Our thanks for Jen Nixon for the following book review of The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten years in the North Korean gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan.
I thought this book might be a hard read. The Aquariums of Pyongyang chronicles the life of the author as a boy who, at the age of nine, was wrongfully imprisoned with his family in a North Korean concentration camp. Not exactly most people's choice for summer reading. I picked it up mostly because of those two American women journalists who had just been released from a North Korean prison a couple days before, and I thought it would be, at the very least, relevant to world events. I thought, well, maybe I'll educate myself on the basics and then skim the details. I didn't. I read each page enthralled by this man's heroism and resolve during this time of horrific injustice.
I was drawn in by what I found most unexpected, and couldn't help being fascinated by the author's amazing struggle for survival. What struck me most was that this family weren't anti-communists, weren't revolutionaries who were bent on overthrowing the government. Instead, they were communists, originally North Korean, but drawn back from settling in Japan with the hope of an even better life in North Korea. They chose North Korea based on the images that Kim Il-Sung projected to the world of a thriving communist lifestyle. What they found there shocked them. It was nothing of the sort. A country of severe poverty and militarism, they were slowly and systematically stripped of their possessions. Then one day the police stormed their house, and placed all the family, except the author's mother, in the Yodok prison in the wilderness and mountains for a ten-year sentence, facing brutal treatment, inhumane living conditions, and severe malnutrition. His terrible ordeals were well written, but told in such a way that it made it not too burdensome or gruesome for the reader to bear. Thankfully. I breathed relief every time he triumphed over each adversity.
I kept having to set my book down for a minute and grasp the fact that this wasn't a story from the 1940's, with lessons of history learned from the Holocaust, but that it was the 1980's and 90's. That it was real. I think of where I was during this same time. I had no idea. And that this very thing occurs today I can't fully comprehend. This book serves its purpose well in bringing attention to the oppression and isolation to North Koreans, and gives a voice to a nation of people whose voice has been taken away from them by a ruthless dictatorship.
This book is available from the Voice of the Martyrs catalog.
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