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. Continue reading

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An Unfinished Conversation

Everyone has his or her share of problems, prejudices, sorrows. But even so, I don’t believe in unadulterated hatred. And I know what it is to be angry and upset. I know what it feels like to be disadvantaged because of history, discrimination, and imperialism. I know what it means when I can’t fight off the ignorance of a million people. It means that I have only to clear away my own ignorance and to observe the ways my own behavior can impact the lives of others. So even when I don’t think that I can forgive or forget the way people have treated and will treat people like me – people who look like me – I know that hatred toward them will only destroy me.

I wanted to say the same things to him but I didn’t know enough Korean, and he didn’t know enough English. So after he told me how much he hated them, and I said, “I know,” we just sat on the benches of Hangyeore contemplating the hills in the distance and putting our conversation behind us. But I am sad that we never finished it. Continue reading

Hangyeorae Boarding School

James—standing at the border between darkness and a new day?

An hour to the south of Seoul there is a boarding school attended exclusively by North Korean defectors.

It’s a modernist-looking building set back in the mountains, about fifteen minutes away from nowhere. Middle and high school students attend. I have spent a fair amount of time in other schools in Korea, and this one feels completely different. Not least in design: although South Korea seems to have hired the exact same architect to draft all of its other public schools, this school follows a different paradigm, with massive gray concrete forming twin north and south buildings, divided by a four-story open-air hallway that creates a deep gulf between them; but the buildings are joined by the congress of these high school kids going back and forth between them, the whole thing a potent architectural metaphor for the Korean peninsula.

But, beyond design, the general spirit of the place is very different from other schools I’ve seen. This school felt remarkable. Continue reading