In a previous piece for NK News I wrote about common biases and flaws in North Korean studies. The piece proved to be quite popular and I’d like to share some thoughts on a closely related subject: flaws in methods used by various analysts and commentators who focus on North Korea.
Many people connected to North Korean studies are often asked to give commentary on recent events. Sometimes, the analysis they provide is fascinating. More often than not, however, it is the opposite. Here are a few of the flawed methodologies I’ve noticed are common.
Flawed method 1: Analyze the obvious
Too often analysts are able to cover up their lack of knowledge by simply restating the obvious. For example, in 1998 North Korea changed the title of its head of state. Before that, it was “President”, and it became “Chairman of the National Defense Commission”.
What does this mean? The country is more militarized! Kim Jong Un gives a New Year speech, with Party flags hanging in the background. What does it mean? That he stresses the role of the Party! Kim Jong Il gives his first public speech at a military parade. What does it mean? That the parade is important!
In my previous piece I argued that a Korean-speaking janitor would probably be more qualified to talk about the implications of nuclear issues than “experts” who do not speak Korean.
I’d say that at this level of analysis the janitor – a native speaker of Korean with years of listening to Korean TV, reading Korean newspapers and magazines – would be seriously overqualified.
In fact, such “analysis” could easily be conducted by an intelligent 13-year boy, since it is based on basic common sense and nothing else.
Flawed method 2: Going through all possible scenarios
Despite political studies often calling itself “political science”, it is of course not actually a science. This is especially true when it comes to North Korea, since for most analysts much of their information from inside North Korea is limited to KCNA, the Rodong Sinmun, and other official stuff.
But the media wants predictions, and instead of admitting their ignorance, some chose to go through all possible outcomes.
Is Kim Jong Un going to implement reforms? Well, he may or he may not, or he may implement counter-reforms.
We’ve all seen articles like this.
Let me give you another example: before 2010 the North Korean studies community liked to speculate on who was going to become Kim Jong Il’s successor.
A standard article on the subject would go something like this:
Well, given that Kim Jong Il is a son of his predecessor Kim Il Sung, we may suggest that he may appoint one of his sons. Maybe it would be Kim Jong Nam. On the other hand, it may be Kim Jong Chol. Or Kim Jong Un. However, he may actually appoint Jang Song Thaek – it looks like this guy is quite powerful. Or maybe Kim Ok, his wife. Or he may die without appointing a successor.
For most analysts much of their information from inside North Korea is limited to KCNA and the Rodong Sinmun
When the decision to appoint Kim Jong Un was announced, the author could then come out and say: “Well, I was right. Things are developing according to the scenario #3, just as I predicted!”
Indeed you did, Mr. Expert, indeed you did.
In short, if you see a person running through all possible scenarios, know that the real answer that person can give to the question is “I don’t know what will happen.” Given how closed North Korea is, they are hardly to blame. However, why deceive readers? Let’s be honest with people who have taken the time to read what we have written.
Flawed method 3: Treating North Korea like just another country
Most studies on the DPRK law begin with a discussion of the Constitution, despite it having very little effect on the lives of citizens.
The Constitution is discussed over and over again by people from all sides of political spectrum, and it is not a rare thing to see a researcher claim that the change of Kim Il Sung’s title in 1972 from “Premier” to “President” somehow strengthened his powers, despite no one being able to explain how Kim held more power in 1973 when he did in 1971.
The same rule applies to study of North Korean art and literature. They quite a few people who insist on studying North Korean novels like novels, North Korean poetry like poetry, and North Korean dramas like dramas.
This is a flawed method: all North Korean literature is heavily censored and authors can only publish that which corresponds to the state ideology.
A Korean-speaking janitor would be probably more qualified to talk about the implications of nuclear issues than “experts” who do not speak Korean
In short, North Korean novels, poetry, and dramas are, primarily, state propaganda and should be studied as such, and one should write about the sociopolitical context surrounding a particular text and how it is manifested in it and to what degree. The form of the work is secondary to this overriding goal and the lofty terms of literature studies are unlikely to be applicable here at all.
The rule of thumb should be: when you study something from North Korea, it is, first and foremost, North Korean. North Korean literature is first a piece of propaganda made in the DPRK and second a branch of literature.
Flawed method 4: Take North Korean state discourse changes for real changes
This mistake is very tempting and very easy to make – and the author knows some good specialists who fall victim to it.
OK, so in North Korea the state is omnipresent and it constantly feeds the citizens with propaganda. That means that this propaganda must have some – probably large – influence on their lives. I mean, if they talk 24/7 about Juche, Songun, and other stuff, it must influence the way North Koreans live, surely!
Well, mostly no. One of the most fascinating things about the DPRK is that their propaganda slogans often have very little connection to reality. Official state ideology is often deeply shallow.
Analysts must focus on real changes, not changes in the discourse
Take Songun (military-first), for example. Thousands of texts have been written about this concept, from “North Korean art in the age of Songun” to the “North Korean economy in the age of Songun,” and so on and so on.
But almost nobody poses the question: why would you actually call it an age? What changed in North Korea so radically in 1998, when the slogan was introduced? Was female conscription introduced in the DPRK in 1998? No. Did the state expand the existing officers’ academies? No. Was the term of mandatory military service prolonged? No. Did the training of civilian personnel become more intensive? No. Was the Politburo subjected to the General Staff? No.
In fact, the only real change was that North Korea had started to assert that it had entered the age of Songun – and many outsiders followed their lead.
How to avoid this mistake? When you analyze a slogan, ask yourself: what was different before and after it was introduced?
By doing that, one can deduce, for example, that the introduction of the “monolithic ideological system” in 1967 was very important, while the addition of the Juche idea to the Constitution in 1972 was not significant at all.
Analysts must focus on real changes, not changes in the discourse. As difficult as that might be, it is the only way to honestly and accurately understand goings-on in North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1321 words of this article.
Featured Image: Arirang Mass Games by m•o•m•o on 2012-03-09 23:40:13