Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Aquariums of Pyongyang

now finished: The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan

Often the titles of my blog posts aim to be descriptive and whimsically clever (like this, or this, or this, or how about this one), but that seems unnecessary if not plain wrong for an entry about The Aquariums of Pyongyang. I mean, it already has its own intriguing title. And it's about the least playful book you're likely to come across, until the next horrifying tale of the North Korean gulag you read.

I've had The Aquariums of Pyongyang on my to-read list for several years, ever since the first time I was preparing to teach English in Korea. Back then, in 2005, I was working at Cambridge Borders (one of the few Borders stores still open in 2011, as far as I can tell from across the ocean) and I would stealthily peruse the novels by Korean authors and the Korean history section while I shelved, floor managed, avoided the manager who was hell bent on my professional and personal destruction, and so on. I had to do it stealthily because I for quite some time did not inform my boss and co-workers that I was plotting to go teach English in Korea and leave them far behind. Of course, it never took long to peruse a Borders' Korean history section because there are, like, five books in it. But one of those tended to be The Aquariums of Pyongyang.

When I lived in Daegu 2005-2006 I met a few English teachers who had read it, but I never got around to doing so. Of course, I was all about reading War and Peace during my first Korea tour of duty, which is what gave birth to this Literary Supplement blog (then called my War and Peace blog, hence the URL) so I actually bought shockingly few new books during that period of my life even though I made at least weekly trips to Kyobo bookstore in Daegu's Junangno district, where I browsed and wrote and sipped coffee and accidentally decided to go to Hofstra for law school. Then, once back in the U.S., other things happened to me and The Aquariums... continued over the years to fall through the cracks between my A-to-Z literary blog project, Infinite Jest, and all that crap my law professors were always encouraging me to read. *smirk*

So anyway, this month I had new motivation to read it because the Books and Booze meetup group in Seoul chose The Aquariums of Pyongyang for the monthly book discussion selection, and I am glad I finally got around to it. News flash: life in North Korea is singularly awful. While that is not even remotely surprising, it becomes more and more infuriating and heartbreaking as you actually spend a few hours a day delving into the details of it.

I suppose it is a bit of a self-selected group that even picks up The Aquariums of Pyongyang in the first place, but it's interesting to note that it has NO one-star reviews on Goodreads. I don't think the book is a literary masterpiece, but I do think that it is a well told story, so you aren't just reading it because you're shocked and wowed and sad and angry and mortified and fired up and depressed and worldly and all that jazz.

After growing up in a North Korean prison camp, where he performed hard labor, watched people die, nearly starved, ate rats, was beaten, lived through diseases, and suffered in myriad other ways, the author ended up defecting and making his way through China to South Korea. This means his family and maybe even some other close associates left behind could have been re-imprisoned or even killed because he left. We don't know. And WHY don't we know?

Because we -- and by that I mean 190+ countries on this planet -- sit around doing nothing and let North Korea go on being a secretive, nasty regime about which it is hard to get accurate information.

Why don't we go inside? We (and by this we I mean the U.S. and some other countries) refuse to have diplomatic relations and an embassy, but we are willing to station 35,000 troops in South Korea and operate a De-Militarized Zone, complete with DMZ tours, for decades. What a waste. A waste of resources, talent, money, time and millions of North Korean human lives.

Why don't we just lay down our weapons and pick up flowers and baskets of food and march across the border? Why don't we just say, listen Kim Jong-Il, we're coming in. We come in peace. Hi. Here we are. Hey everyone, have some food. Let's all sit down and talk and stop with the bullshit posturing and making up stories and labeling each other the axis of evil and whatnot.

As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons we don't do that:

1. We are afraid of China.
2. We are full of shit.

The first one is just so dumb. (It's also very much related to the second reason.) The U.S. cannot get it through its thick head that the world would be a better, happier, more productive, more peaceful place if we would let go of the notion that we need enemies in order to demonstrate our greatness. So instead we demonize China, but meanwhile we make truly evil corporations like Wal-Mart rich by having them produce everything there, and then we get mad at China for not wanting to just drop its relationship with North Korea and come crawling into our lap full of trusting, boot-licking tendencies. God, we suck. Fidel Castro is so right about what jerks the Yanquis are when it comes to anyone daring to stand up to the big bully on the foreign policy block. Ugh.

Secondly, as my book group cohorts kept reminding me, we couldn't possibly just show up at a country's border and spill over the river in a giant, flower-toting, hippie-shaking, peaceful entrance of nurses, engineers, teachers, artists and whoever else wanted to come in peace, en masse, insisting that said country immediately begin an internationally recorded and watched dialogue exposing its inner workings, because that would be a violation of North Korea's national sovereignty.

Isn't that rich? We are willing to march violently into anywhere that threatens our way of life has oil but we are not willing to peacefully march into a country where people are suffering and dying in large part because the world is kept in the dark about the suffering and dying. And then people actually have the audacity to say that the U.S. military does humanitarian military interventions. Really? I'm sure all the young men who have been murdered (yes, murdered) in prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq by U.S. forces, along with the Rwandan genocide witnesses, would love to chit chat with you allllllll about the humanitarian interventions of the illustrious U.S. military. Show me the oil might as well be emblazoned across those patches that say 867th airborne artillery blah-blah whatever those patches say.

Yes, I recommend that you read The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan. I then recommend that we do something about it.

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