Each field of human activity has its systemic biases, and North Korean studies are no exception. In this article I try to outline that biases that I encounter and which seem quite pervasive. Readers, however, should bear in mind that this is a subjective piece – I also have my own biases, after all.
FLAW #1: ‘SPECIALISTS’ WHO DON’T SPEAK KOREAN
In certain areas of North Korean studies language skill is not necessary – like in natural sciences or in some macroeconomic studies. Provided you have necessary sources, you can write a good paper on the population of tigers in the DPRK or on its foreign trade without learning even the Korean alphabet. However, a historian who cannot read sources in the original Korean is no historian and a social scholar who cannot conduct an interview is no scholar at all. Imagine a scholar of American history from France who does not speak any English and, when a student asks “Can I ask you a question, sir?” replies with Pardonne-moi, mais je ne parle pas anglais. Sounds almost inconceivable – but there is a number of people who call themselves scholars of North Korean history, society or politics, with little, if any, grasp of the language.
One may argue that one of the reasons why this is allowed is the enormous prestige associated with the English language today. To paraphrase Donald Trump, this is the planet where we speak English, not Korean (or any other language). This is especially so in South Korea: Like in neighboring Japan, the ability to speak English has a tremendous level of prestige. Everything, from pop songs to political posters and academic publications has a colossal number of completely gratuitous references in English, inserted solely because they look cool and make the inserter appear smart. Hence, English-speakers without any command of Korean are invited to conferences in South Korea over and over again – and this has no positive influence of the quality of research.
The conferences and journals on nukes are numerous and they are plagued by parasitic pseudo-researchers
This situation is especially grim when it comes to perhaps the most generously funded branch of North Korean studies: the nuclear program of the DPRK. The conferences and journals on nukes are numerous and they are plagued by parasitic pseudo-researchers. A person with a degree and a job who cannot even read Korean script and whose academic activities are mostly limited to making shallow statements like “the North Korean nuclear program is a threat to the stability in the region” and/or “We should support the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear program and the eventual reunification of Korea” is invited to conferences and interviews with him/her are published in major newspapers – although one may argue that a parrot who was taught to say the abovementioned two phrases could do a similar job.
It is no surprise that the quality of nuclear studies remains gruesomely low. Time, paper and other resources are wasted and little has been produced on the subject except the retelling of the latest news and empty phrases.
Indeed, the most productive way to attend such conferences would instead be listening to these people, waiting for the conference to end and then talking to a Korean janitor who came in to clean the room. The janitor, being a native speaker of Korean, probably watches Korean news, where the DPRK obviously is much better represented. I would bet that what the janitor would say on the North Korean nuclear issue would make more sense than all the talks by English-only pseudo-professionals.
FLAW #2: OVERRELIANCE ON OFFICIAL DISCOURSE
When it comes to real academia the major problem is how, amongst all sources, the North Korean official publications are colossally overrepresented. This applies, first and foremost, to the main state newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun.
Writing a paper based on the Rodong Sinmun has several advantages. First, the newspaper is the major voice of the North Korean state, conveying its official message. Second, it can be accessed with relative ease: the most recent edition of the Rodong Sinmun can be downloaded from the Internet and several South Korean institutions keep an archive. Third, unlike propaganda materials for foreign audiences, the Rodong Sinmun is actually distributed inside the country, so this is the message that is also conveyed to the North Korean public.
However, the Rodong Sinmun has some unfixable flaws as well. First, of course, this is a ridiculously grotesque propaganda, and one could not possibly hope to grasp North Korea by reading only this newspaper. Second, North Korean internal propaganda is by no means limited to the Rodong Sinmun. There are classified newspapers – like the military newspaper Choson Inmingun. There are information bulletins for the ordinary police and for the secret police. There are directives from the Central Committee on ideological issues.
Yet finding classified materials is very hard – near impossible in most cases. Hence, may people limit their research to official publications. More honest researchers state that they do not actually study the reality of North Korea – just the official discourse, while the less honest try actually to sell they research as real historical or social studies. I myself have seen works analyzing the social role of the North Korean army based almost exclusively on the Rodong Sinmun, or works written on the medical system in the DPRK with their only source being a collection of the works of Kim Il Sung.
The major alternative is, of course, interviewing North Korean refugees – and that’s what almost all good researchers do. The easier and more popular way is to talk to people who live in South Korea – there are plenty of refugees here in Seoul and the atmosphere is quite relaxed. The harder way is to go to the Chinese borderland: The Chinese state will likely tolerate your presence and in China you can talk to the people who have just left the North – some of them even legally. The works written on borderland interviews usually are among the best things on the subject.
Some North Korean sympathizers loathe this method: The refugees, they say, are hopelessly biased. Read the Rodong Sinmun instead. Well, perhaps we should turn to the experience of our senior colleagues, who faced very similar problems.
Andrew George Walder, a now-classical scholar of Chinese society, used to live in British Hong Kong, interviewing defectors from the Chinese mainland. Logically, his research came under attack by Mao sympathizers, who said that refugees were hopelessly biased and Walder should read Renmin Ribao instead. Walder’s response was simply to say that, true, refugees are human beings and are biased, like we all are. But you understand that Renmin Ribao is far more biased, since it is the propaganda tool of the Communist Party, don’t you? If you think that a researcher cannot see through the refugees’ biases, how can you expect one to see through the biases of Renmin Ribao?
