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The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag [Kindle Edition]

Kang Chol-Hwan , Pierre Rigoulot , Yair Reiner
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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 Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, this story of one young man's personal suffering finally gives eye-witness proof to this neglected chapter of modern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.

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

Kang Chol-hwan lives and works in Seoul, where he is a staff writer for Chosun Ilbo, a daily newspaper in South Korea. Pierre Rigoulot is a journalist, historian, and human rights activist living in Paris, France. He is the author of numerous books on the history of political repression and contributed the North Korean chapter to the best-selling The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press).

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 799 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; New edition edition (1 Dec. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00A25NM2Q
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #37,968 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
89 of 91 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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50 of 52 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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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
By RichR
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By S
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've always found North Korea oddly fascinating, and this book, like many others that include the stories of defectors, is a gripping insight into the oppressive North Korean regime. Like any book telling the story of a defector it makes for chilling reading, especially since this particular book deals with the infamous "gulags", something which many other books acknowledge but don't cover in a great deal of detail.

Kang presents life in the gulags is startling detail; from his relatively happy and privileged childhood in Pyongyang to the terrible poverty, humiliation and famine that leads the prisoners of Yodok Concentration Camp to eat insects and rats. The book lays bare the brutality of the North Korean party, the arbitrariness of the arrests of innocent citizens, and yet somehow, I got the feeling that throughout his ordeal Kang never gave up hope of release, not completely.

I found this book difficult to put down, and even though it was probably not the stated intention, it's a real page turner. I would fully recommend this book to anyone, whether or not they are as interested in North Korea, as it truly and frankly highlights the plight of the people locked away deep in the Hermit Kingdom.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
By Gavin G
There is not a great deal of information available about North Korea so 'Aquariums of Pyongyang' by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot provides an insight into life in the so-called hermit kingdom. A hard line Stalinist dictatorship, North Korean society is characterised by its lack of personal freedoms, corrupt bureaucracy, constant surveillance by security agents and 'snitches' and the ever-present threat of being sent to one of the country's many prison camps.
Due to an undisclosed 'transgression' against the state committed by his grandfather, Kang's family is sent to camp 15 in the Yodok region. Having lived a relatively privileged life in Pyongyang, the nine-year-old Kang is completely unprepared for what lies ahead.
Throughout Kang's ten year stay at the camp there is never enough food or clothing, adult and child inmates are beaten, brutalised and forced to watch public executions. All the while the inmates are told that they are there because Kim Il-Sung, North Korea's revered 'Great Leader', has been generous enough to grant them a chance at rehabilitation.
Kang notes that the struggle to survive the harsh conditions strips the camp's inmates of their humanity and dignity rendering them little better than animals. In spite of the dehumanising existence Kang suffers in the camp he hears stories of other worse places from where there is never any hope of either release or escape such as the dreaded Senghori camp.
Despite the hardships he endured, the beatings he received and the public executions he was forced to watch Kang can be considered to be one of the luckier ones. He managed to escape from North Korea and his account is one of the first to appear in the wider world.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
Excellent book with some truly horrifc content. A must read for anyone with an interest in North Korea.
Published 12 days ago by A380fan
4.0 out of 5 stars Yin and Yang
Kang Chol-Hwan is a Korean whose grandparents had lived in Japan and returned to North Korea to help rebuild the Communist nation following the Korean war. Read more
Published 1 month ago by MisterHobgoblin
5.0 out of 5 stars As good an insight into the prison camps of NK as ...
Utterly terrifying and utterly captivating. As good an insight into the prison camps of NK as you are ever going to get.
Published 1 month ago by Edmund White
5.0 out of 5 stars A harrowing account of struggle
Truly gripping account of growing up in North Korea and the devastation that occurs behind its high walls - definitely worth the read!
Published 1 month ago by Peter G.
5.0 out of 5 stars An incredible life story.
At the age of 9 the author of this book is sent to a North Korean labour camp with some members of his family. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Mary
5.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing true story.
A very harrowing story of a family's imprisonment, for no obvious reason, in North Korea. Seen through a child's eyes, it is a thought-provoking book. Read more
Published 1 month ago by flamingo
5.0 out of 5 stars very good read
compelling read
Published 2 months ago by J. C. Simon
5.0 out of 5 stars This one is pretty good and worth reading
I've read numerous books written by escaped North Koreans. This one is pretty good and worth reading.
Published 2 months ago by Ann2shoes
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting book
Incredible account of life in the North Korean hard labour camps. Worth a read. Couldn't put it down.
Published 2 months ago by bethany morgan
4.0 out of 5 stars The lives of others
This is a harrowing account of the life of a small boy and his family who fell foul of the North Korean Authorities simply for being enterprising and trusting. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Gadget Freak
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