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

Chol-hwan Kang , Pierre Rigoulot
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 4 2002
North Korea is today one of the last bastions of hard-line Communism. Its leaders have kept a tight grasp on their one-party regime, quashing any nascent opposition movements and sending all suspected dissidents to its brutal concentration camps for "re-education." Kang Chol-hwan is the first survivor of one of these camps to escape and tell his story to the world, documenting the extreme conditions in these gulags and providing a personal insight into life in North Korea. Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, this record of one man's suffering gives eyewitness proof to an ongoing sorrowful chapter of modern history.


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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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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Paul
Format:Paperback
This book will stun you. A previous reviewer made mention of the Wild Boar and he's right some of the tales about the Wild Boar will make you laugh. But this book is not a comedy. This book is a story of a family who viewed North Korea as the paradise destination. Ethnic Koreans who lived and prospered in Japan they were inticed back to Pyongyang, to return 'home'.
The wild boar is not a animal with four legs. He is an human animal,the nickname prison guard in the hell that the family found themselves. His particular cruelty to the family and anyone else is rooted in a love of the (now deceased) Great Leader.
To hear people so desperate to escape the country that they would leave their own families behind to face the consequences. Cannibalism, the death, the dulling of human senses. Its an amazing story.
This book is not horror show. Its not a gory death book with minutia details of pain. Rather it tells an awful story but it is in fact a story of how the human being can overcome. incredible adversity. You will admire this man and his story. You will also appreciate where you live. This book is well worth the money.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars EXCELLENT Sept. 14 2010
Format:Paperback
An absolutely excellent book. Could not put it down. Like reading Orwell's 1984, but the real life version.
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4.0 out of 5 stars a great book June 16 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
What an interesting look into the lives of North Koreans. So much brutality and hunger. The world needs to pay more attention to them.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good book May 26 2012
By Abdul
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Great book from a point of view rarely heard. Let's hope kim Jung un is more just than kim Jong il.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading April 10 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
In my opinion this book is on par with Alan Patton's "Cry the Beloved Country." It powerfully conveys the plight of foreign oppression with both empathy and clarity.
Every US military officer, all federal politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats and personnel stationed in South Korea NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.
The author's family willingly emigrated to North Korea. They had been quite wealthy, but felt ideologically drawn to seek North Korean citizenship. Ultimately they were imprisoned.
Their experiences as related make it clear that the government of North Korea is by no means a true Marxist state, but has devolved into a cult of personality revolving around the ruling Kim family. No imperial government in history has been more repressive, exploitative or murderous of its people. North Korea's leader is truly evil. Its brainwashed citizens are at once victims and enablers that evil. Their plight is tragic.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Aquariums of Pyongyang Jan. 17 2004
Format:Paperback
I had the chance to meet with the author, Kang Chol Hwan, this past summer in Seoul. Having spent ten years in a gulag for a crime his grandfather committed, he is among the lucky ones who survived. He took the risk and escaped because he felt it was his only option. In North Korea, political oppression is so severe that entire bloodlines, (normally two generations or more), are thrown in labor camps if one member is accused of "disloyalty" toward the regime. Kang's book is full of powerful images. The eyewitness account brings a detailed accuracy to a dark world unimaginable to those who haven't experienced it for themselves. Kang emphasized during our interview that every incident mentioned in his book was true and free of exaggeration. Kang, now a reporter for the Chosun Daily, continues to write editorial pieces about the atrocious human rights situation in the North.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A must read! June 2 2011
Format:Paperback
An essential book on understanding life, politics and ideology in North Korea. While quite gruesome at times, this autobiography sheds light on an otherwise unknown subject: concentration camps in North Korea. The introduction of the book provides an easy-to-read and brief geopolitical history of how North Korea was created after WW2 and the rest of the book is the unbelievable account of the author's life in surviving 10 years in a prison camp. I found the book incredibly well-written as well as a page-turner that I could not put down.
The world can no longer ignore the severe injustice going on in North Korea and it is your duty to educate yourself on the issue. This book is the perfect place to start.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I agree. Required Reading July 8 2004
Format:Paperback
I came across this book after reading Tears of My Soul. I have to say that this book is absolutely captivating. It is a very quick read, but the impact will last forever. With so little information coming out of N.Korea unfiltered, this book and its perspective is invaluable. I recommend this book to everyone, to the point that people must think I am the publisher. Excellent book.
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