Skip to main content

Review by John M. Handley

Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. By Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Translated by Yair Reiner. (New York: Basic Books, 2001. Pp. xvi, 238. $24 cloth.)

“Kang Chol-hwan has written a personal account of the ten years of horror and depravation he and his family endured in the labor camp of Yodok, a microcosm of the North Korean gulag.”

In this moving memoir, the author describes his personal experiences as a prisoner in a North Korean labor camp at Yodok. The narrative includes his observations from the age of nine, when he first entered the camp, until his release at the age of eighteen. He also briefly describes an additional five years of life in totalitarian Korth Korea and his eventual decision in 1992 to flee via China and seek asylum in South Korea.

The author’s primary purpose is to describe the brutal, harsh, and extremely inhumane treatment the North Korean government imposes on those citizens (roughly one percent of its population) it considers non-patriotic. This message is intended largely for those foreigners who interact with North Koreans politically, diplomatically, economically, and even militarily. He wants his readers to realize that Pyongyang is the last Stalinist regime. Kang also subtly warns his audience that one’s dogmatic, doctrinaire beliefs—regardless of how strongly held—provide no protection from an arbitrary, ruthless, communist state. The moral he illustrates through the life of his grandmother is that old adage “be careful what you wish for—it might come true.”

Kang’s story begins with his grandparents, both born in Korea in 1914. His grandfather left Korea for Japan in 1929 for economic reasons. His grandmother left for similar reasons two years earlier. In 1934, they met and married. As his non-political grandfather achieved wealth via bars and casinos, his communist-oriented grandmother worked her way to political success in the Chosen Soren, the Federation of Korean Residents in Japan. In 1949, she became a leader in the newly-formed Korean Worker’s Party, which was the North Korean Community Party in Japan. By 1960, she had convinced her husband to liquidate his investments, sell his business enterprises, and relocate with her and their three pre-teenage boys to the “workers’ paradise” of North Korea. According to Kang, things went well until the authorities forced his grandfather to relinquish his Volvo to the state, and his grandmother became increasingly irrelevant in the broader political scheme of things, but they still lived rather comfortably in an apartment complex in Pyongyang. Kang’s parents married in 1967 and he was born the following year.

Trouble began when Kang turned nine. For reasons never made completely clear, Kang’s grandfather failed to return home one evening. During the following three months, his grandmother hounded the authorities over his whereabouts, until one day most of his family was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities and sent to the Yodok camp. As he left his apartment for the last time, the young Kang gathered his fish into one aquarium and climbed aboard the police truck; hence the name of this book. The fish soon died and the aquarium ceased to exist, but the author uses the analogy with the North Korean population represented by the fish living in an aquarium exposed to the constant presence, surveillance, and oppression of government officials.

The bulk of this chronicle of horrors describes the author’s ten years in the gulag where he endured brutal teachers, forced work gangs of young and old engaged in hard, hazardous labors, a protein-deficient diet and disease, and witnessed the public executions of those who attempted to escape. Camp regulations forbid sexual relations between prisoners and even between inmates and their guards. Pregnant women were forced to abort their fetuses and those children brought to term were murdered by prison officials.

Kang’s predominant theme of man’s inhumanity to man is linked to the disillusionment and redemption of the true believer, who is his communist activist grandmother. After years of stubbornly insisting that the imprisonment of her family had been some terrible mistake, she finally realized that she had been wrong about the virtues of Kim Il-Sung’s “workers’ paradise” and wrong to have persuaded her family to leave Japan for a better life in Communist North Korea.

Following the death of his”counterrevolutionary” grandfather, Kang’s “re-educated” family was finally released from prison and sent to a farming village far from the capital. Until her death in 1990, Kang’s grandmother repeatedly apologized to her family for the humiliation and suffering that they had endured due to her dogmatic belief in communism.

After reuniting with his family, Kang attended the university for a year and drove a delivery truck for another four years, until he discovered that he was about to re-arrested and sent back to the gulag for listening to South Korean radio, an act of sedition in the north. He and a friend managed to escape via rail to the Chinese border, where they paid a guide to take them into a nearby Chinese town. Journeying on to the port city of Dalian, they met a local “madam” of Korean birth who used her connections with a South Korean boat captain to smuggle them out of China and into South Korea. En route to the South, the captain notified the South Korean navy of his passenger’s plight and they took in and debriefed the two refugees for six months before releasing and providing them with apartments and living expenses. Today, Kang works primarily with other North Korean asylum seekers as they make the transition to a free, democratic society.

The author’s portrayal of life in the gulag is believable and objective as one could expect from someone who lived through such an experience. This gripping, first-hand account was written to convince his readers of the fundamentally flawed nature of the communist North Korean regime. One senses that considerably more remains to be told of Yodok and the rest of Pyongyang’s gulag system. This harrowing narrative probably reflects only a very small vignette of a larger social problem for the last of the Stalinist states. Kang’s book is a must-read for anyone who deals with North Korean officials. More than answering questions, it opens up an entirely new area for exploration.End.

John M. Handley, a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is Director of Campbell University’s Extended Campus at Pope AFB and Fort Bragg. An Adjunct Professor of International Relations for Webster University, Dr. Handley has spent most of his Army career in military intelligence, culminating in his tenure as Dean of the School of Attache’ Training at the Defense Intelligence College, Washington, D.C. and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency. From 1971 to 1972, Col. Handley served as Special Security Officer, 8th Army Headquarters, Yongsan, Republic of Korea.


Comments are closed.