The Aquariums of Pyongyang: a book review and interview with a teacher

Having worked in the field of North Korean human rights, I come across accounts of defectors’ experiences in North Korea quite often. However, I am ashamed to admit that it took me years to finally get around to reading this book. Of course, it wasn’t because I had never heard of it until now. Just about everyone I know that works in the field has read The Aquariums of Pyongyang and I feel like it’s even become a sort of rite of passage.

About a month ago, I met with my high school literature teacher, Mrs. Jeanelle Francis. I haven’t seen her and her husband, another teacher at the same school, since I graduated high school six years ago and I wanted to grab lunch to catch up. When she heard that I was working at a non-governmental organization in Seoul on North Korean issues, she got very excited. She began telling me that she had read the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang and then had incorporated it into her AP Literature class lessons. I later asked if she would do an interview for me regarding her experiences teaching the book, which I have included in the article at the bottom. But first, I’d like to discuss my impression of the book.

So after speaking with Jeanelle, I went to the bookstore and picked up my own copy of The Aquariums of Pyongyang and got started. I had obviously put it off for way too long. And I have to say that despite its horrifying content, it’s a beautiful read.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is an autobiography of Kang Chol Hwan, a defector currently living in Seoul working as the director of his own non-governmental organization providing research and services for North Korean defectors in South Korea. He had originally grown up in a North Korean community in Japan as part of a wealthy family. Despite his grandfather’s concerns, his family eventually moved to Pyongyang because of his grandmother’s unwavering loyalty, patriotism, and trust for the North Korean government. It’s a bit ironic actually, and terribly tragic, that they walked themselves into the horrors that were to happen to them.

Upon arriving in North Korea, just as they are getting off the ship, a stranger comes to them and whispers “Why did you come here? Did you not get our letters warning everyone not to come here?” and immediately the reader feels a heart wrenching grief because we know what the stranger means. We know what is going to happen to this unsuspecting family. But Kang’s family is too caught up in the moment as government officials shower them with gifts and greetings to the wealthy newcomers that they miss the warning from the stranger.

For a while everything goes well. The government officials pay visits frequently to keep the family happy and the family members are given jobs in high positions. But this does not last. The visits from the government officials decrease until they no longer come. They are forgotten and even treated differently. One of the most important incidents that prove this is one with Kang’s grandfather’s expensive Volvo that he brought with him from Japan.

“Though growing sulkier by the day, Grandfather did rattle the chains occasionally. Supplied with the necessary paperwork, he sometimes got out the Volvo and took us on trips around the countryside. […] At the time, driving…in a car so emblematic of capitalist ostentation might have been seen as a provocation. […] Yet the police seemed not to notice and gave us what authorizations we needed without much hassle, a solicitude due at least in part to the generous sums my grandfather dispersed among the security force and the state. Later the authorizations became more difficult to come by. Then the police began suggesting my grandfather should voluntarily bequeath his cherished Volvo to the government. The suggestions become recommendations, the recommendations an order. At last my grandfather had to cede his Volvo, most likely to some well-placed police or government official who wanted a nice car in which to strut about town.” (p. 33-34)

It’s easy to see the correlation here. Kang’s grandfather had one thing that held on to from his previous life that brought him some joy and even that had to be taken away.

At the age of nine, Kang and his family is arrested and taken to a concentration camp because of a “fault” of his grandfather’s that is never fully explained by the officials. Kang’s lifestyle in the Yodok concentration camp is brutal and definitely not fitting for any child anywhere. Everyone survives off of corn mush, rat meat, and basically anything edible. They are so hard worked that many people simply fall and never get back up. Kang starkly describes the “death of compassion” at Yodok. “People who are hungry don’t have the heart to think about others,” he writes, explaining how he sees fathers steal from their kids. The conditions are so awful that all that keeps the workers going is their work, which leaves them no time to think, for “[t]here is nothing like thought to deepen one’s gloom.”

