The Aquariums of Pyongyang
Where death lives
By Steven Martinovich
"Never again" was coined in the days after the Second World War as the full scale of Nazi atrocities was revealed to the world. Cynics are perhaps right to point out the mantra has been little more than that. In the proceeding six decades of history as many as one hundred million human beings perished in the world's concentration and labour camps during the Twentieth Century. Long after we proclaimed its death, democide continues to paint history with human blood.
That North Korea is dotted with slave labour and concentration camps should be a surprise to no one. The insular nation is the world's last remaining bastion of Stalinist communism, the inheritor of a legacy immortalized by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Run in succession by father and son megalomaniacs, the mass repression, starvation and murder of North Korea makes a mockery of "Never again." Kang Chol-Hwan explores that world in The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.
After Korea was divided into north and south, Kang's prosperous family returned from Japan where they had emigrated decades earlier. Convinced to return by promises of privilege and the chance to build a worker's paradise, Kang's family was set up in Pyongyang. His grandfather was given an important job managing the flow of consumer goods and the family settled into a reasonably comfortable life.
For a few years Kang's life was little different from those of boys around the world. He spent his days playing, going to school and collecting fish for his aquarium. That life disappeared in an instant when North Korean secret police raided his family home, suspecting his grandfather of counter-revolutionary activities. With the exception of his mother, Kang's entire family was sent to the Yodok prison camp for rehabilitation. For the next decade of his life, from nine to nineteen, Kang survived by whatever means necessary.
As Kang relates, that decade included savage beatings, starvation, hard labour and the witnessing of the occasional execution. Sent to be reeducated, Kang writes that all he really learned was how vicious humans could be to each other. The torture wasn't limited to physical beatings; inmates were also expected to submit to a steady stream of brainwashing and propaganda. Prisoners were forced to criticize themselves at bi-weekly meetings and failure to do so with enough enthusiasm could earn further punishment.
Then one day it all ended. Kang and his family were inexplicably released. After a decade of non-existence, Kang is determined to lead a relatively normal life in North Korean society. Unfortunately his hobby of listening to South Korean and American radio broadcasts once again places him in the crosshairs of the secret police. Faced with the prospect of returning to Yodok, or worse, Kang decides his only option is to flee to South Korea. His journey to the south via China will keep even a jaded reader on the edge of their seat.
If The Aquariums of Pyongyang does have a weakness it's Kang's failure to explore the deeper meaning of South Korean society. His insights into the murderous North Korean regime and its effect on its society are illuminating but surprisingly Kang doesn't turn that spotlight onto his new home. The two nations, though intertwined by a history that stretches back thousands of years, are today as different materially, politically and psychologically as two peoples can be. It would have been instructive for the reader to learn what a North Korean refugee thought about those differences.
This book alone may be the ultimate refutation to those who believe that North Korea can and should be engaged through diplomacy. Although it suffers occasionally from clunky translation, The Aquariums of Pyongyang is nonetheless a triumph. It serves as a powerful indictment of a society that has criminalized truth and beauty, a world where normalcy has been banished. Yet The Aquariums of Pyongyang also serves as a celebration of the human spirit, proving that even in the midst of horror, small moments of humanity can exist.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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