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The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

4.2 31
by Chol-hwan Kang, Pierre Rigoulot

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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,


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 Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, this record of one man's suffering gives eyewitness proof to an ongoing sorrowful chapter of modern history.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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. Kang now lives in South Korea, where he is a journalist; his co-author Rigoulot was a contributor to The Black Book of Communism. Together, they have added a chapter to the tales of horror that have come out of Asia in recent years. (Sept. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners BusinessInformation.
Library Journal
Most readers know of the politically bleak and economically disastrous history of North Korea. This affecting and directly written memoir will help make that history personal and specific. Kang, who escaped from North Korea in 1992 and now lives in Seoul, writes with the help of Rigoulot, editor of The Black Book of Communism (LJ 11/1/99). They tell the story of the Kang family, who became prosperous members of the Korean community in Japan in the 1930s but returned to North Korea out of sympathy in the 1960s. At first they lived comparatively well, but soon they ran afoul of paranoid political repression and became one of the many victims of the Korean prison work camps. The details of the gulag are depressingly familiar from memoirs of other Stalinist regimes, but this work is nonetheless important to record and witness. Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A young man who spent ten years of his youth in a North Korean prison camp tells the story of his life before his family's arrest, of his dreary years of imprisonment, of his release, and of his perilous escape through China to South Korea. Rigoulot speaks only in the introduction, where he declares that this is "the first detailed testimony about a North Korean prison camp to be published in the West." And a chilling testimony it is. With his family in Pyongyang, Chol-hwan was living fairly well, by North Korean standards. His principal childhood interest was tropical fish-at one time he had ten aquariums lining the walls of his room. After an interlude for some family history and a description of daily life in Korea, Chol-hwan reports the ominous disappearance of his grandfather in 1977 when the author was only nine. The old man had been guilty of some vague treason against what is portrayed as a quintessentially paranoid government. A few weeks later, four security agents appeared, helped themselves to most of the family's possessions, and then sent virtually the entire family off to the mountainous Yodok prison camp. Only the mother was spared: her family had a "heroic" background. In remarkably serene prose, Chol-hwan describes the deprivations and horrors he and his loved ones experienced for the next ten years, including living in fetid quarters, dressing in rags, suffering continual humiliations and beatings, eating salamanders (raw) and rats (cooked), working in brutal conditions, and witnessing numerous executions-almost always for attempted escapes. An enterprising and strong boy, Chol-hwan learned the ropes and how to twirl them and so managed to survive and even to feelsome sorrow at leaving his friends when, unexpectedly, the authorities released his entire family. The final third of the narrative deals with the author's reintegration into North Korean society and his eventual escape to the south. Displays little art or artifice but freezes the heart and seizes the soul.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range:
13 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the 1960s, North Korea's disaster was not yet on the horizon. In economic terms, the country was going neck and neck with the South, and in Pyongyang, the regime's privileged showcase, it seemed the Party's talk of triumph and promise might actually hold true. I know what I'm talking about; Pyongyang is where I was born and grew up. I even lived some happy years there, under the guardian eye of Kim Il-sung, our "Great Leader," and his son, Kim Jong-il, our "Dear Leader."

    Every year on his birthday, he would send us gift packages of cakes and sweets. Our beloved Number One chose them himself, with a care and kindness that gave his gifts a savoriness all their own. Thanks to his generosity, we also had the right, every third year, to a school uniform, a cap, and a pair of shoes.

    wash, and permanently pressed. As for the shoes, daily use showed them to be of excellent quality. The ceremony for the distribution of uniforms, a most solemn event, was held in the large hall adjoining the school, which was specially decorated for the occasion with slogans and portraits. The parents in attendance applauded speeches by the school principal and several representatives of the Party. Student delegates got on the rostrum and thanked the Party in their little childish voices, pledging allegiance to the Clairvoyant, and pouring imprecations on all our enemies, American imperialism first among them, "because its claws still grip part of our dear Fatherland." At the end, the student delegates were entrusted with the precious gifts, which they distributed to the rest of the pupils the following day.

    because he seemed eternally young and omniscient. Like his son, Kim Jong-il, who was said to be in line to succeed him, he was more like a god to us than Father Christmas. The newspapers, the radio, posters, our textbooks, our teachers: everyone and everything seemed to confirm this. By marrying our singular Korean genius with the immutable ideals of the Communist revolution, these two masterminds, these two darlings of the universe, were building for us the Edenic socialist state. Had not Kim Il-sung's political acumen and incomparable intellect already been the cause of wonders, against the cruel American invaders, for example, whom he dealt the most humiliating of defeats? Only much later did I learn how the war was really started and what happened in its aftermath. Like millions of other North Korean children, I was taught that thanks to the military genius of our Great Guide and, to a lesser degree, the international aid of China, to whom we were united "like lips to teeth," our valiant People's Army had routed the Americans. Kim Il-sung—a.k.a, the Light of Human Genius, the Unequaled Genius, the Summit of Thought, the North Star of the People—was the object of a personality cult extravagant enough to rival that of Stalin or Mao Tse-tung, and indeed, even to outlive them. In 1998, the People's Supreme Assembly even made the astounding decision to name Kim Il-sung president "for all eternity"—four years after his death!

    and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function. I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of gods? In the portraits of their paternal faces I found comfort and all that was protecting, kindly, self-assured.

