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Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag [Paperback]

Kang Chol-Hwan , Pierre Rigoulot , Yair Reiner
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Feb 2006
Kang Chol-Hwan is the first survivor of a North Korean concentration camp to escape the 'hermit kingdom' and tell his story to the world. This memoir reveals the human suffering in his camp, with its forced labour, frequent public executions and near-starvation rations. Kang eventually escaped to South Korea via China to give testimony to the hardships and atrocities that constitute the lives of the thousands of people still detained in the gulags today. Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, this story of one young man's personal suffering finally gives eye-witness proof to this neglected chapter of modern history.

Frequently Bought Together

Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag + Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West + Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Price For All Three: 20.57

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; New edition edition (9 Feb 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1843544997
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843544999
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 67,892 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


"'One of the most terrifying memoirs I have ever read. As the first such account to emerge from North Korea, it is destined to become a classic.' Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking 'I beseech you to read this account' Christopher Hitchens"

About the Author

Kwang Chol-Hwan lives and works in Seoul, South Korea, where he is a staff writer for the daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo. Pierre Rigoulot has been published in twenty-eight languages.

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First Sentence
In the 1960s, North Korea's disaster was not yet on the horizon. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
82 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep inside the hermit kingdom 8 July 2007
By Petrolhead VINE VOICE
This is a rare and important account of life inside North Korea, and the first account to emerge from its concentration camps. If (as I did) you visit the Hermit kingdom, you will find that it is impossible to penetrate the country's smothering blanket of totalitarian propaganda. Kang Chol-Hwan illuminates the grisly reality behind the official scenes of happy peasants and workers who learn to adore the "dear leader" and hate everyone else from the moment they can talk. He tells the awful but irresistable story of how his family foolishly gave up the good life in Japan, returned to North Korea and ended up down the toilet of Kim Il-sung's evil system. He was nine years old when he entered the camp. It was ten years before he came out.
His account confirms all the worst fears about North Korea: the mindlessness, the cruelty, the desperation and the petty corruption. It's the last which gives some hope of change, since it proves that even these brainwashed automata are human deep down and the desire for a better life has run deep cracks in the utterly awful regime.
The author is a tough cookie and a canny survivor, making the book more uplifting than depressing. Kang's story of his escape is especially rewarding. Of course a happier ending -- reunion with his family, downfall of the regime -- would be too much to wish for. Similar literature from other countries often made me despair, but this book made me feel like actually doing something about the problem and I'm sure it will turn many readers into passionate activists. It will help that Kang's book is much easier reading than much other Gulag literature, such as Solzhenitsyn.
Everyone who wants to understand the world we live in, not just the mad, dark corner that is North Korea, should read this book.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Kang Chol-Hwan tells the story of his life and by doing so gives the reader a firsthand account of what is going on inside North Korea and the country's concentration camps and the atrocities committed there every minute.

Kang Chol-Hwan's family moved from Cheju Island in Korea to Japan in the 1930s, where his grandparents became quite wealthy. That must have been a hard one to swallow for his grandmother, who in early life became and always remained a communist. In the late 1950s the author's family similar to many other Koreans in Japan migrated to North Korea. They led a rather well-off life because of the wealth they brought with them, meaning that the author must have enjoyed a somewhat better life-style than the others. But eventually his family came to understand that they had been had. One wonders, how much of a communist the author's grandmother remained in those times. His grandfather was arrested for treason in 1977 and as a result the rest of the family was arrested and sent to Yodok concentration camp.

The darkest part of the book is the author's description of his ten years in Yodok. I won't recount any of this here because to fully comprehend the horror of it all you must read it yourself. I have read a lot about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia and the Nazis, but I don't think one can compare any of these with each other. One is as bad as the next.

Released in 1987 the author probably remained under suspicion. The North Korean regime knows no reconciliation - once convicted a person remains an undesirable forever. Besides, after Yodok the author would not have been a firm believer in the regime anyway, why else would he listen to South Korean radio. In 1992, he fled to South Korea via China.
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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Aquariums of Pyongyang 1 Jun 2010
This is the third book that I have read on the subject of North Korea in quick succession, the others, being 'Nothing to Envy' by Barbara Demmick and 'This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood' by Hyok Kang. All three have lived up to my expectations, in terms of what I am learning about this hermit kingdom. The strength of the characters that we meet in these books defies belief and Kang Chol-Hwan is no exception. I struggle to get my head around what life was really like for these totally courageous people. I suppose the problem for the rest of us living in the west is that we have only known freedom and have no concept of what it would be like to be so totally controlled by a suffocating regime and not be able to express ourselves in the way we can today.

My curiosity with North Korea continues unabated and I am already reading reviews of books that others have read to help me decide which book i should read on the subject next.

I highly recomend this book for anyone interested in learning about those who have managed to escape this totslly opressive regime!!
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In "Aquariums of Pyongyang", Kang Chol-Hwan describes his experiences within Yodok gulag (concentration camp)in N. Korea.
Kang Chol-Hwan's account traces the Korean War to the 1990's, however most of the action takes place during the author's own life, particularly the 80's/90's. What makes the book all the more riveting (and the reader feel painfully impotent) is that fact that Yodok and many similar camps are still in unchanged operation today.
The book suffers slightly from the dual translation into french and then english, resulting in some obscure words and rhythm. This however isn't too much of a problem. The book seems to flow better after a few chapters.
Since the author was in Yodok for the majority of the book (with no contact with the outside world) those looking for a political history of N.Korea may be better served elsewhere. This book remains however a fascinating insight into N.Korea's ideology and methods of controlling it's citizens.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating
I think this is a book everybody should read, I didn't realise just how bad life us in North Korea, so brace if the renegades to get free and talk about their experiences. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Georgiedog
5.0 out of 5 stars Telling the Story
In the 14 years since this book was first published I wonder how much has changed in reality for North Koreans? Read more
Published 2 days ago by Tweedledum
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving testimony
If you want to get an insight into life in the secretive North Korea, then this is the book for you. It's shocking, engaging and very moving. Read more
Published 6 days ago by squirrel
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrifying!
A book that fills me with rage and incomprehension at the mindless brutality of the N Korean state and that strange, paradoxical innocence which seems to characterise its wonderful... Read more
Published 16 days ago by Richie
5.0 out of 5 stars Aquariums of Pyongyang
The book was interesting, full of detail and also thought provoking and would enjoy more of the same type of read - would highly recommend
Published 19 days ago by Liz
4.0 out of 5 stars Evil is flourishing
Whilst Good Men do Nothing...myself incuded..
With a lot of information from a very valuable source this is a very informative insight into the imprisonment of a nine year old... Read more
Published 21 days ago by Pam
4.0 out of 5 stars A heartfelt account
An interesting account from someone who escaped the regime before the massive famine which killed millions in north Korea. Read more
Published 1 month ago by S
5.0 out of 5 stars The Aquariums of Pyongyang
A true reflection of life in N Korea under a brutal regime with no respect for human life or dignity. Read more
Published 1 month ago by HSJ Johnston
5.0 out of 5 stars Aquariums of Pyongyang
I have now read 5 books about North Korea. This one was very sobering, as were all the others, it was harrowing too. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Pat45
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Informative
Another Country with a lunatic in charge. The quicker he gets his comeuppance the better.
Sadly I cannot see any changes till China gets involved. Read more
Published 2 months ago by JP Savage
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