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The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan Review

Title: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

Author: Kang Chol-Hwan

First published January 1, 2000

238 pages, Paperback

ISBN: 9780465011049 (ISBN10: 0465011047)

Rating: 4.1


“The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag” is a gripping memoir that will forever remain a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. This book is a first-hand account of life inside the notoriously secretive country, North Korea.

Kang Chol-Hwan, the first survivor to escape one of the brutal concentration camps, provides a personal and insightful look into the harsh realities of life in North Korea. Forced into the notorious labor camp Yodok at just nine years old, Kang witnessed public executions and suffered through forced labor and near-starvation rations for ten years.

His escape to South Korea in 1992 was the beginning of a journey that would lead him to advocate for human rights in North Korea. This book is a chilling reminder of the horrors perpetrated by the North Korean regime and stands as a timeless documentation of modern history.

About the Author

Meet Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean defector and author who spent a decade of his childhood in the Yodok concentration camp. Following his release, he fled to China and eventually made his way to South Korea.

He co-authored The Aquariums of Pyongyang with Pierre Rigoulot and worked as a staff writer focused on North Korean affairs for The Chosun Ilbo. Today, Kang is the founder and president of the North Korea Strategy Center.

Editoral Review

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan is a harrowing account of the author’s detainment in a North Korean prison camp. The book, first published in 2000, is a poignant exploration of themes such as oppression, survival, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Kang Chol-Hwan was born into a privileged North Korean family, but his world was turned upside-down when his grandfather was accused of treason. He and his family were sent to Yodok, one of North Korea’s most brutal prison camps.

The book chronicles Kang’s ten-year journey, detailing the grueling conditions, torture, and deprivation he experienced. The book is a memoir, but it is also a historical account of life in North Korea during the 1980s and 90s, under the regime of Kim Il-Sung.

Kang’s story is a testament to the horrors of the regime and the atrocities that were committed in the name of the state. The book is a powerful reminder that freedom is not something to be taken for granted and that we must never forget the atrocities of the past.

The writing in The Aquariums of Pyongyang is visceral and unflinching. Kang’s account is raw and unfiltered, giving readers a true sense of the extreme conditions he and his fellow prisoners endured.

The pacing is quick, and the story moves at a brisk pace. There are moments of lightness and hope peppered throughout the novel, which offer a welcome respite from the darkness.

One of the book’s strengths is its character development. Kang is a deeply sympathetic protagonist, and readers can’t help but root for him as he fights to survive.

The supporting cast of characters is equally well-drawn, and the relationships between the prisoners are nuanced and complex. Regarding weaknesses, The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a difficult read.

The subject matter is heavy, and some readers may find it hard to stomach. Additionally, the book is somewhat sparse on historical context, which could be a drawback for readers who are unfamiliar with North Korean history.

Despite these limitations, The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a must-read for anyone interested in North Korean history or the human rights abuses that occurred under Kim Il-Sung’s regime. It is a powerful and compelling story of survival and hope in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

Overall, we give The Aquariums of Pyongyang four out of five stars. The book is well-written, compelling, and an important historical document.

We recommend it to anyone looking for a poignant and relevant read.

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