The Aquariums of Pyongyang Describes North Korean Brutality
Written: Jul 22, 2012
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Informative, Painful, North Korea, Gulags
Cons:Painful, Boring in sections
The Bottom Line: The Aquariums of Pyongyang describes the gulags, and how Kang Chol-Hwan was able to survive them.
Kang Chol-Hwan and his book, "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag", should make any human being shudder. I was taken aback with this one, because while I have read plenty of books on North Korea, this one shows you what living in a gulag there is like. For that decade, as the title points out, Kang Chol-Hwan survived this and finally was able to sneak over to South Korea. He has met folks like the President of the United States, has become a Christian, all while his family's whereabouts are unknown. While Kim Sung and now Kim Jong II are dead, there is a new leader, but so far no changes to show anything will be any different. May one day the innocent families locked up on political charges, that have no bearing, be released from these despots of hell on earth.
WWII set in motion a lot, and this included the formation of two Korea's. Japan plays heavily into this, along with what could now be described as East vs West from "back in the day." Kang doesn't give much of a tangible history lesson from a broad brush, but rather focuses on decisions that his grandparents made. These directly led them to their peril, and ending up in the Northern part of Korea. The level of heartbreak, is just beyond anything imaginable. His grandfather was so happy in Japan, and so many other family members, I just cannot fathom what going back to be stripped of everything was like. The whole family was welcomed back initially, but then they had all of their possessions taken, and were imprisoned on trumped up charges. This is of course to create fear in a society where that's used for control, and there's only a bit about this. I will not hold the author too accountable, as he was a mere little boy when it occured.
His detailing of their arrests, and being shipped off to Yodok, was horrifying enough. This little boy was not allowed to see his own mother, although he did spend time in the gulag with his grandmother and sister among others, for their "re-education process." Kang had to go on work details that were hazardous, such as felling trees and mining. Many children his own age died, and they had to bury them. He had to go to classes where they studied the speeches of Korea's Supreme leader, and also learn of "his kindness towards them." At the same time, he watched as prisoners who tried to escape, were summarily executed by three gunshots. In one case, a noose is brought into the picture.
This is a disturbing book. I just find it so sad that these gulags are still open, and that there is a young boy or girl Kang's age out in the snow, with limited amounts of clothing or medicine, on the verge of starvation. The sweatboxes horrified me, and I am glad that he was able to get out of North Korea, because he was able to share what occurs in these gulags. Yet, at the same time, my heart does ache for him, and his family left behind. Also, for the people doing all sorts of hazardous work inside these gulags for hours on end, sick and on the cusp of life. Each chapter is just misery after misery, and that theme is stuck forever etched. That is of course the author's point, and it is fairly well written.
I will still give the nod to Mike Kim, or other authors from this country, for the best book about North Korea. However, this does show another angle. I liked "The Aquariums of Pyongyang", and do see the similarities between dying fish in a tank and the people of North Korea. This book holds nothing back, and it will leave you saddened. There isn't a lot of hope, although there are brave folks in the gulag, who Kang Chol-Kwan discusses. It is this spirit of human resolve, that makes it worthwhile reading. For those interested in the subject, I will recommend this book, but it will leave you horrified. Its a few years old, so do not expect any new developments, but this is a good look at what its like to experience the horrors of a gulag.
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