The Aquariums of Pyongyang

The Aquariums of Pyonguang is the memoirs of Kang Chol-hwan, a man who spent ten years in a North Korean gulag and then eventually made it to the South. It’s an undeniable, haunting tale of Kang’s grizzly transformation from a believer of the Kim family’s godhood to a “renegade.”

Between reading this book and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans memoir, it’s saddening to see the most ardent and passionate supporters of communism become so jaded and depressed to find that communism wasn’t necessarily the solution against the Japanese and other groups. I think though for Kang’s family it was a bit worse than Jung Chang, because of his grandmother’s urgings, the family left their lives in Japan to return to the fatherland only to be separated and thrown into a gulag.

The author mentions several times how hard it was/is for him to convey everything that he experienced, witnessed, was taught in the North to South Koreans. That South Koreans want to believe that there are well taken care of civilians in the North, the negative accusations about the North are all lies of the States, he’s been called a liar, etc. When I read that, I remembered last summer (2008) when The Crossing* opened in South Korea, practically every South Korean denounced the film as a “hollywood” propaganda against the North, that it was too fantastical to be true, etc. and I remember talking with a friend of mine who’s also a kyopo and being surprised and aghast at the denial and indifference of the human right abuses in North Korea that have been decently well documented by the West.

*The Crossing is a movie based on the real life of a North Korean family, who falls on hard times when the mother is diagnosed with a curable sickness, but the father must make a desperate attempt to make it to South Korea to get the medication. Not long after he makes it to the border between North Korea and China, his wife dies and his son tries to make his way through plenty of disastrous side trips, including watching his best friend/childhood love eventually die (played by the eerily Dakota Fanning similar, Joo Da Yeong) to find his father. Eventually they are reunited in South Korea, but not without some mishaps, like the father being accused of being a drug dealer.

It was interesting the comment he made about being in a country that idolized the Kim family to the point of godhood, but at the same time he became aware of God’s existence, it was way for him to accept God and to reject his earlier idolization of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il.

I think that it’s sadly shocking, at least to me, that South Korea as a whole is more outraged by every little thing that Japan does, the American soldiers stationed in the country, than the estimated 3 million people who died because of starvation. The author points out, something that I didn’t know, that ROK either didn’t show up to vote or abstained during UN resolutions aimed at North Korea’s human rights abuses, because officially, they didn’t want to upset the path of “peace” and “dialogue” that they were/are trying to open with North Korea.

I’m a realist, I doubt that there will ever be reconciliation/reunification in my homeland during my lifetime, without a cataclysmic war entirely destroying one part of the peninsula, but then again more young people than ever are against reunification because they don’t want to become poor or loss some standard of wealth that they’ve experienced since birth here in South Korea.


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