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

4.05  ·  Rating Details  ·  5,626 Ratings  ·  460 Reviews
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, documen ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published August 24th 2005 by Basic Books (first published 1999)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Feb 14, 2016 E rated it it was ok
I'm not sure what it says about me that I can fail the memoir of someone who survived a decade in one of North Korea's most infamous prison camps, but that's exactly what I'm doing. From the very beginning I was somewhat skeptical. The back cover promotes the book as what George W. Bush read when he wanted to learn more about the DRPK prior to dubbing it part of the Axis of Evil, and the author writes in the Preface that "I now realize that the Lord wanted me to use President Bush to let the bli ...more
Michael Brooke
Much of Kang Chol-Hwan's memoir of life in North Korea's notorious Yodok prison camp is eye-opening stuff, especially when he tells the story from the inside - he served a ten-year sentence there from the age of nine, as an innocent by-product of being part of an allegedly subversive family.

A lot of it, unsurprisingly, is classic misery-memoir, albeit enhanced considerably by the insight that it gives into North Korean society, particularly from within institutions that even North Koreans aren'
خوندن راجع به اردوگاههای کار اجباری ناراحت کننده ست، این واقعیت رو به رخ ت میکشه که آدم تا چه درجه از پستی میتونه نزول کنه. اما وقتی راجع به گولاگهای شوروی یا اردوگاههای نازیها میخونی دلت گرمه که فقط خاطره ست و به تاریخ پیوسته، حالا تصور کنید توی قرن بیست و یک همچین اردوگاهی وجود داشته باشه، ترسناکه!
باورش سخته که کسی رو به خاطر جرم(بخونید همسو نبودن با رژیم) یکی از اعضای خانوادهاش زندانی کنند تا زمانی که اون عضو خاطی از دنیا بره، یا اینکه کسی رو به این دلیل که در مراسم ادای احترام به رهبر کبیر
Dec 28, 2013 Lori rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir
The rating I am giving this book is for the writing, not the story. The writing tends toward overly flowery and even tedious ("nocturnal visitation" for dream, for heaven's sake) and I had a very hard time pushing myself through the sentences.

I also read this book after reading Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West , which was about a man who was born in one of the worst of all camps, and against unimaginable odds, escaped. Because his camp wa
We live in a capitalist world. And here if your grandfather supposedly committed a crime and if is proven guilty, he is going to serve time in jail. Think of the shame it would bring to your family and relatives. But on the other hand, imagine you are living in North Korea. Well, you guessed it right. Shame is going to be the least of your concerns when someone from your family is alleged of "counter-revolutionary" activities. If that happens, you, alongwith all of your relatives are seen as cri ...more
A friend happened to be reading this while I was reading Nothing to Envy , and recommended Aquariums of Pyongyang to me.

As with one of the people whose story is told in Nothing to Envy, Kang's family is part of the Chosen Soren -- Korean residents of Japan who are sympathetic with North Korea. As a relatively well-off member of North Korean society, his childhood seems rather idyllic until the arrest of his grandfather and the internment of many of his family members in the Yodok camp system.

I already knew that North Korea was a crazy place, but this book underlines how its regime is both terrifying and utterly odd. I won’t even get into the logic of naming a man as President for eternity, four years after his death. In one of the most powerful images in the book, the author looks across the Yalu river one night. On one side is noisy, busy, lit-up China. Across the bank, North Korea is dark and silent - as North Koreans describe it, “calm as hell”.

Some interesting snippets of infor
Jan 31, 2013 LeeAnne rated it it was amazing
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

This author, Kang Chol-Hwan, was born in 1969 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kang lived in a very large, luxurious, multi-room apartment in privileged comfort almost unheard of in communist Northern Korea. His family enjoyed the rare conveniences of a refrigerator, washing machine, colored television set and even a car.

Kang’s family wealth came, not just from his grandparent’s high social status, but his grandfather’s mass fortune acqu
Dec 31, 2007 Lars rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who cares at all about freedom or human dignity
As a trained Korean cryptolinguist, I was aware of some of the ways in which the evil regime of Kim Jong Il represses its citizens, but this book painted a clear and detailed portrait of a people so crushed beneath the boot heel of their gov't as to make any lover of liberty despair.

Living in the freedom of the U.S., it's hard to even conceive of a place where the gov't seems to be trying to map out new territory in the abuse of human beings. Written from the first-person perspective of a man wh
Barry Welsh
Oct 20, 2015 Barry Welsh rated it it was amazing
Please join Seoul Book and Culture Club on Saturday 31st October for a meeting with very special guest Kang Chol-hwan, author of ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang.’ Kang is a defector from North Korea. As well as authoring ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang’ he worked as a staff writer specializing in North Korean affairs for the The Chosun Ilbo, and is now the president of the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC). This event will be in English and Korean. (

서울북앤컬쳐클럽의 10
Nov 16, 2008 Andrés rated it it was amazing
For those who think evil doesn't exist or is a word that shouldn't be said out loud, this memoir is a useful introduction to reality. How else can the North Korean regime be described? How else can a political system that brings out the worst in people be described? Kang's writing is direct and rather without sentimentality, which adds to its force. And in the end, there is the realisation that North Korea's evil political system was created by humans, so it represents the possibility for evil w ...more
Tomáš Kaplan Fojtik
Jul 27, 2016 Tomáš Kaplan Fojtik rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 4
Na zhruba dvou stovkách stran vypráví bývalý severokorejský vězeň o tom, jak snadné je dostat se v KLDR do koncentračního tábora a jek těžké je tam přežít. Čekal jsem, že některé pasáže budou mnohem drsnější, a jsem rád, že tomu tak nebylo.

