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VINE VOICEon 8 July 2007
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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on 1 June 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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on 10 January 2003
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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on 15 February 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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on 23 July 2012
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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on 4 June 2011
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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on 18 August 2014
This book really opens your eyes to the hidden horrors of the communist regime in North Korea. The details of daily life in the country and in the gulags (prison camps) from where the author escaped are breath-taking. You can't imagine living like this, in such a place, and yet it is non-fiction and we're not talking about fifty or a hundred years ago - this book is pretty much still current. I think this book is a great part of the wider movement to open the West's eyes to what is happening over there. At times it is really gripping, really horrifying, really disgusting, but then there are parts that are funny, moving, and dramatic too. It stayed with me for a long time after I finished reading it and I talked about it with quite a few people, so I guess the book did its job well.
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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. With relatives still in Japan sending money and goods, the family lived in considerable comfort in Pyongyang, even if they did have to sacrifice some of their possessions to the party. Chol’s grandfather was in charge of distribution of food and consumer goods, giving him access to pretty much whatever he wanted and making him a good person to know.


… when Chol was 9, his grandfather disappeared. The family was then required to leave Pyongyang and move to Yodok, a secure village surrounded by mountains and barbed wire. In the book, Chol describes this as a concentration camp – which it is in part. But it is also part prison, part collective farm, part re-education centre. It is something that does not have a direct equivalent in the West.

Chol narrated his story of before Yodok, during Yodok and after Yodok. Whilst some of the detail is shocking, the book is written in a positive, upbeat fashion. Chol is seen to be a lively spirit who never gives up – right from the beginning when he insists on taking an aquarium of tropical fish with him to Yodok.

Comparisons will be drawn with Barbara Demick’s much lauded collection of narratives: Nothing To Envy. The Aquariums of Pyongyang is the superior product. Whereas Nothing To Envy was presented entirely through the lens of American values, portraying North Korea as a soulless place where people lived in constant fear and authority was unshakable, Kang Chol-Hwan’s narrative portrays a more credible, human society. Chol shows us that bribery and corruption were rife; that there was fun to be had in downtown Pyongyang; that some teachers were kind whilst others were severe; that some officials tried to be helpful; and that many in the population had pride and belief in their system. We are given an insight into the lives of high ranking bureaucrats; into petty crime; we are shown street gangs; drunken brawls; porous borders. The reader is left with an impression of a government that might have been in control of political thought and expression, but whose control of the population in other aspects of life was severely limited. As well as the public face of strict order, there seemed to be quite a lot of chaos and making stuff up as it went along.

Overall, the book is short, unsentimental, and led by Korean beliefs and values. It feels authentic.

If there is a weak spot, it is the bookending with an introduction and ending that feel almost as though they were written by a different hand, offering a very brief historical context and some references to President George W Bush, Christianity and the reuinification. But buried in this material there is the observation that, coming from North to South Korea, it appeared that “everyone seemed free to do just as they wished. No system organised their movements and activities… this sort of society just couldn’t last; it could never face a crisis. I later realised that this only seemed like disorder. A pervading logic governed people’s interactions”. To me, this says that there are two systems – one demonstrably more successful than the other right now – but that the North Korean system does have a logic and an ideology to it that can make sense to its people. It is not all about evil dictatorship; even in the prison camps there is a structure to society and rules to which people can adapt and play sometimes for advantage and sometimes for disadvantage. In the order of North Korea, there is spontaneity; in the spontaneity of South Korea there is order. It’s like Yin and Yang.
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on 25 June 2011
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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VINE VOICEon 17 March 2016
A moving account of his life by a refugee from North Korea. Imprisoned with his family in a labour camp at the age of 9 due to alleged political "crimes" committed by his grandfather, he spent the following decade there, working as a slave labourer and having to catch rats and salamanders to supplement the starvation diet in the camp (and there are camps far worse there as well). I have read a fair amount of Nazi and Soviet camp literature, but the stark horrors of North Korean oppression and fanaticism have a dimension that is quite unique, partly I guess because this regime still exists and seems as ostensibly strong and grotesque as ever under its new young leader, Kim Jong-un. A few years after his release in 1987, he sensed the long arm of the security agents closing in on him again for listening to South Korean radio broadcasts. He and a friend resolved to escape the country by way of China, and eventually reached South Korea, though having to keep his escape an absolute secret, he could not tell his plans even to his surviving family, who remain trapped in the Hermit State to this day. His efforts and those of other refugees from the North to acclimatise to life in a much freer and more prosperous society are especially moving and pathetic (in the true sense of the word). His was one of the first accounts to emerge on life in North Korea and gives some cause for optimism, not only as it shows a personal happy outcome for the author, but also gave him the opportunity to expose the reginme's atrocities to a wider audience.
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