Book Review: Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

Since I am living in South Korea, I decided that it would be good to educate myself on the issues that are in the society. One of those being refugees from North Korea. There is quite a number of them actually and some have written books about their experience living in the somewhat mysterious Northern neighbour.

So I decided to get this book, even though on the back it said that George W. Bush read this when he wanted to learn about North Korea, it just sort of made me curious as to how this book was written.

The author starts the book off by writing about how life was like for him and his family before they are sent to a labour camp. He describes a good life that has a lot of elements of what most people would call a 'normal' life: children going to school, celebrating holidays with your family, etc.

Mixed in with those 'normal' elements are the typical things you would expect from North Korea: honouring their Great Leader in every aspect of their life.

The author also gives very important background information about his family (his paternal grandparents lived in Japan) and their involvement in politics which is very relevant to why his family ended up in the camp.

The North Korean government is a very suspicious government, they need to keep an eye on everyone and make examples out of people in order to retain their legitimacy and power over the country. The second people start question government, any government, is when changes happen that could spark a number of events including political revolutions which is the very event dictators fear the most. So it makes sense that this government is constantly questing everyone's loyalty and bringing up past events to hold against people.

While the author does not seem to know the specific event that caused his world to get turned upside down, and to be honest I don't think anyone actually would be able to know this, the worse happens and he comes home to see the authorities in his house and is told his grandfather said something (which means he will never see him again) and now the whole family is under suspicion for not being loyal (including the author who was nine at the time).

The majority of this book takes place at the work camp they are sent to and the author is very good at giving an extremely detailed account of the camp and his time spent there which was about ten years. He spent the rest of his childhood, and his teenage years in a work camp and managed to grow through it and not be subjected to any extreme amounts of torture that he describes in the book.

It was during this time that he also had a lot of time to think about how his life was and how the country worked. You get to see him slowly change his way of thinking which is very interesting.

After the ten years he continued to live in North Korea for a bit until one day he decided to leave and thus began his experience as a refugee. This part of the book seemed really rushed and it is only told in a few chapters near the end. At one point I felt as though I had missed the entire journey as it was not described in such detail as life in the camp was. However this was not intended as a "This is how I escaped book" but more of a book to educate people on what happens to some people who lose their status as a loyal member.

Obviously as soon as a book like this is published the controversies appear and people begin to question the authenticity of it. I think that for the most part every word is the truth and while some things may have been slightly changed or exaggerated I don't think it is fair to criticize someone who went through such terrible things from the time he was nine, Also it does not take away from the purpose of the book which was to tell the world that things are not good, in fact they are really bad for some people. Yes certain parts of North Korea I'm sure seem 'normal' and some people genuinely like the government and benefit from it. However there are always, in every dictatorship, the portion of the population who has to suffer for the country and government and that is something that most people hope will change.

I think if you found any of the above interesting and are wanting to get a better understanding of life there I think you should read this book, it really does give a good picture of what it is like to live and work and grow in a work camp. With every book like this though, keep in mind it is perspective and as I stated above some people still actually love the country and leader and would never escape, and some go through hell and decide that they no longer believe in or trust in what they thought they did.

Happy Reading.

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