Like other children, I started grammar school at the age of six—or seven, if you count according to the traditional Korean formula, where year one begins at conception and another year is added every January 1. (The Korean and Western calculus for determining age can vary by as many as two years.) While ordinarily eager to defend its traditions, North Korea has officially renounced this manner of calculating age, although it is still widely used in private.

    the People, and Kim Il-sung once honored it with a visit—a truly exceptional event, which conferred the greatest prestige on the parents whose children attended the institution. Of this place, too, I have fond memories. I recall with particular warmth Mrs. Ro Chong-gyu, a teacher of enormous kindness and pedagogical skill, who always found the right word to encourage me. Despite their adherence to communist educational methods, almost all the teachers I had were attentive and patient with their pupils, even during our criticism and self-criticism sessions. Anyone who has never lived in a Communist country may be shocked at the thought of little children mimicking their politicized elders and denouncing themselves and others for lacking revolutionary vigilance or for not meriting the Great Leader's confidence. Yet these sessions generally ended with words of encouragement from our teachers, not of reproach, and with the hope that we would try harder in the future. I don't believe any of us were really traumatized by these sessions.

    communism, we were awarded different ranks at school. We were hardly seven years old when our uniforms first began bearing stars—two or three, depending on our level. Already we were being directed by a "political leader," the number one of the class, and by a delegate, the number two, who were appointed by the teacher and confirmed by a vote of the pupils. Admittedly, I was never much taken with military discipline: one day I convinced about fifteen of my classmates to ditch school and go to the zoo. It didn't take long to notice fifteen absentees, and the episode soon caused a big stir. Since I was the class delegate, I was not only publicly demoted but was expected to execute my self-criticism with deeper-than-usual compunction and with exceptionally good form.

    given first priority. Like students everywhere in the world, we learned to read and write with as few mistakes as possible; we studied arithmetic, drawing, music, performed gymnastics, and so on. But above all, we were taught about the morals of communism and the history of the revolution of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Given its singular import, the latter subject demanded that we learn by rote answers to questions such as: On what day and at what hour was Kim Il-sung born? What heroic feats did he perform against the Japanese? What speech did he give at such-and-such a conference, on such-and-such date? Like my fellow pupils, I thought cramming myself with such important facts was perfectly normal, and doing it gave me great pleasure. An education of this sort resulted in a wellspring of admiration and gratitude for our political leaders and in the willingness to sacrifice everything for them and the homeland. Like everyone in my class, I signed up for the Pupils' Red Army. What a sight we must have made marching into battle, fake machine guns slung across our shoulders. Though we mostly just learned to form ranks and sing while marching, we loved these exercises and never had to be asked twice to strike a military pose. Right away we felt we were Kim Il-sung's little soldiers. We were never asked to do anything too demanding. The training was adapted to our tender age and generally consisted of marching around the schoolyard a few times or around a block of houses. It wasn't until the penultimate year of high school that we would be allowed to undertake the more serious and difficult exercises. The high school students went on mountain hikes, memorized emergency air-raid instructions, learned to hide from enemy planes, and to steer the population to the nearest air-raid shelters.

When I wasn't in school, I could usually be found playing outside with the kids in my neighborhood. My favorite thing was to meet up under the weeping willows that ran along the Daedong River not far from where I lived. My friends and I knew the place well and felt completely safe there. At regular intervals we could hear a nearby bell, whose ringing had gradually become an integral part of the landscape. In warm weather, we waded in the water, catching dragonflies and other insects. And winter could be just as wonderful, during the festive time in late December, for example, when the statues of Kim Il-sung were decorated with footlights and draped with banners wishing us a happy New Year. Winter break ran from December 31 to mid-February, and when we tired of snowball fights, we would go back to our beloved river to ice-skate or play a game of ice hockey.

    family was better off than most, living in a newly built neighborhood that was exceptionally quiet, airy, and verdant. Situated near the main train station, Kyongnim-dong might have been less beautiful than the perimeter areas reserved for the nomenklatura, but it certainly came a close second. In my mind's eye, I remember it more as a park than as an urban neighborhood. Our apartment was large enough to comfortably accommodate all seven of us: my parents; my little sister, Mi-ho, whose name means "beautiful lake" and who is two years my junior; my paternal grandparents; one of my uncles—my "third uncle," according to Korean usage, which ranks uncles and aunts according to age and hierarchical standing; and me. My family enjoyed a level of comfort foreign to most North Korean homes, even in Pyongyang. We had a refrigerator, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and even the most sought-after of all luxury goods: a color television set, on which, to our great delight, we could watch the dramatic political-crime series "Clean Hands." Even our clothes seemed rich compared to those of our neighbors, to whom my grandmother would often give away what we no longer needed.

    else—at least in the big cities. North Korea hadn't yet begun to suffer the major food and energy shortages it knows today. The rationing system worked well, and at the beginning of every month families received coupons for procuring food and heating oil. At our house, things were even better. My grandfather, who held a supervisory position in the state's goods distribution network, had access to almost anything, including nearly unlimited supplies of meat. People privileged enough to know this important man sometimes dropped by for a visit only to depart with a little something extra in the bottom of their bag, a supplement to the rations provided by the government.