Na této knize jsou cenné tři věci: Za prvé – ukazuje, jak je snadné uvěřit lákavé propagandě. Rodina Kang Chol-wana žila v Japonsku, kam emigrovali před korejskou válkou. Rodná vlast je ale nalákala zpět, aby budovali svou zemi. Uvěřili sladkým řečem propagan
Jan 08, 2016 Jim rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, asia
I'd split the difference and give it a 3.5. Recently there have been a spate of memoirs covering the horrible gulag system in North Korea, as well as increased scrutiny on this international pariah state that destroys its citizens every bit as effectively as Stalinist Russia and other totalitarian entities. Anyone who has read memoirs of Siberia or the Holocaust will be familiar with the deprivations described. What is surprising is not the suffering, but that anyone manages to survive at all. O ...more
Jul 25, 2015 Ali rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
كرهي شمالي يكي از منزويترين كشورهاي جهان است كه اطلاعات خاصي از آن به بيرون درز نميكند؛ بيشتر اطلاعاتي كه از آن در دست داريم؛ اخباري است كه از طريق كرهي جنوبي؛ دشمنِ اين كشور منتشر ميشود(همين امر گاهي موجب ترديد در مورد صحت اخبار منتشره است). اخباري كه عموماً عجيبوغريب و باورنكردني است؛ طريقهي مجازاتها؛ آمارقحطيها و كشتهها؛ تحولات سياسي بسيار سريع در ردههاي دوم به بعد؛ قدرت موروثي خاندان كيم از سال هزارونهصدوچهلوهشت؛ عكسها و تصاوير معدودي كه از طريق تلويزيون رسمي كرهي شمالي منتشر ميشود همه و همه ...more
Feb 03, 2016 Aitziber rated it liked it
Recommends it for: people into history, the Koreas, totalitarian regimes
Recommended to Aitziber by: Gift from Lars Hedbor and Taunya Couts
I became interested in North Korea only recently, after seeing the Antena 3 "En Tierra Hostil" episode about North Korea. I found the A3 reporters to come with very specific ideas of what they wanted to see and report, as well as being intentionally offensive and surprisingly hostile to their (Spanish) host. Regardless, this episode did capture my interest, and I have been reading up on North Korea since.

I was given this book almost as soon as it came out in English, but as I mentioned, my inter
Michael Scott
Aug 19, 2011 Michael Scott rated it really liked it
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a first-hand account of a survivor of the North Korean labor camps. This is the story of a wealthy Korean family who, lured by the promises of the Kim Il-sung's party, found themselves trapped in the North's visible and invisible prisons (the aquariums). In tone and writing focus, Kang Chol-Hwan sets himself as a North Korean Solzhenitsyn (author of the Gulag Archipelago account of the Russian labor camps).

Kang Chol-hwan covers in his account his life as a child ("
Huma Rashid
Jul 14, 2012 Huma Rashid rated it really liked it
The situation in north Korea is one I find fascinating and compelling, and even though I've read most of the recent books by defectors, I couldn't feel as though I could speak with much authority on the matter until I had read Aquariums. The first part of the book is very slow, mostly the family background of his grandparents and the war. Force your way through that and the book soon becomes vastly more interesting.

I hate hate hate saying that about books of this nature. I had a tough time writ
Mar 31, 2008 Ebookwormy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An easier read than I expected, the cold, hard, truth is told in this biography without sensation. Documenting the struggles of his (South) Korean family after they were lured from Japan to the magnificent ideals of the socialist kingdom of Kim Il-Sung, rare insight into the "Hermit Kindgom" is provided. I learned a lot about the timeline of history in Korea, and Korea culture. It is important to note that the author's experience is limited to his life before his escape (which took place in the ...more
Craig Phillips
Jan 04, 2013 Craig Phillips rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
To say that reading this, I got a sense of what it must've been like growing up in North Korea, would be ridiculous. But I hopefully got little inklings.

The isolation from the outside world and the hero-worshipping of the dictatorship, seemed to trick the Kang into accepting his lot when he was younger - what else did he know? But when he was sent to Yodok, and witnessed the horrors of the camp, that was when he seemed to realise that all was not right in the state of the North.

