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Matthew McGrath (@mattmcgr) is a Seoul based contributor for NK News.
A big problem with analysis of North Korea is that it emphasizes security, particularly from the perspective of the United States, a British academic told NK News.
This means that important aspects of the scholarship on the North are neglected, and that mistaken predictions, particularly of the North’s impending collapse, are all too common.
Hazel Smith, professor of Resilience and Security at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, recently finished her fifth stint in the U.S. in the past 20 years. In all but one of these experiences, she had come to the U.S. because her North Korean expertise was in demand.
“I’m in the United States a lot because North Korea is a primary foreign policy importance there and in Britain, actually most of Europe, it’s a novelty issue,” she said. “So there is a push and pull factor. People are interested in my work and I’m interested in what people are doing in Washington because it is important for East Asia and North Korea.”
However, what she terms “securitization” – the emphasis on the North from a U.S. foreign policy perspective – has dominated studies of the nation is a way that has benefited neither policy nor scholarship.
“… of course (the policy arena and the scholarly arena) inform each other; but they serve separate purposes and separate areas,” she said. “In the policy arena, for United States foreign policy… the top priority since the end of the Cold War has been counter-proliferation. The United State government has basically outsourced human rights and humanitarian issues to NGOs for various reasons.”
Though Smith has argued that the problem of malnutrition in the North is overstated – she points to statistics from the World Health Organization showing that it’s lower than the Asian average – she also feels that there is a legitimate need for aid which has become entangled with the North Korean nuclear issue.
“… one can argue that the security side has dominated the United States foreign policy agenda to the extent that humanitarian aid has been used as an instrument of security policy,” she said. “Now, there are all sorts of reasons for this. One is that the United States has very few policy instruments open to it, to provide (either) carrots and sticks in terms of its policy.”
Despite a series of bilateral economic sanctions passed against the North by the U.S., North Korea continues with provocative behavior, including its nuclear weapons proliferation. This, she said, is because the North is not a natural trading partner with the U.S., minimizing such sanctions’ efficacy.
The North was better able to trade with Western Europe until the U.N. enacted sanctions on it in 2006 – brought on by the North’s first nuclear test – but the North “couldn’t take advantage of that because it hasn’t got anything it can trade, really, with Western Europe or the West that will bring it big returns,” she said.
“So for the United States bilateral sanctions, even multilateral sanctions are not really an instrument which can deliver their objectives.”
Smith also said that the U.S. cannot entice the North into behaving differently because of domestic political concerns. The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress would not support such aid, much as it undermined agreed-upon efforts by the Clinton administration to provide this type of assistance in the 1990s.
“Even the aid which the United States was committed to give to North Korea through that agreement, the heavy fuel deliveries, was not agreed (to) by congress,” she said. “So economic sanctions haven’t proved to be a useful instrument for the United States, (and) development aid is politically impossible for them.
“They have pretty much been left with the use of humanitarian assistance. Now the problem with the use of humanitarian assistance is that in international law, humanitarian assistance may not be used to pursue a political end. It can only be used to respond to humanitarian need and this has caused all sorts of ethical problems for United States foreign policy.”
And Smith said that the emphasis on U.S. security objectives goes beyond policy, and into academia.
“(In) the scholarly arena, the dominant perspective has been, to put it most kindly, skewed by United States foreign policy perspectives that have a very strong ideological component,” she said. “That doesn’t mean to say that all of the scholarship on economics, on humanitarian issues, on social issues in North Korea are not valuable to scholarly endeavors…but this fresh scholarship is drowned out by these dominant perspectives…which means that the values of scholarship have been drowned out (by) an overwhelming ideological framework.”
And when North Korea makes the news, frequently due to provocative behavior such as a nuclear test, missile launch or threat of preemptive strike, experts are asked to give predictions, particularly as to how long the Pyongyang regime will last.
“…if anybody ever asks me to make a prediction about North Korea, I say go and consult the clairvoyant,” she said. “I think prediction is something, which we (scholars) aren’t very good at.”
For one thing, analysts specializing in either policy or military affairs, when they appear publicly to describe North Korea, are making their statements based on incomplete information, as very little is known about the North’s inner workings. For another, the media picks up these provocative statements, largely because they get attention.
“But only the sensationalist bits of North Korea sell newspapers, so there is a big problem with this perspective on North Korea,” she said.
“I think the main point is that you have to have humility…Every scholar knows that you don’t know everything about everything. You go through a process and you hope to enhance the field of knowledge by doing that.”
Smith emphasized that the relative paucity of information available regarding the North’s activities and objectives does not mean that academics and analysts should say nothing, though:
“Those who are engaged either in the policy world or the scholarly world or who take this whole issue seriously, we’ve got a job to go through the painstaking work of checking sources, of being careful in what we say, of being rigorous, of letting other people judge if our work stands up on those grounds.”
Interview conducted by Chad O’Carroll in London, editing by Rob York.
Picture: NK News