North Korea is the most dysfunctional state on earth. As this bizarre country began life as a Soviet client, it is often referred to as ‘the last Stalinist state’. Yet while it is true that Stalin helped Kim Il Sung establish and maintain a ruthless totalitarian regime on the Soviet model, it is also true that Kim began differentiating himself and his country from its communist sponsor as soon as he was able, resulting in a regime that has gradually mutated from its Stalinist beginnings into something uniquely terrifying in the annals of history. Kim Il Sung started the Korean war in 1950 despite caution being urged by Stalin. After the war ended in the tentative ceasefire whose consequences we still live with everyday, Kim Il Sung instigated a brutal crackdown, banning all outside influences, consolidating his power, and carrying out the first of a series of extensive purges. North Korea may therefore ostensibly and self-consciously claim to carry the mantel of Stalin’s beloved Marxist-Lenninism, but the level of repression there – of the state’s intrusion into the realms of economics, culture, and the private sphere – surpass anything ever achieved by the self-styled ‘man of steel’. The people of North Korea are the sole property of the state to a degree which would be inconceivable to even the most trodden on Caucasian peasant. The great dissident literature of the post-war period, from the novels of Solzhenitsyn, to the poetry of Miłosz, attests to the fact that in Stalin’s greater empire, there were still ways of maintaining your individual humanity. In North Korea the individual has all but ceased to exist. Which may go some way to explaining the relative sparsity of equivalent dissident literature.
Moreover, although Stalin became the object of mass adulation, as well as mass terror, there remained in Soviet Russia a sense that the primacy of ‘the party’ and the purity of its ideology ultimately reigned supreme. Kim Il Sung, by contrast, is inseparable from the idea of the state, and has succeeded in constructing a deranged personality cult that rivals any on record; fusing collectivism and Confucianism into an insane political philosophy called the ‘Juche’ – one that bases its legitimacy on the self-proclaimed God-like qualities of the ‘Dear Leader’. Despite being dead for sixteen years, Kim Il Sung is still head of state – the ‘Eternal President of the Republic’ – his son, the dwarfish film-addict Kim Yong Il, who has continued his father’s megalomaniac legacy, is mere head of the party. Dad remains the ‘Great Leader’: son the ‘Dear Leader’. This dynastic and monarchical aspect of the regime separate it markedly from its communist nearest and dearest. All cultural and political life in North Korea is given over to the worship of these two leaders, and hatred of the outside world – everything else is brutally suppressed. This emphasis on constant worship, together with the supposed omniscient qualities of father and son, make North Korea – as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out – the most religious country on earth; an isolated, secretive, paranoid, and delusional nuclear-armed state run by and for a deified dead man and his miraculous son – one short of a trinity, no less.
Sometimes North Korea is called the ‘Hermit Kingdom’; a phrase which goes some way to capturing the essential weirdness of the place – an isolated anachronism even among its handful of increasingly isolated and anachronistic communist fellow travellers. This sense of North Korea being ‘a world apart’ is not helped by the fact that the country is also what is sometimes termed an ‘intelligence black-hole’. Information that has not been filtered through the regime’s propaganda machine is sparse; what little we know about the true extent of North Korea’s misery has had to be wrenched from the fist of official secrecy. For instance, it has long been known that there exists a vast network of slave-labour camps in North Korea, yet we don’t know for certain the exact number, size, and location of these camps, or precisely what horrors go on inside them. It is estimated by some that between 150,000 to 200,000 inmates currently toil away under extreme conditions in these Gulags, though will probably never know for sure the overall number that have passed through their gates, or the true number who have been sent to their oblivion via this factory route. For this reason alone, a memoir like Khang Chol-Hwan’s – who spent ten years inside Yodok labour camp before defecting to the South – is an extremely welcome and valuable document.
