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

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

by Chol-hwan Kang, Pierre Rigoulot

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"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, quashing any nascent opposition movements and sending all suspected dissidents to its brutal concentration camps for "re-education."

Kang Chol-Hwan is the first survivor of one of these camps to escape and tell his story to the world, documenting the extreme conditions in these gulags and providing a personal insight into life in North Korea. Sent to the notorious labor camp Yodok when he was nine years old, Kang observed frequent public executions and endured forced labor and near-starvation rations for ten years. In 1992, he escaped to South Korea, where he found God and now advocates for human rights in North Korea.
Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, this book brings together unassailable firsthand experience, setting one young man's personal suffering in the wider context of modern history, giving eyewitness proof to the abuses perpetrated by the North Korean regime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465004713
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 08/24/2005
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 327,991
File size: 492 KB
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Kang Chol-Hwan is founder and president of the North Korea Strategy Center.

Pierre Rigoulot is a journalist, historian, and human rights activist living in Paris, France. He is the author of numerous books on the history of political repression and contributed the North Korean chapter to the bestselling The Black Book of Communism.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the 1960s, North Korea's disaster was not yet on the horizon. In economic terms, the country was going neck and neck with the South, and in Pyongyang, the regime's privileged showcase, it seemed the Party's talk of triumph and promise might actually hold true. I know what I'm talking about; Pyongyang is where I was born and grew up. I even lived some happy years there, under the guardian eye of Kim Il-sung, our "Great Leader," and his son, Kim Jong-il, our "Dear Leader."

    Every year on his birthday, he would send us gift packages of cakes and sweets. Our beloved Number One chose them himself, with a care and kindness that gave his gifts a savoriness all their own. Thanks to his generosity, we also had the right, every third year, to a school uniform, a cap, and a pair of shoes.

    wash, and permanently pressed. As for the shoes, daily use showed them to be of excellent quality. The ceremony for the distribution of uniforms, a most solemn event, was held in the large hall adjoining the school, which was specially decorated for the occasion with slogans and portraits. The parents in attendance applauded speeches by the school principal and several representatives of the Party. Student delegates got on the rostrum and thanked the Party in their little childish voices, pledging allegiance to the Clairvoyant, and pouring imprecations on all our enemies, American imperialism first among them, "because its claws still grip part of our dear Fatherland." At the end, the student delegates were entrusted with the precious gifts, which they distributed to the rest of the pupils the following day.

    because he seemed eternally young and omniscient. Like his son, Kim Jong-il, who was said to be in line to succeed him, he was more like a god to us than Father Christmas. The newspapers, the radio, posters, our textbooks, our teachers: everyone and everything seemed to confirm this. By marrying our singular Korean genius with the immutable ideals of the Communist revolution, these two masterminds, these two darlings of the universe, were building for us the Edenic socialist state. Had not Kim Il-sung's political acumen and incomparable intellect already been the cause of wonders, against the cruel American invaders, for example, whom he dealt the most humiliating of defeats? Only much later did I learn how the war was really started and what happened in its aftermath. Like millions of other North Korean children, I was taught that thanks to the military genius of our Great Guide and, to a lesser degree, the international aid of China, to whom we were united "like lips to teeth," our valiant People's Army had routed the Americans. Kim Il-sung—a.k.a, the Light of Human Genius, the Unequaled Genius, the Summit of Thought, the North Star of the People—was the object of a personality cult extravagant enough to rival that of Stalin or Mao Tse-tung, and indeed, even to outlive them. In 1998, the People's Supreme Assembly even made the astounding decision to name Kim Il-sung president "for all eternity"—four years after his death!

    and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function. I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of gods? In the portraits of their paternal faces I found comfort and all that was protecting, kindly, self-assured.

