Kang Chol-hwan

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Kang Chol-hwan
Kang Chol-Hwan (WMF February 21, 2014).JPG
Kang in 2014
Born (1968-09-18) September 18, 1968 (age 50)
Korean name
Revised RomanizationGang Cheol-hwan
McCune–ReischauerKang Ch'ŏl-hwan

Kang Chol-hwan (born September 18, 1968) is a North Korean defector and author. As a child, he was imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp for 10 years. After his release he fled the country, first to China and eventually to South Korea. He is the author, with Pierre Rigoulot, of The Aquariums of Pyongyang and worked as a staff writer specialized in North Korean affairs for The Chosun Ilbo. He is the founder and president of the North Korea Strategy Center.

Early life[edit]

Kang meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in June 2005.
Kang in 2008

According to his autobiography, Kang was born in Pyongyang, North Korea, and spent his childhood there. He had a good relationship with his grandfather. He had a happy childhood.[1] His grandfather was the Vice President of the Commercial Management office in Pyongyang, supervising all the commercial stores and department stores in Pyongyang. His grandmother was a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly and was the deputy head of the Workers’ Party organization of female members. She was deputy to Kim Il Sung’s wife.[2] His family lived in relative luxury from his grandfather's position and the fortune that he had given to the country upon the family's return from Japan. Though they had never renounced their North Korean citizenship and Kang's grandmother had been a staunch party member in both countries, Kang has stated that the family remained under a cloud of suspicion for having lived in Japan.

Concentration camp[edit]

In 1977, his grandfather was accused of treason and was sent to the Senghori concentration camp. According to current KCNA, the elder Kang was an agent of the Japanese National Police.[3] As the family of a traitor, Kang, 9, and his family were sent to the Yodok concentration camp.

Kang's autobiography describes a brutal life in the camp. Death from starvation or exposure to the elements was common, with routine beatings and other punishments. His education consisted almost solely of memorizing the sayings and speeches of Kim Il-sung; at 15, his education ceased and he was assigned to exhausting and dangerous work details, and was made to view public executions. He said of the camps, "It was a life of hard labour, thirty percent of new prisoners would die. And we were so malnourished, we would eat rats and earthworms to survive."[4]

There was an order by Kim Jong Il that those in the prison with relatives in Japan had to be released after 10 years. In the mid-1980’s North Korea depended heavily on foreign currency remittances. Many Koreans living in Japan were sending remittances to North Korea. These people also protested the regime’s sending their relatives to prison. This had a bad effect on the public opinion and the amount of remittances being sent from Japan. If he didn’t have that connection, he probably never would have left that prison. Once he left the camp, he was sent to live in Yodok village. He could not go all the way back to Pyongyang, but he moved to Pyongsong, near Pyongyang. He moved in with his uncle who was working at the National Science Research Institute in the city.[2]


After release from the camp, Kang bought an illegal radio receiver and listened to broadcasts from South Korea. He was studying and preparing to go to college, but he and a friend had found interest in foreign broadcasting. He was quite interested in outside information and eventually got involved in anti-government activity. He was later identified and watched by the government; fearing he would be sent back to the concentration camp, he planned his escape.[2]

He was part of a group of people who were against the regime. He had access to foreign information and sang foreign songs. All of this was strictly prohibited in North Korea and he knew it could put his family at risk at well. When he was discovered, he knew he couldn’t discuss the matter with his family. So he left the country as soon as he could.[2] In 1992, he and fellow Yodok internee An Hyuk escaped from North Korea by crossing the Yalu River into China.[5]

The hardest challenge for them was getting on the train to the border of China undetected. All of the North Korean trains were monitored by the authorities. To gain passage, they had to bribe the police to gain permission to travel.[2] Eventually, they made it to the border city of Chanbai, China near Hyesan, North Korea, where they stayed temporarily, making numerous deals with the North Korean military there by buying them beer and drinks. Later, the North Korean military informed them there was a changing of the guard at 2 AM. An Hyuk and Kang took their chance and crossed the river into China without any complications. After they made it across, North Korean patrols came looking for them, searching for about a week. They hid in China for about 6 months and eventually made their way to Dalian, where some ethnic Koreans helped them get passage to South Korea.[2]

After publishing The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang met with US President George W. Bush[6] and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.[7] He has spoken with several organizations about human rights in North Korea[8][9] and visited Japan for a discussion about abductees.[10]

Kang has not been in contact with his family since he defected. In 2011, it was revealed that his sister, Mi-ho, and her 11-year-old son are believed to be at Yodok concentration camp.[11]


  • Kang, Chol-Hwan (2001). The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0-465-01102-0.
  • "Give Us An 'Eclipse Policy'", The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2005.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kang, Chol-hwan; Rigoulot, Pierre (2001). The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Basic Books. p. 27. ISBN 0-465-01102-0.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Freedom Collection » Interviews » Kang Chol-hwan". www.freedomcollection.org. Retrieved 2017-11-21.
  3. ^ Useless and foolish smear campaign, 1999-05-06, archived from the original on 2012-01-11, retrieved 2011-07-16
  4. ^ "'Life of hard labour' in North Korean camp". BBC News. May 3, 2011.
  5. ^ 양정아 (2005-06-15), "부시와 면담, 강철환은 누구인가? 함남 요덕 수용소 출신, 現 <북한민주화운동본부> 공동 대표", Daily NK, retrieved 2010-02-26
  6. ^ "The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea". Archived from the original on 2006-01-17.
  7. ^ "Foreign Secretary of the UK Jack Straw Meets North Korean Gulag Survivor".
  8. ^ "Blogger".
  9. ^ Republicans Abroad Korea: Kang Chol-hwan reception a success Archived 2005-12-10 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ "North Korea defectors say don't trust regime's claims on abductees". The Japan Times.
  11. ^ http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/petition_to_unwgad.pdf Petition To: United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

External links[edit]