“The Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot is a memoir that reveals the truth about North Korea’s concentration camps, government and life inside the hermit kingdom.
Author Chol-hwan was born in 1968 in Pyongyang, North Korea. At age 9, he was sent, along with his family, to Yodok Concentration Camp after his grandfather was accused of treason. He spent 10 years in the prison camp. Inside, he suffered from brutal living conditions, starvation and hard labor. To survive he had to eat whatever he could, including rats, insects and worms. As a child at camp, he witnessed unimaginable horrors and saw both children and adults die from work accidents and public executions.
After being released, Mr. Kang was suspected of illegally listening to South Korean radio stations and decided to escape to North Korea. He crossed into China in 1992 and eventually reached South Korea. In 2000, he published the autobiographical “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”
Pierre Rigoulot is a journalist, historian, and human rights activist. He is the author of numerous books on the history of political repression and contributed the North Korean chapter to the bestselling “The Black Book of Communism.”
1) North Korea is filled with police, Informants & surveillance
When I read this quote, “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn popped into my mind, and it turns out these two books have a lot in common. Both authors talk about the constant state of surveillance and policing in their countries.
Chol-hwan writes that “Since North Korea has always maintained that war is imminent and that enemies are everywhere...little surprise, then, that our school buildings were under twenty-four-hour surveillance” (pg 64).
Even after being released from the concentration camp, Chol-hwan and his family were constantly being watched, by both security agents and “ubiquitous snitches, who were just as plentiful on the outside as they had been in the camp. Everyone in North Korea, of course, is under surveillance; as for former prisoners, ours was just a little tighter” (pg 162).
Just as in the Soviet Russia where Solzhenitsyn said one in four people were informants, Chol-hwan writes “informants were at every turn. There was no one to confide in, no way to tell who was who” (pg 77). Chol-hwan continues by saying that within a few months, he had developed a sixth sense–a snitched radar if you will.
He also says that prisoners were usually picked for the job of being an informant without being asked for his or her opinion and in most cases, the person is not proud of having that job. It took Chol-hwan some time to realizes that these snitches were more victims of the systems rather than agents of voluntary evil.
2) Education in North Korea is Radically different from the West
In addition to learning about communism and the history of the revolution, Chol-Hwan and his classmates were demanded to learn ‘important dates’ such as on what hour and day their leader was born and which speeches he gave on certain dates.
Chol-hwan and his friends were taught that “Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function.” He goes on to say that “I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated” (pg 3).
For afterschool activities, students could join the Pupil’s Red Army, where students were given fake machine guns and learned how to form ranks and march. In high school, students were taught how to hide from enemy planes, memorized emergency air-raid instructions and how to steer the population to the nearest air-raid station.
However, once Chol-hwan entered the concentration camps, things got much worse. Teachers often beat the students for almost any reason. One teacher, sometimes punished his students by making them stand naked in the courtyard all day with their hands behind their backs. Another form of punishment was latrine duty where students had to empty and clean the septic tanks for a week.
Chol-hwan remembers an event when an instructor beat up a student so savagely that the student wobbled when he tried to stand up and fell into a septic tank. The student was so weak after being punched and kicked by the instructor, that he couldn’t get out of the tank. None of the students helped the poor kid, and after a long struggle, the student finally managed to crawl out. However, even when he got out, no one came to help him wash up or bandage his wounds. A few days later the student died.
When the student’s mother came to see the teacher, the teacher replied by saying her son deserved the punishment he got and that he wasn’t responsible for the child's death. Chol-hwan remembers that same teacher saying “Since your parents are counter-revolutionaries, they deserve to die, and you, their children, along with them” (pg 68).
3) A Strong Will Is Needed To Survive The Camps
Chol-hwan goes on to say that he didn’t learn that from his teachers, but rather from his fellow students, some of whom had been in the camp for close to three years. They also told him that to survive, he should steal corn and soybeans during the fall and save them for winter and spring.
The author and his classmates would eat whatever they could find in the camps. This included frogs and their eggs, salamanders, and rats...lots of rats. Since they reproduced so quickly, rats were the only food product in the camp that was never in short supply.
Chol-hwan writes that fighting malnutrition was more punishing than mistreatment by the guards, likely because guards would strike fast and quick while hunger was slow and lasted for days if not weeks.
To survive in the camps, Chol-hwan had to develop a strong will to live. He says that the more he rubbed shoulders with death, “the more I desired to stay alive, no matter the cost” (pg 103). He adds that he developed “a savage will to live” and although he was faced with constant hunger, cruelty from the guards and horrendous work conditions, his desire to live remained strong and he went on to survive life in the camp.
