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

4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  3,925 ratings  ·  369 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 2001)
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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'
Dec 28, 2013 Lori rated it 3 of 5 stars
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 was
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
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
Michael Scott
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 ("
Dec 31, 2007 Lars rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
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
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
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
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
Huma Rashid
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

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
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
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
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
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
Peter Derk
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
Michael Mills
North Korea's much in the news at the moment, so it seemed appropriate to give Kang Chol-hwan's memoir of life in one of the country's gulags the time I'd always intended. Though it covers a period prior to the current famine and escalation in tensions, the delusion, paranoia and adolescent egotism of the country's dictators is much in evidence. Some have criticised Chol-hwan and Rigolout for the lack of urgency in their prose, but the contemplative style shows the mundanity of the inhumanity in ...more
Chilling and shocking are the overriding feelings I had when reading this book. I knew there were problems in N Korea but I didn't realise what was happening even now.
Lee Yung
I'm a south korean myself, living thousands of miles away from Asia, so it fasciantes me to read about North Korea as well as South. As a teen who speaks danish as her native tongue and teached herself english, it's still a bit difficult to get through. I know tens of thousands of english words and even though i speak this language fluent, you still don't experience the book the same way, as if it was translated to danish. Therefore, it was a bit more hard for me to get everything, but it's such ...more
Mike Davis
The"escape network"sounds exquisite.
Unlike reading the past events of the WWII holocaust, The Aquariums of Pyongyang reveals the current conditions of North Korea and the North Koreans' prision camps. Through this author's bravery we are able to see Kim Jong Il's perfect communist society for what it is-- a people not unlike a horribly beaten dog-- starved, punished for little or no rule violations, and fearful of its master. This book, brought me up to date on the past history and current events of North Korea. Startling.
WC Beaver
Ten years is a long time when you are incarcerated. Ten years is a longer time when you are used to going about where and when you want to, such as it is in Japan.

Author Kang delves into the horrors of his ill-advised journey to the idyllic valleys of North Korea to witness firsthand its celebration of leaders, Dip II Song (Kim II-sung) and Slip on-a Dong (Kim Jong-il). He did not expect his sojourn to last a decade.

This is not a biography of constant torture. Kang is able to enjoy bucolic mome
The title of this autobiography refers to the author's childhood aquariums, the story itself revolves around Kang Chol-Hwan early life of privilege - his Korean family had been settled for many years in Japan, returning to North Korea in order to support the regime of Kim Yong-ju and Kim Jong-il. Kang's grandmother was an ardent communist and, on arrival in North Korea, the family were treated very well enjoying a life of wealth, prestige and materialism - hence, I imagine, the aquariums owned b ...more
It's hard to judge a book that is supposed to speak to us on a moral and emotional level and I feel like there is no place for this. This book is definitely not perfect and the author is certainly incredibly emotional and uses the book to rights the wrongs (sometimes for pettier things, such as journalists he didn't particularly like. I'm not speaking here about the book's main theme FYI).

All of this notwithstanding, this book is a must-read. I vividly remember having to read lots of WWII liter
Marc Cooper
A very flowing narrative account of one man and families experience of oppression in North Korea. I was glad to get a better understanding of the situation there and on the whole it was very balanced and the author did not disguise that others have it even worse than him and may never get out from even worse concentration camps. I wish more people would read books like this and understand the situation people in these countries are in before they compare the rival parties leaders in their own we ...more
My boss at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade made me read this and write up a summary about it so he wouldn't have to read it. But I think later I realized that he knew I was into the subject and just wanted to direct me to where I wanted to go... More than a summary of it he requested a report on how I felt about it.
Olga Chen
Amazing and disturbingly realistic memories about someone who lived in one of the most mysterious nations in the 21st century. And how the terror can penetrate so deeply in a society, making them almost insane. A portrait of the human capacity to harm each others, not only the government but the prisoners in the concentration camps. What it shocks me the most (but it shouldn't) is the reaction from chinese people, a vivid representation of this weird ambivalent fear-love to their government, whi ...more
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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.” 3 likes
“The only lesson I got pounded into me was about man's limitless capacity for vice - that and the fact that social distinctions vanish in a concentration camp. I once believed that man was different from other animals, but Yodok showed me that reality doesn't support this opinion.” 2 likes
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