Tuesday, November 15, 2005

reflections on The Aquariums of Pyongyang

Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang chronicles the author's struggle to survive ten years in a North Korean gulag, Yodok Camp 15. While it's probably unjust to make comparisons between horrors, I couldn't help noticing that his book seemed a bit colder than Elie Wiesel's shorter, but more heartfelt and horrifying, Night.

This isn't to diminish the suffering Kang went through, but it does mean that I took him at his word when he avowed, at several points in the book, that he'd been extremely lucky. Kang had a hardy constitution; other camp laborers became sick and died not long after beginning their arduous tenure. Kang's family was also rich and had connections, which proved useful once inside the gulag. Kang held on, as did his family. Even his grandmother, a faithful communist who arguably suffered the greatest disillusionment when communism showed its true nature, survived the ordeal (she passed away soon after her release from the camp).

Perhaps I'm being uncharitable to view Kang as unsentimental. Kang is, after all, a Korean man-- one of the tougher, cannier ones, I think. He's not blessed with the soul of a poet; his narration is spare, even brusque, and while he's careful to note how certain horrors rose above others in his memory (hangings and firing squads come to mind), he doesn't dwell on those horrors.

Kang does, however, return to certain themes-- the sort you'd expect in a Korean story. Chief among these is family: Kang worries for his beloved sister, is chagrined at forgetting what his mother looked like (she was forced to divorce Kang's father and separated from the family), and is concerned for his father's and uncle's health. After leaving the camp, Kang expresses regret that his final conversation with his grandmother-- who took care of the entire family during their decade of hell-- was an argument about some food she'd made him. A little while after that argument, she was found dead in a field, possibly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Kang notes these things, and the reader can hear him sighing with deep regret.

Kang's portrayal of life in the camp is revealing. His internment occurred during the 1980s, thirty years after the Korean War, and one thing he makes clear is that the camp prisoners aren't all brainwashed drones: if anything, they're full of contempt for the system that holds them under its thumb. In the camp, informants are everywhere, monitoring their fellow prisoners' every move, and they are-- as with collaborators the world over-- among the most hated individuals. The guards are brutality incarnate, having no compunction about kicking people-- even children-- to death or making them perform hard labor at a cruel whim.

For a child, life at Yodok Camp 15 meant schooling along with labor, but the schooling was, by Kang's lights, a joke: a mishmash of Party ideology that amounted to little more than memorization of portions of the Great Leader's major speeches, and listening to readings from clippings of articles from North Korea's paper, the Nodong Shinmun (Labor Paper).

Food was scarce for prisoners, who lost their human dignity soon after entering camp and facing extreme deprivation. They learned to scrounge around for rats, earthworms, insects, and whatever else could get them through the winter. At one point in the book, Kang recalls with some amusement one prisoner who subsisted quite well on rat meat, having devised a system for attracting and trapping the little creatures. But malnutrition was an ever-present reality; bizarre conditions like pellagra cropped up quite often.

Corruption, a recurrent theme in Kang's book, was everywhere, both inside the camp and beyond its borders. Kang takes corruption to be emblematic of the Kim regime as a whole: a nominally communist system that is able to function only because the breakdowns in distribution-- not to mention the breakdown in common human virtues like trust-- have forced North Koreans to create their own local markets and ply their trade by their own means.

After ten years, under circumstances as irrational and arbitrary as those under which he was initially imprisoned, Kang leaves Yodok Camp 15 with his family and eventually finds his mother. Consistent with the rest of his narrative, Kang handles the mother/son reunion unsentimentally. Given what happened next, I wonder whether Kang the narrator wasn't holding back on his true feelings of love toward his family. He had to make a terrible choice, you see: in the end, Kang decided to escape North Korea. It might have been (and it might still be) too much for Kang to delve into the depths of his regret, to explore his fear that his family has come to a bad end because of his defection.

Kang had reasons to leave the North. One was that he was already under suspicion for illegally listening to South Korean radio. Another was that he was convinced that life in North Korea was little better than hell. With the help of kind people and a decent supply of money (Kang's family was rich; his relatives in Japan sent money and supplies to North Korea, and Kang himself worked odd jobs and knew how to distribute bribes), Kang crossed into China with his best friend, and eventually made it to South Korea.

While I found the story of his escape into China interesting, what interested me most was Kang's treatment upon arriving in South Korea. If there are two types of South Korean whom Kang cannot stand, they are (1) journalists, especially from leftist rags like the Hangyeoryae, and (2) leftist college students, who knew their marxist ideology inside and out, and peppered Kang with arguments in favor of the North's regime. It's obvious that Kang would have none of it. His reply to such people cut to the heart of the matter: "Go to the north!"

Kang speaks movingly of his initial impressions of the apparent chaos of South Korean society. I quote him here (p. 222):

What most struck me, however, was the way people [i.e., South Koreans] led their lives. Everyone seemed free to do as they wished. No system organized their movements and activities. I have to admit that it rather worried me at first. This sort of society just couldn't last; it could never face a crisis. I later realized that this only seemed like disorder. A pervading logic governed people's interactions. Though the principle of everybody for himself reigned supreme, people here appeared honest; they thought about others and shared common values. Seoul was teeming with cars. I'd never seen so many. I was amazed to learn that most of them were actually manufactured in Korea itself. This was never mentioned in the North. I remember the pride I felt at this discovery-- my first feeling of pride for South Korea. I eventually became enamored of that sprawling city, with its millions of inhabitants, its forest of modern skyscrapers, its dense traffic, its bustling life and nocturnal energy.

Kang is speaking here against the leftist lie that an overarching, all-pervasive, top-down system solves problems. To the contrary, such a system creates more problems than it solves. This isn't an argument against government per se; it's a caution about what happens when government becomes God. South Korea, from Kang's point of view, is a much different animal from the North. And he gets the point: the chaos isn't chaos at all: it's a subtler, more robust form of order.

In the closing pages of his story, Kang puts the matter directly to his South Korean brothers (p. 230):

The citizens of South Korea should realize they have an important role to play in welcoming refugees. They aren't just people who have fled something; they are people who have a hard time adapting and a hard time forgetting what they have endured. ...It is not enough for people to say they are for reunification. Their actions need to prove it. The rhetoric of reunification is one thing, people's attitudes toward North Korean renegades quite another. I don't question the South Korean population's desire for reunification, even though a large segment couldn't care less one way or another. What I do wish to denounce-- based on my own experience-- are the countless prejudices that are held against people from the North.

With the piercing gaze and circumspect mindset of a foreigner, Kang picks up immediately on the disconnect noted by Koreabloggers of all political leanings: the inconsistency between SK "brotherhood" rhetoric, and the actual attitudes held by SKers toward those "brethren." In my more cynical moments, I imagine that the perfect NK defector, from the leftist South Korean's point of view, would be a person who already speaks in a recognizably SK dialect, who sings the praises of Kim Jong-il and his regime, who preaches the gospel of communism while at the same time blending seamlessly into the über-capitalist swirl of SK society. A person with such traits would be a mass of self-contradictions, but then again, isn't that precisely what the present SK psyche is? Unfortunately for the SK leftist, Kang brings bad news about how workable leftism really is.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is, ultimately, part accusation and part exhortation. Kang accuses the North of terrible crimes, and accuses the South of willful ignorance. Kang exhorts the world to put pressure on the North, and exhorts the South to live up to its pious utterances. Will the South listen? Will we?


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