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The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Chol-hwan Kang

The Aquariums of Pyongyang

by Chol-hwan Kang

Other authors: Pierre Rigoulot

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
A moving account of his life by a refugee from North Korea. Imprisoned with his family in a labour camp at the age of 9 due to alleged political "crimes" committed by his grandfather, he spent the following decade there, working as a slave labourer and having to catch rats and salamanders to supplement the starvation diet in the camp (and there are camps far worse there as well). I have read a fair amount of Nazi and Soviet camp literature, but the stark horrors of North Korean oppression and fanaticism have a dimension that is quite unique, partly I guess because this regime still exists and seems as ostensibly strong and grotesque as ever under its new young leader, Kim Jong-un. A few years after his release in 1987, he sensed the long arm of the security agents closing in on him again for listening to South Korean radio broadcasts. He and a friend resolved to escape the country by way of China, and eventually reached South Korea, though having to keep his escape an absolute secret, he could not tell his plans even to his surviving family, who remain trapped in the Hermit State to this day. His efforts and those of other refugees from the North to acclimatise to life in a much freer and more prosperous society are especially moving and pathetic (in the true sense of the word). His was one of the first accounts to emerge on life in North Korea and gives some cause for optimism, not only as it shows a personal happy outcome for the author, but also gave him the opportunity to expose the regime's atrocities to a wider audience. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Mar 17, 2016 |
I assume this memoir was "co-written" by Pierre Rigoulot with Kang Chol-Hwan because Mr. Chol-Hwan is not proficient in English but the narrative, often overwritten, appears to be more of Rigoulot's voice. The most compelling and insightful part of the book are the vivid descriptions of daily life as a labor camp inmate. Kang Chol-Hwan's experiences happened during the Kim Jong-Il regime but I doubt things have improved much under the tenure of his son. Escape from Camp 14 and Nothing to Envy are stronger recountings of similar experiences. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
Kang Chol-hwan was 9 years old in the late 1970s when his family was removed to Yodok, North Korean concentration camp #15. The reason was his grandfather.

In the 1930s, his grandparents had emigrated separately from Korea to Japan. They met and married and raised four sons. The grandfather became a wealthy businessman, the grandmother became a political activist, and after the Korean War she persuaded the family to return to North Korea to help build the country. The North Korean government placed the grandfather in a prominent position in Pyongyang (and took his money). But while the grandmother remained a true believer, the grandfather never had been; his criticism eventually went too far, and one day he disappeared forever. Soon afterward, the rest of the household was rounded up for reeducation. By this time, the household consisted of the grandparents and two sons, one with a wife and two children (Kang and his younger sister). The wife, deemed innocent, was left behind and forced to divorce, though she tried to join the others. The family was held in Yodok for ten years, then released suddenly without notice, probably because the grandfather died. Some years later, Kang escaped to South Korea.

Yodok has all the horrors you would expect of its ilk: brutality, starvation, disease, cold (the building devoted to Kim Il-sung’s portrait was heated; buildings occupied by prisoners were not). The story is told loosely chronologically, as Kang matured from child (half day of school, half day of labor) to young man (full day of labor). Family members were kept together in primitive huts. With savvy maneuvering, Kang and his uncle were able to scrounge food; the area near the huts was stripped bare, but labor further afield offered opportunities to collect plants, bugs, worms, and small animals. The grandmother, remorseful and weakened by pellagra, was the emotional glue, and encouraged resilience in the others with characteristic willfulness and creative cookery. (Another family enterprisingly rearranged the space and used one room to raise rats for food.)

The book was actually written by two people, the North Korean concentration camp survivor and a French journalist, then translated into English. I wondered sometimes whether a man in his 30s could remember events of his childhood in fully accurate detail, but as far as I’m aware the basic facts are not in doubt. Its purpose was to reveal the horrors of North Korea, so it is more about objective features of Yodok than about the psychological interior of Kang; though he mentions the necessity of numbing to sadistic treatment and gruesome death, and the difficulty of adjusting to civilian life in North Korea and to an unimaginably free life in South Korea, he does not dwell, and his personality is somewhat subsumed to documentary style. I’d consider it more a supplement to other books than a top recommendation.
3 vote qebo | Nov 8, 2014 |
Powerful read. What a horrible society. And these poor people for having to live through it. And not knowing any differently. ( )
  bermandog | Aug 9, 2013 |
North Korea's much in the news at the moment, so it seemed appropriate to give Kang Chol-hwan's memoir of life in one of the country's gulags the time I'd always intended. Though it covers a period prior to the current famine and escalation in tensions, the delusion, paranoia and adolescent egotism of the country's dictators is much in evidence. Some have criticised Chol-hwan and Rigolout for the lack of urgency in their prose, but the contemplative style shows the mundanity of the inhumanity inflicted on North Koreans more shockingly than any tabloid language could. The disturbing nature of the torture is almost matched by the hints of nostalgia that peak through the prose – a reminder of how little the victims of the Kim regime expect from the world. ( )
  m_k_m | Apr 10, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Chol-hwan Kangprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rigoulot, Pierresecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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November 1999. Weighed down by jet lag and four hours of interviewing, I let myself be driven around in silence.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465011047, Paperback)

North Korea is today one of the last bastions of hard-line Communism. Its leaders have kept a tight grasp on their one-party regime, quashing any nascent opposition movements and sending all suspected dissidents to its brutal concentration camps for "re-education." Kang Chol-hwan is the first survivor of one of these camps to escape and tell his story to the world, documenting the extreme conditions in these gulags and providing a personal insight into life in North Korea. Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, this record of one man's suffering gives eyewitness proof to an ongoing sorrowful chapter of modern history. New edition with a new preface by the author.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:51 -0400)

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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. His grandfather had amassed a fortune and his grandmother became a committed Communist. They were fired with idealism and committed to building a new Korea, only to be 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.… (more)

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