Book Review


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Book Review

  1. 1. 1Ellen UnderwoodHST 1032 (62392) - The U.S. History Since 1877Spring 2008“The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.” Third Edition.Chol-Hwan Kang, Rigoulot, Pierre. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005. 1-255.
  2. 2. “Aquariums of Pyongyang” is the first published memoir, by a ten-year survivor ofthe North Korean Yodok gulag, Kang Chol-Hwan, who managed to escape from themiserable conditions of North Korea’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kanglater managed to escape North Korea and he currently resides in Seoul, South Koreawhere he is a reporter for Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s leading newspaper, and coversstories on North Korean refugees and defectors. Kang Chol-Hwan was an upper middle class child living with his idealistic NorthKorean family who resided in Pyongyang, a few dozen steps from the Soviet embassy.He lived with his paternal grandparents, parents, third uncle, and younger sister. Kang’sfamily experienced relative wealth due to his grandfather’s success and helpful, yetdistant, family members residing in Japan. Kang’s grandfather tended to express hisfrustration and critiques against the North Korean bureaucracy, which in retrospect, wasvery unwise. Consequently, Kang’s grandfather disappeared in July of 1977. A fewweeks later, Kang and his family were shipped to the Yodok gulag of Pyongyang, NorthKorea, excluding his mother who was the daughter of a “heroic family,” and was spareda trip to the camp. Kang tells of the numerous beatings that he witnessed and received from theguards and teachers of the Yodok camp. He tells of the horrible living conditions of hissmall hut without heat, in weather conditions that were below freezing. The camp’sharsh diet of corn infected many of the detainees with the pellagra disease and many
  3. 3. meals consisted of rats, salamanders and insects. Rice, rabbits, vegetables, and fishcould have beem attained if one dared to steal from a military guard’s plantation. Kangexplains how starvation turned families against each other and brought out the animal ineveryone. Along with the confined space holding nearly 200,000 prisoners, Kang explainsthe harsh conditions of the camp’s latrine. He speaks of the minimal distribution ofmedicine and clothing, which any family would be considered lucky upon receiving morethan once every two years. Kang recalls harsh working conditions and the force ofabstinence required of all prisoners under the authority of the camp’s military guards.After all, the North Korean state idolized eugenics, so the undesirablecounterrevolutionary prisoners were prevented from reproducing. Women were forcedto give up their children and they were publicly embarrassed by foretelling their sexualencounters. Kang recalls the demands of public execution and when he was forced to witnessthe horrific events of hangings and shootings of many prisoners, whose only offenseswere trying to escape the camp. Kang talks of the punishments that families received ifany of their members committed suicide or denounced the great leaders of the NorthKorean regime, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. After ten years, Kang and hisfamily are dismissed from the camp to perform agricultural work on a collective farm.Sadly, Kang’s grandmother and father die, but Kang finally is allowed to reunite with hismother.
  4. 4. Kang’s friend An-hyuk warns Kang that he is under high surveillance because ofhis continued listening of banned South Korean radio, and that the security agents arelooking to get him into serious trouble, so that he may be forced to return theconcentration camp. Kang’s friend An-hyuk has already failed at making the greatescape to China, but he ensures Kang that escaping the threats of the security agentswould be their best chance of not having to return to the concentration camp. Kang andAn-hyuk make their great escape to China through bribery and deceit of many guardsalong the way. They experienced many obstacles of disguising their identities andfinding shelter, but many of An-hyuk’s acquaintances provided helping hands. Bothmen, utterly afraid yet hopeful, set off on a cargo ship departing from China to SouthKorea. Fortunately, their trip was successful and they had survived the escape, allowingKang to create one of the most terrifying memoirs expressing the first published accountto emerge from North Korea. The authors’ organization was excellent, beginning with Kang’s preface of NorthKorea’s harsh communist regime, following with his childhood experiences. Kang alsoincluded a short biography of his grandparents arrival to Japan and the wonderfulachievements they’d accomplished. He explained how his grandmother was apassionate activist in the Korean Worker’s Party (as the North Korean communist partywas called) and that she wrote of how she longed to move to North Korea, because ofthe Chosen Soren’s depiction of North Korea’s urgent need for individuals withknowledge and abilities. Kang’s grandmother also fed upon the propaganda which
  5. 5. promoted that in North Korea a person could serve the people and the state rather thanJapan, which was considered to be a pawn of American Imperialism. Kang continuedwith the horror of the Yodok camp, his release, and his ultimate escape to South Korea. Kang’s writing style was very informative, explaining many aspects of the NorthKorean government in which I had never heard of before. He was very humorous in hiswriting at times, and I believe it was to lighten the mood of his horrific journey. Anexample of this humor is his title for chapter sixteen, “Ten Years in the Camp: ThankYou, Kim Il-sung!” There are no use of aids such as maps or photographs, other thanthe picture of hisself, grandmother, sister, third aunt, and third uncle, one year afterKang’s release from the Yodok labor camp. This book was extremely valuable and has allowed my knowledge of NorthKorea’s current and yet very disturbing state to expand. Rigoulot’s introduction allowedme to discover more about global history and insight of North Korea, which is in fact theworld’s last Stalinist regime. I learned that after America bombed Japan in 1945, Koreawas split in two, while the north remained occupied by Soviet troops, and the south byAmericans. In 1948, Kim Il-sung prepared an army that allowed the Soviet army to pullout of the north and deprived American military presence in the south. As the north keptattacking the south, under Kim Il-sung’s orders, the Korean War began. The UN ledmilitary assistance to South Korea, and although they prevented a takeover, the UNfailed to reunify the country.
