Kang, Chol-Hwan 1968(?)-
KANG, Chol-Hwan 1968(?)-
PERSONAL: Born 1968(?).
CAREER: Journalist and author.
(With Pierre Rigoulot) Les aquariums de Pyongyang: dix ans au goulag, Laffont (Paris, France), 2000, English translation by Yair Reiner published as The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Korean journalist Kang Chol-Hwan published a well-received book, cowritten with Pierre Rigoulot, about his experiences as a political prisoner, titled The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag. Many literary critics considered the book an important work because it has been one of the first to shed light on North Korea's policy of imprisoning many of its own citizens for political reasons in the years since North and South Korea became separate nations. "The important thing about this book is that it is the first detailed account of life in North Korea to reach the outside world," wrote Peter Walker, reviewing the book for the Financial Times.
Kang spent all of his teen years in a remote labor camp called Yodok, which is surrounded by several mountain chains. Kang, who now lives and works as a journalist in Seoul, South Korea, was sent to Yodok in 1977 with his entire family because his grandfather was accused of counterrevolutionary tendencies by North Korea's Communist government. His grandfather, like many other Yodok prisoners, had lived in Japan during the 1930s and amassed a fortune. When the Communist Party took over North Korea, many of the Koreans living in Japan returned home to help build the new nation. After taking the financial fortunes of these people, however, the government sent thousands of them to prison without even giving many of them a trial.
In The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag, Kang describes the deplorable conditions he endured at Yodok, where public executions, beatings. and rapes were common occurrences and the daily diet included rats and frogs. Kang, who testified about his Yodok experiences before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1999, also describes in the book how the children at the camp were put through daily indoctrination lessons by Communist Party teachers, who often murdered students they did not like. Despite these daily lessons, Kang writes that during his imprisonment the only lesson he came away with was the one "pounded into me . . . about man's limitless capacity to be vicious." Kang and his family members were inexplicably released from the prison in 1987. Kang explains that when he learned that they were to be released, he felt a flood of happiness tempered by both guilt and some fear. "I was actually afraid of leaving the place, of no longer seeing those mountain ridges all around me. Deep down, I had come to love . . . the bars of my prison," Kang writes. Shortly after being freed, Kang escaped to South Korea.
Charles W. Hayford of Library Journal called the book an "affecting and directly written memoir" that is "important to record and witness." Not all critics were impressed with Kang's writing ability, though they still noted the book's importance. "Kang's memoir is notable not for its literary qualities, but for the immediacy and drama of the personal testimony," wrote a contributor for Publishers Weekly.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Christianity Today, August 6, 2001, Jeff M. Sellers, "Forgotten Gulag," p. 62.
Financial Times, January 12, 2002, Peter Walker, "Documentary of a Dictatorship," p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2001, review of The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag.
Library Journal, October 1, 2001, Charles W. Hayford, review of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, p. 126.
New American, February 11, 2002, Thomas R. Eddlem, review of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly, July 30, 2001, review of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, p. 72.
Reader's Digest, December, 1993, David Tracey, review of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, p. 149.*