Exit the Dragon: Sino-NK’s Roundtable on 2012 Reads

By | February 16, 2013 | No Comments

By North Korean standards, this is a shockingly spontaneous photo | Talking shop, via Rodong Sinmun

By North Korean standards, this is a shockingly spontaneous photo | Talking shop, via Rodong Sinmun

Here at Sino-NK, we do a great deal of “shop talk” within and surrounding our community of interested folks. As we enter the year of the already-unpredictable Water Snake, we take an opportunity to externalize some of that discussion by looking back at 2012 and welcoming your interaction in the realm of ideas. – Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

Q: Which online writing about North Korea and/or China have you thought most about, or found most useful, this past year?

Chris Green: In 2012 I found myself embroiled, if that is the right word, in an intercontinental dialogue about one of the most interesting things to happen in 2012: the closure of Camp 22 near Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province. Knowing very well where the evidence presented to me came from, I was always quite confident that the camp had been closed down, yet, to my great surprise, that evidence did not initially pass muster with excellent folk such as Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea and the guys over at HRNK. I’ve immensely enjoyed, again if that is the right word, all the back and forth over the issue, not least since it has illuminated for me not only the different ways people based in different communities visualize working on North Korea, but also how we ought to work together to learn more, better and faster going forward. The analysis of Camp 22 satellite imagery that HRNK put out in October and updated in December was electrifying; I didn’t agree with their tentative conclusion at the beginning, and I still don’t think they have gone far enough, but I am excited that they have the resources and the people to put things like that out in the ether (December update, which is closer to my own view, can be found here).

Adam Cathcart: I found Rudiger Frank’s essay “The Risks of Improvisation” (on 38 North) about ideology to be immensely helpful, because it analyzes things from within the sphere of the DPRK’s own self-image and system. Any student of the development of the Kimist system ought to be able to recognize, now that Dr. Frank has pointed it out, that there are dangers to reinterpreting Kimism and that the orthodoxy around the respective legacies — and they are very much bifurcated — of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-song are going to have to be rather carefully redeployed. History is a real minefield, even when some of it is made up.

Roger Cavazos: Aside from the other really innovative thinkers I have the pleasure of associating with in Sino-NK and Nautilus, the KEI’s North Korean leadership tracker is the headwaters of an unending river of potential linkages.  The new way of graphically depicting the huge OCD-like compiled dataset allows for multiple interpretations and is a wonderful complement to interdisciplinary studies.

Steven Denney: I found myself frequently returning to the relationship between North Korean state ideology and the prospects for reform.  The writing of Andrei Lankov, a true man of letters whose ideas can be traced over the decades, is as prolific and consistent as humanity allows: the inflow of information necessary in reform would be the regime’s death knell by extinguishing, for good, the myth of North Korean superiority over the South. As my prior writings here would attest, works by Brian Myers, Robert Carlin were touchstones. I have endeavored to keep pace with Daniel Pinkston, the no-nonsense product of American military efficiency (who boils things down to a simple equation: songun + North Korea = no reform) and the pragmatists, like Stephen Haggard & Co., who are just too down to earth to think change is coming before something worse. Within all of this, there may be indigenous idea found in the “foggy interpretations” of North Korean regime behavior.

Q: Which paper-based book about North Korea or China have you thought about most or tried to unravel (successfully or unsuccessfully) in the past year, and why?

Roger Cavazos: From my perspective this honor clearly goes to North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics by Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung. People often describe North Korea with mystery-imbued words as though North Korea exploits a congenital defect afflicting the rest of the world outside of North Korea.  Beyond Charismatic Politics provides an analytical framework, insights, and gives specific examples to help divine the seed for what some perceive as North Korea’s random policy generator. Once the seed for a random number generator is known, the process of predicting what might come next in North Korea’s policies is a little easier.  North Koreans follow their own logic and Beyond Charismatic Politics provides a way of understanding that logic from a North Korean perspective.  The work is descriptive and so far, more predictive than random chance. Best read in conjunction with Patrick MacEachern’s Inside the Red Box to give greater context to North Korea watchers and those just mildly interested in studying 30-year-olds with big red buttons, crude thermonuclear devices and now intercontinental ballistic missiles-cum-rockets.

Chris Green: I’m with Roger. Although I found it somewhat disappointing that at the end of Beyond Charismatic Politics Kwon and Chung seem to begin furiously rowing back on the obvious (to me, at least) conclusion of their well-researched and engaging narrative, which is that, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “the lady’s not for turning.” It’s as if their editor asked them to make the conclusion a little less pessimistic.

Adam Cathcart: I read a translation of Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 paired with historian Nicolas Werth’s L’ile aux cannibales, which is an archives-based account of a Stalinist labor camp in Siberia. I very much enjoy the kind of physical journey that one has with special books, where your relationship is defined in part by where you meet, where you have your most intimate communication, and where you maybe part ways. I “met” my copy of Escape in the basement of a small book shop on Rue des Ecoles, spent quite a few very absorbing hours with it and trusty dictionaries over the Atlantic Ocean, finished it in a steamy pre-dawn coffeehouse on an absolutely sopping Seattle, and then was fortunate enough to meet the author for a chat which I anticipate will be published on Sino-NK in the not-too-distant future.