Like other children, I started grammar school at the age of six—or seven, if you count according to the traditional Korean formula, where year one begins at conception and another year is added every January 1. (The Korean and Western calculus for determining age can vary by as many as two years.) While ordinarily eager to defend its traditions, North Korea has officially renounced this manner of calculating age, although it is still widely used in private.

    the People, and Kim Il-sung once honored it with a visit—a truly exceptional event, which conferred the greatest prestige on the parents whose children attended the institution. Of this place, too, I have fond memories. I recall with particular warmth Mrs. Ro Chong-gyu, a teacher of enormous kindness and pedagogical skill, who always found the right word to encourage me. Despite their adherence to communist educational methods, almost all the teachers I had were attentive and patient with their pupils, even during our criticism and self-criticism sessions. Anyone who has never lived in a Communist country may be shocked at the thought of little children mimicking their politicized elders and denouncing themselves and others for lacking revolutionary vigilance or for not meriting the Great Leader's confidence. Yet these sessions generally ended with words of encouragement from our teachers, not of reproach, and with the hope that we would try harder in the future. I don't believe any of us were really traumatized by these sessions.

    communism, we were awarded different ranks at school. We were hardly seven years old when our uniforms first began bearing stars—two or three, depending on our level. Already we were being directed by a "political leader," the number one of the class, and by a delegate, the number two, who were appointed by the teacher and confirmed by a vote of the pupils. Admittedly, I was never much taken with military discipline: one day I convinced about fifteen of my classmates to ditch school and go to the zoo. It didn't take long to notice fifteen absentees, and the episode soon caused a big stir. Since I was the class delegate, I was not only publicly demoted but was expected to execute my self-criticism with deeper-than-usual compunction and with exceptionally good form.

    given first priority. Like students everywhere in the world, we learned to read and write with as few mistakes as possible; we studied arithmetic, drawing, music, performed gymnastics, and so on. But above all, we were taught about the morals of communism and the history of the revolution of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Given its singular import, the latter subject demanded that we learn by rote answers to questions such as: On what day and at what hour was Kim Il-sung born? What heroic feats did he perform against the Japanese? What speech did he give at such-and-such a conference, on such-and-such date? Like my fellow pupils, I thought cramming myself with such important facts was perfectly normal, and doing it gave me great pleasure. An education of this sort resulted in a wellspring of admiration and gratitude for our political leaders and in the willingness to sacrifice everything for them and the homeland. Like everyone in my class, I signed up for the Pupils' Red Army. What a sight we must have made marching into battle, fake machine guns slung across our shoulders. Though we mostly just learned to form ranks and sing while marching, we loved these exercises and never had to be asked twice to strike a military pose. Right away we felt we were Kim Il-sung's little soldiers. We were never asked to do anything too demanding. The training was adapted to our tender age and generally consisted of marching around the schoolyard a few times or around a block of houses. It wasn't until the penultimate year of high school that we would be allowed to undertake the more serious and difficult exercises. The high school students went on mountain hikes, memorized emergency air-raid instructions, learned to hide from enemy planes, and to steer the population to the nearest air-raid shelters.

When I wasn't in school, I could usually be found playing outside with the kids in my neighborhood. My favorite thing was to meet up under the weeping willows that ran along the Daedong River not far from where I lived. My friends and I knew the place well and felt completely safe there. At regular intervals we could hear a nearby bell, whose ringing had gradually become an integral part of the landscape. In warm weather, we waded in the water, catching dragonflies and other insects. And winter could be just as wonderful, during the festive time in late December, for example, when the statues of Kim Il-sung were decorated with footlights and draped with banners wishing us a happy New Year. Winter break ran from December 31 to mid-February, and when we tired of snowball fights, we would go back to our beloved river to ice-skate or play a game of ice hockey.

    family was better off than most, living in a newly built neighborhood that was exceptionally quiet, airy, and verdant. Situated near the main train station, Kyongnim-dong might have been less beautiful than the perimeter areas reserved for the nomenklatura, but it certainly came a close second. In my mind's eye, I remember it more as a park than as an urban neighborhood. Our apartment was large enough to comfortably accommodate all seven of us: my parents; my little sister, Mi-ho, whose name means "beautiful lake" and who is two years my junior; my paternal grandparents; one of my uncles—my "third uncle," according to Korean usage, which ranks uncles and aunts according to age and hierarchical standing; and me. My family enjoyed a level of comfort foreign to most North Korean homes, even in Pyongyang. We had a refrigerator, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and even the most sought-after of all luxury goods: a color television set, on which, to our great delight, we could watch the dramatic political-crime series "Clean Hands." Even our clothes seemed rich compared to those of our neighbors, to whom my grandmother would often give away what we no longer needed.

    else—at least in the big cities. North Korea hadn't yet begun to suffer the major food and energy shortages it knows today. The rationing system worked well, and at the beginning of every month families received coupons for procuring food and heating oil. At our house, things were even better. My grandfather, who held a supervisory position in the state's goods distribution network, had access to almost anything, including nearly unlimited supplies of meat. People privileged enough to know this important man sometimes dropped by for a visit only to depart with a little something extra in the bottom of their bag, a supplement to the rations provided by the government.

