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

Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan
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M_50x66
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Feb 11, 14

Read from September 25 to 28, 2012

It is simply essential that you read this memoir if you want to develop an understanding of what the life of an ordinary North Korean citizen is be like and how the military dictatorship there does all in it's power to ruin and debase the humanity of each of it's 'subjects' for as long as they walk and breathe. As far as Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and the latest dictator, Kim Jong-un, are concerned the people of North Korea are their property and must be forced from birth to worship their family as nothing less than Gods. From the day they are born each North Korean is fed a strict diet of propaganda from which it would be impossible to extract much in the way of real information about the world. Life in this prison-state is almost entirely devoid of hope.
But for Kang Chol-Hwan, the author of this memoir, the seeds of hope eventually blossomed into a free life. Interned at the age of nine in a concentration camp and kept there well into adulthood, he was shown what life in North Korea is really about and experienced the brutality and oppression those unfortunate enough to be deemed 'counter-revolutionaries' are subjected to at first hand. He eventually, after having been released from the camp and having made what he could of a life for himself as a former prisoner - released from the camp but still imprisoned within the country itself - makes a plan to escape. His escape was obviously successful or else this memoir would never have been published. It is therefore quite a rare account and for that reason alone it should be valued.
I was reminded at times of J.G. Ballards Empire of the Sun, a book similar in that it is a true account of a young boy in an Asian interment camp, and this book, though dealing, like Empire of the Sun, with dark subject matter, carries much of the charm of Ballards novelistic account of his own experiences. It seems surprising that those who have seen such a dark side of human nature in such an intense way and for so prolonged a period of a time can come across as cheery and enthusiastic human beings. Jim Ballard certainly did and so does Kang Chol-Hwan. Their enthusiasm for life is something we who have known little but luxury and security would be perhaps unable to fully understand.

The following is the afterward of the book and should be read by anyone who dares to speak about political issues related to dealing with North Korea...

At present, I want to work on behalf of the unfortunate souls attempting to flee repression and famine. All of us, we and the government, must be more active. We are the brothers it seems, but our sisters are being bought and sold at the border. Are we to continue showing such restraint? The shortages of food, energy and medicine are serious. According to anecdotal reports by journalists, there have been countless victims. Estimates are that famine will cause between 1 and 3 million deaths. No more accurate number is available, because no one has penetrated the North Korean bunker deeply enough to perform an adequate study. Anyone who has stood as I have beside a person slowly dying of hunger - who has seen this horror with his own eyes - will never linger to debate the pros and cons of food aid. The only real question is one of distribution, Who knows how much aid is siphoned off to buttress the army? One often hears such objections, even among people who want to see more food go to the North.
It's true that in North Korea the army comes first. But it is not a professional army cut off from the rest of the population. It is made up entirely of volunteers - legions of them. Frequently the requests outnumber the openings. The backgrounds of the volunteers explain their enthusiasm. Many of them are the children of peasants, for whom the army is a first step to entering the Party. The poorest families enlist their children because they know they will get food and clothing there. The army also represents an opportunity to climb the social: thirty percent of all veterans go on to enter the university.
Another argument against offering aid is that even when it's not diverted to the army, it allows the regime to save its foreign currency, which it should be spending on cereals - for weapons purchases and sumptuous feasts in honor of the country's leaders. Here is the dilemma one always faces when trying to help a population that has fallen victim to famine-causing political and economic systems: aiding the population also means maintaining the regime.
The question of aid, whether of food or anything else, is not primary; rather, priority should eb given to receiving those who escape and according them protection under the law. More work also must be done to introduce the people of North Korea to the outside world, and the outside world to North Korea. International public opinion and world leaders should be pressed to become more conscious of the North Korean tragedy and to force Kim Jong-il (though the leader is now Kim Jong-un) to change his behavior or risk being condemned by an international court.
I did not join in the exaltation shared by many South Koreans during the recent summit between North and South Korea. One has to be naive to believe that Kim Jong-ils smile and affability as a host signal any real change in a dictatorial regime without equal in the modern world - a place where the population has been kept in a constant state of terror for decades. If Kim Jong-il is smiling, it is because he is sure of his grip on power and plans to continue exercising it with the same contempt he has always had for the most basic human rights.
Swimming against the tide of public opinion, I've attempted to explain - most notably in the July 2000 issue of the magazine Chosun - that Kim Jong-ils friendliness in calculated. He feigned desire for greater openness has the same end as his years of calculated reclusion: to deepen and expand his own mythification. I also explained that reunification with the North as it stands today is impossible. South Korea is a democratic country, a place where power lies with the people. In the North, people lead a pathetic existence given entirely to the Party and Kim Jong-il, who confiscates power for his own ends. The only acceptable reunification is one that grants North Koreans the freedom to lead a life worthy of human beings. They are now dying of hunger without the right to utter a word of protest, crushed by a system that walks all over their fundamental human rights.
We are told that the answer to these little problems - the respect for human rights, the concentration camps, the kidnapping of South Korean and Japanese citizens - currently is not of primary concern. We are told that this debate would be better left for another day, that the North Koreans' lot should improve before we undertake reunification; but by then they'll all be dead!
Reunification in inevitable, but it can only take place once Pyongyang has stopped crucifying the population under its control. How can we stand by while troops of orphans cross the Yalu and Tumen rivers seeking refuge in China? How can we stand by while parents sell their daughters for something to eat? I don't want to see any more skeletal children with wide, frightened eyes. I don't want any more children sent to the camps and their mothers forced to tell them stories - and their giggles interrupted by the arrival of the bureaucrats from the Security Force.


No one can know how long this terror will continue, but we, as those with the privilege of being able to read books other than those produced by the the 'Dear Leader' and his wretched Party, should do our best to understand the great suffering in North Korea. Some are not as privileged as we, but those in North Korea have no privileges at all.
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