All high-quality studies of North Korean history have one unusual tendency: when it comes to the 1940s, the normally-referenced official documents are those of North Korean and Soviet authorities.
When it comes to the later ages, however, the focus gradually shifts to documents of foreign embassies in the DPRK, official North Korean publications, and, ultimately, testimonies of people who escaped from the DPRK, mixed with occasional secret documents of North Korea.
Four stages of history
The main reason for all of this is the core problem of North Korean studies: lack of sources.
In the case of the 1940s, many sources are already available – the majority of Soviet documents, decisions of North Korean institutions, and documents of local institutions. Thus, books on the early period of North Korean history are usually very detailed.
When it comes to the late 1950s, the situation becomes different. First, there are much less North Korean documents available. Indeed, researchers have access to some collections of decisions of the North Korean Party leadership from the 1950s (most of these were books stolen by a North Korean high-ranking official who fled to the USSR), but these are quite sporadic.
Thus, the research on this period tends to switch to reports of foreign embassies. In the 1950s, these were exclusively socialist nations, but since diplomats were much less bound by the necessity to cover the DPRK only in a positive way, their reports were much more objective than the state press.
With little alternative, researchers focus on reports of embassies, which, of course, result in them being disproportionately over-represented in reference sections. From reading these books, one gets the impression that life in Pyongyang and its vicinity in the late 1950s was bustling with the diplomatic corps – of course, this was not the case.
As for the 1960s, the focus normally switches from Soviet documents to ones from Eastern Europe. The reason for this shift is quite simple: while Russian documents, including those related to the DPRK, are being declassified, getting access to them would necessitate going to Moscow, while most East European documents are already available at the site of the Digital Archive of the Wilson Center (although, sadly, the Archive tends to offer only English translations of the documents with no original scans).
Thus, most researchers use the more easily available documents, despite the fact that in the 1960s, diplomats were given less and less information on what was going on in the country.
The next period – the 1970s and the 1980s – is, essentially, a blackout in North Korean studies. Little is known about this age outside of Rodong Sinmun and other official publications. Even most official laws – such as the Penal Code – were not published.
There being only few testimonies of the era reveal that this age – especially the 1970s – was truly the era of unprecedented state control and terror.
The later period, which started in the 1990s, is largely covered by testimonies of tens of thousands of people who escaped from the DPRK. Additionally, since the country became, to some extent, less repressive and totalitarian and more corrupt, some secret documents were also leaked from the country and became a great asset for the research community.
Finally, the relaxation of state control in the DPRK meant that some North Korean publications – including, for example, official coverage of the 1970s – have become more detailed. The difference is small, but not non-existent.
What will be next?
This is the situation at present, but it is bound to change in the future. The biggest change would be, of course, when or if something happens in North Korea, be it reforms or regime collapse. However, some new sources could still become available before this.
The first source would be the rest of the Russian, American and East European documents. Second, China also provides, if reluctantly, access to some of its documents – and documents from Chinese archives will be very useful for understanding what was happening in the North during the early 1960s, when PRC-DPRK relations were at their height.
Next, one day we may get access to some South Korean documents. Some North Koreans did defect to the ROK during the Cold War and South Korean intelligence services probably still possess these interrogation records. These were never released to the public, though it is difficult to see the harm in releasing information about, for example, KPA Navy Lieutenant Lee Phil-un, who fled to the South in 1965.
But, of course, even unlimited access to all the archives on the planet would pale in comparison to what can be achieved by working directly with North Korean documents. If it could be done, North Korean studies would experience a true revolution.
Probably the biggest change will come to the studies of the period which is least known now – the 1970s and 1980s. It is quite likely that many academics would focus on this period as there are not only numerous things to study, but this was also an age of unprecedented repression in North Korean history, making it bound to attract attention.
Thematically, political history would be affected the most. Instead of looking for hints in open sources, researchers would be able to access primary documents directly.
Narratives of social and economic history would also be revised, as the government’s policy affected them to a great extent. Access for studies of daily life and culture in the DPRK may also improve, albeit gradually, in the case of the country’s opening.
It is not exactly the most pleasant thought for a historian, but, apart from the study of the earliest years of North Korean history, all studies of North Korea are probably still in their preliminary stages and will be superseded once researchers are able to travel to the North, talk to the people, and sit in Pyongyang and work in the archives.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: File photo
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