The curse of the North Korea studies researcher is the need to rely on official sources. Getting access to inner-track records is very difficult as the country is so closed off, therefore the research community is forced to start looking for bits of truth in the official propaganda.
No sane person would take 100% of what North Korea asserts at face value, especially since their discourse changes from time to time. However, no sane person would also assert that 100% of what they say is a lie either.
Hence, a line must be drawn. However, it has been my observation that quite a few researchers tend to grant North Korean sources the benefit of the doubt more often than they should.
In this piece, I would like to emphasize how one should always double-check their sources, even when it comes to such a simple thing as checking someone’s place of birth.
THE BIRTH CERTIFICATES ARE FALSE
Nam Il, a North Korean general who signed the Panmunjom armistice, was born in Kazakevichevo village (Ivanovskiy district, Ussriyskaya oblast, Maritime province, Russian Empire). Born under the name Yakov Nam, he came to North Korea in the 1940s. But when he died in 1976, his obituary claimed he was born in “Kyongwon county of North Hamgyong province.”
Pang Hak Se, the father of the North Korean secret police, was also born in the Russian East and his obituary actually corroborated this, stating that he was born “in a foreign land.” But his section in the Big Korean Encyclopedia, published in the 2000s, states his birthplace as “Kumbong district, the city of Tanchon, South Hamgyong province.”
Cho Ki Chon, a famous North Korean poet and also born in the Russian Far East, was born in Hoeryong county in North Hamgyong province (the same county as Kim Jong Suk), according to official records.
Kim Yong Nam, the former Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly’s Presidium, was born in a small village in China. Officially, they say, it was Pyongyang.
These false claims end up in encyclopedias and articles, becoming common ‘knowledge’ over time
I guess you can see the pattern here. The question is: why?
For political reasons, of course. Birthplace is one of the many factors used to calculate one’s songbun and kyechung – which influences which rights you get in North Korea.
It’s better to be born inside the country than outside, so people who are powerful enough to meddle with the official records have their own or that of their direct ancestors changed.
Interestingly, members of the Kim family have their birthplaces changed as well. For example, Kim Jong Il was definitely born in the Soviet Union, not on Mount Paektu as is claimed.
And there are reports that show that, while Kim Il Sung spent some of his childhood in Mangyongdae, he was actually born in a house (which did not survive) in a neighboring village.
THE ERRORS LIVE ON
It’s quite amazing how these false claims end up in encyclopedias and articles, becoming common ‘knowledge’ over time. Nam Il “was born in Kyongwon county,” according to the generally trustworthy South Korean ‘Great Encyclopedia of Korean National Culture.’ Kim Yong Nam, according to the Ministry of Unification database, was born in Pyongyang.
As for Cho Ki Chon, his alleged Korean birthplace led to a rather comical situation. In her article about Cho, Tatiana Gabroussenko mocks a South Korean researcher who immediately assumed that Cho must have hated the Japanese colonizers since he was born in Korea and “later” moved to the USSR:
When he was giving lectures at the university or deep at night, when he felt tired of writing poems, familiar scenes rose before his eyes, scenes he had never forgotten. Beautiful Korean landscapes, faces of the people from his hometown which he missed so badly — they all sparkled in his head like lightning. At that moment an impulsive hatred rose in his heart, hatred against the Japanese colonial authorities who had pushed his family out of their native land.
Of course, any reason to hate the Japanese is a good reason – even resentment over the loss of a place which one has never been to. Right?
No sane person would take 100% of what North Korea asserts at face value
FALSEHOODS ARE RAMPANT
Falsehoods about North Korea stretch beyond the issue of birthplaces. How many times have we heard that the DPRK was founded on September 9, 1948 (it was not), or that the Workers’ Party was founded on October 10 (it was not)?
There are several reasons for these repeated falsehoods. First, as I said, people are too trustworthy of the North Korean narrative, and so don’t check other sources. Second – and this is a problem in the humanities in general – is that citing secondary sources without rechecking them is considered acceptable.
Whereas in science there is such a thing as a ‘proven hypothesis,’ meaning that a biologist writing about genetics doesn’t need to trace and recheck all previous research going back to Gregor Mendel, in the humanities, and especially North Korean studies, we cannot afford such a luxury.
However, this is the world we live in. And this is how it goes: Nam Il was born in North Hamgyong, says North Korea. A researcher quotes this in an article.
This is his official biography, thinks the reviewer and the editor, the reference is fine. The article is published. This is then quoted in a monograph – a peer-reviewed article is a reliable source, so no questions are asked. A monograph is then quoted in an encyclopedia – and what was a politically motivated lie becomes an established ‘fact.’
And the third problem is that, even when someone does dig up the original source, it is psychologically difficult for the community to accept that what they were so sure was fact is not so.
This author is speaking from personal experience here. When I was writing my Ph.D. thesis about the social history of the North Korean army, I was puzzled as to why so many South Korean academic works claim that the DPRK introduced peace-time conscription in 1958, while sources point to 1956 instead.
The source quoted by the people who asserted it happened in 1958 was ‘the Order 148 of the Cabinet of Ministers.’ But I found the actual order when I was working in the Russian archives: it was called ‘On commendation of Democratic Youth organizations who achieved excellent results in industrial production and capital construction’ and it had nothing to do with conscription.
However, when leading South Korean researcher Ko Jae-hong was compiling a report on North Korean conscription terms he referenced my findings but as a “minority opinion” (people normally say it happened in 1958, but there is a person who says it is wrong and there are documents to support this opinion). I understand why he referenced my work like this, but just because many people say the same thing does not make it true.
The reason I mention this is because Ko Jae-hong is the author of so many excellent articles, and may very well be the leading specialist on the social aspects of the KPA in the world. If even he can occasionally make such a mistake, who is safe? No one. The present author is, of course, included – I have to confess, I used to often say that “the DPRK was founded on September 9, 1948” before I found that the date is based on a forgery.
In order to minimize the risk of repeating false statements, we should follow this rule: whenever you read a North Korean publication, always ask yourself if there is any chance it could be false. And then check, check, and check again.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: file photo
The curse of the North Korea studies researcher is the need to rely on official sources. Getting access to inner-track records is very difficult as the country is so closed off, therefore the research community is forced to start looking for bits of truth in the official propaganda.No sane person would take 100% of what North Korea asserts at face value, especially since their discourse
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.