Other images from that time come back to me. We lived a few dozen steps from the Soviet embassy, and children of the diplomatic corps sometimes ventured onto what my comrades and I considered our territory. We watched with hostile curiosity as the group of foreign-tongued blond children walked through our neighborhood. We would harass them and try to pull their hair, and they'd push us aside or run away; but somehow the clumsy overtures never broke out into a general melee. Yet when it came to fighting among ourselves, we never let an opportunity slip. I was a difficult child—stubborn, vindictive, determined—never missing an opportunity to measure myself up against a competitor. My fights were sometimes stopped by my grandfather, who absolutely adored me. If I was on the short end of a brawl, he would break it up and call both me and my adversary hooligans, but whenever he saw I had the upper hand, he stayed out of it—beaming with pride.

    of competition. I remember a time when students in every class posted numbers representing their relative position in terms of physical strength. The various classes then organized fights to measure their number one against the number one of other classes. Koreans can be violent, but they are also saccharine sentimentalists, who are easily brought to tears by the soppiest songs and most mawkish novels. I therefore hope I will be forgiven for cherishing another memory, this one of a little six-year-old girl. I was seven years old and I thought she was beautiful. So did a movie director, who spotted her and put her in one of his movies. She must have liked me as much as I liked her, because for a long time we were inseparable. "We'll be marrying you two before long," my grandmother once joked.

    rage. Why such fury? Perhaps my grandmother had unintentionally hit on a tender spot. Sex was a taboo subject in the North Korean educational system, and maybe in my mind as well. Was my anger an attempt to mask my embarrassment? Whatever the reason, that first love meant a lot to both me and the little girl: years later, when she was in high school and I was in the camp, she dared to inquire about my well-being. I went to visit her when I finally got out, but it was too late. Ku Bon-ok—the "real jewel" that the definition of her name rightly presaged—had married and moved away. To where I never learned.

    was the more popular hobby among my friends, but that never did it for me. My thing was fish, and they were more important to me than anything. Even sitting in class and listening to my teacher, I was with them in my thoughts. I worried that they were bored without me, that their water was at the wrong temperature, that an evildoer had broken into the house and done something to them. Almost all the kids I knew had an aquarium, but coming from a well-to-do family, I had about ten of them lining the walls of my room. As luck had it, not far from us was a store that sold water plants, colored pebbles, and other accessories. To make sure I always had the most original merchandise, I would wake up early and be the first to arrive upon opening. The lady who ran the store liked her assiduous young client and paid me a big smile every time I came and asked, in my most serious nine-year-old manner, to reserve such-and-such species from the next shipment of fish.

    the biggest and the strangest. One day I had the idea of adding specimens from the neighboring river to my collection. The trick had never been tried. So I caught a few fish, quickly brought them home, dropped them into an aquarium, and ran back out to fetch my friends so they could admire my new acquisitions. But alas, by the time we returned, the new lodgers had departed this world.

    strength, and jealousy gnawed at us whenever someone got a fish more beautiful than our own. One time a kid in my neighborhood invited us over to see an exotic fish he had just received as a gift, a truly magnificent specimen with huge bulging eyes. Yet no sooner had the boy owner stepped away from the aquarium, when one of his guests plunged a hand into the water and ripped out one of the fish's eyes. The fish was too beautiful to live in someone else's aquarium.

Excerpted from The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Copyright © 2000 by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot.
Translation copyright © 2001 Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: North Korea--the World's Last Stalinist Regimevii
1A Happy Childhood in Pyongyang1
2Money and the Revolution Can Get Along11
3Next Year in Pyongyang!21
4In a Concentration Camp at the Age of Nine35
5Work Group Number 1047
6The Wild Boar: A Teacher Armed and Ready to Strike63
7Death of a Black Champion73
8Corn, Roaches, and Snake Brandy81
9Death at Yodok97
10The Much-Coveted Rabbits105
11Madness Stalks the Prisoners119
12Biweekly Criticism and Self-criticism125
13Public Executions and Postmortem Stonings137
14Love at Yodok145
15Sojourn in the Mountain149
16Ten Years in the Camp: Thank You, Kim Il-sung!155
17The North Korean Paradise165
18The Camp Threatens Again183
19Escape to China193
20Small-Time Prostitution and Big-Time Smuggling in Dalian209
21Arrival in South Korea217
22Adapting to a Capitalist World225
Epilogue: Pursuing Aid for North Korea235