But throughout the book, Kang continually reminds the audience of hope. He finds hope in the beauty of the mountains as spring brings it back to life. He finds hope in raising the schoolhouse’s bunnies. And he even finds hope in discovering food in the rats. It’s simply amazing that through everything, Kang is still able to see the world through hopeful eyes, however dim that hope may be.

Now that I’ve shared my impression of the book, I’d like to share with you the interview I did with Mrs. Jeanelle Francis. Jeanelle is an American living in South Korea working as a high school literature teacher at an international school. I thought hers would be an interesting point of view to share.


Interview with Jeanelle Francis 

How did you discover the book Aquariums of Pyongyang?

A friend of mine who was serving in the US military recommended it to me and let me borrow her copy.

What was your overall impression of the book? What did you feel while reading it? What were your favorite/least favorite parts and why?

I was fascinated by this compelling read. While the topic is certainly sobering and heavy, the writing style enables the reader to move along quickly. I was immediately drawn in to the Kang Chol Hwan’s account of his life before, during, and after his imprisonment in the gulag. The descriptions of the physical, emotional, and mental abuse while in the gulag were particularly disturbing, and I was saddened by the skeptical, even cynical, reception Kang received upon arriving in South Korea.

Could you talk a little bit about the title of the book and its importance in regards to how it relates to the content?

From my perspective, “aquariums” relates back to the author’s childhood experience with his fish. They were his one source of joy and delight, but in the process of being taken to the gulag, all the fish died. Perhaps Kang is communicating the message that the North Korean state eliminates the joy, diversity, and color of its citizens. Fish in an aquarium have no privacy or freedom; they are scrutinized and controlled by those over them. Such is life for the North Korean, whether in the gulag or outside the walls.

You mentioned that you had required your AP Literature students to read the book. How did you come to making this decision and what did you hope the students would gain out of reading it?

I require my students to read George Orwell’s 1984, a fictional depiction of a totalitarian state. While reading Aquariums for the first time, I was startled by the parallels between North Korea and Orwell’s Oceania. Since I teach at an international school in South Korea, I knew that comparing these societies and even the protagonists would be a relevant, challenging learning experience for both my students and me. I hoped that my students would realize that the society depicted in 1984 is not so far-fetched and does in fact exist just miles away from our society of luxury and comfort. It is so easy for all of us living in South Korea to take our freedoms and comfort for granted – to become unappreciative and discontent. Reading Aquariums served as both a reality check and a gratitude check, and I hoped it would do the same for my students.

Have you seen a change in the students’ attitudes towards North Korea/human rights/etc after reading the book? What were some of their reactions and thoughts upon reading it?

Four of the five students in my AP Literature class last year were ethnically Korean, and the fifth had lived in Korea for most of his life. Our school is located in Uijongbu, just a few miles from the DMZ, yet we rarely take the time to ponder what is happening to our fellow world citizens next door. My students were shocked, disturbed, and sobered by what they read. They responded passionately and personally to the accounts in the novel. One of my students has family in North Korea (her father’s uncles and aunts), so the reality hit especially close to home for her. I don’t know of the long-term effects on my students, but I know that reading Aquariums illuminated some of the darkness of our ignorance.

As an American teaching in South Korea, what are your thoughts on North Korea and unification?

I have lived and taught in South Korea for over twelve years, and my compassion for those imprisoned by the North Korean government (all the citizens, not just those in the gulag) has grown. My heart aches for those without hope, whether in this life or the one to come, and I have supported those who have the opportunity to offer physical, educational, and spiritual relief to North Koreans.  I do not see unification happening any time in the near future, both because of the propaganda fed to the North Koreans and because of the comfort fed to the South Koreans.


I once had the privilege of meeting Mr. Kang Chol Hwan for an interview actually. This was before I had read his book but of course I had known who he was. My first impression of Mr. Kang was that he is very reserved and careful with his words but also very observant. Having now read the book, it makes me wonder how much living in the camp has affected who he is now. As a child, he used to have such a lively and spirited personality. It’s just incredibly sad how such experiences will change and even break a person. Not that Mr. Kang is broken. Quite the contrary. He is now a successful writer and a director of an NGO that does good for the defector community.

And so it seems that hope does prevail after all.

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