Result of the Kumkang School Experience: Reading “The Aquariums of Pyongyang”
After our first Give-Back session with the kids of Kumkang School, the thought about North Korea and the children of the defectors from North Korea has stuck in my Firstborn’s mind. While we were browsing for some books to buy at the YP Bookstore in IFC Mall, he suddenly blurted out, “Mommy, you should read this”.
Oh, how quick his eyes were. It wasn’t stacked with the children’s books. He had no idea about the book. Neither did I. He just saw “North Korea” and instinctively assumed that it would interest me. Without any background information about the book and the author, I grabbed my copy with my son telling me I should read it to him also. Just a few pages of reading it out loud and I’m done. There’s no way I am going to expose him to such brutality and cruelty.
“The Aquariums of Pyongyang” is a very graphic memoir of a North Korean defector who had escaped North Korea. He spent 10 years of his precious life (from age 9 until he and his family were deemed worthy to re-enter North Korean life when he was 19 years old) at Camp 15, known as the Yodok Concentration Camp. It’s a life of cruelty, devoid of tenderness. In a lot of ways, Kang Chol-Hwan could be considered luckier than other defectors who survived North Korea’s concentration camps. He lived a privileged life during his childhood, a happy one, in fact. He didn’t fail to point this out many times in the book. He was taken as a prisoner together with his family (his mother was spared because one of her ancestors was considered a hero in North Korea) because of guilt by association. The “Great Leader”, Kim Il-Sung, had that brilliance to impose “yeon-jwa-je“, a tradition where members of a family up to the third generation shall be subject to punishment because of the perceived sin of a family member. And it is not just an ordinary punishment. It is a life spent in isolation, together with other political prisoners, stripped of human dignity.
Kang Chol-Hwan was able to compare a relatively privileged life with his life in the concentration camp. His escape to China was relatively easier because he had the means to bribe North Korean guards along the way. He had the money to pay some people he met in China. But this relatively easy escape could not make up for the atrocities he experienced and witnessed while growing up in the concentration camp.
It was an awful existence and reading the book opened to me for the first time how cruel North Korea’s leadership is. I previously just saw this small State as a communist country divided in the 38th parallel from the more prosperous South Korea. I never imagined such a life as cruel, if not more, than that experienced by the Jews during Holocaust. In North Korea, prisoners are classified into “redeemables” and “irredeemables“. The “redeemables” will have the chance to get out of prison, just like what happened to Kang Chol-Hwan and his family, with the exception of his grandfather who was judged as an “irredeemable”. These “irredeemables” are lifers who will never have a chance to get out of the camps. “To the Party and the socialist state, they were perfect zeros, worthy at best of supplying labor until their dying days”(p79). And through them, the North Korea leadership can retain their military secrets.
“These unfortunates were usually sent to large, isolated work sites, where they worked under a cloak of total secrecy building military complexes or assembling sensitive products such as missiles or other sophisticated munitions. In North Korea, such work is never entrusted to common citizens, or even to detainees who have a chance of one day getting out. Military secrets were best left to the irredeemables, who could take them to their graves.” (p.79-80)
Some of the children in Kumkang School may have been spared of the hard life in North Korea because their mothers or their fathers had the luck to get out of that impenetrable, secretive State but they have to go through a different set of struggles. They have no roots to look back to for theirs are inside that wired country. They are forever separated from them, with a nil chance for unification. For some, they are offsprings of survival from China (and this is a different story, a different problem but still an offshoot of defection from North Korea). We could only hope that they grow up seeing the opportunities in front of them and eventually they will look back and do something for the hundreds of thousands of people back in that country.
But why is the rest of the world helpless against this tyranny? In this day of sophisticated technology, people can still fall prey and helpless against complex international negotiations and old concepts like national territorial integrity.
in the meantime, concentration camps in North Korea continue to exist… and expand!