This is the gripping memoir, despite a somewhat clunky translation at times, of one the first North Koreans to claim asylum in the South, after escaping via China in 1992. He is untypical in belonging to a wealthy family: his grandfather made money after emigrating to Japan, but allowed himself to be persuaded to return to North Korea by his fanatically pro-Communist wife. They soon learned their error, with the grandfather being forced to hand over his millions to the Government, and ultimately losing his life in prison for the crime of criticising the inefficiency of the North Korean distribution system. His close family were also punished with a decade spent in Yodok, a harsh concentration camp designed to re-educate the relatives of traitors.
I was already familiar with the grim facts about life in North Korea through Barbara Demitz's "Nothing to Envy", which is based on the American journalist's interviews with a number of refugees who also made it to the South, again via China. I thought "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" might be more authentic in that it would be less "fictionalised" with the device of imagined dialogues and recreation of people's thoughts. Although this is the case, Kang Chol-Hwan focuses mainly on the exhausting and soul-destroying routine of life in the camp: the use of "team targets" and "snitches" to keep people in line, the sadistic teachers, the shocking public executions which adults were forced to watch and even participate in at times, by stoning the "criminals", the farcical "self-criticism" sessions, enforced adulation of the "Dear Leader" Kim Il-sung and over all else the obsession with obtaining food, even resorting to eating rats.
There is less exploration of how ordinary people in general survive in the warped dictatorship of North Korea. Kang Chol-Hwan mentions the famines of later years, but does not discuss exactly how they arose. Also, once released, he managed to have access to a relatively good material standard of living, partly through the use of family money and goods imported from Japan to provide the endless bribes needed, also through his own black market business activities.
Kang Chol-Hwan does not portray himself as a particular likeable person, but perhaps this is understandable in view of the brutalising experience of the camp. His final adult years in North Korea and ultimate escape are covered rather hastily, maybe to protect others; he acknowledges with some guilt that relatives and acquaintances must have been sent to the camps because of his defection. It is also interesting to learn of his initial shock over the sexual freedom of life in the west (although he claims to have lived off a Korean brothel-keeper resident in China, and benefited from her contacts to board a ship to South Korea) and over the wasteful consumption of his newfound home country. As an observer from an alien culture, he provides a useful yardstick by which to judge capitalist society and its values.
Overall, this is informative and thought-provoking, but gives a rather limited picture, perhaps because the author spent so much of his time in one camp.