4) Corruption is rampant in North Korea
Throughout the book, Chol-hwan gives several examples of corruption in North Korea and how both residents and government authorities turn a blind eye to the matter.
When Chol-hwan’s family members from Japan came to visit North Korea, the government would have Security Force agents monitor the family to make sure no mention of the camps were made. However, Chol-hwan writes that if he wanted to have a private discussion, he “only needed to give the agent a little money to go for a walk” (pg 181).
Chol-hwan even had a connection with a certain Security Force agent that “usually took care of my bureaucratic needs in exchange for gifts and loans”. He goes on to say that the agents enjoyed sending people back to the camps and that “Gifts were the only way to keep the agents at bay, and by this point the gifts had to be both lavish and plentiful” (pg 184).
Not only could gifts buy agents, it could also buy judges.
Chol-hwan’s friend once ran over a group of soldiers while speeding in a car going 70 mph. He was then arrested and sentenced to death but was released after serving three months in prison. Chol-hwan writes that with the aid of refrigerators, color televisions, and large envelopes of cash, his friend was able to bribe the judge and get the case dismissed.
5) Even concentration camps can be somewhat nostalgic
This was one of the most shocking parts of the book. In all of the books I’ve read about concentration and POWs camps, no one said they felt sad about leaving the camp. But for Chol-hwan I think it was different because he literally grew up in the Yodok concentration camp. He was sent to the camp at 9 years old and spent 10 years of his life there.
The camp contained many of his childhood memories.
He goes on to write, “My most poignant memories were attached to the place where I had suffered the most. It was a strange, complicated feeling, for Yodok was still a hellish, inhuman place” (pg 159).
Upon further contemplation, Chol-hwan identifies that “the day-to-day struggle for life at camp number 15 was no cause for nostalgic sentimentality” but “I was going to miss the places, the people, the friendships, the shared moments” (pg 159).
BONUS: North Korea’s National Soccer Team Was Sent To Camps
Yes, you read that right.
Chol-hwan writes that he met Park Seung-jin–a North Korean soccer player who played in the 1966 FIFA World Cup–at the Yodok concentration who told him the story of the 1966 World Cup in England.
At the tournament, the North Korean team won 1-0 against Italy and the players went out on a wild drinking binge to celebrate their victory. The players drank long into the night and were seen out in public with some girls.
Two days later, the team hadn’t fully recovered and lost 5-3 to Portugal.
Upon arriving in Korea, the whole team–except for one player who was sick and stayed in the hotel that night–was sent to the camps. Chol-hwan writes that by the time he arrived at Yodok, the former soccer player had already been there almost twelve years.
The worst part is that he was still there when Chol-hwan left the camp. Meaning he was in a concentration camp for over 20 years. That’s 240 months of hell for losing one soccer game...
“The Aquariums of Pyongyang” (2001) by Chol-Hwan and Rigoulot is an incredibly insightful book that reveals the truth about life in North Korea and its concentration camps. Overall, this book is packed with interesting stories and lessons. It’s well-written and the 230 or so pages fly by. There aren’t any dull moments and the author even manages to sprinkle humor throughout the book.
One of the most mind-numbing parts of this book is that the author was sent to the camps as a child and spent ten years of his life there. He literally grew up in the camps.
Most of us have fond memories of our childhood home, playing with kids in the neighborhood and going to school. Chol-Hwan had the same experiences, but his childhood took place in the Yodok concentration camp of North Korea.
Although I’ve read other books about concentration camps, this book offered new insights and a unique look into life in North Korea and how the state functions. The book also teaches readers how propaganda, education, and surveillance are all controlled by the state and used to keep North Korean leaders in power. Readers will also learn about the extreme corruption and poverty in the country.
Concentration camps are a horrible creation. Whether it is a Nazi, Soviet, or North Korean camp, it should not exist. I’m not suggesting we go fly to North Korea to protest or go to war with the country, but as Chol-Hwan writes in his book, the first thing we can all do is educate ourselves about the truth of North Korea and spread the facts about the country to as many people as possible.
People can also help by supporting Chol-hwan’s charity North Korea Strategy Center, that’s focused on providing a platform for North Korean voices. Their programs empower North Koreans within the country with access to information, while supporting defectors outside of North Korea with leadership development programs and international support networks.
Rating: 5/5 stars
If you're interested in getting the book, click on the book below!
- Book: “The Aquariums of Pyongyang”
- Pages: 238
- For: People interested in learning about life in North Korea, concentration camps, and stories of survival
- Lesson: Learn how one man spent ten years in a North Korean concentration camp, escaped and lived to tell his story
If you enjoyed "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" I recommend reading "The Forgotten Highlander" by Alistair Urquhart. Click on the book below to learn more.