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on October 24, 2003
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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on September 3, 2003
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 organization.. If you speak Korean, check their site out.
Two NK Human Rights resources for English speakers are and
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on June 11, 2003
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. Neither collectively nor individually are these trends underwriting an organized opposition, but they have substantially eroded both government control of the citizenry and public faith in the regime's relevancy and attractiveness. Also answered by "Aquariums of Pyongyang" are such questions as what happens to the goods and cash that the Japanese send to relatives in North Korea; how North Koreans manage escapes to China; and how the lives of the privileged few differ from those of the multitudes. "Aquariums" is especially well-paired with Hunter's book, which defines the vocabulary of everyday life in North Korea.
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on March 20, 2003
"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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on January 20, 2003
Kang Chol-Hwan's account of life inside the utter hell (no words I know of can accurately describe it) that is current-day, Stalinist North Korea, is riveting, honest (even critical of himself at times), and a monumental work that I would recommend to anyone and everyone. (A sincere note of appreciation is also owed to Yair Reiner, the French co-author, and author of the 800-page, "Black Book of Communism").
Chol-Hwan's descriptions of the world inside Kim Il-Sung's (and now, Kim Jong-Il's) gulags are nearly identical to Solzhenitsyn's tales of Stalin's (Il-Sung's appointer) gulags and Viktor Frankl's account of Hitler's concentration camps. Purely evil, totally psychotic and insane, and the most devastating indictment of the post-modern worldview's denial of Man's utter depravity. As Chol-Hwan concludes, even about himself and fellow inmates (much less, Il-Sung and his lackeys), "I once believed that man was different from other animals [morally-speaking], but Yodok showed me that reality does not support this opinion." Very honest, yet very true, Mr. Chol-Hwan.
Reading this book, it is impossible to ignore the indictment it makes of the Communist supporters that are still extremely numerous in the West (and around the world). Chol-Hwan, in simply telling his story (offering minimal political observations), shows how thoroughly bogus this crowd is. He mentions the Cuban expatriates (the people despised and mocked by the Western Left) who send aid to those left behind, equating them with the North Korean escapees who do the same. He mocks the thought that Kim Jong-Il (whom Jimmy Carter has called "vigorous, intelligent, (and) surprisingly well-informed") and Kim Il-Sung (upon whose death Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton publicly offered their condolences to the Korean leaders) are anything less than evil personified. Even Chol-Hwan's escape from North Korea, several years after having been released from the Yodok gulag, is initiated by his impending re-arrest for having been caught celebrating the death of Nicolai Ceaucescu (whom Jimmy Carter praised and said "shared the same goals" as his). Mr. Chol-Hwan describes the illegally accessed radio broadcasts he heard in North Korea, produced by the South Korean Christians (or, "those evil capitalists" as Jimmy's followers often put it) as "sweet as honey to us." Chol-Hwan tells of his astonishment (after 25 years of N. Korean indoctrination) at the warm, loving, reception he receives from citizens in South Korea... excepting only the left-leaning press and many South Korean university students (sigh...). The press at one of his first press conferences in South Korea is so skeptical (Communism bad? No...) of his and his fellow escapee's stories that he finally takes the microphone (as his friend begins to cry under the fire of their cynical questions) and says, "If you don't want to believe us, go to the North!" Later at his South Korean university, surrounded by the same evil cynicism (from people who have "lived their whole lives swaddled in perfect comfort" (atta boy, Kang!)), Chol-Hwan tells these leftists to "Go to the North and you'll stop trying to excuse all Kim Il-Sung's failures. Go find out for yourselves." (Trust me, Kang, some of us have tried this suggestion with them before... they'll never listen. Theirs is a hatred and evil rarely matched in the democratic West.) These examples from Chol-Hwan's story (and others) go on and on and on...
"Aquariums in Pyongyang" is a monumental work from an amazing human being that was delivered from a man-made Hell on Earth. I owe him a profound respect and admiration for his courage in speaking out against the horror and evil that is Communism and its apologists.
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on November 23, 2002
I'm surprised to read some of these critiques and find that individuals feel the need to discount this book for literary shortcomings and typos. The story itself is a strong one and I was more than willing to forgive this man for misspelling "kidnapings" in exchange for his horrific tale of the years lost in a North Korean concentration camp. It amazes me that some disregard these pages as "really nothing new" -- a very inhumane response to a very vivid and compelling account of abominable human rights injustices. This isn't fiction here; this REALLY happened and deserves the understanding that this man is sharing HIS story and not trying to write the next "War and Peace."
Kang Chol-Hwan has shared his amazing journey from one world to another. In order to share the reality of life under a loathsome, hateful regime that does nothing but systematically starve and kill its people, he risks the well-being of himself and loved ones. I read his story and was deeply moved. Being half a world away, it's difficult to fathom that such horrid injustices occur in our modern society.
I am a Korean-American and live a much more sheltered and protected life than many on this earth. I am deeply appreciative to my parent's for coming to the U.S. in order to give their children a better life. They were only children during the Korean War and had their fair share of hunger and hardships. They walked the long, death-ridden highway with the masses towards hopefully a better life in the South. They were among the fortunate. Many saw their families torn apart and kidnapped back to the North.
