the dense and informative piece:

The US appears to have been unaware of the secret contacts between Japan and North Korea in 1956 and 1957. When it first became aware of the repatriation plan a couple of years later, the Eisenhower administration regarded it with concern. But once the Japanese and North Korean Red Cross Societies reached an agreement on a mass “return” in mid-1959, the Eisenhower administration did not take any practical steps to halt the unfolding tragedy.

US Ambassador in Tokyo Douglas MacArthur II (who played a key role on the US side) told his Australian counterpart in 1959 that the “American Embassy had checked Japanese opinion and found it was almost unanimously in favour of ‘getting rid of the Koreans'”. At this sensitive moment in US-Japan relations, the State Department was clearly cautious of intervening in a scheme that was an obvious vote-winner for the Kishi regime.

There is a well-written essay on a personal blog called This Angelena, giving detailed summary as well as a feel for the tragedy, the crimes, and the suffering.

A 2004 Japan Times report of his attempt to re-enter North Korea to rescue his sons includes a frank allusion to continuing problems:

Since returning home, Miyazaki [Ishikawa’s pen name in Japan] has blamed the mass media for fouling up his rescue operation by bringing his activities to the attention of Chinese authorities, who considered them illegal.

Amazon published this memoir in early 2018; it is available in multiple formats. My reading was of the Kindle edition, which had nothing objectionable in the formatting.


4 thoughts on “Book Mention: A River in Darkness . . .”

  1. Japan has a large group of Koreans that are culturally Japanese but have Korean passports. They would be considered foreigners in Korea.


  2. jzdro:

    10 Cents:
    culturally Japanese but have Korean passports

    Does that make problems for them? Is that still a touchy subject, or has that all calmed down by now?

    It depends on the person.

    I while back there was a Korean boom where Japanese couldn’t get enough of Korean television dramas. Japanese do complain about the amount of garlic the Koreans eat.


  3. Well, Dime, that sounds a great deal better than the situation in 1996. The Japanese diplomatic corps, as soon as Ishikawa contacted them from China, snapped into action and got him home. But then they consigned him to a welfare hotel and just hoped he would stay there and be quiet.

    TV shows and cuisine wars are a great improvement on the past.

    This is a valuable memoir in more respects than I have been able to relate.

    I hope that some day soon Mr. Ishikawa will be reunited with his long-lost, or rather long-imprisoned, sons.


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