Heaven that turned out to be pure hell

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

by Kang Chol-Hwan & Pierre Rigoulot

Atlantic Books, 256pp, 8.99

KANG CHOL-HWAN, WHO WAS raised in a concentration camp and is now a devout Christian, begins his astonishing account of life in the North Korean gulag with an account of a meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office last year.

The two men talked (and no doubt prayed) about the fate of the 200,000 remaining political prisoners now enduring the same squalid repression, and discussed the prospects for the 23 million North Korean people condemned to live in a nightmarish Stalinist dystopia.

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Bush, who placed North Korea in his ill-advised "axis of evil", is on record as saying he "loathes" Kim Jong-Il, the man in whose name the immiseration (to borrow a Marxist term) of millions is perpetrated.

To those who measure all things by an anti-American yardstick, the Kang-Bush meeting will raise instant suspicion about the influence of the Christian right on US foreign policy. They may also chuckle knowingly at Bush's selectively simplistic view of the world.

If that is still their reaction after reading Kang's account - the first published in English - of daily life under "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, a long hard look at priorities is needed. In any case, we need to ask ourselves why the cause of North Korea is not more fashionable than it is.

Western liberalism has a tendency to change the subject when confronted with the true nature of regimes opposed by the US, even to give them the benefit of the doubt: look at Noam Chomsky's effective support for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. It is a form of intellectual decadence that won't look good on the historical record.

Even opponents of Bush's "black and white" worldview will have to admit that what Kang relates is about as black as it gets. He was born in Japan in the 1950s to a family of Korean immigrants who sided with the communist North when the Korean peninsula was divided before and during the Korean War (1950-1953). Although life in Tokyo was comfortable, they, like thousands of other exiled Korean leftists, put their money where their mouth was, and moved to the socialist paradise they had proselytised for.

One of the most horrifying descriptions, in a book that is full of them, is of the speedy realisation of the family's patriarch that he had not brought his family to heaven, but its opposite. This was a regime of lies, corruption, chaos and cruelty beyond the nightmares of Orwell.

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After a brief period of relative comfort in the capital Pyongyang, Kang's grandfather was denounced as an enemy of the people, without even the pretence of a charge. As a matter of course the entire family was transported to Yodok, a mountain punishment camp where the staples were hard labour, re-education and starvation. Whole families, children included, would face days of pointless and dangerous work in sub-zero temperatures, dressed only in rags. Accidents and insanity were common, rat meat and insects an essential for survival.

While there was very little to live for at this level, suicide meant punishment for the family, as North Korean citizens are the property of the Kim dynasty. Prisoners were required to stone the corpses of executed "criminals", to re-inforce their political correctness.

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That Kang survived this nightmare for ten years is a testament to his toughness and resourcefulness, our ability to take what nourishment we can from the tiniest scraps of uniquely human experience: appreciating the grim beauty of a mountain landscape while on burial detail, or the blissful (if dangerous) hilarity of a fart breaking the silence in a "self-criticism" session.

After his release from the camp Kang escaped, surprisingly easily, across the Yalu River into China, and now works as a journalist in South Korea. He made a good recovery from his stolen childhood, and works to raise awareness of the gulag.

It must be a frustrating existence. South Korea is determined to pursue a "sunshine" policy towards the North, largely on the basis that everything else has been tried, while global campaigners against poverty, famine and injustice find that opposing an old-fashioned cold-war dictatorship doesn't really work for them.

No-one can now say what has been happening there, from the 1950s until the present day. This book brings North Korea's trial into the here and now.