North Korean writer details years of painIn the wake of the Cold War, North Korea emerged as one of the few final and isolated strongholds of communism in the world. The tragic socio-economic history of the insular nation is known merely by the scant information available on North Korea.
However, testimonies such as Kang Chol-Hwan’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” render an image of Kim Jong-Il’s regime that is altogether more harrowing.
Kang’s memoir begins with the inception of North Korea as a communist state. His grandparents, communists who lived in Japan during the early 1930s, immigrated back to North Korea in hopes of realizing Kim Il-Sung’s purported dream of a social utopia.
Kang’s family quickly found that life in Pyeongyang was entirely not what it had been promoted to be. Their idealism quickly waning and their cynicism waxing, the obstinate Kangs were soon branded as counter-revolutionaries by local authorities.
Without a trial or notification, Kang’s family was transported to Yodok prison camp. At the time, Kang Chol-Hwan was 9.
“Aquariums” is terrifying not because of any particular literary subtleties that fill readers with dread, but because of the sheer objectivity with which Kang discusses his 10-year imprisonment. Kang almost euphemistically reflects on the arbitrary assignments to solitary confinement and the almost incessant beatings.
He even describes his diet of corn meal and tree bark in such a way that it almost seems palatable. In this manner, Kang guides readers through his mind as his experiences in Yodok numbed him to pain, suffering and even basic human emotions.
Following his sudden release in 1987, Kang swam in a seemingly unreal existence until he came to terms with his old self after making a perilous escape to South Korea, where he has lived since.
The personal political commentary and historical correlations provided throughout the text alone make “Aquariums” an important read, but it does have a few drawbacks. As the book was translated by Pierre Rigoulot, who contributed to “The Black Book of Communism,” some of the contextual essence of Kang’s writing is inevitably lost.
However, Rigoulot does an admirable job of capturing the immediacy of the original text, successfully making “Aquariums” one of the most compelling memoirs to ever emerge out of Korea.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang
By Kang Chol-Hwan
by Phil Chang
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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