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89 of 91 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep inside the hermit kingdom
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...
Published on 8 July 2007 by Petrolhead

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Basic background reading
This was an interesting read as a basic background into North Korea but I was dissapointed by the lack of detail, the time spent in what is reputed to be one of the worlds most repressive prisons was washed over and his escape was made to sound so easy I wonder why everyone does'nt do it.
Published 18 months ago by Rex Earnshaw


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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 (Hong Kong) - See all my reviews
(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
By 
Mr C J Moran (Romsey, Hampshire United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating insight into North Korean ideology and control, 10 Jan. 2003
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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
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, though terrifying glimpse into North Korea, 23 July 2012
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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
5.0 out of 5 stars A rare and shocking insight into the lives of North Koreans, 15 Feb. 2002
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.
International attention will be focused on South Korea this summer as it co-hosts the 2002 World Cup Finals with Japan and this will doubtless increase scrutiny of its secretive neighbour to the north. In light of the dearth of information available on North Korea, this book serves as testament to the trials and tribulations that many in that country face. The tales of concentration camps, fear and repression recall the darkest days of Hitler, Stalin and other such despots.
This book is definitely engrossing and at times makes for uncomfortable reading that evokes feelings of both sadness and anger. Having said that, Kang Chol-Hwan and co-author Pierre Rigoulot are telling a timely story that deserves our attention.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The horrors of North Korea revealed in all its details, 4 Jun. 2011
By 
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. The author's family remains in North Korea and one wonders what retribution they received or if they are indeed still alive.

What I found odd is that the author calls North Koreans living in South Korea `renegades'. I just find that an odd word to use because it has so many negative meanings. Defector or refugee might have been a better term, I think.

Since fleeing, Kang Chol Hwan has become a bit of a celebrity and I think this is good because the world needs to be told every day about what is going on in North Korea. This book should be compulsory reading for everyone. Much like the history about the Nazis it should also be taught in schools world-wide if only to prevent another of these regimes.

I agree with the author that the summits between North and South Korea were for show and probably a complete waste of time. For that matter - and this is not in the book and it is my own opinion - the six-party talks are also a complete waste of time. I also agree with the author that the North Korea regime may well run out of population - although to be fair, the author doesn't express it this way.

However, I don't agree with the author that re-unification of the Korean Peninsula is inevitable. It is understandable that the North Koreans in South Korea want to see the back of the regime in North Korea if only to help and see again their families. Yet as long as the North Korean regime is in charge unification should be impossible and even if it were to fall I could imagine that the interested powers in the region are not keen on a unified Korea.

Finally, I agree with the author that everyone in North Korea has as much a right to a good life as the rest of us, a life not to be interrupted by the bureaucrats from the Security Force.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another tiny nail in the coffin of the DPRK, 25 Jun. 2011
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I have been fascinated about the country for some years now, and have read most books on the subject - most recently "Nothing In The World To Envy", but this certainly gives the most detailed account of one person's experience of the hermit kingdom.

It didm't get off to the best of starts, as Kang Chol-Hwan explains in the introduction about how he's found God in a big way, and I let out a barely audible groan. It always baffles me how folk who have endured the most unspeakable and unfair cruelty, or even a personal catastophe, end up religious, but whatever. About the only other minus point is the language which is a little antiquated and quaint at times, the result of reaching American English via French I assume.

Otherwise it's compulsive read, simultaneously harrowing and touching. There is a problem rattling through a book of a whole life like this in that years are condensed into a couple of pages, and when the years are as horrific as these, the impact of such endurance can get abreviated. The writer ultimately survived on his wits, of which he has plenty. One would have to be made of stone not to be affected by all such accounts of life under the Dear Leader, and this one has certainly pushed me over the edge. The trip to Pyongyang I have been toying with for some time is off for good. I could not bring myself to put one Euro into the pocket of this vile regime.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting insight, but is it the whole picture?, 30 Jun. 2014
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is the first hand account of Kang Chol-hwan’s experience in a gulag of North Korea and his escape and adaption to his new life afterwards.

My interest in Korea, both North and South, is a relatively new one of mine. I became interested while following the news this year of the escalation of tension between the two sides. I don’t usually read non-fiction, so this was the first book I’ve read on the area.

The book deals with the everyday brutal realities of life at the labour camp. The starvation, regular beatings, exhausting work, public executions, and illness, are just some of the horrors mentioned in the book. The book is written in an almost factual style, like a long list of anecdotes, made it difficult for me to feel that emotionally connected to it. Having extensively studied the Holocaust, these terrible events weren’t a particular surprise to me, but knowing that the camp is still going today is sickening.

I found some of the particulars of the book especially interesting. Firstly, the author was only nine and his sister seven when they were imprisoned. The strong emphasis on family in Korea meant the whole family was punished collectively for the fault of one member. Secondly, I thought that the prisoners would have had to have done something rebellious to have been imprisoned. As shown by the children being imprisoned this is not the case. The family although being largely strong and active supporters were seen as a threat due to having lived in Japan despite moving back voluntarily to join the cause.

Overall, an interesting insight into the lives of labour camp prisoners in North Korea, but there is still much more to know about the lives of North Koreans as a whole.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insight to hell, 12 Nov. 2007
This book is a lesson on how absolute power corrupts absolutley
on how you can be denounced and dissapear into a system without hope

brutal tale of life in a North korean gulag
as a visitor to its nieghbour South korea many times, it gave me a shudder to read how in a country without checks and balances, anthing can happen to you
for little or no reason.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mindblowing account of growing up in a North Korean gulag, 8 Feb. 2003
By A Customer
Attracted to this book by a keen interest in North Korea and a cracking title, 'Aquariums...' did not fail to live up to my expectations. It tells the story of a boy who, at the age of 10, is sent with his family to a North Korean gulag - their 'crime' being that they had earlier emigrated from Japan in a fit of communist pride in their homeland - not a judgement you would expect to come from anyone else except the paranoid, bureaucratic, corrupt North Korean state. That's what the author tells us anyway, and his honest - often brutally so - account of life in the gulag is a fascinating read. Perhaps the author was 'lucky' only to be 10 years old when he was incarcerated: his main concern was the survival of his beautiful aquarium fish that he somehow managed to take with him to the camp. As a result, 'Aquariums' is a much less political account than if it had been told by someone older (by my reckoning, the author is in his early 30s now) and you therefore get more of a feel for the surrounding countryside and the conditions in the different parts of the camps. That the author managed to survive is astounding, and that this book so clearly and openly depicts North Korea's recent past is no less incredible. 'Aquariums' is a step towards dispelling some of the myths surrounding the world's most enigmatic state... read it and learn.
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