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Gulags of 21st century – a story of N. Korean Communist labor camp

February 14, 2010

When Viktor Kravchenko published ‘I Chose Freedom’ in 1946, the world at large came to know about the atrocities of Communism for the first time. Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Mandelstam and Ginzburg followed and at least in academics, there was enough proof to establish that if not worse than, then Communism was at least as bad as Nazism. The dominance of the Left in universities has prevented the truth about Communism to percolate to the masses, but since the fall of the USSR, the flood of memoirs and the research resulting from the opening of the archives in Moscow has confirmed the doubts of the first dissidents.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is another nail in the coffin of Communism. This time the blow comes from North Korea. The system of gulags and concentration camps developed later in North Korea, maturing only in the 70s, and is still continuing.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang tells the story of an emigrant Korean family which returned to North Korea form Japan after ‘the Revolution’ in 1950s in search of a people’s paradise.

His grandfather was a successful businessman in Japan and had his qualms about returning to North Korea. The dream was his grandmother’s. The rest of the family followed.

The warnings began upon their arrival in North Korea. They were given a ramshackle house to live in and after donating all their property to the State they finally got some jobs. Though they were living better off than others, the contrast of the life in North Korea with the life in Japan was hard not to notice.

They all continued in a painful silence, until he grandfather got arrested on the charge of being ‘socially dangerous element’.

The whole family, including chidren, minus mother was sent to Yodok, one of the North Korean gulag. The book is for the most part the description of this gulag. Yodok had natural barriers of mountains and jungles on all sides except one which was fenced. The prisoners did try to escape but most failed and those who were caught were publicly executed, often stoned to death.

The description of one such public execution reminds the reader of stoning to death in Islam, a process which not only terrifies the would-be transgressors, but also fuels the hatred towards those who dare to oppose the totalitarian regime. One cannot help but make comparisons between the two inhuman ideologies.

Food rations, being typically gulag, were hardly above the starvation levels, and so the inmates were reduced to eat rats and live salamanders.

While the Soviet gulags had cold cells, North Korean ones have ‘sweat boxes’ in which one is left to survive on cockroaches and other insects in a crouching position.

The book is an average account of a great tragedy, the still continuing North Korean gulags. The author is not a great artist and falls short of the great prison memoirists like Ginzburg and Solzhenitsyn. What makes the book remarkable is the immense human tragedy which speaks through the simple and direct words of the author.

Although the homage to George W. Bush in the preface and the warm view of Christian proselytizers spoils it a little bit. The title is also not very appropriate. The author used to keep an aquarium in his house in Pyongyang, which he took to the gulag as one thing to carry. The fishes kept dying until the last one died after some months into the gulag… hence the name. However the title gives a feeling as if the life in Pyongyang was what there was to desire against all the atrocities of Communism. Something related to eating rats and salamanders would have been a better choice.

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