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Chol-Hwan Kang

Author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang

4 Works 794 Members 28 Reviews

About the Author

Image credit: Kang Chol-Hwan

Works by Chol-Hwan Kang


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Kang, Chol-Hwan
Legal name
Other names
Kang Ch'ŏl-hwan
Gang Cheol-hwan
North Korea
Pyongyang, North Korea
Places of residence
Seoul, South Korea



This book is about a wealthy North Korean family. Their life began in Kyoto, Japan, where they gained most of their wealth. After the Korean war, North Korea needed cheap human labor and wealth to build the Great Leader's regime, so it beckoned to its citizens that lived in Japan, promising them great things: great jobs, education for their children, in return for repatriating their country.
When they first moved back to Pyongyang things were great they were invited to move into a posh residence in a nice neighborhood.
The little boy who is the protagonist of this story was a spoiled little boy who loved aquarium fish.
Paperback 2005 Basic Books
"The competition for aquarium fish was as stiff as for physical strength, and jealousy gnawed at us whenever someone got a fish more beautiful than our own. one time a kid in my neighborhood invited us over to see an exotic fish he had just received as a gift, a truly magnificent specimen with huge bulging eyes. Yet no sooner had the boy owner stepped away from the aquarium, when one of his guests plunged a hand into the water and ripped out one of the fish's eyes. the fish was too beautiful to live in someone else's aquarium."

"His story - which is equally the story of my family and of all those who leapt so confidently into the maw of misfortune - mostly demonstrates the force of human illusion and it's awesome power to render us utterly blind. I have since learned that at other latitudes and at other times, the same communist powers created similar traps for making people believe in Hope and illusions. This led to the misery of countless peoples: in france, in America, in egypt, and perhaps most notably, in armenia. Tens of thousands died there in 1947 under the spell of Stalin's propaganda, which had painted the Soviet socialist republic of Armenia as the land of Milk and honey. The Soviets allowed that much remained to be done and that everyone would have to roll up their sleeves, but it also promised that the ancestral culture and religion would be respected and that the newcomers would shortly see a new generation rise and flourish in social justice."

One day the protagonist's friends tell him that there are people in his house. He rushes home...
"our apartment consisted of four bedrooms and a living room. The smallest bedroom stored wrapped gifts my grandparents had requested from friends and family who had visited from Japan over the years. The cache of jewelry, clothes, and watches was to be presented at the wedding of my third Uncle -- whenever that was going to be. ( It is customary for Korean families to begin preparing for their children's wedding far--often years -- in advance. ) The room also contained several cameras and various darkroom materials that my father used in his work. These treasures greatly excited the security agents - for these were who are our visitors were. In the past, my parents had been 'encouraged' to offer one of the cameras as a gift to the state but had always found a pretext for refusing. this time the agents were simply going to help themselves. My father later told me about the agents' secret councils in the corner of the room, about their mock indignation at finding the wedding gifts - as though we were smugglers or harborers of stolen goods - and about the spark of covetousness and joy in their eyes as they divvied up the loot in Plain view of my distraught parents."

Having ransacked their house, they are told that they must pack only a few items of clothes. They are then loaded into a truck. The protagonist puts all of his favorite fish into one aquarium and carries it outside. one of the guard looks at him like he's crazy and says: "you can't take that thing!" The little boy throws such a fit that the guard relents. They are driven for hours, and eventually arrive at the camp. They step down from the truck, and find that many of their parents' friends preceded them there.
"the adults went on trading news and whispering in each other's ears, holding back the tears as best they could. What a sight these people made with their threadbare rags, their overgrown hair, their filth. How out of keeping their appearance seemed with the civility of their manner and their politeness toward the new arrivals. The welcome would probably have gone on for some time had not the guards intervened. they re-established order in a wink, commanding all the prisoners back to their barracks and work details. that put an end to my somewhat abstract fascination, bringing me back to reality and my all-important fish. Alas, half of them were already dead. At a loss for what else to do, I started counting the victims. The few prisoners who had managed to Tarry stepped closer and stared silently at the extraordinary spectacle standing among them: a child in the middle of the camp, crying softly over an aquarium in which floated, stomach up, the most fantastical assortment of exotic fish."