  6. 6. I’ve also learned that unlike South Korea, North Korea’s economy has sufferedterribly and famine has also spread across the country filled with extensive prisons andscattered camps. This book has not only opened my eyes to the courageousness of theauthor, but to the horrific events presently taking place, millions of miles away from me,that I have yet to learn of until now. This book was very informative, heartfelt, and wellwritten. I felt as if I’d experienced Kang’s life altering journey every step of the way. Iselected this book because I had never heard of horrific events taking place in NorthKorea. The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a co-written autobiography. Kang Chol-Hwanhad the opportunity to publish this memoir along with the help of Pierre Rigoulot and histranslator Yair Reiner ( a South Korean academician and a specialist in Frenchliterature). “Pierre Rigoulot is a journalist, historian, and human rights activist living inParis, France. He is the author of numerous books on the history of political repressionand contributed the North Korean chapter to the best-selling The Black Book ofCommunism” ( The main reason for publishing this book is so that Kang can speak out abouthuman rights violations in North Korea so that the world gains a collective conscienceand also speaks out against Kim Jong-il and his awful regime. Ultimately, Kang plans onscaring Kim Jong-il into stopping his cruelty. Pierre Rigoulot wrote this book with thecommon hope of raising international awareness. He wants everyone to be aware of thelast Stalinist regime that is responsible for one of the worst famines of the end of the
  7. 7. twentieth century. “Reading this book is a first step toward making the repression inNorth Korea a major concern for human rights defenders around the world,” writesRegaled in the introduction to the Aquariums of Pyongyang. I’d say that the major thesis of this book would be the ultimate cause of Northand South Korea’s split and the effect it had (and still has) on millions of Korean’s forcedto live under the Kim’s regimes. The morality of North Korea’s totalitarian regimes areconstantly addressed by Kang, who analyzes the horrific states of North Korea’seconomy and citizens. North Korea’s dictatorship and authority suppresses its citizensthrough terror and censorship, not to mention policies of belligerent nationalism (suchas constant worship and praise of Kim sung-Il and his son Kim Jong-il). The book is somewhat controversial, as Kang challenges the South Koreanbeliefs that one can achieve peace only through reconciliation and cooperation. Heaccuses South Korean of ignoring Kim Jong-il’s brutal persecution of his own people.He mentions the South Korean government’s absence in the UN vote for three years,and mentions that the vote was an opportunity to obtain resolutions regarding NorthKorea’s human rights situation. In the preface, Kang challenges South Korean’sreasoning of “remaining neutral, claiming that they did not want to corrupt the peacefulcoexistence achieved through dialogue with Pyongyang, North Korea.” Kang’s prefacealso certifies this reasoning to remain a mockery of the irrefutable fact that “accordingto the constitution of the Republic of Korea, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ (Korea’sdemilitarized zone) fall under the sovereignty of its government.”
  8. 8. Because this book is an autobiography, many sources, including the author, wereprimary. Kang includes personal accounts of beatings and mistreatment in the Yodokcamp, and mentions that he came across prisoners, who told him of the manysurrounding camps of North Korea that were worse than Yodok. Kang also recountssecondary sources who’ve claimed that there is indeed a nuclear assimilation plant,under strict military supervision, in which some prisoners are sent to work. Someclaimed that the plant was so secretive that it was best to send irredeemable prisonersonly, who were left to die working there and could never escape to tell of the plantswhereabouts. The author Kang Chol-Hwan was the main source in obtaining informationregarding the horrific state of North Korea. His grandfather, father, and third uncle(names not given in the book because of safety reasons) were also referred to assources because they informed Kang of North Korea’s situation while he was young andoffered him insight to the foundation of Japan and the lives that the family had leftbehind. Kang Chol-Hwan’s first hand experience of a North Korean gulag and escape from NorthKorea itself, is a very heroic memoir. After reading this book, I feel privileged that someone wouldwant to share the horrific events taking place in North Korea, when he had the choice of keeping hisstory from the world. I believe this memoir has allowed recognition of the repression in North
  9. 9. Korea for all nations. I only hope that human rights defenders across the world can soon discover away to relieve the pain of this suffering country, repressed by its terrorizing totalitarian regime.