BOOKS: by William L. James (reviewer)News Weekly
The Aquariums Of Pyongyang: Ten Years In The North Korean Gulag
, March 8, 2003
THE AQUARIUMS OF PYONGYANG: TEN YEARS IN THE NORTH KOREAN GULAG
By Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
Translated by Yair Reiner
French edition 2000, English translation 2001
Basic Books Price: $31.00The worst feature of this book is its clunky title.
Kang Chol-hwan's grandparents were Koreans living a prosperous life in Japan, when they were inveigled into returning to North Korea after the Korean War. He grew up in what was, by North Korean standards, a comfortable life in Pyongyang.
Then in 1977, at the age of nine, he was arrested along with most of his family, and sent off to a labour camp for ten years of "re-education". His crime? His grandfather
had passed complimentary remarks about capitalist countries.
One of the luxuries he left behind was a collection of exotic fish - hence the name of the book. "Aquariums" might be intended to convey the idea of captivity and constant openness to scrutiny, but this metaphor breaks down when it is remembered that their piscine inhabitants are also pampered, well-fed and protected.
These last three adjectives could scarcely be applied to the Yodok "special dictatorship zone". Although it did not belong to the most severe category of North Korean incarceration, in which prisoners are literally worked to death in the shortest possible time, it was quite bad enough. Kang Chol-hwan and his family were so hungry that they ate insects, rats and frogs.
They also suffered beatings, cold, vermin, filth, untreated sickness, and unremitting labour (mining, tree-felling) in lethally dangerous working conditions. Recalcitrance was punished with a crippling form of solitary confinement, or execution in front of the assembled camp. Such education as was provided for the children was based on the works of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. All prisoners had to participate in criticism and self-criticism meetings.
The summary on the cover claims that this is the first published account by a survivor of the North Korean camp system. This fact highlights an important paradox of human rights culture: the worse a tyranny is, the more successfully it prevents any examination of its operations, and the less likely it is to provoke any media attention (let alone condemnation!) from the West. Especially if there are no pictures.
This principle is illustrated by the Western media's greater interest in human rights abuses on the part of democratic South Korea, than in the totalitarianism of its northern neighbour. It was perhaps most classically demonstrated by the Vietnam War. Relatively lax media supervision by the anti-communist forces produced iconic images such as the running naked girl covered in napalm, and the Saigon police chief shooting a Viet Cong suspect. There are no extant photographs of communists systematically slaughtering the civilians of Hue.
The most recent global report of the respected human rights organisation Amnesty International contains one page
on North Korea, the worst dictatorship in the world. This is less space than it devotes to the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea, Israel or Australia! Even the article on North Korea (written by Kang Chol-hwan's co-author, Pierre Rigoulot) in that invaluable vade-mecum The Black Book Of Communism
, while doing its best with the resources available, is forced to conclude:
"In North Korea, perhaps more than anywhere else, the effects of Communism are difficult to translate into numbers. Some of the reasons are insufficient statistical data, the impossibility of carrying out any field research, and the inaccessibility of all the relevant archives".
The Western media's lack of concern over North Korea's human rights record stands as a monumental indictment of the selectivity of its moral indignation. Here is a regime which is worse than all previous causes celebres such as apartheid-era South Africa and Pinochet's Chile, and which has, inter alia,
starved to death one tenth of its population.
If North Korea's leadership were even remotely connected with the United States, it would be confronted by a continual barrage of demonstrations, embassy stormings, vigils, committees, pamphlets, posters and passionate resolutions across the world. As it is, the Pyongyang regime normally has no more to fear from the global media than the occasional feature article on the eccentricities of the Dear Leader and the quaintness of his fiefdom.
Even in the midst of the current crisis over North Korea's nuclear capabilities, the plight of its people is seldom discussed. The international left-wing protest industry works itself into a fine lather over the starvation of Iraqi children, because it can blame it on an American-led sanctions policy (despite the fact that the responsibility lies squarely with Saddam Hussein). But there is no ideological mileage to be gained from highlighting the starvation of Korean kids. Hence, silence.
It is tempting to wonder whether some journalists and academics would rather be accused of paedophilia than anti-communism.
After his release, Kang Chol-hwan escaped via China and by 1992 had reached South Korea. There he was bemused to encounter radical chic. Middle-class radicals told him that "at least the North wasn't corrupted by the fierce, never-ending battle for profit".
Rather than argue with such impenetrable stupidity, he responded in the only appropriate way: "Go to the North, and you'll stop trying to excuse all Kim Il-sung's failures. Go find out for yourselves". Starry-eyed leftists weren't the only novelty he encountered in the free world. There was also religion.
While in the North, he had listened to forbidden Christian broadcasts from the South, buried along with his illegal radio under a pile of blankets to prevent eavesdropping from neighbouring apartments. They had impressed him with their emphasis on love and respect for one's fellow human beings. North Korean radio, by contrast, concentrated on the inculcation of hatred for designated targets such as imperialists and class enemies.Social control
When he settled in the South, he joined a church and was baptised. Oddly enough, in view of this, he also expresses his appreciation for Seoul's openly available pornography, of which he seems to have availed himself.
North Korea's administration is extremely strict regarding relations between the sexes, not out of any concern for "family values", since it arbitrarily orders divorces and abortions, but - shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four
- for purposes of social discipline and control.
Kang Chol-hwan concludes with three broad recommendations to his readers.
First, we must provide food for starving North Koreans, even at the risk of its being misdistributed.
Secondly, we must do all we can to publicise the crimes of the North Korean Government and bring it under international pressure to reform. Thirdly, we must expose Kim Jong-il's cynical manipulation of the reunification issue by insisting that it can only take place on the basis of democracy and the rule of law.
From a literary point of view, this is not an outstanding book, which is not to say that it is not readable. I finished it in a single sitting. The translation contains homophonic spelling mistakes,. e.g., roll/role, and the style is sometimes quaintly uncolloquial, as in "Myriad are the stories...".
Solzhenitsyn it isn't, but it is often reminiscent of him and, in its way, just as important.