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Reading 2012: The Orphan Master’s Son and The Aquariums of Pyongyang

February 28, 2012

I recently finished two books about North Korea. One is a novel, the other a biographical account of one man’s life, imprisonment, and defection from North Korea. While human rights and social justice are frequent subjects I study, these two books were of particular interest to me because they take place in North Korea, just across the border from where my husband was born (South Korea) and where my in-laws currently reside.

The Orphan Master’s Son

Adam Smith takes years of research and investigation of North Korea, and brings them to life in his novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, currently a New York Times bestseller.  Through the life of Pak Jun Do, readers hear more than just the story of a boy, then man, searching for his identity. The use of propaganda by Kim Jong Il’s totalitarian regime is an inescapable theme that is well-woven into this story, as the audience is daily reminded that North Korea is “the greatest democratic nation in the world, with the greatest ruler in the world,” while the actual story reveals the opposite. Pak Jun Do’s life takes him from assumed orphan-boy, tunnel soldier, government kidnapper, hero-fisherman, traveler to America, prison miner, and lover of the national actress. Gradually he moves from doing whatever his government demands of him to finding out who he really is, even if it means loss of life.

The plot is fascinating and the reader hardly knows which direction it will take next. While there is usually little question that what is fiction in the story is likely fact for a majority of North Korean citizens, the final portion of the book does seem a bit of a stretch. Readers may also wish to be warned that this book does include some colorful language and some graphic depictions of human suffering. Halfway through the book, the narrator of the story changes and then switches back and forth between his thoughts and narration and Pak Jun Do’s. This can be slightly confusing at first, but certainly adds to the novel.


The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

The story of Kang Chol-hwan’s life in North Korea in The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag is “the first extended account of a young adult’s life in contemporary North Korea.” Although Kang Chol-Hwan’s family lived a life of relative comfort and wealth in comparison to many of his fellow citizens, it did not exclude his family from being deported to 10 years of grueling life in the prison camp of Yodok, where they lived in mud huts and worked in dangerous job assignments. Children were not excluded from prison camp life; Kang Chol-Hwan was 9 years old at the time they arrived, and his sister was only 7 years old. Yet in many ways, their family was still kept from some of the harsher conditions and punishments that others endured.

The first portion of the book provides helpful background details to the Korean War, the division between North and South Korea, and the history of the North Korean government. It also provides important history of Kang Chol-Hwan’s family, his grandparents’ comfortable life in Japan as part of the Chosen Soren, their eventual move back to North Korea, and a growing disillusionment over the promises they’d been made by the government over their return. (It was also the aid of the Kang’s family in Japan that made their survival after release from prison possible.)

The main portion of the book deals with Kang Chol-Hwan’s life in the Yodok concentration camp. Similar to The Orphan Master’s Son, this book shows the powerful role propaganda plays in North Korea. Not surprisingly, those who were sent to the prison camps for the purpose of “re-education” left (or died there) with much less confidence in the North Korean government than what they entered it with. The this book depicts a dark story in a dark place, Kang shares some his happier moments and reflects on his life in a prison camp, too.

The final portion of the book follows the family’s release from the concentration camp, their difficult reintegration into North Korean society, and Kang’s defection from North Korea into China and eventually South Korea. In this newer addition, Kang also notes that his story is over 10 years old (now 20 years old, as his escape was in 1992) and that stories and defectors are indicating that life in North Korea has become far worse than what Kang saw and experienced.

If you don’t have any previous interest in North Korea, I still recommend reading this book if for nothing more than awareness. And like  Pierre Rigoulot, Kang’s co-author wrote in the book, “Reading this book is a first step toward making the repression in North Korea a major concern for human rights defenders around the world.”


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  • Johanna February 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Very interested in this.

    • Keren February 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      The more I think about these books, I’d say if you have to choose between the two, I recommend the latter. The first is good, too, but very long and dark pretty much the whole way through.

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