I think the way t
Peter Derk
May 04, 2010 Peter Derk rated it it was ok
Shelves: reviewed
Okay, this is overall a pretty amazing story.
Basically this dude spent his whole childhood in a prison camp for a decade for no real reason. The story takes a while to get started, but if you make it about halfway through you're bound to finish.

At one point the story takes us out of the prison camp, and this part was probably the most hair-raising.

The real strength of this book is the fact that the prison camp in which the author was held STILL EXISTS and there are people being held there this v
Feisty Harriet
Apr 22, 2015 Feisty Harriet rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: korea
I think this was probably one of the earliest memoirs written by an escaped refugee from North Korea (published 2001). Kang and his family (who very wealthy, of Korean ancestry and had emigrated from Japan to join The Party) were sent to a work camp when he was 10 because of perceived political crimes of his grandfather. The Communist Party officials/the Kim dynasty used these work camps/concentration camps as "re-education" programs for anyone who was considered a threat to the country, and the ...more
This is a fascinating, but depressing autobiography of North Korean defector, Kang Chol-Hwan. I've been reading a few books about North Korea of late, so I may be a bit North Korea-ed out. And the really tragic thing is that this guy had a REALLY bad time, and yet this isn't the worst life story I've read. It's horrific to thing of what has been going on there, and what is still going on, and for what? "Someone" is going on one seriously crazily massive ego trip with this ludicrus cult of person ...more
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is an autobiographical account of a decade spent in a North Korean concentration camp by author Kang Chol-hwan, who was imprisoned alongside his family at the age of nine. My first real introduction to the North Korean situation came via Barbara Demick's excellent account Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea in 2011. By habit I don't read a great deal of non-fiction, but I was so shocked and moved by Demick's book that I also purchased Escape from Camp 14 ...more
Feb 13, 2016 Owlseyes marked it as to-read
"I asked myself: "has the entire country turned into a gigantic gulag?"
I risked my life and fled North Korea in 1992 and sought refuge in South Korea...".

(differences in power grid at night)
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 21, 2011 Jeremy rated it liked it

I heard about this book from reading George W Bush's memoirs. It's as good as he said it was.


According to the constitution of the Republic of Korea, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ fall under the sovereignty of its government.

Now the term "concentration camp" has become inextricably linked to Hitler's holocaust. But how on earth could I ever explain that the same - and in fact far worse - things are being repeated in this twenty-first century in North Korea, a relic of a failed experimen
Jul 23, 2013 Kavita rated it liked it
Shelves: north-korea
This is the story of Kang Chol-Hwan who was from a well to do Korean family. His family's stupid move from Japan to North Korea, then his years in the camp and finally, his escape to China, and then South Korea is the basis of this book.

Compared to other books I have read about North Korea, Kang seems to have had it easier, perhaps because of his rich status and also because he was considered 'redeemable'. But it still must have been horrible to be incarcerated under completely miserable conditi
This book is a bit too bare-bones for me, even though it does go into a fair amount of sickening detail of life in a North Korean camp.

I'll share two important parts:

"I was also terribly sad to be leaving Yi Sae-bong and his stories of Japanese life. There were other prisoners who had offered me their friendship and help during very hard times. With them I had shared rat meat and heaped maledictions on the Wild Boar; with them I had buried the beautiful young girl and taken revenge on the corpse
Jun 01, 2013 Stefanie rated it it was amazing
If George Orwell's 1984 was real, it would be North Korea. After reading Blaine Harden's account of Shin Dong-hyuk's life (being born and "raised" in Camp 14 because his parents were sent there as enemies of the state), I turned to the Aquariums of Pyongyang. Which gives a rather different perspective on these camps.

Kang grew up in Pyongyang as a young child, raised in an environment of propaganda, whorshipping Kim Il-sung and King Yong-il. Kang's grandmother had persuaded the family to move fr
Nov 21, 2012 Christopher rated it it was ok
The author notes that DPRK defector accounts such have this have come to elicit yawns and disinterest in South Korea and Japan.

Choi-Hwan Kang's "Aquariums of Pyongyang" is not the first such account I've read, nor is it the most gruesome, tragic or horrifying. Where it succeeds, however, is illustrating the barbarically arbitrary nature of the Hermit Kingdom.

In many cases, such dramatic scenery shifts and the mindwhirling character introduction (and disappearance, not to put too fine a point o
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Kang Chol-Hwan (강철환) is a North Korean defector and journalist.

Note that the Korean and English versions of Wikipedia list different birthdates for Kang.
More about Kang Chol-Hwan...

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“People who are hungry don't have the heart to think about others. Sometimes they can't even care for their own family. Hunger quashes man's will to help his fellow man. I've seen fathers steal food from their own children's lunchboxes. As they scarf down the corn they have only one overpowering desire: to placate, if even for just one moment, that feeling of insufferable need.” 4 likes
“I once believed man was different from other animals, but Yodok showed me that reality doesn't support this opinion. In the camp, there was no difference between man and beast, except maybe that a very hungry human was capable of stealing food from its little ones while an animal, perhaps, was not.” 2 likes
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