The longevity of North Korea baffles most observers, as does the apparent lack of information about the country. However, we know much more about it today than we did a few decades ago, and this is due not only to a steady rise in interest in the country, but the development of new generations of scholars and authors.
Granted, there are aspects of North Korea that are still very difficult to analyze, as the DPRK is essentially closed to real fieldwork from outside scholars, while access to its internal documentary sources is, to say the least, hard.
Despite such difficulties, much has changed in our understanding of North Korea since the works of the 1970s and ’80s by the likes of Robert Scalapino, Chong Sik Lee, Dae Suk Soo, Han S. Park, Bruce Cumings and B.C. Koh.
Today, in parallel with the more familiar names of Andrei Lankov, James Hoare, B.R. Myers, Victor Cha, Charles Armstrong and David Kang, we can count on the work of numerous authors, not necessarily “new” in terms of publications, but relatively less known to the public. Also, quite importantly, we are witnessing a rise in the number of (and visibility of) female scholars in a field that was largely male-dominated until recently. All of them present interesting approaches to previously uninvestigated topics, having introduced new concepts, presented new sources or re-evaluated old ones.
Note: This list is not meant to be exhaustive and there may be many good names left out, because we do not know them yet and did not have the chance to review their work. There are also scholars who publish in languages other than English, therefore their work is not available to the wider field of North Korea followers. The ones we present here are those we are familiar with, who have published in English or Korean.
Andrea Berger is a research fellow at RUSI. If North Korean studies at large are still marked by a predominance of male authors, the subfield dedicated to security and strategic studies is perhaps even more so. The presence of a young female expert is therefore welcome. Her work covers issues of non-proliferation, disarmament and security on the Korean Peninsula. Berger holds an MA in International Peace and Security from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, a BA in Political Science from Carleton University in Ottawa, as well as a certificate in Nuclear Safeguards and Non-Proliferation from the European Safeguards Research and Development Association.
Recently she started contributing to NK News with analysis and opinions on issues of strategy, security, inter-Korean relations and regional issues related to the DPRK. Her latest revealed interesting details about North Korean space agency endeavors while another for RUSI analyzed the Jang Song Thaek purge in detail.
Markus Bell completed his master’s at Seoul National University in 2012 and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Asia and Pacific anthropology department of the Australian National University. He lives in Osaka, focusing on culture, society and migration in the two Koreas and Japan. He has analyzed questions of gender issues among North Korean migrants and the problems of North Koreans who struggle to resettle in the South. Bell’s doctoral research explores the issue of Zainichi North Korean returnees: These individuals, whose families were brought to Japan as a source of cheap labor during the colonial era (1910-1945), returned to North Korea, as part of the pro-North organization Chongryun’s organized repatriation project from 1959-1984, before making yet another return migration to Japan in the last decade and a half (1997-2013).
“Bell’s research details the lives of individuals who have endured multiple forced migrations, living on the fringes of society while concomitantly playing a vital … role in each place they resided in”
Bell’s research details the lives of individuals who have endured multiple forced migrations, living on the fringes of society while concomitantly playing a vital economic, cultural and political role in each place they resided in. Bell tries to understand the means through which these migrants (individuals who have crossed more than just geographic boundaries) resist and negotiate the hegemonic forces at each point, explaining how they define themselves and their hosts, and the means by which they express particular ethnic and cultural traits at particular times to emphasize group identity, distinctiveness and solidarity.
Danielle Chubb is lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University in Melbourne. She obtained her Ph.D. in international relations from the Australian National University, with research on the thick layer of strategic jargon often applied to the security issues surrounding North Korea. Chubb’s work looks closely at the ideas and strategies that characterize the activity of individuals who work, behind the scenes, on issues of human rights and justice for North Korea and its people. In so doing, Chubb has attempted to decode the passionate, ideological debate that surrounds the issue, and her 2014 book – Contentious Activism and Inter-Korean Relations – examines in detail three ideas emanating from this conversation: unification, democratization and human rights.
Related to this work is a chapter (“North Korean defector activism and South Korean politics”) recently published in the inter-disciplinary book Debordering Korea: Tangible and Intangible Legacies of the Sunshine Policy. Chubb’s other teaching and research interest is Australian foreign policy. The two interests are interconnected in her mind, and she is working on a research project that examines alternative foreign policy paradigms open to regional middle powers like Australia. Preliminary exploratory writings on this issue include a 2011 op-ed as well as a more recent (2013) journal article.
Geoffrey Fattig is a graduate student at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, and currently teaches at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea. He has worked in South Korea for several years, and recently completed the Korean Language Program at Sogang University in Seoul. His research interests include inter-Korean relations, South Korean politics and North Korean refugee issues. Fattig often takes an unconventional stance in his work. Past articles have included a discussion of the North Korean nuclear issue (and why nothing short of an American troop withdrawal will convince the leadership to abandon this program), and a proposal for encouraging out-migration from North Korea as a means of putting pressure on the Pyongyang regime.
“Fattig argues that a mix of historical forces and distinct cultural trends … drives many of the problems facing the Korean Peninsula today”
More recently, his work has touched upon the problem of free speech limits in South Korea and how the interference of the National Intelligence Service in the country’s presidential election represents a grave threat to democracy in the country. Fattig argues that a mix of historical forces and distinct cultural trends – often overlooked in the popular narrative – drives many of the problems facing the Korean Peninsula today.
Chris Richardson majored in English Literature as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. After traveling and working in children’s publishing for several years, he returned to academia to earn a master’s degree in international security, and can “still remember the puzzled faces” when he first explained his background in children’s literature to a room full of IR scholars.
During his masters, Richardson became fascinated with the durability of the North Korean social system, wondering why the DPRK endured while so many fraternal systems had withered and faded – like the Soviet Union – or transformed beyond recognition – like China. It become clear the strength of the DPRK’s social system lay primarily in its monopoly over the means of cultural production, with an inter-generational transmission of revolutionary ideology, was largely conducted in childhood via a carefully calibrated children’s culture, inscribing national orthodoxy and orthopraxy on young minds and bodies, binding each citizen into the imagined community of Kim Il Sung.
“It become clear the strength of the DPRK’s social system lay primarily in its monopoly over the means of cultural production”
This revelation presented an opportunity for Richardson to unite his two interests – children’s culture and international relations – pursuing a Ph.D. on something largely unexplored. Richardson is now in the final year of his Ph.D. in Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, researching childhood policies and practices in the DPRK, exploring both the origins and nature of North Korean children’s culture, and the challenges the state faces in socializing a new generation in a rapidly changing, post-Arduous March information environment.
His work has been published at Sino-NK, in the International Review of Korean Studies and the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and featured on the BBC World Service, in the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. His first novel, Children of the Wave, will be published by Penguin in early 2015. He looks forward to the Korean translation of his novel, available in all good bookstores, and hopefully someday in Pyongyang too.
Picture Credits: E. Lafforgue
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