Life in the camp is terribly hard. and for breaking the rules the punishment is even harder.
"the sweatbox breaks even the sturdiest of constitutions. It is possible to survive it, but the cost is often crippling and the aftereffects are almost always permanent. It is simply grisly: the privation of food; close confinement, crouching on one's knees, hands on thighs, unable to move. The prisoner's rear end presses into his heels so unrelentingly that the buttocks turn solid black with bruising. Hardly anyone exited the sweatbox on his own two feet. If the prisoner needed to relieve himself, he raised his left hand; if he was sick, he raised his right. No other gestures were allowed. No other movements. No words. if the Watchman pacing back and forth in front of the sweatbox failed to notice the raised hand, well that was too bad. The prisoner continued to wait in silence. If he talked, he was beaten; if he moved, he was beaten. And if it was not a beating he got, it was a special punishment: he was made to crouch over the septic pit for half an hour, with his hands behind his back and his nose bowed downward. in the realm of horror, only punitive forced labor withstands comparison to the sweatbox. In a way, the two are equal and opposite. With forced labor, one has to move without stopping, excavate mountains of earth, lift massive logs into the back of trucks - all at an infernal pace. if nothing useful needs doing, a useless task will work just as well: digging a hole or a trench, for example, then filling it right back up. according to the yodok veterans, the one appreciable difference between punitive Forced labor and the sweatbox was that the latter automatically added 5 years to one's detention."

"Suicide was not uncommon in the camp. A number of our neighbors took that road out of yodok. they usually usually Left behind letters criticizing the regime, OR at the very least its security force. they were heedless acts which virtually guaranteed that the letter writer's family would be sent to a place worse still then yodok. truth be told, some form of punishment would await the family regardless of whether or not a critical note were left behind. It was a rule that admitted no exceptions. the party saw suicide as an attempt to escape its grasp, and if the individual who had tried the trick wasn't around to pay for it, someone else needed to be found. some suicides tried to palliate the punishment their relatives faced by leaving behind notes in which they maintained their innocence but reiterated their faith in communism and in the regime of the much beloved Great Leader. This sometimes induced the agents to treat the surviving family with relative leniency and merely add five extra years to the family's original sentence, whose length they, in any case, never knew."

In North Korea's gulags a weekly meeting is held for children and adults alike. it's called a criticism and self-criticism session.
"the sessions were so conventional and formalized that it was hard to take them seriously - despite the perfect silence imposed by the hard gaze of the guards. We were like bored kids in a class they find meaningless. the smallest distraction would set us off. It happened several times that audience members let out an audible fart in the middle of a self-criticism. a little nothing like that was all it took to shatter the ceremony's contrived solemnity and send the guards into a fit of rage. Sometimes they pretended not to hear, but other times they demanded to know who the culprit was. 'Who farted?' they screamed. 'the person who farted stand up!' if no one confessed, the guards kept us seated there until the criminal was identified, which eventually he always was. The prisoner would then be pushed toward the self-criticism table to expiate his fart with a mea culpa, at the end of which he usually received a week's worth of supplementary work details."

After 10 years in the North Korean gulag, the protagonist's family is released. They are sent to work in the country on a collective farm. The protagonist begins to plan his escape. He must first cross into china. Everything runs on bribes.
"... Every frontier Town in North Korea has middlemen. Their 'imported' merchandise so overpacks the trains that it often causes accidents. The merchants don't even need traveling papers to cross the border, because a little money will do just fine in their stead. It's clear: North Korea is a total sham. Officially, it outlaws private business, but in the shadows it lets it thrive. Since there are hardly any markets, merchants Warehouse their Chinese products at home and sell them to their neighbors and acquaintances. This farce is the only thing preventing the bankruptcy of the North Korean State and the pauperization of its citizenry.

If these are the protagonist's words, he has an exceptional vocabulary and talented, engaging way of telling his heartbreaking story. This book speaks also for the translator, who made this a smooth and interesting read in English.

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burritapal | 27 other reviews | Oct 23, 2022 |
A Journey No Person Should Ever Need to Take

"Aquariums of Pyongyang" is one of the first books I read about the experience of people in North Korea. It details a young man's family's life in the North Korean gulag. It is one of several recent biographies that show the sheer violence and absurdity of everyday life in North Korea.

The book begins with Chol-hwan Kang's life as a middle-class resident of Pyongyang. The family was thrown into the gulag without reason. There, they suffered years and years of hardship, which Kang details in this book. Kang escaped the country through his own cunning and then made it to safety through a network of like-minded people fighting for North Korean citizens.

This book offers something that human rights reports cannot: the author's own heart-wrenching story. It is not filled with statistics and numbers, but it is filled with family and feelings. This makes "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" unforgettable.
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mvblair | 27 other reviews | Aug 9, 2020 |
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.… (more)
soylentgreen23 | 27 other reviews | Mar 20, 2019 |
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.… (more)
1 vote
john257hopper | 27 other reviews | Mar 17, 2016 |


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