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Aquariums of Pyongyang


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As the world watches six-party talks with North Korea come and go, as Kim Jong-Il rattles the saber amidst South Korean waffling on whether or not the North can be permitted a nuclear program, the suffering of millions continues unabated. Kang Chol-Hwan provides a powerful testimony of just how awful this suffering is, and shows that Stalinist depravity and totalitarian rule have the capacity to pierce the soul, crush the spirit, and break the social bonds that make us human.

What is ironic is that his family chooses to immigrate to North Korea from a position of wealth in Japan. Kang’s grandparents are among those who give tremendous financial support to the North Korean cause. Things change, however, when his grandfather begins to criticize certain policies—and disappears. Shortly thereafter, the entire family except for Kang’s mother, whose family had special status, is sent to the work camp known as Yodok.

There, Kang spends a decade toiling in the cornfields, working in the mines, and chopping wood. The reader is confronted with the true horrors of Kim Il-sung’s rule. His grandmother, like a good Communist, at first can’t let herself accept the truth, believing instead that some error has been made. Prisoners actually appeal to their Dear Leader for help, believing that somehow he isn’t really responsible for the horrible lives to which they have been sentenced.

Kang starkly describes the “death of compassion” at Yodok. “People who are hungry don’t have the heart to think about others,” he writes, explaining how he sees fathers steal from their kids. The conditions are so awful that all that keeps the workers going is their work, which leaves them no time to think, for “[t]here is nothing like thought to deepen one’s gloom.”

North Korea’s “slide from communism to capitalism,” which allowed for a great deal of corruption and black-market dealing, enables Kang and a friend of his to escape to China, and then to South Korea. “As a matter of practice,” he writes, “bribery makes everything possible.” This shows the moral bankruptcy of the communist system.

Kang’s perspective helps shed light on what can be effective for the West. According to him, “all reality is filtered through a single mind-set,” but it was the radio that enabled the people to understand the bankruptcy of the regime. This is similar to what we have learned about the effectiveness of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. North Korean media, by contrast, try to engender hatred for any number of things.

Free society is what the North Korean people need. Kang writes that “despite its uncompromising allegiance to communism, North Korea longed for one thing only: to live as well as Japan.” He describes how his first Coke was so refreshing it cured a cold, although perhaps this was a metaphor for how a capitalist society “cured” his Communist-induced sickness and helped bring back his humanity. Kang becomes a Christian and goes to university, where leftist students critical of South Korea irritate him.

Kang wrote the book to expose the crimes of what happened to him and the others he knew in the North. It deserves to be read by those in the West who are in a position to do something about it. “If Kim Jong-il is smiling,” Kang warns us, “it’s 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 of human rights.” The regime that is responsible for such distress, the leadership that does little to prevent all-hands from going down, and the totalitarian ideology that drives government policy can only be described as inhumanly evil—or, as Rigoulot prefers, ubuesque: “grotesque and bloody.”


Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Translated by Yair Reiner.

Washington , D.C. : Basic Books, 2001. 238 p. . . ISBN:0-465-01101-2.






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