Confronting North Korea’s dire record on human rightsThe inter-Korean summit that took place in early October was summed up in the photograph of Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il that was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world, including this one. There was the South’s lame duck president grinning as he lifted Kim’s hand in an attempted gesture of triumph, the dour North Korean strongman looking resolutely aloof. The image contained both the South’s grim determination to keep a bright face on a bleak situation, and the North’s utter lack of acknowledgement of the South’s efforts.
Amid the muted optimism stemming from the meeting, one topic remained conspicuously more muted. The subject of human rights has long been downplayed. The “Sunshine Policy” of former president Kim Dae-jung has caused the subject to be treated relatively lightly and diplomatically, and the South has to keep the subject off the table to keep the North at the table.
After much prodding, South Korea did join a 2006 UN resolution condemning the North’s human rights record, but has since returned to a more Sunshine Policy-based approach.
These political omissions turn bitter when one reads Kang Chol-hwan’s and Pierre Rigoulot’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” The book is an account of how, at the age of 9, Kang and his family were thrown into the notorious Yodok concentration camp for the unspecified crimes of his capitalist-leaning grandfather.
The book, the English version of which was published in 2001, and its subsequent reception by the public, are a stark reminder of both the cruelty that continues to be inflicted on a cowed North Korean population and the South’s persistent failure to take a strong stand against the abuses inflicted by the Kim regime.
The publishers had high hopes for its release. Nonetheless, despite a relatively high level of media coverage, the book languished until it fell into the hands of U.S. President George W. Bush, who later met with Kang.
The Korean edition, “Sooyongsoeui Norae,” or “Prison Song,” has continued to fare badly. The publisher, Sidaejeongshin, had originally expected to sell 100,000 copies on the back of the media attention it received. To date, only around 30,000 copies of Sooyongsoeui Norae have been sold, a respectable number for a first-time author, but nothing like the sales one would expect for such an explosive topic.
The stories Kang recounts of his time at Yodok are not easily forgotten. Escapees are hanged in public, after which the other prisoners are forced to hurl rocks at the dangling corpses. A group of children laboring in a mine are buried by its sudden collapse, and the survivors are forced to continue working. Kang catches anything that crawls in order to help feed his malnourished family, rats being the most valuable as they have the added benefit of providing fur that could be used to patch up the family’s rags during the biting winters. In a particularly appalling segment, Kang witnesses a mass grave being bulldozed to make way for a cornfield, describing the body parts protruding from the wave of dirt pushed before the machine.
But the most straightforward details of the book resound most deeply with the reader ― the fact that a child may be taken in the middle of the night along with his sister, father and grandmother, separated from his mother, and forced to toil as slave for a decade, inspires an irate sense of injustice.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is the fact that Yodok continues to operate, just a few hundred kilometers north of Seoul.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang
Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
Publisher: Basic Books
By Richard Scott-Ashe Contributing Writer