The Aquariums of Pyongyang


The Aquariums of Pyongyang (2001) is an autobiographical account of a boy who spent 10 years in a North Korean labor prison camp, his subsequent release, and how he defected to South Korea.

The book is especially timely since two American journalists were sentenced to a similar fate this past week. The survival rate at one of these camps is less than 50%. The prison conditions, according to the Kang Chol-Hwan, the author, are medieval and brutish.

Kang came from a wealthy Korean family from Japan and was part of the movement of voluntary repatriation of Koreans from Japan to North Korea in the 60’s and 70’s. As was the fate of many of those families, due in part to political struggles within the pro-North Korean organization in Japan, many families from Japan were imprisoned for re-education. The “guilt” of one person tainted the entire family and thus even children and the elderly are sentenced as one group.

Kang recounts a privileged life in Pyongyang, where only the elite lives, and the jarring transition, with no explanation nor trial, to prison life. He provides a rare glimpse of both the upper echelon and the lowest of North Korean society. One thing that struck me was the arbitrary and casual widespread use of imprisonment to control the populace, as many of his acquaintances had been in the camps at some point in their lives.

This corresponds with what we know outside the book. For instance, the entire 1966 World Cup North Korean soccer team was sent to the camps for partying too much after a huge upset over the Italians, and losing badly in the next game. And the current number two in North Korea, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, was sent to the camps due to a power struggle. If national sports heroes and a powerful member of the ruling family can be sent to the camps, then anyone is game.

After a decade of surviving on roots and rats, and inhumanely cruel labor in harsh weather conditions, Kang and his family were released. He made his way to South Korea and is now a celebrated journalist there. That was during a time when there were few defectors. He enjoyed government support, free education and notoriety.

Now that thousands make the dangerous journey to South Korea every year, the North Korean community is now mostly neglected second-class citizens. In my readings of interviews of these refugees, a central theme of their narratives is an utter distaste for the Kim Jong Il regime. They have been the regime’s bitterest critics, often advocating hard-nosed dealings with the north, running counter to the South Korean trend towards engagement and some would say, appeasement.

Whatever strategy you support in dealing with North Korea, the massive violations of human rights must be in the calculus.  And Kang gives a harrowing personal perspective to make sure you put the suffering millions into the equatioin.