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The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the…

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (edition 2005)

by Chol-hwan Kang, Pierre Rigoulot

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6312625,715 (3.83)39
The harrowing memoir of life inside North Korea Amid escalating nuclear tensions, Kim Jong-un and North Korea's other leaders have kept a tight grasp on their one-party state, 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. Sent to the notorious labor camp Yodok when he was nine years old, Kang for ten years observed frequent public executions and endured forced labor and near-starvation rations. In 1992, he escaped to South Korea, where he found God and now advocates for human rights in North Korea. This record of one man's suffering gives eyewitness proof to the abuses perpetrated by the North Korean regime.… (more)
Title:The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
Authors:Chol-hwan Kang
Other authors:Pierre Rigoulot
Info:Basic Books (2005), Paperback, 272 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:North Korea, gulag

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The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Chol-hwan Kang


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Kang Chol-Hwan's autobiographical novel is tragic and at times deeply unsettling, but it has a happy ending of sorts - otherwise the former political prisoner of one of the many labour camps in North Korea would never have set pen to paper. Kang's family moved to North Korea when he was a child, after his grandparents, Koreans living in Japan, had become convinced that the Communist state was the utopia they had always been seeking. It did not work out that way - but the manner in which things went wrong for the family is best left for Kang to tell. 'The Aquariums of Pyongyang' is an essential read, especially given the recent interest directed towards North Korea and the Trumpian attempts to effect a reconciliation. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Mar 20, 2019 |
Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
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 |
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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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