The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan & Pierre Rigoulot – Reviewed by Guy Portman
In the preface for this the revised edition, the author Kang Chol-Hwan is living in relative obscurity in South Korea when he is invited to the Oval Office to meet with President George W. Bush to discuss the plight of the North Korean people. The author’s belief is that George W. acted as a divine tool in bringing the plight of North Koreans to the World’s attention. Whilst some of us may have a rather different opinion of George W., there is no doubt that the then president’s influence was of great assistance in bringing this book to international prominence.
After an introduction outlining the recent history of the Korean peninsula, Chol-Hwan begins his life story. Though born in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, his family had previously been living in Japan, as ‘zainichi’, Japanese residents of Korean heritage. The family had flourished in their adopted country, accumulating significant wealth. However the author’s grandmother’s communist ideals had eventually led to the family emigrating from Japan and moving to North Korea. A decision they were to later deeply regret.
Chol Hwan reminisces on his early years living in an upmarket city apartment with his family and an assortment of aquariums as a contented time. However this period in his life comes to an abrupt end when aged nine his grandfather allegedly provokes the ire of the authorities and is removed to a prison camp, never to be seen again. A short while later the police arrive at the apartment and as is the custom in North Korea, the immediate family of the political prisoner, though in this case with the exception of the mother, are taken away. After a lengthy journey, the vehicle eventually draws to a halt and the young boy clasping his last remaining aquarium is deposited in his new home, Yodok, a vast, squalid and unsanitary prison camp, surrounded by an electrified fence. A world characterised by relentless hunger, bestial conditions, guard cruelty and the omnipresent threat of punishment and even public execution, an event the author is to later witness. Despite the punitive working schedule and never ending struggle for survival in this bleak environment, the narrative is interspersed with numerous anecdotes from the author’s time spent at the camp school and interactions with other prisoners.
Ten years after the family’s incarceration, they are informed unexpectedly that they are to be freed, presumably due to the grandfather’s death in another camp. After a period spent working in the provinces, Chol-Hwan escapes and flees across the border, before making the hazardous journey to South Korea and a new life in the capitalist metropolis that is Seoul.
It is unfortunate that a book with such a fascinating subject matter is so poorly narrated. One can only presume the blame lies with the co-author and the translator, as the prose is often awkward, whilst the incessant overuse of commas is intrusive. The reader is left with no emotional attachment to any of the book’s numerous characters and it is as if they are devoid of the emotions, characteristics and habits that make us individuals. The book purports to serve as an account of Chol Hwan’s life, yet it contains the passing of moral judgement on virtually every event and decision that takes place when the facts alone would have sufficed. Nevertheless The Aquariums of Pyongyang serves as a valuable account of life in North Korea, though I would argue considerably inferior to the other two books I have read on the subject; Nothing to Envy and Escape from Camp14.