Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: The Aquariums of Pyongyang

Hwan's purpose in writing this book is to expose to the world the horrors of North Korea's gulags. Hwan spent ten years, from age nine to nineteen, as a political prisoner in the concentration camp Yodok, deep in the North Korean mountains. At Yodok Hwan and other prisoners like him were nearly starved, worked to death, and indoctrinated in the cult of the great leader, Kim Il-Sung. What did Hwan do to deserve all of this? He happened to be the grandson of a man who might have spoken out against North Korea's corrupt regime.

Hwan's account of his life in the camp is undeniably horrifying. He draws connections between North Korea's camps and those of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. His memoir certainly offers insight into how such a corrupt dictatorship manages to sustain itself. In North Korea transgressors are not the only ones punished; their relatives are punished too.

North Korea clearly thrives on secrecy, and shining a light on the dreadful human rights abuses perpetuated there is undeniably an important part of trying to end them. That said, this memoir is less literary and more political in outlook. It is sometimes less concerned with nuance, and more concerned with making a political point. Still, for those unfamiliar with how North Korea operates, this is important reading.

Kang Chol-Hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (Basic Books, 2005) ISBN: 0465011047

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