Everyone knows at least something about North Korea. There are many buzzwords and phrases you’ll often hear when the country appears in the news, such as crimes against humanity, discrimination, and unspeakable atrocities.
It is these unspeakable atrocities that need to be shared, the world needs to be up to speed re North Korea. The state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is largely missing from our knowledge of modern history, and that needs to be changed.
Kang Chol-Hwan’s memoir written alongside Pierre Rigoulot and translated by Yair Reiner, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, is a vital piece of that history. It is one that testifies to many of the unspeakable atrocities in DPRK, atrocities of which are unparalleled in the contemporary world.
Aquariums tells the life story of Kang and his extended family, and in most their time as political prisoners in the Yodok concentration camp, or Kwanliso No.15 (penal labour colony 15) as it is officially known. The book paints a vivid picture of the horror of present day life for many in the North.
Kang not only tells his own story, but is the mouthpiece for the suffering of many at Yodok. One method of punishment repeatedly mentioned in Aquariums is the sweatbox. So confined is the sweatbox that the prisoner is forced to rest of their knees, hands on thighs, unable to move. A stint in the sweatbox could be crippling, with permanent aftereffects.
Kang himself avoided the sweatbox during his confinement at Yodok, though he mentions it on many occasions, with one prominent mention referring to prisoner Park Seung-jin. Park played for the North Korean football team during the 1966 World Cup in England. After defeating Italy to secure a place in the Quarter Finals the team celebrated. The teams antics that night were seen as corrupt and landed almost the entire team in concentration camps upon their return.
Despite the harrowing retelling of starvation, inhumane conditions, forced labour, torture, and executions, Kang’s memoir is filled with hope. No matter the situation he faced Kang was still able to see hope for his life, in the mountains enclosing Yodok, even in the desperate, necessary actions of his incarcerated life.
You’ll no doubt find yourself rooting for Kang to make it to the South, worried he will be stopped and sent back to the North despite knowing from the offset Kang is telling his story as a defector, from Seoul.
One can never identify with the experiences of the prisoners, but Aquariums will not fail to draw feelings of utmost compassion for all citizens of DPRK.
The title Aquariums of Pyongyang is reference to his happy childhood in Pyongyang, and his childhood hobby – collecting exotic fish in a personal aquarium. Able to take a small tank to his new ‘home’ at Yodok slowly the fish died despite his efforts to protect them, to keep them alive.
The aquariums are a glimmer of his former, happy life in Pyongyang, but also a metaphor. A fish has nowhere to hide in an aquarium, no privacy, they are watched and controlled. The fish represent not just the prisoners of Yodok, watched and controlled, but every citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, under constant surveillance.
I implore you to read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, learn, feel, reflect. It is only through reading this memoir for yourself that you will understand its importance and impact.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is available via major book sellers and e-readers
Have you read this book? Share your own opinion in the comment section below.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is set to eventually hit the big screen, with Korean American actor Steven Yeun [The Walking Dead] portraying Kang, and executive producing.