The Aquariums of PyongYang by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
For ten years in his youth, Kang was a prisoner in Yodok, a North Korean concentration camp geared toward “reeducating” ideological traitors and their families. Kang’s grandfather had been arrested and “disappeared” for treasonous acts against the Fatherhood, Kim Il-sung. What’s likely is that the wealthy Korean-Japanese Kang clan had overstepped their boundaries; were fish out of water by being Korean Japanese, and though the grandmother was a rabid communist believer, the family managed to remain wealthy and to curry favor with their wealth until their ten-year imprisonment under primitive and inhumane conditions. Facing starvation, Kang as a boy learned to trap rats and steal food to supplement the meager diet provided to prisoners by the guards–themselves virtual prisoners in the Yodok compound. Harrowing in its details, this book caught the attention of President George W. Bush. While the story is compelling, gruesome, and written as a call to action, what’s missing is the context of Korean history. We gain an eyewitness account to the life of extreme wealth and privilege and then impoverishment and imprisonment in North Korea, but since the narrator was a young child who was indoctrinated by propaganda, it’s unavoidable that his account lacks the broader perspective of both South Korea’s point of view and the long history of East Asia and the traditions that have pitted Korea against Korea since the war. A rich and disturbing story, well told. Translated from French by Yair Reiner.