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

Neither Laura Ling nor Euna Lee spent time in a North Korean labour camp, yet a boy and his family spent nearly ten years in such confinement from 1977 to 1987. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot tells the story of nine-year-old Kang and his family who were forced to uproot their lives with no advance notice and make the trip to the remote Yodok concentration camp.

Kang’s family’s only crime was sharing the same household with his grandfather, whose crimes against the state remain a mystery. The grandfather was abducted at work and never saw his family again. We learn from Aquariums that he was sent to a more brutal concentration camp, where he later died. Meanwhile, everyone who shared the same household as the “counterrevolutionary” grandfather had to pay the price of cohabiting with a rebel to the state. The entire extended family, including uncles and children, regardless of age, were sent to Yodok. Aquariums contains one family photo at the front of the book, and when I read the caption I honestly thought that there must have been a printing error, since the caption read: “Author (right), age 19, one year after his release from the Yodok labor camp…”. I did not believe, nor could I imagine, that North Korea would send a child to a labour camp. I thought that the age must have been wrong; surely Kang was 29 in the photo and not 19. As I read Aquariums I soon realized that the caption was accurate and Kang, as well as his then seven-year-old sister, both suffered for a decade in a concentration camp. 

The suffering endured by the family, and the children especially, will break your heart. There were times when I was afraid to turn the page for fear of what barbaric brutality the children would suffer, or witness, next. Not since American Psycho have I been so fearful of turning a page: and this is a true story. The family lived in a small cabin and barely survived on starvation rations of corn. And only corn. Thus deficiency diseases prevailed, like pellagra, and the family supplemented their diet by catching rats, salamanders, worms and insects, which in turn cured their pellagra. 

Yodok life was nonstop work and Party indoctrination. Children under fifteen went to morning school, where they learned quickly that the teachers didn’t care for them. The students could quite easily preoccupy themselves silently with something else during class, or even doze off, and the teachers couldn’t be bothered. Since Kang’s school life before Yodok involved listening to and memorizing speeches by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, he did not find such Party indoctrination at Yodok out of the ordinary. The savagery inflicted upon the students in the labour camp after class, however, had the opposite effect of what the Party indoctrination hoped to accomplish: 

“A couple of years was all it took for the camp to utterly change a child. Instead of turning us into stalwart admirers of our Great Leader’s regime, as it was intended to do, the camp taught us how to rebel, jeer, and mock anything vaguely whiffing of authority. Within a year or two of arriving, a prisoner lost every scintilla of respect he might have had for the Party. Our disdain spread like gangrene, beginning with the guards, then slowly, inexorably, making its way up to the great leaders.” 

One was constantly watched at the camp, and not only by armed guards, but also by fellow prisoners, who were compelled to “snitch” on their neighbours. Those who were selected to be snitches could not refuse, and although they were supposed to be invisible and blend in with the inmates, it did not take a long time for camp residents to figure out who among them was telling the authorities. Everyone had to watch what he said and learned that the best thing to do was to say nothing, no matter how innocuous a remark might seem. When Kang sees a woman crying over a recently deceased relative, he writes: 

“…I came across a group of people from my village standing around a woman who was loudly weeping and venting her sorrows about something. As I joined the crowd, I gathered she was lamenting the death of a relative, whose body was apparently still in the family hut. “Ah, why did you die so quickly?” she kept saying. “Why did you depart this cursed world?” The unhappy woman must not have noticed that a well-known snitch was in the crowd, as well as the leader of one of the work brigades. Her son, who was also there, saw the danger and tried desperately to catch her eye. It took him a while, but he finally did it, at which point the mother did a complete turnabout. “Oh,” she continued without the slightest transition, “why did you leave this world, which had become so happy under the wise governance of our Great Leader?” No one dared to laugh, but after that, neither could anyone cry.” 

Children were made to attend public executions and participate in the stoning of deceased hanged corpses. Public executions also included death by firing squad and Kang’s accounts of these experiences will turn your stomach. 

In spite of the daily horror of concentration camp life, Kang managed a rare smile in his ten years of incarceration. I will quote a paragraph that, while disgusting in content, produced a literal rolling-on-the-ground laughing episode: 

“I remember another informant at Yodok whose specialty was snitching on kids. Once, we decided to exact our revenge by setting a trap for him at a spot he crossed several times a day. There, we dug a hole resembling the fugitive trap we had once discovered up in the mountains. In place of sharpened stakes, we filled the ditch with excrement from the latrines. The trick seemed easy and risk free. As luck had it, the infamous Wild Boar came along first and wound up burying his foot ankle-deep in feces. We saw the whole thing from our little hiding place, and now had every reason to try to keep our location secret; but our teacher was so outraged and was having such a hard time extricating himself from the mess that we just couldn’t restrain ourselves. We started laughing so hard we cried. Within a minute he had us collared and was giving us the thrashing of a lifetime. When he was done, he ordered us to scoop out all the excrement by hand and carry it over to the neighbouring garden plots, where it would serve as fertilizer for the guards’ summer vegetables. The abominable chore took days, during which time several of us saw our hands break out in strange-looking pimples and blisters.” 

Kang and his family are released from Yodok after ten years, and the final third of the book deals with his life as a civilian and as a former political prisoner in North Korea. He and a friend listened to contraband South Korean radio and local snitches inform the authorities, which leads Kang and his friend to make the decision to escape to China. The crime of listening to Southern radio is a sentence to a labour camp, and since Kang and his friend were already both former camp detainees, if they are reapprehended they would face a more brutal concentration camp, from where no one is ever released, or death by execution. 

It is suspenseful to read about Kang’s escape into China, and of his travels throughout China on the underground railroad. Since travel within North Korea is severely restricted even to its own citizens, Kang could not access the northern border region without causing suspicion. Kang fortunately came from a wealthy family and he used his money to bribe North Korean guards, train conductors and ordinary people. According to Kang, the entire North Korean regime is run by greased palms, and by this form of corruption, it is more “capitalist” than the Southern regime the Kim dynasty despises. 

Aquariums is a translation from the original French and translator Yair Reiner made the story sound so alive and full of adolescent phraseology that I would never have guessed that its original language was not English. I recommend The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, which is so far the only first-hand account of life in a North Korean labour camp.

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