Researchers studying North Korean defectors need to use a degree of creativity, particularly in asking questions, to get information from them, an academic and author told NK News.
Sandra Fahy of Sophia University in Tokyo has already finished one book, Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, which will be out next spring. When asked about the limitations of defector research – such as the fact that many of them come from the same northern provinces of the country, bordering China – Fahy said this requires researchers to come up with new, creative questions the refugees haven’t heard before.
That, and a sense of relatability, are necessary to maintain a human connection with the defectors.
Fahy is also working on another book, about militarism in North Korean society, which she indicated will draw on themes proposed by the French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault, whose theory of “biopower” concerned social control through mechanisms such as the military.
Her fondest wish, though – and one of the most difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons – is to work with North Korean children, particularly homeless ones struggling to get by. The medium she’d like to work with them through is art, she said.
“I would like to ask them to tell their experiences, dreams, fears and hopes through drawings that they make,” she said. “It is a valuable record that is going unrecorded.”
NK News: How many people have you interviewed over the years and where did they come from?
Fahy: I’ve met about 100 North Korean defectors over the years since I began this work with earnest in 2003. I met them in Seoul, Tokyo, London, L.A. and D.C. I’ve known defectors from Pyongyang, but also Chungjin, naturally the border area is the greatest source of defections. I’ve also met some prison survivors.
NK News: Can you illustrate the contents of your forthcoming book
Fahy: At the moment I am working on a new manuscript tentatively titled Military Nation: Soldier, Civilian and Militarism in North Korea.
Nowadays global militarism is moving into the realm of nuclear and cyber-war, and North Korea is moving right along with that
This book takes militarism in North Korea as its topic of focus, but instead of replicating existing scholarship on the military, I examine how militarism is a social, cultural institution in North Korea that has a functional power far beyond bullets and bombs.
It is more than securing the sovereignty of the Nation state, but also about the internal national self-concept. Nowadays global militarism is moving into the realm of nuclear and cyber-war, and North Korea is moving right along with that.
Thus it is more and more obvious that the military as a spectacle of mass bodies in uniform, and other myriad rituals of education, conscription and so on, has a fascinating range of meaning and influence throughout society.
The method of analysis for this book is multi-fold. Of course, I am interviewing military defectors, but also “ordinary” North Koreans who were not officers or soldiers.
I will also be doing analysis of education materials used in North Korean schools, military education documents, newspapers, films and so on. The book takes in the topic of biopower, how the state uses the bodies of its citizens, for particular aims.
One of the consequences of the Korean War is the thorough militarization of Korean society, North and South. Young South Korean men are killing themselves and their unit-mates, they are struggling.
What’s going on up North? We don’t know. What’s the psychological aspect of military life in North Korea? What are “civilian”-Military relations like? A little digression here: actually, to speak of “civilians” in North Korea often raises eyebrows, so what I mean by that is simply “ordinary people.”
NK News: Regarding the definitions surrounding North Koreans who left their country, why are we, depending on the angle, still hearing of “defectors,” “refugees,” “escapees,” saetomin (defectors), talbukja (Northerners) and so forth?
Fahy: The terminology issue is interesting. But the problem is that your words sound clunky if you try to use things like “former North Koreans”… I often, in Korean, just say “people from North Korea” and in English use the word “defector.”
It’s complicated because both Koreas and the region have a vested interest in the meanings attached to these people. If they are escapees then it looks good for “the good guys” and so on. But the story is far more complicated.
North Koreans in South Korea are not necessarily over the moon about their new host country. Imagine never being able to go back home? Imagine that you have stepped into a new “division” like that that ended the Korean War, only this time it is personal to you and your family, and it’s happening in 2014?
NK News: Do you see a problem with the composition of the defectors’ pool as a primary source of information about North Korea? With so many of them coming from northeastern provinces, are we at risk of over-saturating some aspects of this complex issue?
I suspect it’s when we see the interlocutor not as a fellow earth-dweller, but as an alien, that you lose imagination in your conversation
Fahy: Good question. Of course, what we hear from them, after a while gets to be “rote” – they are memorizing polished answers…so that’s where we as scholars have to be smart, by asking engaging and interesting questions! Again, that’s why I like to ask about jokes, humor, strange things they remember about home. If it’s about the famine, for instance: “What kind of methods did you use to cook, what recipes?” This is a fair question!