Reunification is inevitable. This seems to be the sentiments of many. It's only a matter of time before the North just can't hang on any longer without the help of its affluent sister in the south.
A great many thank you's to Mr. Kang for sharing his life.
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on March 23, 2002
Back in graduate school now, my professor, a world-renowned international developmentalist, asked me to write a paper discussing how economic development changed the culture of Korea. My search for books that may give me "clues" to what current culture is like in North Korea led me to this book. North Korea is where my grand parents are from and where both my parents were born. My parents are both 61 years old. My grand parents left North Korea in 1953 and my parents left Korea in the in the early 1970s. If it weren't for my ancestors, I may have lived my life in Pyongyang instead of the previledged life I lead in the West.
I am no culturalist but North Korea, as a corrupted Stalinist cum cultist state is now very much different from South Korea. In South Korea, previledged rich kids drive their own automobiles whereas in North Korea, the fields are tilled by ox-drawn carts. In South Korea, bottles of Western scotch is drunk in night clubs where tabs come up to hundreds of dollars a pop and designer wears are de rigour with young college kids who indulge in decadences such as elective plastic surgery. In North Korea, hundreds of thousands of kids are stunted from malnourishment. I can't think of two more diametric cultures that could have emerged amongest one group of people: abject poverty and outrageous decandence. I am not judging South Korea nor am sympathetic to the North, I am just pointing out the stark differences. Anyway, if you want to know more about North Korea, this is a first-person account of someone who lived in a Korean gulag from the 1980s to the 1990s. The person who lived this life, Kang Chol-Hwan, is only about 34 years old in 2002.
To recap: In 2002, there are two Koreas, one the 7th largest economy in the world, the other where 2 to 3 million people are reported to have died of famine during 1995 to 1999: that's 10 percent of the population of North Korea. To wit, now there are two Koreas with two cultures. 50 years of separation and experiements in autarky vs. free-market economics (albeit, an Asian version) is the cause.
This book gave me a first-hand account of what life is like in North Korea. It is reader friendly and informative. Along with USAID (US International Agency for Development) Director Andrew S. Natsios book called "The Great North Korean Famine," I got a some ideas about what is happening in North Korea in the late 1990s to the present.
A good read if you are interested in what life is like for some North Koreans.
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on November 12, 2001
"Aquariums in Pyongyang" is an incredible story of survival and triumph over evil and hardship. Kang chol-Hawn was an upper middle class child of idealistic Koreans living in Japan when his parents returned to the North Korean "Workers Paradise" that was in the making of North Korea of the early 1960's. The reality of course, they soon discovered, was far from the communist propaganda that his mother was so taking in by. By the age of nine Kang was sent to a gulag and in it he endured all that one would expext from a communist gulag, beatings, starvation, hard labor, communist propaganda and brain washing. Not many people survived ten years in a North Korean gulag fewer still managed to later escape to the west or in Kang's case South Korea. None before have written a book about such experiences and that makes "Aquariums in Pyongyang" a unique book. One of the amazing things about this book aside from the story it's self is that Kang manages to not only detail the horror but also display quite a bit of humor albeit largely sacastic humor such as a chapter titled "ten years in the camp: thank you, Kim Il Sung" Another chapter entitled Biweekly Criticism and self-criticism is filled with sacastic humor that can make you laugh out loud even if you feel a little guilty doing so knowing the suffering of the gulags prisonors. Aquariums is a excellent book that will challage your views of North Korea no matter what your political views are. an excellent read definitly reccomended
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on April 3, 2003
If one reads accounts by survivors of the Soviet gulag, as well as its earnest imitations in China and North Korea, the similarities are impossible to miss. Mr. Kang's account is special for the extreme rarity of books in English about North Korea's gulag, for the fact that Mr. Kang entered Yodok when he was a child and remained there until early adulthood, and for the fact that North Korea's labor camps are very much still in active operation.
One very interesting facet of Mr. Kang's memoir is his description of his growing interest in Christianity. Ta Chen's recent 3-volume memoirs (Sounds of the River, Colors of the Mountain, and China's Son) have rather a similar tone: the brutality of the Chinese and North Korean Communist regimes made the Christian emphasis on brotherly love powerfully appealing to some of the young people who grew up at close range to the workings of communist governments.
Well worth reading!
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on September 17, 2003
As a recent amateur student of North Korea, I have read several of the popular autobiographies by people who have escaped this ultra-restrictive nation. "Aquariums" is an EXCELLENT book, reads easily and quickly, and conveys a considerable amount of background/history of the North Korean society. The parallels between this bizarre society and that portrayed in Orwell's "1984" are SOOOO pronounced as to be almost scary; it's almost as if Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il used it as a roadmap.
This book should be required reading for every high school student. In our modern American culture where our freedoms are not only taken for granted but not even recognized for their uniqueness in the world, I suspect most readers would think "Aquariums" to be a work of fiction rather than chilling modern day experience.
I encourage everyone to read this fine narrative.
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