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Life in a Hedgehog Nation


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

By Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

Translated by Yair Reiner

Basic Books, New York, N.Y.; 2001

ISBN #0-465-011101-2


Review by Jerry Winzig


The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a compelling and readable first-hand account of Kang Chol-Hwan's childhood and youth in North Korea, including the ten years he spent in a prison camp at Yoduk starting at the age of nine.  We learn what it is like for Kang to spend his childhood in a gulag.  We discover, through a young boy's eyes, a place so cruel and desperate that prisoners who can obtain rat meat are fortunate.


Kang's account of life in North Korea, written with Pierre Rigoulet, a contributing editor to The Black Book of Communism, and translated by Yair Reiner, is profoundly disturbing.  It begins with the story of how his grandparents emigrated from Japan to North Korea in the 1960s.  His paternal grandparents came because his grandmother was a devoted communist who, along with the urgings of the Chosen Soren, a North Korean exile group in Japan, persuaded his grandfather to return to Korea.  His maternal grandmother came to North Korea after his grandfather died in a Japanese prison.


Once they arrived in North Korea, they discovered things were not what they had hoped.  One of Kang's uncles described their arrival in these words: "It was like the city was dead--the strangest atmosphere.  The people all looked to shabby and aimless in their wandering.  There was a feeling of deep sadness in the air, and no movement betrayed the slightest hint of spontaneity."  One Korean who had emigrated a few weeks earlier came up to his uncle as they left their ship and said, "What happened?  We sent our friends and family letters warning people not to come!  Why didn't your family listen?"


But it was already too late.  There was no possibility for the new emigrants to return to Japan.  However, for Kang's family life was not harsh for the first several years.  His paternal grandfather had brought a large fortune with him from Japan and was given an important position in the North Korean bureaucracy.  When Kang was a young boy, his family was sufficiently well-off to provide him with aquariums stocked with exotic fish.  But the family could not ignore the constant police surveillance, the unrelenting political indoctrination, and the fact that they were never allowed to forget that they were immigrants from Japan.


One day in July of 1977 his grandfather didn't come home from work.  The police claimed to know nothing.  A few weeks later their home was raided and ransacked by security agents.  They collected Kang, his sister, his father, and his paternal grandmother and shipped them to a remote prison camp.  His mother was left behind without explanation and was later forced to divorce his father.


Kang's account of the next ten years is a vivid documentary of what it's like for a young child to witness atrocities and horrors every day.  He describes sadistic "teachers" with names like Wild Boar and Old Fox.  He recounts how children were casually punished in cruel ways that are beyond the comprehension of most Americans.  He tells of adult punishments even crueler.  He describes guards plowing up a prisoner burial hill to plant corn; as a result prisoners were constantly coming upon body parts as they worked the fields.


Kang's book is intense and convincing.  It doesn't read like a documentary but like an autobiography.  Yoduk is located in a deep valley because the surrounding hills and mountains make escape virtually impossible, but Kang has memories of the beauty of the mountains.  Most of the teachers in the prison school were sadistic monsters, but Kang has memories of a few who were kind and generous.


Kang's descriptions and opinions are direct, clear, and bold.  While Kang doesn't think South Korea is perfect, he has no time for those who think a co-equal reunification is possible between North and South Korea.  For him, North Korea is a "hedgehog" nation, a truly messed-up, horrible place.  He has utterly no trust for Kim Jong Il.  Kang believes the "only acceptable reunification would be one granting North Korea the ability to lead a life worth of human beings."  He says Pyongyang needs to stop crucifying its own people and is convinced the rest of the world should not stand idly by while orphans cross the Yalu and Tumen Rivers seeking refuge in China.


It is not a book you will easily forget.



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