The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
North Korea is among the most opaque nations on earth, its regime noted for repression and for the personality cult of its father and son leaders, the late Kim Il Sung and his successor, Kim Jong Il. Kang Chol-hwan draws from firsthand experience in explaining the repression. After the division of North and South Korea, Kang's family returned to North Korea from Japan, where his grandparents had emigrated in the 1930s and where his grandfather had amassed a fortune and his grandmother became a committed Communist. They were fired with idealism and committed to building an edenic nation. Instead, the family was removed without trial to a remote concentration camp, apparently because the grandfather was suspected of counter-revolutionary tendencies. Kang Chol-hwan was nine years old when imprisoned at the Yodok camp in 1977. Over the next ten years, he endured inhumane conditions and deprivations, including an inadequate diet (supplemented by frogs and rats), regular beatings, humiliations and hard labor. Inexplicably released in 1987, the author states that the only lesson his imprisonment had "pounded into me was about man's limitless capacity to be vicious." Kang's memoir is notable not for its literary qualities, but for the immediacy and drama of the personal testimony. The writing, as translated by Reiner, is unadorned but serviceable, a style suited to presenting one man's account of a brutalized childhood. Kang now lives in South Korea, where he is a journalist; his co-author Rigoulot was a contributor to The Black Book of Communism. Together, they have added a chapter to the tales of horror that have come out of Asia in recent years.
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