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Review: Kang Chol-Hwan, Aquariums of Pyonyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

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Remind me never to emigrate to a utopian society with a supreme leader with power based on abstracting popular power into the State. Because that error, of misplaced sincere hope, lies at the root of Kang Chol-Hwan's misery, detailed in Aquariums of Pyonyang. Subtitled Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, the book spends about 240 pages giving Chol-Hwan's tale of growing up in Communist North Korea beginning with his family's emigration from Japan in the 1970's. Written with Pierre Rigoulot and originally published in France, it was translated into English and published in the U. S. in 2001.

For those of us who grew up familiar with the Cold War, "gulag" is a word which speaks volumes before even opening the cover of Aquariums. Solzhenitsyn, Red Dawn, Berlin Wall, KGB, and red stars. And lately talk of an "Axis of Evil" has revived at least nominal antipathy toward totalitarianism overseas. Chol-Hwan's story is told in a simple, direct voice; his reflections in the course of the story give insight into both how normal, and how absurd, the government of North Korea really is. I give away no plot points when I say that at the age of nine, the author and almost his whole family were taken away to a prison camp, and labored there under terrible conditions until their seemingly arbitrary release in 1987. One of the aspects which struck me from his account is how seemingly thoughtless the system was, giving every appearance of almost complete forgetfulness of basic human nature or needs, furnishing no reasons for imprisoning basically loyal Korean immigrants, allowing them to pack possessions for their transfer to the camp, and the persistence of the family group there. At the same time, obviously lavish calculations as to how little could be provided the prisoners, the placement and design of the camp, the psychological savvy in organization and structure, beating down on all forms of resistance, is breathtaking at times. It must be a nightmare to Marx and Engels, whereever they are, to know that their shimmering dreams of equality and humanity have mutated to a nightmare with only occasional resemblance to socialism; North Korea's "revolution" has produced a system to apall even the most authoritarian Prussian reactionary of their day.

Although it breaks no new ground, and is unlikely to alter policy in that way that, say, Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm did, Aquariums of Pyonyang is a solid volume with which to flesh out one's understanding of North Korea. Including as it does background material for both Chol-Hwan's tale and the politics beneath it, Aquariums is definitely a good read. The hardback list price is $24, however, and one should seek it out where I found it, at a discount or used shop, where it would be a better value.

Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigolout, Aquariums of Pyonyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. Translated by Yair Reiner. Basic Books, 2001.

ISBN 0-465-01101-2

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