The response silenced his critics, since they could not have voiced the real reason they were critical of his research: “I just want these Chinese people to shut up, since they are disrupting my monopoly on Chinese studies. If they do, I can produce a more plausible version of the Maoist propaganda, call it ‘objective and unbiased research of primary sources’ and be in peace with myself thinking that by no means am I supporting a vile dictatorship: I am merely looking for an alternative to the harsh neoliberal capitalist system of the West.” China is an open country now, unlike North Korea – one can go to the mainland, live and work there and talk to the commoners as much as they please. And history made its judgement: What Walder stated in his research is confirmed and he now enjoys his well-earned reputation of one of the best social historians of modern China. As for Renmin Ribao-oriented research, it is where it belongs: in the dustbin of history.
FLAW #3: OVERREPRESENTATION OF NORTH HAMGYONG
Interviews give us an infinitely more objective image of the country than state propaganda, but this method has it flaws, too. Most North Korean refugees who live in the South – more than 50 percent – come from North Hamgyong Province. It is almost as far from Pyongyang as one can get. Thus it is easy to mistake some peculiarities of this province for the traits common in all of the DPRK. Perhaps the most famous example is the dialectical form sumnaeda which in South Korea is generally perceived as the iconic manifestation of North Korean speech. In fact, sumnaeda is used only in northernmost parts of the country and having an actor playing Kim Jong Un end his phrase with sumnaeda makes as much sense as having an actress playing the British Queen talking with a heavy Scottish accent.
North Hamgyong is, after all, not only a very grim, but also a very boring place
Most of the regional studies of the DPRK are focused on North Hamgyong as well. It is much easier to write a paper or a book about Hoeryong or other town in this province than about, let’s say, Wonsan, Kaesong or even Pyongyang. This is not a particularly bad thing, but the research of a backward province of a backward country is unlikely to become popular reading: North Hamgyong is, after all, not only a very grim, but also a very boring place.
FLAW#4: IGNORING GOOD OLD SOUTH KOREAN BOOKS
There are relatively few references in modern academic publications to old South Korean books, like those published in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The reasons are simple: People assume that since the South Korean state of that time was pursuing an anti-communist policy the books would probably be very biased and since so much time has passed since they had been published, they would hardly tell us anything we do not know.
While the second statement is true to a certain extent, the first one is almost completely false. Old South Korea used to separate propaganda and research. While at some massive anti-communists rallies the chest-beating speakers may have spoken about the swift and painful death they were going to bring to the abhorred Red abominations, in academia the anti-communist narrative was limited to very mild condemnations of North Korean propaganda, like “Look, and they even called him ‘the Great Leader of all Korean people’ – even including us the Southerners!” The South Korean state was lucky: When your mortal enemy is doing so much worse than you are, you do not need to lie and the truth would probably be much more effective to achieve your political goals.
Most of what the old books have to say has been repeated in further research. However, this is not always the case. It is true that old encyclopedias – like Pukhan Chonso, literally “compendium of North Korea” – do contain a lot of obsolete information: the earliest history of North Korea is now much better reconstructed according to Soviet documents, which were unavailable at that time. However, some information in these books is of significant value. It is much, much easier to learn, for the rations in North Korean military in the 1960s, if you live in the 1960s than if you live in 2010s. Hence the image of the then-contemporary North Korea can be more detailed than in modern history books.
One good example: It was generally thought that one of the founding documents for the system of concentration camps was Order 149 of the Cabinet of Ministers as some of the people deported to the countryside were designated “targets of Order 149.” However, Pukhan Chonso from 1974 gives us more details on this: Apparently, Order 149 was not about setting up the camps, but about deporting people from Pyongyang and pre-border areas. The deported were, indeed, designated as “targets of Order 149.”
Finally, some first-class primary sources are largely ignored. For example, the memoirs of Ko Pong Ki, one of the chief aides to Kim Il Sung who defected to the South, were published in 1989 – and despite containing a lot of details of North Korean history, are largely ignored by the academic community. So is the book Motherland by Kim Chin Gye, published in 1990. I have heard so many times people complaining: “It is so hard to study 1960s and ’70s in North Korea – there are no sources!”
Well, here are your sources; read them!
The optimistic part is that the abovementioned flaws are mostly caused by the closed character of the North Korean state. Everything in Korea will change on the day the Kim family regime falls – and North Korean studies would be no exception. First of all, they will solely become the domain of the historians. Second, since the North Korean nuclear program would no longer exist there won’t be any funding surrounding it – and the armada of English news-retelling quasi-researchers would substantially shrink in size, if not disappear for good.
Moreover, archives would be opened for researchers – and we will see RodongSinmun-based research disappearing – like no one studies the Soviet Union now basing his/her research on Pravda only and no modern publication about Mao’s China would be accepted if the only primary source used in it is Renmin Ribao. New works would probably be much less geographically biased: The primary targets for research would be Pyongyang, Kaesong and Rajin, not Hoeryong and Musan. Finally, most of the information of the old South Korean books would be obsolete too: Now, it makes a lot of sense to look in the 1960s research if you are studying 1960s, but if you have all the primary sources at your disposal, what’s the point?
The generation of scholars which would see the post-Kim North Korea would be so more privileged than we are – and I wonder, would they remember the troubles we are facing at the present?
Each field of human activity has its systemic biases, and North Korean studies are no exception. In this article I try to outline that biases that I encounter and which seem quite pervasive. Readers, however, should bear in mind that this is a subjective piece – I also have my own biases, after all.FLAW #1: ‘SPECIALISTS’ WHO DON’T SPEAK KOREANIn certain areas of North Korean
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.