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New Film to Center on Memoir of Life in North Korean Gulag

A memoir of life in a North Korean gulag is to become the latest South Korean film project aiming a spotlight at the North's human rights situation. As VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports, the book has already won over some very influential readers in Washington.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by North Korean escapee Kang Cheol Hwan, gained fame as one of U.S. President George W. Bush's favorite books. Mr. Bush is reported to have handed out copies of the book to staff and friends and invited Kang to the White House, three years ago, for a lengthy one-on-one chat.

Now, the story of Kang's childhood in a North Korean punitive labor camp is scheduled to become a motion picture.

Kang says he was a victim of what human rights advocates describe as North Korea's policy of "collective punishment." He and his family were sent to the North's infamous Yoduk labor camp in 1977, because of a suspected political offense by his grandfather.

Kang's book describes the horrors he witnessed at Yoduk, including starvation, severe beatings and disease. He says it is long overdue for his story to be told on the big screen.

Kang says, despite the fact the Yoduk concentration camp has been operating for 50 years, there have been no films depicting it or any of North Korea's human rights abuses. He compares the situation to Hitler's concentration camps, about which many films have been produced.

North Korea denies engaging in any abuse of human rights, despite the passage of several United Nations resolutions criticizing the treatment of its citizens. For years, Pyongyang has refused to allow a U.N.-appointed human rights researcher any access to the country. North Korea describes Kang Cheol-hwan as "human scum."

For 10 years before the February inauguration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak, South Korean administrations kept a near-total public silence on North Korean human rights issues. Their aim was to peacefully engage the North and to avoid embarrassing the leadership there.

President Lee has changed that political climate by issuing numerous public calls for North Korea to improve its human rights practices. At least two other major film projects have emerged this year, drawing attention to the North's human rights situation.

Kang Cheol-hwan says film is a powerful tool in shining a light on Pyongyang's abuses.

He says showing the North's gulags, on screen, to world audiences it the best way to honor those who have died in them. He says he hopes his film will help to end the camps once and for all.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is being produced by South Korea's Cinema And I. Producers say shooting is expected to begin in October, in time for a release around July of next year. The filmmakers are negotiating with American and European distributors for a worldwide release.