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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Escape Art and Propaganda: Part I

In all of the novels that I have read about dystopias, art and literature always suffer a blow in some way. So, having grown up in a post-Cold War society that has taught me to associate its remnants with the dystopias of the literature required for a trimester of high school English, I wondered in what ways art and literature may be restrained in North Korea. Looking for signs of self-expression, I came across the artist Song Byeok, a former propaganda artist who defected from North Korea and continues to produce art in South Korea. In Paul Ferguson’s CNN article on the success of Song’s exhibition this past winter, I learned that, despite being a full member of the communist party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Song Byeok also suffered from the food shortages and famines of the late twentieth century, which forced him to cross the Tumen River in search of food in China. In need of food, he and his father attempted to cross the river together. Unfortunately, his father drowned in the act. Though a devoted party member who openly praised the North Korean people and culture as superior, Song still faced confinement in a North Korean detention center after authorities caught him searching the river for his father’s body. Not receiving understanding from those who had captured him after the death of his father, Song decided to defect. Continue reading