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The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
True story of this mans life in the Gulag. what brought him to this place and his life of hardship, coldness, lack of food pain,sickness,and his dangerous escape to the south. This book will touch your heart, not knowing their are such places still around. This man tells his story. Thank God he made it out alive and is able to tell the world the life and hardship of living in pure agony. I tip my hat to this gentleman. After reading this book you will be thankful for life and what freedom we do have and enjoy.It is a very good, and informable, heart wenching book. It makes you stop and think about freedom.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a teacher, a child of two teachers and a parent, I am deeply puzzled why this is not required reading in high school. It should be right next to Night and The Diary of Anne Frank. If you haven't yet read this gem, get it today!!!
Anonymous 4 months ago
Read this account cover to cover in two days could not put it down. Every person needs to read this book !
lahochstetler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hwan's purpose in writing this book is to expose to the world the horrors of North Korea's gulags. Hwan spent ten years, from age nine to nineteen, as a political prisoner in the concentration camp Yodok, deep in the North Korean mountains. At Yodok Hwan and other prisoners like him were nearly starved, worked to death, and indoctrinated in the cult of the great leader, Kim Il-Sung. What did Hwan do to deserve all of this? He happened to be the grandson of a man who might have spoken out against North Korea's corrupt regime. Hwan's account of his life in the camp is undeniably horrifying. He draws connections between North Korea's camps and those of the Nazi and Stanlinist regimes. His memoir certainly offers insight into how such a corrupt dictatorship manages to sustain itself. In North Korea transgressors are not the only ones punished; their relatives are punished too. North Korea clearly thrives on secrecy, and shining a light on the dreadful human rights abuses perpetuated there is undeniably an important part of trying to end them. That said, this memoir is less literary and more political in outlook. It is sometimes less concerned with nuance, and more concerned with making a political point. Still, for those unfamiliar with how North Korea operates, this is important reading.
arubabookwoman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I almost didn't read this book when in the author's forward he described meeting George Bush in the White House and his connection with Bush in that they are both born-again Christians. The meeting is apparently also described in Bush's book Decision Points, and I feared a political agenda would underly this memoir of growing up in a North Korean prison camp. I needn't have feared--this is a vivid, touching and generous painting of a child's life in North Korea, and how early he was forced into the rigors of adulthood in a prison camp. Kang's family lived in Japan as expatriate Koreans, and became quite wealthy. Kang's grandmother, inspired by the idealism of communism, insisted that the family return to North Korea. On their return, their life was good, though not as comfortable as they had lived in Japan, and Kang's early childhood was idyllic and carefree. Then in 1977, when Kang was 9, the entire family was exiled to a remote prison camp because of a statement made by his grandfather. Only his mother was spared, as she came from a "hero" family. Kang experienced 10 years of hardship, deprivation and cruelty, and witnessed the suffering and deaths of children and adults alike. Though there are now other similar books, this was apparently the first memoir by an escapee from the camps, and it is unique in that it focuses on the experience through the eyes of a child, although one who was forced to grow up too soon.I intend to follow this with Nothing to Envy.
CCMambretti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Earlier this year I visited Seoul for the first time. If I hadn't first read this book, the experience would probably have been very different. I might have overlooked the bravery of the Korean people and not understood the shadow under which they live.While in Seoul, North Korean agitators were stirring up the populace against imported American beef by spreading rumors that it was tainted with Mad Cow disease and that we Americans were using Korea to dump the tainted products. No news outlet covered the story accurately. Even American journalists made it sound as if the South Koreans were simply being protectionist of their own beef industry. That was not the case. North Korea has spies and special ops in South Korea who daily work to drive a wedge between this valuable American ally and ourselves.This book is a horrifying tale of a child in a forced labor camp as gruesome as anything from the Holocaust. Everyone should read it. (Why only 4 stars? Because it starts rather slowly. You have to persist. It might have been better to begin in medias res and then flashback--but that's just my opinion.)BTW: In Seoul there's a very popular and delightful children's aquarium. In North Korea some children would kill for a goldfish to eat. The world really can't let this situation continue for much longer.
