Yongusil 67: Footprints of the Dead and the Utility of Returns: Recent Works from the KEI Academic Paper Series

By | April 23, 2015 | No Comments

Deep in the biosphere of think tanks, advocacy groups, NGOs, and institutes in the beating–if somewhat dysfunctional–heart of the twentieth century’s global hegemon, there cannot be a more astute, well-managed, or interesting space of scholarly focus than the Korean Economic Institute of America (KEI). KEI outputs are consistently informative, considered, and authoritative. Thus, it seems particularly worthy of note that a number of the Sino-NK team’s most productive members recently left their own footprints in the KEI paper record.

Footprints, crossings, and ascents have always been central to North Korean politics; one need only witness Kim Jong-un’s celebrated presence upon Mount Baekdu this past weekend to know that. And whilst each rightly adopts a different frame, modality, methodology and intent, both Adam Cathcart and Christopher Green and Steven Denney’s papers describe contemporary manifestations of this centrality to not only domestic North Korean politics, but also to Sino-North Korean relations writ large.

In his 2014 paper, “In the Shadow of Jang Song-Taek: Pyongyang’s Evolving SEZ Strategy with the Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa Islands” Editor in Chief Adam Cathcart delved into the speculation that then swirled around economic engagement with the People’s Republic of China following Jang Song-taek’s descent and summary execution as “human scum.” Cathcart’s paper essentially describes the aftermath of the moment of execution–witnessed by many as a moment of acute narrative rupture–and in so doing exposes the institutional struggle not just to retain the value that lay in whatever exchanges and potential Jang had engineered, but also to discover the extent and durability of Jang’s footprints of economic possibility at a time when the narrative of his demise demanded their total elimination.

Equally complicated footprints emerge in the fine joint work of Sino-NK’s Co-editor and Managing Editor, Christopher Green and Steven Denney, and veteran contributor Brian Gleason. Building upon formative Sino-NK essays by Gleason in 2012 and 2013 (and also here), their KEI paper from March this year, “The Whisper in the Ear: Re-Defector Press Confereence as Information Management Tool” must be considered, perhaps counter-intuitively, alongside the historical narrative of the early years of Kimist authority and its many crossings, re-crossings, and counter-crossings.

The trio of authors build upon Denney’s reading of the literature on authoritarian durability and Green’s valuable analysis that sees Pyongyang’s sovereign writ and governmentality from a “domain consensus” perspective. Using the work of political scientist Thomas Callaghy as a frame, the group’s encounter with the theatric performativity of a string of re-defector press conferences held in Pyongyang between late 2011 and 2013 brings rigor to our analysis of these initially perplexing events, wherein citizens of North Korea –who had, according to the state, left its territorial and political sphere in acts of determined and dangerous border crossing, thus becoming non-persons in North Korea’s transcendental ideological structure–re-enter that same ideological space.

The authors consider the utility and function of these reappearances, journeys and political revivals along with the intentional deployment of their presence, which seems intended to undermine the external narrative of North Korea’s diminution. The narrative, therefore, of border crossing is instrumentalized to bolster regime legitimacy, and also to delay the long journey that the North Korean state may one day also take; to transition and to reform.