Monday, January 14, 2013

The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

The author was nine years old when imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp in 1977. For ten years he lived a brutal and terrifying life simply because his grandfather was suspected of being disloyal to North Korea. There was schooling of a sort for the first six years, but it consisted mainly of studying Kim Il-sung at the expense of anything else, coupled with harsh punishments for simple mistakes. School would seem a luxury when he "graduated" to the dangerous and draining work details. The hard-labor zone was the worst. "The work was conceived solely for the purpose of driving prisoners to their graves. ... Three months was the longest we had ever heard of anyone surviving under these conditions." The work itself was as unforgiving as the camp with prisoners being forced to work outside in rags as long as temperature was above -13°F performing seemingly thankless tasks like chopping down trees or digging mine shafts. If that isn't horrific enough the inmates were forced to augment their meager food with rats and snakes simply to build up enough energy to make it through the forced workday. Public executions and severe beatings were a way of life as well; hard to believe this all is currently happening and not in a past lifetime.

Choi-hwan is eventually released and tries to make a life as a free man, but under constant surveillance. When he is (accurately) accused of listening to forbidden radio stations he decides to escape to South Korea via China rather than risk going back to the gulag. Never knowing who to trust or which bribes would work and which would be lost was a very different kind of stress than the camp. The camp was brutal and oppressive, but there was little doubt where you stood. Trying to escape North Korea was entirely different. When boarding the boat that would eventually take him to safety, "one of the policemen bent forward, apparently trying to get a better look. I almost passed out. I knew I was wavering between life and death. I no longer saw the turnstile ahead, and I felt like I had entered a movie that was in slow motion." The officer lost interest and Choi-hwan made it to safety, but it was clearly a harrowing trip.

Part biography and part horror story, this was a difficult but rewarding read. Genuine insight into an oppressive dictatorship is rare, making this a valuable historical tool as well as a political exposé. The Aquariums of Pyongyang is certainly not beach reading, but certainly worth your time.

First Sentence:
In the 1960s, North Korea's disaster was not yet on the horizon.

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