Steven Denney: I would have to say Bruce Cumings’ The Korean War: a Historythough it isn’t just about this particular book. It is more about what Cumings means to the field of Korean Studies in America and in Korea. Despite the ample criticism, it is hard to find a Koreanist who has had a bigger impact, for better or worse, on the discipline than author of the mammoth two-volume Origins of the Korean War. I have come to see him as a historian who started as an academic and ended as a polemicist, in a way not too dissimilar from the path chosen by Noam Chomsky. The Korean War completes my reading of Cumings’ historical work on Korea and reaffirms my understanding of him. That he employs no small references to Nietzsche has an eerie way of confirming my view of what will become Cumings’ legacy: short-term rejection but long-term praise. In any case, his passion for the Korean Studies discipline (and Korea itself), in addition to his ability to blend historical narrative with literary exegesis and philosophical insight, has left an indelible mark on my own academic quest in a way that is 80% positive. If someone doesn’t beat me to the punch, perhaps I’ll be the first to write an intellectual biography of the controversial historian, a la Sebastian De Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell.

Q: Which peer-reviewed journal article published in the past year did you find most intriguing or useful?

Adam Cathcart: In January 2012 I took over a small conference room at Pacific Lutheran University so that I could read an article I had just printed out about North Korean collapse scenarios; the piece was co-authored by Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth. (See Bruce W. Bennett and Jennifer Lind, “The Collapse of North Korea: Military Missions and Requirements,” International Security, volume 2/36 [Fall 2011], 84-119.) Lind is an interesting scholar because I feel a certain affinity to her own interests and competencies in both how northeast Asian states deal with their politics of memory, and in analyzing the contemporary DPRK and how it does or does not get out of its own historical ruts. Dr. Lind was kind enough to write a piece for Sino-NK last April, entitled “The Memory of Kim,” which is well worth revisiting. More Asianists should have the temerity to study more than one major war and its long aftermath.

Chris Green: It wasn’t a journal article and it wasn’t peer-reviewed, but it was unbelievable and it sticks firmly in the mind. It was a speech called “The Darkness of Heart,” written for a conference in Los Angeles by a former ROK ambassador to the UK and Japan, Ra Jong-yil. In six pages or so, Professor Ra not only distanced himself from the Sunshine Policy in a way that so many modern South Korean scholars seem utterly incapable of doing, but more importantly he managed to explain far, far better than any 200-page scholarly text ever could precisely why it is that the actions of the atavistic North Korean state power  diminish every single one of us. Here you go, have another look.

Steven Denney: Given that I’m in the second year of my master’s courses at Yonsei, “intriguing or useful” articles abound. But since the question has a superlative added to avoid long lists, I pick Yoonkyung Lee, “Democracy Without Parties?: Political Parties and Social Movements for Democratic Representation in Korea,” Korea Observer 40:1 (Spring 2009): 27-52. This article, and others similar to it, fundamentally changed the way I understand democratic consolidation and South Korean political parties. Though South Korea’s hard fought for democratic transition is all but irreversible, the failure of its political parities to institutionalize has prevented it from fully consolidating.  However, with the election of Park Gun-hye, party institutionalization and democratic consolidation might be underway.

Q: What do you have “in the pipeline” for 2013?

Adam Cathcart: Papers on North Korean cultural diplomacy, the history of the Moranbong Band, and a fair amount of source-crunching and writing about the Chinese-North Korean border. There is a big book project with Charles Kraus about Chinese-North Korean ties from 1945-1956 that is being hammered away at in trans-Atlantic style.

Chris Green: I’m working with an absolutely stellar co-author on a paper about a South Korean television show, of all things. It’s not my normal speed, and there isn’t even so much as a single mention of “wrapping Chosun in a fog” or yuanization, but it’s exciting nevertheless, possibly more so…

Steven Denney: I’m co-authoring a paper with Chris Green on understanding North Korea from an institutional perspective, in addition to the things I will churn out here at Sino-NK. I’m also gearing up to polish off a thesis at Yonsei University to complete my degree requirements; my thesis is a historical study into what I call the American developmental state–perhaps Cumingsesque revisionism has had more influence than I originally thought!

Roger Cavazos: Three major items: Finish up my first book with two amazing co-authors; keep chasing the rainbow of  establishing a nuclear weapons free zone in Northeast Asia; publish at least one quality piece at least once a month.

Q: What is on your reading list for 2013?

Adam Cathcart: Whatever Robert Winstanley-Chesters sends to me.

Chris Green: The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project, which will soon be on your reading list as well, although you don’t know it yet.

Steven Denney: How about for the next month or so? Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung’s Beyond Charismatic Politics (which you’ve read plenty about already!), Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, Erik van Ree’s The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin (because I need to get my economic history of North Korea right), and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (because the concept of agency fascinates me), amongst others.

Roger Cavazos: A list? Here are my abbreviated top three: 1) Scott Snyder and Park Kyung Ae: North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society; 2)  Thomas Fingar, Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security; 3) Gregory J. Moore, ed., Graham Allison, Peter Hayes, David Kang, Andrei Lankov, Jing-dong Yuan (due soon) North Korean Nuclear Operationality: The Implications for Northeast Asian Regional Security and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime.  

Note: Please join the discussion in the comments section with your own answers to the above questions, or, if you’re a writer, even a handful of self-promotional links to your own recent or forthcoming publications. There is a great deal of good material out there and we’re looking forward, we hope, to getting eyes on it in the Year of the Snake.

Subcommittee of the DPRK Alliance of Fiction Writers, Rodong Sinmun, January 20.

Subcommittee of the DPRK Alliance of Fiction Writers, Rodong Sinmun, January 20, 2012.

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