Other images from that time come back to me. We lived a few dozen steps from the Soviet embassy, and children of the diplomatic corps sometimes ventured onto what my comrades and I considered our territory. We watched with hostile curiosity as the group of foreign-tongued blond children walked through our neighborhood. We would harass them and try to pull their hair, and they'd push us aside or run away; but somehow the clumsy overtures never broke out into a general melee. Yet when it came to fighting among ourselves, we never let an opportunity slip. I was a difficult child—stubborn, vindictive, determined—never missing an opportunity to measure myself up against a competitor. My fights were sometimes stopped by my grandfather, who absolutely adored me. If I was on the short end of a brawl, he would break it up and call both me and my adversary hooligans, but whenever he saw I had the upper hand, he stayed out of it—beaming with pride.

    of competition. I remember a time when students in every class posted numbers representing their relative position in terms of physical strength. The various classes then organized fights to measure their number one against the number one of other classes. Koreans can be violent, but they are also saccharine sentimentalists, who are easily brought to tears by the soppiest songs and most mawkish novels. I therefore hope I will be forgiven for cherishing another memory, this one of a little six-year-old girl. I was seven years old and I thought she was beautiful. So did a movie director, who spotted her and put her in one of his movies. She must have liked me as much as I liked her, because for a long time we were inseparable. "We'll be marrying you two before long," my grandmother once joked.

    rage. Why such fury? Perhaps my grandmother had unintentionally hit on a tender spot. Sex was a taboo subject in the North Korean educational system, and maybe in my mind as well. Was my anger an attempt to mask my embarrassment? Whatever the reason, that first love meant a lot to both me and the little girl: years later, when she was in high school and I was in the camp, she dared to inquire about my well-being. I went to visit her when I finally got out, but it was too late. Ku Bon-ok—the "real jewel" that the definition of her name rightly presaged—had married and moved away. To where I never learned.

    was the more popular hobby among my friends, but that never did it for me. My thing was fish, and they were more important to me than anything. Even sitting in class and listening to my teacher, I was with them in my thoughts. I worried that they were bored without me, that their water was at the wrong temperature, that an evildoer had broken into the house and done something to them. Almost all the kids I knew had an aquarium, but coming from a well-to-do family, I had about ten of them lining the walls of my room. As luck had it, not far from us was a store that sold water plants, colored pebbles, and other accessories. To make sure I always had the most original merchandise, I would wake up early and be the first to arrive upon opening. The lady who ran the store liked her assiduous young client and paid me a big smile every time I came and asked, in my most serious nine-year-old manner, to reserve such-and-such species from the next shipment of fish.

    the biggest and the strangest. One day I had the idea of adding specimens from the neighboring river to my collection. The trick had never been tried. So I caught a few fish, quickly brought them home, dropped them into an aquarium, and ran back out to fetch my friends so they could admire my new acquisitions. But alas, by the time we returned, the new lodgers had departed this world.

    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.

Excerpted from The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Copyright © 2000 by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot.
Translation copyright © 2001 Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Kang Chol-hwan lives and works in Seoul, where he is a staff writer for Chosun Ilbo, a daily newspaper in South Korea. Pierre Rigoulot is a journalist, historian, and human rights activist living in Paris, France. He is the author of numerous books on the history of political repression and contributed the North Korean chapter to the best-selling The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press).

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The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
True story of this mans life in the Gulag. what brought him to this place and his life of hardship, coldness, lack of food pain,sickness,and his dangerous escape to the south. This book will touch your heart, not knowing their are such places still around. This man tells his story. Thank God he made it out alive and is able to tell the world the life and hardship of living in pure agony. I tip my hat to this gentleman. After reading this book you will be thankful for life and what freedom we do have and enjoy.It is a very good, and informable, heart wenching book. It makes you stop and think about freedom.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a teacher, a child of two teachers and a parent, I am deeply puzzled why this is not required reading in high school. It should be right next to Night and The Diary of Anne Frank. If you haven't yet read this gem, get it today!!!
Anonymous 3 months ago
This is an excellent account of the atrocities, and inhumane conditions in North Korea. The reader is left wondering if there is any hope for the people of North Korea and when the regime will fall.
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Very insightful
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