Art History in “A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea” by Masaji Ishikawa

This memoir recounts a nightmare life of poverty in North Korea during the Kim Il-sung reign and at the beginning of Kim Jong-il’s.  There will rarely be a moment when you will not be horrified and sad from reading this book.

  I am forever fascinated by North Korean art and architecture.  So when opportunity offers examples of such, I will stop and pay attention.  However, when I started reading this book, I did not expect a lot of descriptions of art from the author.  It would be too cruel to ask someone who spent time in soul-ruining poverty and/or starvation about any art they saw during their attempt at surviving.  To make things worse, in both Japan and North Korea, Ishikawa remained stuck in poverty due to people infected by a plague of prejudice.

Yet, the author did offer examples of art.

Ishikawa did give vague descriptions of his childhood life in Japan paying tributes to religious sculpture during holidays (he doesn’t specify the faith the sculpture represents, but I hypothesize that it could be Shinto).

On North Korean art, Ishikawa mentions the imposing sculpture of Kim Il-sung that’s possibly the one in Pyongyang in context to talking about the aftermath of the man’s end.  He also mentions sculpture dedicated to the same man in Pochonbo that commemorated a battle against the Japanese.  Ishikawa does not mention actually visiting either depictions in person.  He probably learned about the artworks in the school he mentioned when he described his education during his teenage life.

As a refugee in China depending on the kindness of strangers, he lived with black market dealers who dealt in rather precious sounding old art, and even vintage currency.  Ishikawa does not dwell on the details of how the dealing worked, or even what kind of art they sold.  After all, he was understandably more interested in traveling back to Japan.

Lastly, I learned something when reading this book.  Watches made in Japan? Apparently a sign of wealth in both China and in North Korea.

All in all, it was a quick and very readable book.  If you ever get the chance to purchase this book yourself, I do recommend preparing yourself for a very bleak read.

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