labfs39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, I was eager to read more accounts of life behind the Kim curtain. Kang's book was referenced as one of the few personal narratives published in English, so I tracked down a copy. The book was born out of a collaboration with human rights activist, Pierre Rigoulot, and was originally published in French.The history of Kang's family, their emigration to Japan, and the reception they received upon return is not uncommon, I think. In the 1930s many Koreans emigrated to Japan, then the occupiers of the Korean peninsula, in hopes of a better economic future. Many, like Kang¿s grandmother, were very active in Korean communism while there. When the family decided to return to North Korea in the late 1960s, it did so with the intention of bolstering the Korean communist society. They donated most of their fortune to the Party and settled in Pyongyang. Despite this voluntary return and substantial support, the family remained under suspicion for their time abroad, and in 1977 Kang¿s grandfather was arrested and never seen again. Shortly after, the rest of the family, including ten year old Kang and his seven year old sister, were sent to the Yodok concentration camp. Such "root and branch" destruction of families is a common punishment for those suspected of not adhering to the Party line. When released in 1987, Kang had a hard time reintegrating into communist society, and eventually defected in 1992.The account of Kang¿s time in the camp is horrific and the fact that it has been published and widely read has bolstered international awareness of human rights violations in North Korea, and even led to Kang meeting with George W. Bush to discuss the issue. The personal account is therefore an import testimony to the atrocities committed by the Kim regime. As a narrative, however, I think it suffers a bit from being told to Rigoulot, through an interpreter, and then constructed. Instead of reflecting the natural gaps in memory and detail after so many years, the story has been fleshed out, much in the way that our waking minds reconstruct our dreams into a narrative. Such smoothing makes me cognizant of the effects time has on memory and story. Still, I would recommend the memoir, especially as a companion read with Nothing to Envy.
HankIngram on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you ever have trouble thinking of why you should be thankful, read this book. Later in life, he entertains himself by walking through a South Korean supermarket and is amazed this much food could actually exist. I couldn't remember the last time I was thankful for a Kroger food store or a Walmart. This book will change that.
freddlerabbit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Initially, this book failed to meet my expectations - this was not through any fault of its own, but because I hadn't really done my diligence on it, and so I had inappropriate expectations. I had opened it thinking I would find something along the lines of Oberdorfer's "The Two Koreas" - and so was completely unprepared for this matter-of-fact memoir recounting a childhood spent in North Korean concentration camps. Although we know that these things do go on every day, it is easy to tune that out, if you live in a privileged country - and to hear about what daily life was like for these children and families - burying the dead and emptying septic tanks, eating cockroaches and salamanders, dying, suffering - it feels like a shock and a horror. The writing is compelling, though people who dislike errors will be irked by homonym errors ("role" call and egg "yokes") and occasional misuses of English. The author has sufficient introspection and background to begin with an analysis of how his family, originally expatriots in Japan, made the decision to return to Pyongyang, and how that decision went against them. The portrait of the country's leadership that emerges is brutally calculating, and good only at theft and barbarism.I think this is a good read for anyone, as a reminder of what the daily lives of so many is like, a small, human impetus for activism, and a reminder to be grateful for our own blessings.
tryingtogetsomesleep on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Before reading this book, I had no idea about what went on in North Korea. This is a great book to really make yourself aware of the hardships others are facing in countries separate than our own.
helpfulsnowman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 very second. I'm not a big humanitarian or anything, but the fact that these horrible things are still happening is pretty hard to dismiss.The low rating is pretty much because the book is a little tough to read. Tough to get into, and maybe it's the double translation, but it's a little awkward in places. But if you're able to look past that, I say Go for it.
acee31 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amazing, graphic and shocking account of life, death and escape in North Korea.
JEldredge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was handed a copy of 'Aquariums' while stationed in South Korea. It's disturbing description of the country to the North and the treatment of it's citizens will stick with me for a long time. Very little about the evil empire has been released to the outside world, but this rare first person account of torture, famine, and loss of family is enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A other in my collection of memoirs of North Korean refugees. Satisfying to my continuing interest in the plight of North Koreans
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent account of the atrocities, and inhumane conditions in North Korea. The reader is left wondering if there is any hope for the people of North Korea and when the regime will fall.
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Very insightful
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