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

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  9,870 ratings  ·  699 reviews
"Destined to become a classic" (Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking), this harrowing memoir of life inside North Korea was the first account to emerge from the notoriously secretive country -- and it remains one of the most terrifying.

Amid escalating nuclear tensions, Kim Jong-un and North Korea's other leaders have kept a tight grasp on their one-party state, quash
Paperback, 238 pages
Published August 24th 2005 by Basic Books (first published 2000)
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Apr 04, 2008 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. 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 H ...more
Nenia ✨ I yeet my books back and forth ✨ Campbell

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I love reading books about North Korea but I have to space them out because otherwise they get too depressing. One of the things I find most fascinating is how the stories are always so different from defectors and yet share so many similar themes. Kang Chol-Hwan's is interesting because he originally lived in Japan (many ethnic Koreans were displaced after occupation), but at the time North Korea was running propaganda campaigns encoura
Dec 28, 2013 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
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'
Marc Gerstein
Jul 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-study
As I finished reading In Order To Live, the harrowing memoir by North Korean defector Yeonmi Park, I naturally encountered many Amazon promos for other similar books. I decided to check this one since it dealt with an aspect of North Korean society not experienced by Park; the huge network of concentration camps in which the regime routinely imprisons its own citizens. Author Kang Chol-Hwan was taken (at age nine), along with his family to a camp after his grandfather was imprisoned for activity ...more
Paula Hagar
May 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Another horrific tale of life in the prison that is all of North Korea - this one told about life within a prison itself. Perhaps because this is the latest in a list of books about All Things North Korean that I've been reading in the last couple of years, I was not as horrified by this story as I was by some of the others I've previous read. Both "Nothing to Envy" and "In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom" affected me far more deeply, and I would recommend both of those b ...more
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
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.
Dec 31, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
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
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
Jun 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: north-korea
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
Who knows how much aid is siphoned off to buttress the army?
Reading this now was akin to as if I dragged my nearly 30 year old body back to 5th grade and subjected myself to a science class that incorporated creationism in its teachings. Outside Kang's testimony, the facts mentioned are often heavily simplified and/or twisted and/or truncated that they're borderline useless for if one wants to do more than simply be engrossed and/or enraged by a testimonial narrative of oppression and resist
Barry Welsh
Aug 23, 2014 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. (www.facebook.com/events/1012881522065...)

서울북앤컬쳐클럽의 10
Nov 16, 2008 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
Jul 17, 2022 rated it liked it
Published in 2005, this is one of the first accounts of life in a North Korean concentration camp written by someone who escaped the country. Tragic and terrifying.

“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.”

“The regime that never tires of denouncing capitalism has birthed a society where money is k
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Mar 22, 2008 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
Michael Scott
Jan 27, 2009 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
Mar 17, 2012 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
Nov 17, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: asia, nonfiction
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
Craig Phillips
Jan 04, 2013 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
Apr 12, 2010 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
Marsha Altman
Nov 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a pretty brutal book, as it reads like a Holocaust memoir. The author does address his use of the word "concentration camp" to describe the work camp of Yodok, and it seems pretty appropriate. He served a ten-year sentence there with his whole family for reasons that remain unclear (he was not told) but was probably related to something his grandfather said, and he came as a little kid and left in his late teens. The book also covers the next ten years or so of the family struggling to r ...more
Quite possibly my least favorite book about North Korea. I had a difficult time connecting with the author and some of what he wrote just left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you're looking for insights into life in North Korea, "Without You There is No Us," "Escape from Camp 14," and "A Kim Jong Il Production," are just better written options.
David Canford
Apr 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
A mostly gripping account of life in a North Korean labour camp. It really opens your eyes to what an evil regime controls the poor unfortunates who happen to be born there. It was hard to believe how those imprisoned could survive the deprivations they suffered and many do not.
Mike Davis
The"escape network"sounds exquisite. ...more
Jill Crosby
Dec 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Excellent information about the gulag system of North Korea, though dated. I would love to see this book updated with any new developments made in North Korea’s current government under Kim Jong-un
Garrett Zecker
Sep 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
There is a fascination with the brutality of the North Korean state that has resulted in the yearly release of a flood of memoirs reflecting on personal experiences in the form of terrifying narratives. The public's thirst for the stories of survivors is so widespread that memoirs such as Shin Dong-hyuk's partly fictional memoir and Suki Kim's criticized memoir-journalism piece - publicity exceptions - appear to be the only ones that seem to stand out from the rest. Chʻŏr-hwan Kang's memoir of h ...more
Daniel Hageman
You almost hate that it makes you feel like you're actually there for parts. ...more
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Kang Chol-Hwan (강철환) is a North Korean defector and author. As a child, he was imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp for 10 years. After his release he fled the country, first to China and eventually to South Korea. He is the author, with Pierre Rigoulot, of The Aquariums of Pyongyang and worked as a staff writer specialized in North Korean affairs for The Chosun Ilbo. He is the founder and p ...more

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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.” 10 likes
“Hunger quashes man's will to help his fellow man.” 5 likes
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