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Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag Paperback – Sep 4 2002


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Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag + Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea + Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 254 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (Sept. 4 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465011020
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465011025
  • Product Dimensions: 20.2 x 12.9 x 5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 181 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,351,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Paul on Oct. 24 2003
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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Format: Hardcover
I have read Aquariums several times and each time I think I have gained some new insight from it. It's not a deep work of insight so much as a very human true account of life in a terrible, terrible situation. It's also an invaluable aid to understanding North Korea and North Koreans, and the absolute hell that many of them have had to endure under the Kim dynasty. Honestly, Kang Chol Hwan and Soon Ok Lee (Eyes of the Tailless Beasts) are among the people on Earth who I most admire because people like them are definitely risking their lives to tell their stories. As Bush and company negotiate with North Korea on 'the nuclear issue' I can't help but think about the people in thse camps and pray that whatever deal occurs doesnt result in their mass murder.. all 200,000 of them.. Because they are only kept alive to be slaves till every last calorie is exhausted and Kim Jong Il doesnt want the world to know about the dark side of life in 'paradise'.
Kang is now one of the people behind the nkgulag.org organization.. If you speak Korean, check their site out.
Two NK Human Rights resources for English speakers are freenorthkorea.net and chosunjournal.com
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Format: Paperback
Other reviewers have already noted the importance of this book in documenting the pervasive pattern and Kafkaesque quality of human rights violations in North Korea, so I shall concentrate instead on what other help this book offers for penetrating the veil of secrecy in which P'yongyang wraps itself.
In the past decade or so, there has been an explosion of Western interest in North Korea that has contributed substantially to a better understanding of P'yongyang's policy priorities and problems. Of particular note in this regard are two publications: "North Korea: Through the Looking Glass," an elegant and balanced study published by the Brookings Institute, and "Kim Il-song's North Korea," which presents the meticulously- detailed research undertaken by Helen Louise Hunter while she was still with the CIA. Both of these publications benefitted from the exploitation of defector information, but their homogenized findings still lack a sense of ground truth, and it is in this regards that Kang Chol-hwan's account of his life in North Korea is so valuable apart from its obvious importance on the human rights front.
"Aquariums of Pyongyang" provides a considerable body of anecdotal information that documents several trends which, North Korean government pronouncements make clear, are of increasing concern to the central government. These trends are rising hooliganism, especially on the part of youth gangs; rampant corruption and bribery in nearly all sectors of society; and a surprising underground use of currency (not always North Korean) in an economy that has traditionally been described as non-monetarized.
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Format: Paperback
"The Aquariums of Pyongyang" by Kang Chol-Hwan is a great book even if you have no specific interest in Korea. The book's universal appeal is its story of a person who survives a disastrous early life to escape by guile and fortitude to a better world he wasn't even sure existed.
Kang also provides a rare view inside the most secretive society of the contemporary era. He reveals a North Korea [DPRK] that is more accurately described as a criminal conspiracy rather than the most pure communist state in history. Communism serves as more a pseudo-religious enabling device for Kim Il-Song, his successor Kim Jong-Il, and their henchmen in this hyper-fascist state. To this end, communism worked better than the old style Hitler/Mussolini fascism if you were at the top. For the masses either system was a catastrophe. Kang provides vast evidence of this. Kang is also proof positive that the people of the North are not purely the brainwashed victims of communism that the rest of us have been led to believe.
The DPRK will go down in history as serving no useful purpose other than as a warning of the depths of depravity people are capable of, [while most of the world looks the other way].
Other reviewers note similarities to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" [a.k.a. the literary tombstone of the USSR] and I agree. I add, and recommend, "MiG Pilot" by John Barron & "Anthem" by Ayn Rand as related books. "MiG Pilot" tells the true story of another disenchanted communist, Viktor Belenko. "Anthem" is more a nightmare version of a pure-communist future society. The struggles and ultimate personal victories portrayed in "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" and "MiG Pilot" may prevent the rest of us from living in the world of "Anthem".
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