North Korea is known for its human rights abuses and communist rule. Still few make it out of North Korea alive so it’s a privilege to read the story of a concentration camp survivor in “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag”” as told by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulet. Brutal and depressing yet with glimmers of hope, he recounts the horrors and devastation his family were subjected to in camp Yodok. It was a surprise to the family to be sent to camp as they were fairly well off and supported Kim Il-sung, yet were taken to camp and forced to live in unsanitary and deplorable conditions for 10 years of reprogramming.
The title is taken from his first few months in the camp. While living relative freedom as a child before the camp, Kang was an avid collector of fish and had a few aquariums in his room. When they were abruptly taken away from their home the police only allowed them to take a few items from their home. At nine years old he grabbed his smallest aquarium and cried in protest until he was allowed to bring it with him. Thanks to the terrible living conditions the fish die, but were a help to him through the hard part of transitioning from a middle class lifestyle to forced labor in tempestuous weather and dirt floors. He was taken to the camp with his grandmother, father, uncles, and sister. His mother was not allowed to go with them. She was saved from the camps because her father was famous for being a hero in the eyes of the N. Korean government. Despite this she did try to be sent away to camp with her family, but was discouraged under the threat of more of her family being sent to camps as well.
After a suggestion by a friend I read this book immediately after reading about the fall of the Berlin Wall in “The Year That Changed the World” by Michael Meyer. The knowledge that while that wall eventually fell, the wall around Korea is still up and causing suffering gives me hope, but at the same time breaks my heart.
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