on both sides of the DMZ
Book review by Gavan McCormack
For ABC Radio National, 'Book
Talk' (Jill Kitson: presenter), for broadcast Saturday 1 March
2003, 1:30 pm, repeated Thursday 6 March, 2:30 pm
Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, The Aquariums of Pyongyang
- Ten years in the North Korean Gulag, translated from French by
Yair Reiner, New York, Basic Books, 2001.
Suh Sung, Unbroken Spirits: Nineteen years in South Korea's
Gulag, translated by Jean Inglis and with introduction by James
Palais, New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
After Iraq, North Korea, or so at least it seems is likely. North
Korea is part of the 'axis of evil', a 'rogue state', 'a looming
threat to all nations', that may possess nuclear weapons and missiles
capable of reaching Alaska or Australia. What little is known about
it is mostly dark: it seems to be a kind of Confucian-fascist family
state, built around the cult of the father, Kim Il Sung, and his
son, Kim Jong Il. It is steeped in famine and poverty, given to
extraordinary political rhetoric and bizarre mass games and rituals.
Now we have for the first time in English an account of its gulag
system, a detailed memoir by a survivor who lived in one for a decade
Kang Chol-Hwan, the main author, was born into a well-to-do 'Korean-in-Japan'
family headed by grandmother, a committed communist, and grandfather,
a successful capitalist with some gangster connections who had grown
rich in postwar Japan on running something described as a 'gambling
saloon' opposite Kyoto station. Bartering the wealth into education
and improved social status, the family was, nevertheless, insecure.
Japanese citizens during the imperial period from 1910, Koreans
had been deprived of their Japanese citizenship in the wake of the
war; their status in Japan was uncertain. Their country of origin
was divided after 1945 into separate northern and southern systems,
from 1948, states, which were at war from 1950 to 1953. The line
of division drawn at the end of the war has remained to this day.
Koreans, though born and raised in Japan, were not Japanese citizens.
During the 1960s the North looked an attractive option and there
was a steady flow of such 'Koreans in Japan' who 'returned' to it,
to a country they did not know, to join in construction of the North
Korean fatherland as a socialist paradise. The Kang family packed
everything, even their 'late model Volvo (which at that time indicated
quite extraordinary wealth), and sailed for North Korea as part
of this movement.
Chol-Hwan's grandmother became a deputy to the Supreme People's
Assembly, and for a time the family retained a great deal of privilege,
as well as their Volvo, and lived near the embassy quarter. Chol-Hwan
was born in Pyonggyang around 1968, and his childhood and early
boyhood seem to have been happy-enough. He writes warmly of his
primary school teachers at 'The School of the People' in the Pyongyang
of the early 1970s. In 1977, however, all of this ended. His capitalist
grandfather disappeared, apparently arrested for treason, and shortly
afterwards the whole family (with the exception of grandmother)
was sent to the countryside. Chol-hwan was then 9 years of age.
Yodok camp was to be his home for 10 years.
Yodok was, says Kang even a little guiltily, 'by no means the toughest
camp' (75). Mostly, it accommodated returnees from Japan. Other
camps housed 'members of landowning families, capitalists, US or
South Korean agents, Christians, or members of purged Party circles
deemed noxious to the state'(76), most likely between 150,000 and
200,000 people in all. Things may indeed have been worse in some
At Yodok, Chol-Hwan spent his boyhood, from age 9 to 19, first
in a school more noted for its brutality than for any educational
quality, then in various work gangs. Throughout, however, his energies
were devoted to surviving: stealing food from the camp kitchens
or fields, searching out wild berries or hunting and catching snakes,
fish, frogs, or rabbits to supplement the starvation rations. It
was a hard and unrelenting life. It was occasionally terrifying
- he witnessed 15 public executions - but there were also times
that uplifted his boyish spirit: the encounter with a bear in the
mountains, his shared feast with friends on a snake, his joy at
the wondrous scenery. In his later years in the camp, by then a
teenager, he found himself at various times the camp custodian of
rabbits, bees, or sheep, and hunter for wild ginseng. His uncle
became manager of the camp distillery and seems to have wielded
considerable power. Eventually, inexplicably, the family was released,
and after some years surviving on his wits, trading on the black
market and on moneys sent him from Japan, Chol-Hwan escaped to South
The story is scarcely a classic, though readers will be moved by
its grim, sad, angry, honest account of the life of the child survivor.
For this reviewer, the problem of the book is not the moving descriptions
of camp life but the frame within which it is presented, as one
more example of the atrocity of communism. One assumes that this
is the contribution of co-author, Frenchman Pierre Rigoulot, a contributing
editor to the Black Book of Communism.
By an odd coincidence, however, another Korean gulag story was
published in the very same year, 2001, also in New York, also dealing
with a former Kyoto resident, one who endured not 10 but 19 years
of horror under even worse conditions including torture, before
being released just a little after Chol-Hwan, in 1990. This account,
however, is of a gulag in South Korea. Unbroken Spirits: Nineteen
years in South Korea's Gulag tells the story of a political
prisoner in South Korea, Suh Sung, now a professor at a University
in Kyoto, who was convicted on trumped-up political charges in 1971
and not released from prison till 1990. When Kang arrived in Seoul,
which seemed the epitome of freedom, Suh was still in his gulag.
Kang and Rigoulot present their picture of wickedness and cruelty,
roguishness or 'evil', in simple terms that even George W. Bush
would understand. What is missing is any sense of Korean history,
the half century of Japanese colonialism, the externally imposed
division, the terrible civil war, turned by external intervention
into a catastrophe, the prolonged Cold War. Paradoxically, the picture
presented by Suh Sung is almost the reverse image of this: of brutality
and oppression under anti-communism. Even writing in 2000, ten years
after his release, Suh can focus only on his South Korean gulag,
seemingly blind to the problem of North Korea's gulag system. Both
accounts, in other words, remain steeped in Cold War thinking.
As for Kang Chol-Hwan, his escape into South Korea almost coincided
with the victory of the democratic revolution in that country, yet
he seems to have been unaware of the huge transition that had just
taken place. All he tells us is that when he got to Seoul around
1989 he found freedom, coca-cola - his first swallow was so wonderful
that it cured his cold (191) - and a job. At the time, Suh Sung
was still in prison, released the following year. Freedom was a
fresh shoot in South Korea, but for Kang, enjoying his coke, it
is as if the free world, being non- and anti-communist, was unconditionally
and indisputably free. Suh could tell him that democracy was all
too recent, and had been won at a high price.
One dearly wishes therefore for a book that would offer us a dialogue
between Kang, prisoner in the North Korean labour camp for 10 years,
and Suh, political prisoner in South Korea for 19 years. When each
can feel grief and outrage over the brutality and violence inflicted
on the other, perhaps then Korea north and south will be able to
move towards its democratic future, one without gulags of any kind.