I like to ask hypothetical questions: “If you could go back, and do so without punishment, would you?” I also liked to explore self-talk: “What kinds of things did you say to yourself, when you saw X happening?”
I suspect it’s when we see the interlocutor not as a fellow earth-dweller, but as an alien, that you lose imagination in your conversation.
NK News: I recall a period in which there was debate over the fairness and balance of refugees’ accounts as many of them were paid to give interviews. What’s your take on that and how has the situation evolved?
Fahy: Well, I am just back off the heels of a trip to South Kore,a where I was told what price I would have to pay for each military defector interview. I was never told such things before, back in 2006 when I was interviewing “regular” North Koreans, so to speak.
Maybe it was because then I was really embedded in the community and now I live in Tokyo. Maybe it’s because time has passed and with this North Koreans are getting savvier. Maybe it’s because these guys are military and thus “have” knowledge that is valuable in the way that ordinary people do not.
On the other hand, a close North Korean friend insisted that I not pay the military guys he helped me meet. I suspect that many journalists and foreign experts fly in and request a list of names for interviews and that maybe puts a bad taste in some people’s mouths.
Recently someone gave me some advice, which was to first determine who is “worth” interviewing by doing a mini survey interview first, then do a deep unstructured, recorded, interview.
I like that method. You don’t “waste time” with someone that can’t furnish your topic with insights, and you can compensate them. Now that I am not a poor Ph.D student, and I have a few grants to support this new project, I am not so averse to giving someone 100,000 won for an interview.
NK News: Do you find differences between famine survivors who settled in Japan and those who went to Seoul?
Fahy: There were differences. I didn’t explore this enough in my Ph.D work (ran out of time, money, etc.). Defectors in Tokyo and Osaka were much happier (in my estimation) than those I met in Seoul. They seemed much more at home, and at ease. We can easily speculate as to why. They never assumed that they ought to belong. They all had been born in Japan, gone to DPRK in the 1960s, 1970s and then left in the late 1990s or early 2000s because of the food crisis. But culturally, Japan is also a country (from my short experience here) that kind of leaves you alone to do your thing.
Korea on the other hand, is a place that is both curious of foreigners and fearful of them – obviously huge generalizations here, so take this with a bag of salt. But even here in Tokyo, when I asked my students to do a research project on North Koreans in Japan, they didn’t want to. They were fearful.
Another difference is that in North Korea those Koreans from Japan were able to carefully speak to each other in Japanese, they had connections back to Japan and knew of another way of life.
Those three things: communication, connections abroad and knowledge of another way of life were key to being able to edge out of North Korean society, which already did kind of exile them in the Northern parts anyway, and to imagine another life for themselves back “home.”
Also, those Koreans were mostly from places like Jeju, so no deep connections to the land up North.
Children have a wonderfully clear way of explaining things, though often deeply conservative and sometimes even cruel
NK News: Finally, do you see a day when direct, unfiltered fieldwork in North Korea will be possible and what topic would you work on in that case?
Fahy: Ah, I like this question. Well, I think if I could go there I would just like to live and hang out with people. Collect stories, record songs. That kind of thing.
My most “dreamed of” research project would involve working with North Korean kids, (though this is) ethically difficult on many levels. I would like to do fieldwork with them through drawing. Of course, because of the kinds of work I do is related to structural violence I would like to meet kotjaebi (homeless children in North Korea). I would like to ask them to tell their experiences, dreams, fears and hopes through drawings that they make.
That’s what I would do. Children have a wonderfully clear way of explaining things, though often deeply conservative and sometimes even cruel, I would like to hear what North Korean kids have to say. It is a valuable record that is going unrecorded.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
Researchers studying North Korean defectors need to use a degree of creativity, particularly in asking questions, to get information from them, an academic and author told NK News.Sandra Fahy of Sophia University in Tokyo has already finished one book, Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, which will be out next spring. When asked about the limitations of defector
Gianluca Spezza is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies (IKSU), University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK. His work has been published and interviewed on The Guardian, BBC, Newsweek Korea, and DR among others. He writes about North Korea, international organizations, international relations and national identity. Email him at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter @TheSpezz