한국어 | January 16, 2017
January 16, 2017
Facts unknown: Navigating North Korea’s elephant in the dark
Facts unknown: Navigating North Korea’s elephant in the dark
The nature of North Korean studies means researchers are often unsure what is true or false
December 28th, 2016

There is a well-known parable that is usually ascribed to ancient India. It concerns three blind men who are asked to investigate and then describe an elephant. One of them finds the animal’s leg and says that it must look like a tree. Another finds the trunk and says that an elephant must be some kind of snake. The third, having felt the tail, says that the elephant is similar to a rope.

We should keep this parable in mind when we talk about the major problems that students of North Korea face: North Korea is the proverbial elephant.

It is a diverse society, but because it is so closed and because it is so difficult to access even the most basic information about the place, we necessarily deal with piecemeal data and are hence are bound to mistake features that are peculiar to a certain place or time for something universal and permanent.

I would like to mention a rather recent example (admittedly, of a rather curious nature) that illustrates this problem quite well. In late August, when I was in the Chinese city of Dandong, I had a rather bizarre encounter when a friend and I were trying to get into a North Korean restaurant.

We are both, unmistakably, not Asian. The staff, however, denied us entry and demanded our ID, we were told, to prove that we were not South Korean. Only after IDs (Russian passports) were presented were we allowed to sit down and enjoy our dinner.

A friend of mine mentioned this rather comical incident in his Russian language blog, only to touch off a round of personal attacks, up to the point where some people were accusing him of outright lying.

The average North Korean watcher is bound to rely on his or her own experience

Some of his readers had recently been to North Korean restaurants elsewhere and had seen a number of South Korean visitors enjoying North Korean restaurant food in places like Beijing and Moscow without being harassed in any way.

Critics were obviously right about this part: the ban on South Koreans clearly was not universally enforced. Rather, it was taken seriously only in some areas. It is even possible that, from the very beginning, this ban was not meant to be enforced universally, but was a measure specifically targeting borderland areas.

The problem, however, is that the average North Korean watcher doesn’t have the time or the money to go to every North Korean restaurant or check with everyone who has been recently, and hence is bound to rely on his or her own experiences.


Another example is that of some of the rather curious bans that, until recently, existed in North Korea with respect to female attire and behavior. For a long time, North Korean authorities prohibited women from wearing trousers unless it was for work.

However, as every visitor to North Korea will testify, this ban was seldom enforced, even though it remained on the books until after the rise of Kim Jong Un, who finally got rid of it just a few years ago (in July 2012).

I myself was accused of spreading libel about the “glorious socialist Korea” (of course, by extreme pro-North Korean ideologues) when I mentioned the ban.

They reacted by producing photos that showed a number of North Korean women clad in fashionable trousers and walking the streets of major cities. The photos were not forgeries, of course – since the ban, while existing on paper, was enforced only sporadically.

north korea women photo

For a long time women in North Korea were prohibited from wearing trousers unless of official duty – but the ban was sporadically enforced |Photo by Roman Harak

Nonetheless, from time to time, the police and pro-government activists conducted a witch hunt that targeted women in trousers. In most cases, the time and place of such crackdowns was known to all fashion conscious women well in advance: they could easily avoid potential danger zones.

For a long time, North Korean authorities prohibited women from wearing trousers unless it was for work

Nonetheless, if a woman in trousers was excessively relaxed, she could find herself apprehended and mildly punished – one of my North Korean female acquaintances had her arm broken when she, fleeing from a trouser-fighting patrol, clumsily jumped over a fence. She believed that she was herself to blame, since she was aware of the area where trousers fighters were expected to operate but had lost her vigilance.

Relying on available information, it is obviously impossible to determine the logic behind the choice of time and place for such crackdowns – and it is quite possible that, in many cases, the crackdowns were the result of capricious decisions by people very high in the power structure.

Maybe at some point in the distant future when/if historians get access to all relevant instructions, they will find a method to the trouser-fighting madness, but it is not possible right now.


The ‘elephant effect’ can be seen in less trivial matters than bans on women wearing trousers or female cycling (the latter ban, also normally ignored, existed for two decades). There are more serious issues where we deal with data which seems mutually exclusive, but most likely reflects the differences between times and places.

Since 2013 North Korea has gone through a rather radical agricultural reform. According to the new system, farmers no longer work for fixed rations, but instead are given a share of the harvest they produce.

However, there are seriously conflicting reports about how much farmers are allowed to keep under the new system. Some sources insist that the farmers are allowed to keep 30%, while others put the share at 70% or even higher.

From what little is known, it seems that the difference depends on the village in question. However, currently we can only guess whether location is a significant factor. The near complete silence of the North Korean media on the new agricultural system means that we have to rely on anecdotal evidence for what is going on, and such evidence is necessarily partial and controversial.

The ‘elephant effect’ can be seen in less trivial matters


One can only hope that the intelligence services of interested countries have a more systematic idea about what is going on – after all, this peculiar part of the government bureaucracy seem to be the only institution that might have the resources, motivation and perceived need to collect the necessary information in sufficient quantities.

However, given what we know about the intelligence gatherers’ activities throughout the last 100 years, we have reason to be skeptical about the abilities of spies to make much sense of anything unrelated to missile or tank production. At any rate, even if such information exists, it will probably take decades before it will be released into the public domain.

So how can we, mere humble researchers with seriously limited resources, deal with the “elephant problem” – apart from the obvious observation that we should do what we can to gather the largest possible amount of data?

It seems that the best way would be to clearly indicate which place and time available information is from and be careful of excessive generalizations. Nonetheless, too many of my colleagues, as well as myself, are bound from time to time to tell the public that an elephant looks like a cross between a snake and a pine tree.

Featured Image: North Korean Trafic Officers, Kaesong, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2012-09-08 03:56:59

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