Riveting more so because of the light that it sheds on perhaps the most secretive society in the world than its compelling narrative, The Aquariums of Pyongyang
presents a view of North Korea's gulag society that is a chilling study of brutality, greed and survivalism on par with some of the greatest stories of despotism to come to us out of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. I think the language barrier prevents some of the direct communication that would have given the narrative a more personal touch. In fact, the formalized ideological speech patterns of his youth probably impose a lasting cadence to Kang Chol-Hwan's voice that often seems remote and observational at moments the reader feels should be incredibly moving. Perhaps it's a coping mechanism as well.
The most painful part of the narrative is the descent of the family from plush prosperity in Japan to imprisonment as political prisoners in the North - commitment to the cause of communism and the Kim dictatorship unjustly rewarded with the denial of life and liberty for no other reason than petty greed. Most surprising to me is Kang's portrayal of North Korean society as disorganized and rampantly corrupt. The outward image projected by the Hermit Kingdom is one of absolute control and order, with the threat of severe punishment so real and close that in an Orwellian sense, to even think disobedience could mean life in the camps or death. Instead, Kang tells of thriving black market sales and the relative ease with which people can travel and acquire needed items or services if you have the ability to grease the wheels. Its a nakedly capitalistic system covered by a thin veneer of communistic ideology, where the threats to your person come not from breaking with the party line necessarily, but from drawing too much unwanted attention to yourself from greedy people with power who use their positions to enrich themselves at your expense. North Korea is full of petty tyrants and people trying more desperately to secure status and a decent standard of living than in the most capitalist of countries (ironic).
There are areas that I felt were lacking. I just had so many questions, that went unanswered - none of which is Kang's fault. Access to information is severely restricted and most people in the North only know what they see directly, which is surprisingly little if you're trying to keep your head down and avoid getting into trouble with the authorities. Believe me, there's plenty in here to get your blood riled up and its day to day accounting of gulag life is thorough. I think what I wanted, and perhaps what I'll look for next, is more of a political study of the country. As horrible a place as North Korea is, it's a fascinating psychosocial experiment. How in the world a regime as brutally repressive as the Kim regime is can exist without suffering from a revolution or large-scale rebellion is beyond me. It certainly took far less oppression in places like France or even Russia for the people to decide to risk life and limb. Why not Korea? Or have the people tried and we just haven't heard? There's so much to learn and so much to hope for for the Korean people in the coming century. I seriously hope I live long enough to see the people parade Kim Jong Un's ridiculously round, absurdly childlike head through the middle of Pyongyang as they march toward unification with their family to the South and a better future. He and his family have to be some of the most evil people to have ever walked the Earth.