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

Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot — Basic Books, 2001 — 9780465011025

A fascinating look into North Korea and its gulag system. The author and his family were sent to a concentration camp when he was nine years old, for crimes allegedly committed by his grandfather. For ten years they had to survive, amid “re-education” brainwashing sessions, hard labour (even for children), and the constant threat of starvation and death. After he and his family were released, Kang escaped into northern China, and then made his way to Seoul. He was one of the first North Korean defectors who lived in these camps to write about his experiences.

North Korea is a country that continues to fascinate me. The image on the cover of the book shows children singing a song about the Dear Leader (I think during one of their mass games). Look at the emotion on their faces as they sing him praise. You can’t help but wonder if it’s genuine or they simply know it’s required of them. And it’s hard to say which is more terrifying.

There are a number of interesting documentaries out there, including National Geographic’s Inside North Korea (with Lisa Ling), and the Vice Guide to North Korea, which you can watch legally on its site.


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