For the year of 2008, The Voice of the Martyrs Canada made a commitment to pray for the political leadership of North Korea – in particular, its Premier Kim Jong Il. Not knowing all that much in particular about North Korea or its Premier I immediately read all of the resources available through VOMC so that I could get a better idea of who and what I was praying for. Then, quite recently, I saw in their resource catalogue a book entitled Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag: The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Intrigued, I ordered it in hopes to learn even more about North Korea. What I learned from it was hard to stomach at times – but it has given me a whole new understanding of North Korea and what its people suffer under Kim Jong Il’s rule.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a memoir of the author’s life, giving a detailed testimony of what life is really like in North Korea. Kang Chol-hwan survived imprisonment in a concentration camp while in North Korea under the rule of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. It is the first account to emerge from North Korea, and Chol-hwan felt compelled to share his story “seeing it as his moral duty to shed light on the horrors of the Pyongyang regime and, above all, its system of concentration camps.” He explains that “North Koreans know about the country’s network of camps. What people don’t know is the number of camps there are, how many people they hold, or what happens to people when they get there.” Through his accounts, we are shown North Korea in a disturbing light… a Nation that has “a particular contempt for human rights,” “the planet’s last Stalinist regime, a regime that incarcerates between 150,000 and 200,000 people in concentration camps,” and “is ubuesque; which is to say grotesque and bloody.”
Chol-hwan’s memoir begins as he recalls his happy childhood in Pyongyang… days when he looked at Kim Il Sung as a god. Coming from a well-to-do and well-liked family, he had nothing but good things to recollect. His grandmother was an active and loyal supporter of the Communist Party and his grandfather gave very generously to the Party. However, that didn’t stop his grandfather from suddenly going missing, and as a result of his grandfather’s arrest, the rest of the family – grandmother, father, uncle, sister and himself – was sent to the notorious labour camp Yodok (a camp described as being “no place for humans”) simply because of their relational ties. At this time Chol-hwan was nine years old, and his sister only seven.
Besides a few rather humorous stories of the children’s revenge on much-despised teachers, the details of goings-on in this camp are horrendous to read. In the beginning, Chol-hwan was forced to go to school for half a day under the “teachings” of brutal men and women who regularly beat and humiliated the children, and he then did manual labour for the rest of the day where the people were “working like animals.” This routine continued until he was 15 (and therefore considered an adult) and was forced to labour all day.
Recalling the hunger, malnourishment, sickness, extreme cold in winter, filth, incalculable death tolls, and the observation of horrific public executions, the reader is given a deep insight into what life was like for Chol-hwan for the ten years he was at Yodok. One of the biggest aspects of a prisoner’s time at Yodok was the emphasis on reeducation, which had the opposite affect intended, as “the propaganda was so grotesque, the teaching method so crude, we were bound to reject it… our disdain spread like gangrene, beginning with the guards, then slowly, inexorably, making its way up to the great leaders.”
After these ten years Chol-hwan and his family were suddenly released… “one day the nightmare was over.” The day that should have given a time of nothing but rejoicing was actually very bittersweet for Chol-hwan. Suddenly being outside of the camp felt like entering a different universe, although it was one where he was still under constant surveillance for years to come, and one in which he was strictly forbidden to make even mention of the camp and what went on there.
In those years following, he was ultimately saved from poverty thanks to gifts received from family in Japan, and then upon threat of being taken back to Yodok, he and a friend made the dangerous decision to escape – first making it to China, where they stayed many months, until they could finally make it into South Korea where they began a new life.
Chol-hwan ends his story telling of his dedication to help “the unfortunate souls attempting to flee repression and famine” and with a plea for others to no longer turn a blind eye to those that are “dying of hunger without the right to utter a word of protest, crushed by a system that walks all over their fundamental human rights.”
Suffice it to say, this book was a huge eye-opener. Although it is not labelled a “Christian” book (though Chol-hwan does mention in the preface that he became a Christian in South Korea, professes that “[his] God is, after all, a living God,” and in the book mentions his baptism and attending a Protestant church), I believe, as a Christian, that it is very valuable to read. Of further note, there is one point in the book where Chol-hwan talks about the fact that there are much tougher camps in North Korea, and in any camp there are those separated from the rest, under much harsher conditions, called “irredeemables” who serve life sentences. Included in the category of “irredeemables” are Christians, whose fates are even worse than others as they face the unimaginable cruelties Chol-hwan described, and on top of that have no hope of ever being freed. In all, Christians or not, the people of North Korea need much prayer – as does its Premier and other leaders.
VOMC has a kit available for those interested in learning about North Korea and Kim Jong Il. It is part of the Praying for a Revelation in North Korea commitment afore mentioned. The online kit provides a complete profile of Kim Jong Il, specific things to pray for, a testimony of a North Korean woman, a detailed map of the Republic of Korea, and an overview of other leaders to pray for as well. I highly recommend downloading this kit, available here – and very highly recommend reading this book, which will give even further understanding and empathy for the people of North Korea.