Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan


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 encouraging Koreans to repatriate. Chol-Hwan's mother was very communist, so they went to North Korea to start their new lives.

Originally, things were okay. They were poor but his grandfather had a good job and his mother came from a position of respect. Then relationships soured between them and the government and his grandfather was branded a traitor and all of them were taken to Yodok, Camp 15, a prison camp. He was there for twenty years before release, subject to incredibly difficult working conditions, bad hygiene, limited food, and cruelty from the guards. This is as much a survival story as it is a human rights story, and Chol-Hwan goes into a level of detail in his treatment that I imagine must have been very difficult to relive. Other writers chose to gloss over these sections of their lives, but Chol-Hwan doesn't.

The writing is a little melodramatic but it suits the way he tells the story. As far as the other NK memoirs I have read from other defectors go, I would say this ranks as one of the better. It's an evenly-paced, intense recollection of some truly vile human conditions. The way he woke up from years of his country's propaganda, and his escape from NK, were incredibly powerful. I'm glad he was able to get away and tell his story. It's sad that he had to leave family members behind and still doesn't know what happened to them. That lack of closure must really wear on the psyche. There are TWs for virtually everything in this book, so if you pick up THE AQUARIUMS OF PYONGYANG, make sure you are coming at it from a good mental place.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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