Back in January, I noted that I had received several books over Christmas and I was looking forward to reading them. The second book that I ended up reading was The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan.
The author of the book was born in raised in Pyongyang, North Korea. At the age of nine, he and his family were placed in a "re-education" camp to atone for the "wrongs" committed by a relative. This is his story.
I actually finished reading the book a few weeks ago, but it had such a profound impact on me that I wanted to wait a bit before writing about it. If you've ever read Night by Elie Wiesel (an excellent book, by the way) you know exactly what to expect. The re-education camp is a gulag; a modern day concentration camp. Life was brutal and short, and when death came it wasn't always unwelcome.
The difference between Night and Aquariums is actually somewhat profound: the events of Night took place in the 1940s. The events of Aquariums took place in the 70s and 80s. Yet, although the German concentration camps were closed in 1945, the gulags in North Korea are open today. That's right, the disgusting human abuse depicted in this book is happening today. Right now, as we speak.There are thousands and thousands of innocent people enduring starvation, torture, extreme working conditions, and other brutalities as you sit here reading this. That, my friends, is what struck me about this book.
And when I say other brutalities, I mean it. There are some wicked people in this world; this book exposes you to some of the worst. If you have a weak stomach and choose to read this book, I'd highly recommend that you skip the chapter on executions. Just trust me on this one. The other chapters are definitely adequate to describe the absolutely abominable conditions in these camps.
However, I do highly recommend the book. The average American knows far too little about North Korea. There are those who question whether the Korean War was a wasted and senseless conflict. It was not. Reading this book, learning about the savage cruelties brought about by the North Korean government, one will finally understand and appreciate why we had to fight that war and why we stand ready to protect South Korea in the future.