Chol-Hwan was sent to Yodok at the tender age of nine, along with most of his immediate family, for crimes allegedly committed by his grandfather (a hangover from the Confucian tradition that sees dishonour carried across the generations). In a nice touch, Chol-Hwan writes of how he knew something was seriously wrong when he realised that the security agents who had come to imprison him and his family had failed to remove their shoes before entering their Pyongyang apartment, as is Korean custom. From the life of relative luxury afforded such middle-ranking party members, Chol-Hwan, his father, his uncle, grandmother, and sister, find themselves in one of the so-called ‘family camps’. As potential ‘counter-revolutionaries’ they are here for hard-labour and ‘re-education’. Chol-Hwan describes life in the camp vividly. One even gets a sense of scale and geography – Yodok is so isolated it is guarded not by fences but by wilderness ringed with mountain ranges. He finds its beauty comforting, despite the regime of the camp doing its utmost to stamp on such feelings. His admirably clear memory describes a catalogue of unremitting struggle and relentless brutality: from the guards who mercilessly and arbitrarily beat their prisoners, to the ‘teachers’ who do the same to their child charges; from the bare subsistence eked out by the inmates, to the back-breaking labour that falls upon children and adults alike. He describes hunger particularly well, detailing with a peculiar relish the way hunting and cooking rats became an essential survival tool.
Throughout all this, Chol-Hwan keeps the reader aware that he is, relatively speaking, one of the lucky ones. His section of the camp is reserved for the families of those who have spoken or acted against the regime. As such they have a shot at survival, should they be able to suffer the conditions of work, hunger, cold, and disease long enough to be considered ‘rehabilitated’. There are other parts of the camp reserved for the “irredeemables”, who, being considered unpardonable enemies of Kim Il Sung, toil in much nastier conditions and under an effective death sentence. He even concedes that Yodok, despite its deprivations, is far from the most gruesome of labour camps to exist in North Korea. Indeed; had the author been sent to one of those places, one imagines that it wouldn’t be possible to read the book in our hands. While Chol-Hwan is considered too young for work, he must attend ‘school’, which amounts to being force-fed propaganda “about the advantages of the brilliant “Juche” ideology extolling the self-sufficiency of the Korean community, whose singular existence was animated by the spirit of our one and only Great Leader.” As soon he is considered of age (15), Chol-Hwan is “allowed to taste the simple joys of adult life in Yodok,” which take the form of, “physical labour from morning to night, distended quotas, the occasional distribution of third-quality tobacco, public criticism and self-criticism sessions, and so forth.”
These “criticism sessions” make for disturbing reading: prisoners pair off in public and denounce one another for imagined counter-revolutionary weaknesses, all this taking place (of course) under one of those garishly kitsch portraits of the ‘Great Leader’. Everyone goes through the motions at these sessions, aware that any hint of the disingenuous might be picked up by the guards or “snitches”. Other mandatory classes comprise hours spent imbibing “revolutionary songs,” and learning to, “deepen [their] understanding of the life and thoughts of Kim Il Sung.” Which in reality means the soul-sapping tedium of listening to camp officials read aloud from the party newspaper. In perhaps the book’s most powerful passage, Chol-Hwan recounts in chilling detail the public executions of supposed ‘traitors’ that are such a marked feature of North Korean life both inside and outside the labour camps. This passage (which I found the most-effecting description of an execution I have read since Orwell’s “A Hanging”) is worth quoting at length:
Finally, the head of the camp stood up and read the condemned man’s resume: “The Party was willing to forgive this criminal. It gave him the chance here at Yodok to right himself. He chose to betray the Party’s trust, and for that he merits execution.” During the silence that followed, we could hear the condemned man scream his final imprecations in the truck. “You bastards! I’m innocent!” Then suddenly his cries stopped. We saw two agents pull him down from the truck, each holding an arm. It must have been ages since he had last eaten. All skin and bones, it looked as if he were being floated along by the guards. As he passed in front of the prisoners, some shut their eyes. Others lowered their heads out of respect. A few of the prisoners, especially the younger ones, stared widely at the barely human figure, hardly able to believe their eyes. The unhappy being who walked to his death seemed no longer a member of the family of man. It would have been easy to mistake him for an animal, with his wild hair, his bruises, his crusts of dried blood, his bulging eyes. Then I suddenly noticed his mouth. So that’s how they shut him up. They had stuffed it full of rocks. The guards were now tying him to a post with three pieces of rope: at eye level, around the chest, and at the waist. As they withdrew, the commanding officer took his place beside the firing squad. “Aim at the traitor of the Fatherland…Fire!” The custom was to shoot three salvos at a distance of five yards. The first salvo cut the topmost cords, killing the condemned man and causing his head to fall forward. The second salvo cut the cords around his chest and bent him forward further. The third salvo released his last tether, allowing the man’s body to drop into the pit in front of him, his tomb. This simplified the burial.
