North Korea gulag spurs a mission

As a boy in the North Korean capital, Kang Chol Hwan kept aquariums. In a city of dull grays and shadows, he found solace in his menagerie of colorful fish.

Because his grandfather was an official in the country’s totalitarian regime, Kang always got the most exotic species. In 1977, when Kang was just 9, his grandfather fell out of favor and one day just disappeared. Soon the soldiers came for Kang and the rest of his family: his sister, father, grandmother and uncle.

He begged intelligence officers until they let him put a few prized fish into a plastic bag. Once within the stark confines of Yodok prison, the most notorious outpost of the North’s gulag system, the fish quickly died. Kang didn’t fare much better.

For the next decade his life was hard labor and starvation. Ravenous and desperate, Kang and the other inmates ate whatever they could find. He caught rats and snakes to supplement his meager daily fare of corn and salt.

He learned to eat live salamanders quickly, to grab the creatures by the tail and swallow them in one gulp before they could discharge their revolting secretions.

One by one, the gruesome details were etched into his mind, details that would later drive his memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” the first account of the gulags by someone who had survived them.

Yodok shaped Kang as a fighter who would become an investigative journalist covering North Korea, a reporter who each day seeks a rematch with the regime that stole his boyhood.

In prison, he watched friends slowly die of overwork and malnutrition. But what could he do?

“At Yodok, you couldn’t worry about someone else,” he said. “The fear of your own death was too strong.”

Kang and other inmates were often forced to watch public executions. Before being hanged, the condemned were starved and tortured, their broken bones often breaking through their skin. The teeth of many were pulled and replaced by a mouthful of stones.

But Kang endured. He learned to steal belongings from corpses he was forced to bury, digging shallow graves in the frozen ground.

In 1987, Kang and his family were suddenly released from the gulag. No explanation was given.

Five years later, Kang defected, bribing a guard so he could cross a river border into China. Once on the other side, he stopped for one final gesture of spite and rebellion: He produced a badge honoring then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and smashed it on a rock.

“It was exhilarating,” he said. “That badge was a symbol of the regime. Destroying it was my way of saying I was leaving forever.”

Manual labor

Once in South Korea, Kang worked menial jobs such as carrying bricks on a construction site, the only labor that his time in North Korea had trained him for.

But he longed to write an expose about life in the gulag. He enrolled in college and each night after studying, he wrote his memories down in longhand. Often he fell asleep at his desk.

Fifteen months later, in 1995, he published a Korean-language memoir, “Songs of the Prison Camp.” The book became an instant success, and in 2000, working with journalist Pierre Rigoulot, Kang produced a new version titled “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

Kang, a compact man with mournful eyes, became a singular voice from behind the iron-clad North Korean curtain. Former President George W. Bush made his book required reading for his Cabinet and hosted Kang at the White House.

Kang also founded the North Korea Strategy Center, a nonprofit organization seeking to expose the gulags.

The publicity angered Pyongyang, where officials called him “riffraff devoid of human dignity and values.”

It was just Kang’s first volley against his former tormentors.

Telling the stories

In 2000, Kang took a job as an investigative reporter covering North Korea for the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. The work provided a new way to rattle the regime: telling the stories of fellow survivors.

His own experiences led him to feel particular compassion for other defectors. Kang wrote columns and exclusive stories on the failing North Korean economy, human rights abuses and succession scenarios in the eventual death of Kim Jong Il, the country’s current strongman.

He interviews defectors who are reluctant to talk, until they learn that Kang is one of them, a battered fighter who has punched his way out of the North.

His fellow escapees have taught him a valuable lesson about his homeland.

“I thought I had been through the hardest time,” he said. “After hearing their stories, I now realize something I never thought possible: that the situation there is actually getting worse.”

Kang, now 41, knows the regime reads his work. When he co-wrote one story claiming a defector had been killed, Pyongyang officials produced the man to prove he was alive. The incident, he says, demonstrates the difficulty of reporting on the secretive state.

Kang has received anonymous threatening e-mails ordering him to stop. But his years at Yodok have hardened him.

“Once you walk out of that place you can overcome anything.”

Nearly two decades of freedom have muted the painful images of his captivity. On skiing trips, he used to feel overcome by paralysis and grief: The snowy slopes reminded him of the harsh winters at Yodok.

Only now can he appreciate nature’s beauty, despite knowing that the gulag lies only 100 miles to the north.

His reporting keeps the fire burning to expose Kim and his crimes.

“North Korea has stolen a part of all defectors’ lives, as it has stolen mine,” he said. “What makes me angrier is the knowledge that some of my friends are still there at the camp.”

Whereas many journalists strive for awards, Kang keeps his eyes on a singular prize.

“I want to see democracy come to my homeland. The truth is the only weapon I have.”

Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.