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The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag Hardcover – August 23, 2005

247 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

North Korea is among the most opaque nations on earth, its regime noted for repression and for the personality cult of its father and son leaders, the late Kim Il Sung and his successor, Kim Jong Il. Kang Chol-hwan draws from firsthand experience in explaining the repression. After the division of North and South Korea, Kang's family returned to North Korea from Japan, where his grandparents had emigrated in the 1930s and where his grandfather had amassed a fortune and his grandmother became a committed Communist. They were fired with idealism and committed to building an edenic nation. Instead, the family was removed without trial to a remote concentration camp, apparently because the grandfather was suspected of counter-revolutionary tendencies. Kang Chol-hwan was nine years old when imprisoned at the Yodok camp in 1977. Over the next ten years, he endured inhumane conditions and deprivations, including an inadequate diet (supplemented by frogs and rats), regular beatings, humiliations and hard labor. Inexplicably released in 1987, the author states that the only lesson his imprisonment had "pounded into me was about man's limitless capacity to be vicious." Kang's memoir is notable not for its literary qualities, but for the immediacy and drama of the personal testimony. The writing, as translated by Reiner, is unadorned but serviceable, a style suited to presenting one man's account of a brutalized childhood. Kang now lives in South Korea, where he is a journalist; his co-author Rigoulot was a contributor to The Black Book of Communism. Together, they have added a chapter to the tales of horror that have come out of Asia in recent years.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Most readers know of the politically bleak and economically disastrous history of North Korea. This affecting and directly written memoir will help make that history personal and specific. Kang, who escaped from North Korea in 1992 and now lives in Seoul, writes with the help of Rigoulot, editor of The Black Book of Communism (LJ 11/1/99). They tell the story of the Kang family, who became prosperous members of the Korean community in Japan in the 1930s but returned to North Korea out of sympathy in the 1960s. At first they lived comparatively well, but soon they ran afoul of paranoid political repression and became one of the many victims of the Korean prison work camps. The details of the gulag are depressingly familiar from memoirs of other Stalinist regimes, but this work is nonetheless important to record and witness. Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (August 23, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465011055
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465011056
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (247 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,454,153 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

253 of 259 people found the following review helpful By beechew on November 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
I'm surprised to read some of these critiques and find that individuals feel the need to discount this book for literary shortcomings and typos. The story itself is a strong one and I was more than willing to forgive this man for misspelling "kidnapings" in exchange for his horrific tale of the years lost in a North Korean concentration camp. It amazes me that some disregard these pages as "really nothing new" -- a very inhumane response to a very vivid and compelling account of abominable human rights injustices. This isn't fiction here; this REALLY happened and deserves the understanding that this man is sharing HIS story and not trying to write the next "War and Peace."
Kang Chol-Hwan has shared his amazing journey from one world to another. In order to share the reality of life under a loathsome, hateful regime that does nothing but systematically starve and kill its people, he risks the well-being of himself and loved ones. I read his story and was deeply moved. Being half a world away, it's difficult to fathom that such horrid injustices occur in our modern society.
I am a Korean-American and live a much more sheltered and protected life than many on this earth. I am deeply appreciative to my parent's for coming to the U.S. in order to give their children a better life. They were only children during the Korean War and had their fair share of hunger and hardships. They walked the long, death-ridden highway with the masses towards hopefully a better life in the South. They were among the fortunate. Many saw their families torn apart and kidnapped back to the North.
Reunification is inevitable. This seems to be the sentiments of many. It's only a matter of time before the North just can't hang on any longer without the help of its affluent sister in the south.
A great many thank you's to Mr. Kang for sharing his life.
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114 of 125 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
"Aquariums in Pyongyang" is an incredible story of survival and triumph over evil and hardship. Kang chol-Hawn was an upper middle class child of idealistic Koreans living in Japan when his parents returned to the North Korean "Workers Paradise" that was in the making of North Korea of the early 1960's. The reality of course, they soon discovered, was far from the communist propaganda that his mother was so taking in by. By the age of nine Kang was sent to a gulag and in it he endured all that one would expext from a communist gulag, beatings, starvation, hard labor, communist propaganda and brain washing. Not many people survived ten years in a North Korean gulag fewer still managed to later escape to the west or in Kang's case South Korea. None before have written a book about such experiences and that makes "Aquariums in Pyongyang" a unique book. One of the amazing things about this book aside from the story it's self is that Kang manages to not only detail the horror but also display quite a bit of humor albeit largely sacastic humor such as a chapter titled "ten years in the camp: thank you, Kim Il Sung" Another chapter entitled Biweekly Criticism and self-criticism is filled with sacastic humor that can make you laugh out loud even if you feel a little guilty doing so knowing the suffering of the gulags prisonors. Aquariums is a excellent book that will challage your views of North Korea no matter what your political views are. an excellent read definitly reccomended
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73 of 79 people found the following review helpful By Merrily Baird on June 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
Other reviewers have already noted the importance of this book in documenting the pervasive pattern and Kafkaesque quality of human rights violations in North Korea, so I shall concentrate instead on what other help this book offers for penetrating the veil of secrecy in which P'yongyang wraps itself.
In the past decade or so, there has been an explosion of Western interest in North Korea that has contributed substantially to a better understanding of P'yongyang's policy priorities and problems. Of particular note in this regard are two publications: "North Korea: Through the Looking Glass," an elegant and balanced study published by the Brookings Institute, and "Kim Il-song's North Korea," which presents the meticulously- detailed research undertaken by Helen Louise Hunter while she was still with the CIA. Both of these publications benefitted from the exploitation of defector information, but their homogenized findings still lack a sense of ground truth, and it is in this regards that Kang Chol-hwan's account of his life in North Korea is so valuable apart from its obvious importance on the human rights front.
"Aquariums of Pyongyang" provides a considerable body of anecdotal information that documents several trends which, North Korean government pronouncements make clear, are of increasing concern to the central government. These trends are rising hooliganism, especially on the part of youth gangs; rampant corruption and bribery in nearly all sectors of society; and a surprising underground use of currency (not always North Korean) in an economy that has traditionally been described as non-monetarized.
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