And so it goes for ten long years, until, in just as arbitrarily a manner as they went into the camp, Chol-Hwan and his family are released. Although the author finds adjusting to life outside the camp difficult, he might well have stayed in North Korea, had it not been for the spectre of the camp looming large again, due to the fact that he had been informed on for illegally listening to South Korean radio. He and a friend make their escape through China, bribing their way to the border. (It is illegal to travel without permission in North Korea.) He does this in the full knowledge of what it will mean for his family. Eventually Chol-Hwan made it to the South of the Korean peninsula, and we as readers can be thankful that he did. His is a horrifying story of state cruelty under Kim Il Sung. Yet it is one with a happy ending, and therefore exceptional. One’s feelings reading “Aquariums of Pyongyang” are tempered by the knowledge that the author is a lone voice in the wilderness – one that made it out to tell his story, and was, in that sense, fortunate. Most of the victims of this regime remain nameless and voiceless – the soil keeps its secrets well. Other defectors have testified to horrors as bad as torture, medical experimentation, systematic rape, and forced abortion. Who knows what nightmares lie waiting behind that dark curtain? For the time being memoirs like Chol-Hwan’s will have to speak for the suffering of his compatriots.
It is clear by the end of this memoir that the author has found prosperity and contentment in South Korea, yet it is obvious he is still haunted by the plight of his Northern brothers and sisters, who he describes, without a hint of exaggeration, as living under “a dictatorial regime without equal in the modern world – a place where the population has been kept in a constant state of fear for decades.” Is there a bigger disparity between neighbouring populations than that which exists between those separated by the 38th Parallel and kept forcibly apart by the absurdly named ‘Demilitarised Zone’? (Which is, in fact, the most heavily armed border region on earth.) On one side, technology and access to the global marketplace have bought increasing prosperity and, eventually, open and democratic political institutions. On the other, economic and cultural isolationism have meant the least free people on the planet enduring near-starvation levels for decades, while having to thank, on pain of severe punishment, Kim Yong Il and Kim Il Sung for the privilege. In the mid-90s natural disaster coupled with economic mismanagement led to a famine that claimed as many as 3 million lives. People were reduced to eating grass and tree bark in an attempt to placate the hunger that ravaged the country and wiped out nearly 10% of the population. Kim Yong Il, it goes without saying, has managed to maintain his life of unaccountable and never ending luxury; with his palaces, his abundance of food and alcohol, and his many mistresses standing in stark contrast to the purity of his image and the austerity of the country at large. Even today, while his unwilling subjects get by on charitable handouts from the World Food Program, the ‘Dear Leader’ has continued to spend vast sums maintaining the million-man army and clandestine nuclear program that keep him in power, and the rest of the world at bay.
It is hard to imagine what the future holds for the people of North Korea, or how the situation on the peninsula can ever be resolved peacefully while the megalomaniac with the missiles remains in power. The nature of the regime being what it is though, it is difficult to envisage how a regime-change might be bought about without massive loss of life. Although the two historically unified peoples of Korea have only been separated for 50 years, the 150 mile border between them may as well be an ocean, so great has been the divergence. Language experts have identified distinct differences between the way Korean is spoken on each side of the border; some have started categorising them as separate languages. Due to prolonged malnutrition, the average 7 year old in North Korea is now some 20cm shorter and 10 kilos lighter than his Southern counterpart. While South Korea has the seventh largest economy in the world, those in the North slave away in poverty, ignorance, and pitiful fear. These two peoples, who have become such unnecessary strangers, stare uncomprehending at each other through the most militarised fence on earth, playing a bizarre and ritualised game of chicken with potentially catastrophic consequences. To call it a “flashpoint” is to be irresponsibly euphemistic. The last Korean war cost around 3 million lives. The potential death toll of a war on the Korean peninsula today – which remains an ever-present danger – might be so large that the thought has become almost impossible to contemplate. Yet we ignore this situation at our peril. Such a precarious state of affairs quite self-evidently cannot be ignored – much less tolerated – forever. Nor should it be. As Christopher Hitchens has so rightly warned:
Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.