Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
North Korea is among the most opaque nations on earth, its regime noted for repression and for the personality cult of its father and son leaders, the late Kim Il Sung and his successor, Kim Jong Il. Kang Chol-hwan draws from firsthand experience in explaining the repression. After the division of North and South Korea, Kang’s family returned to North Korea from Japan, where his grandparents had emigrated in the 1930s and where his grandfather had amassed a fortune and his grandmother became a committed Communist. They were fired with idealism and committed to building an edenic nation. Instead, the family was removed without trial to a remote concentration camp, apparently because the grandfather was suspected of counter-revolutionary tendencies. Kang Chol-hwan was nine years old when imprisoned at the Yodok camp in 1977. Over the next ten years, he endured inhumane conditions and deprivations, including an inadequate diet (supplemented by frogs and rats), regular beatings, humiliations and hard labor. Inexplicably released in 1987, the author states that the only lesson his imprisonment had "pounded into me was about man’s limitless capacity to be vicious." Kang’s memoir is notable not for its literary qualities, but for the immediacy and drama of the personal testimony. The writing, as translated by Reiner, is unadorned but serviceable, a style suited to presenting one man’s account of a brutalized childhood. (Amazon.com)
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Review of The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
Oliver Jia, NCTA Student Worker
Kang Chol-hwan's utterly powerful memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang has always been my first recommendation for defector stories from North Korea. It highlights the often-forgotten plight of Japanese Koreans who were essentially tricked into immigrating to North Korea following the conclusion of WWII. Led on by false promises and the hope for a better life, Kang’s family, like tens of thousands of other Koreans, believed that they would be given a prosperous existence upon arriving in Kim Il-sung’s “socialist paradise.” What they instead encountered was further discrimination, newfound poverty, and eventual imprisonment as part of North Korea’s oppressive system of collective punishment. Kang vividly describes his horrific experiences during his decade spent at Yodok Concentration Camp which eventually turns him into an unrelenting critic of the Kim regime.
I consider The Aquariums of Pyongyang to be in a similar vein to Elie Wiesel’s Night. The content is brutal and pulls no punches, but the historical value makes it an appropriate read from upper middle school (8th grade) to early high school (9th or 10th grade). It would be of good use in an Asian history course or any class with content related to North Korea. While defector stories are difficult to verify and rely primarily on firsthand accounts, the human rights situation in the DPRK is well-known and Kang is a respected figure so I think his account can be considered trustworthy. The book was originally written in French by author Pierre Rigoulot, but it does not read like a translation and is very easy to understand, despite the dense historical and political content.