E's Reviews > The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan
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Feb 14, 2016

it was ok
bookshelves: 2008, bodies, memoir-bio, politics-history-etc
Read in April, 2008

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 blind world see what is happening to His people in the North." It's clearly written for a Western audience and while that's not necessarily a bad thing it was disappointing in this case.

The other thing that rubbed me the wrong way was how Kang presents himself as though he and his family were exceptionally gifted and resourceful, as if exemplary effort was what allowed him to escape. In the last forty pages alone, the reader is informed of how his uncle finished first in his class, how he beat up the toughest gang leader in the village where he lived after leaving Yodok, how his first sip of Coca Cola cured his head cold "almost instantly," and how a South Korean official allegedly told him "of all the renegades I've met, you have suffered among the most." I'm not doubting or downplaying the horrors of living in a prison camp under the Kim regime but overall I just found this an unsatisfying read.
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02/14 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Ietrio You are missing the point. Very competitive from a soviet/socialist point of view means who boasts more/louder. Living in such a place leaves people willing to do their best to have the cake and eat it too. This way the lies of the party lead the clan to their doom and not the clan leaders' pure greed. Family members get into the gulag one by one because of others conveniently forgetting the ones who got into the gulag thanks to the members of his clan.


Hannah I was surprised to read that you thought that Kang represents himself and his family as exceptionally gifted and resourceful. When I was reading, I felt the opposite: it seemed like Kang mentioned several times that his family's ability to survive outside the camp once they were released - and probably, his being able to escape - were due to the fact that they had relatives in Japan providing them with goods to trade. When he and his family left the camp, I also read the scene with a sense that his family's departure was almost a random event that they had done nothing to cause. This isn't to say your feelings aren't valid; I'm just surprised that we had read the same situation so differently.


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