Yongusil 88: Borders and Belonging at the 2016 Joint East Asian Studies Conference at SOAS

By and | September 26, 2016 | No Comments

Entrance to the Brunei Gallery, where conference participants gathered. | Image: Wikicommons

Entrance to the Brunei Gallery, where conference participants gathered. | Image: Wikicommons

The DPRK keeps a lot of secrets. Even the price of rice in the country’s public markets is, under certain conditions, a secret. But a secret is “a tyranny waiting to be dethroned,” of course. The only question is how.

If the method selected involves resettled North Korean people, two broad approaches present themselves. One is for the researcher to embed him or herself in the target population, presuming that prolonged exposure will lead slowly toward an honest and reliable form of storytelling from both interviewer and interviewee. The other is to increase the size of the population sample under examination, presuming that in the absence of a massive, coordinated program of disinformation from the interviewees, the aggregation of large numbers of responses will eliminate most falsehoods and yield a relatively clear picture.

Both approaches were on display at the University of London when SOAS played host to the biannual Joint East Asian Studies Conference (JEAS) in early September. Amidst unseasonably warm weather, scholars from around the world gathered for three days of panels, discussions, and angular sandwiches. The conference was a sprint from beginning to end, with sweaty academics clutching complimentary coffee and scuttling from panel to panel in an event that offered no breaks.

Day two was of particular interest to those of us working on North Korean matters. Grouped creatively under the umbrella of “Geopolitics,” three broadly themed, back-to-back panels showcased a range of historical, sociological, and anthropological research on North Korea and North Koreans, many (but by no means all) of which addressed the question of best practice for learning from North Korea’s escapees.

The first, titled “Border-Making in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea: Strategic Practices for Growth and Control in the North Korean Borderlands,” saw members of the Sino-NK team collaborate on discussions of “borderlands” – broadly understood — within the Northeast Asia context. Théo Clément opened proceedings, interrogating the changing nature of Sino-North Korean economic cooperation. In the face of gradual economic slowdown Clément pointed to China’s reticence to allow the unchecked development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). He offered a snapshot of the impact of SEZs to comparatively impoverished border areas such as Jillin, arguing that these provinces look to make the most of a captive North Korean market on their doorstep.

Steven Denney’s presentation, one half of the joint project with Christopher Green, “Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula,” focused on national identity and belonging in South Korea. Denney’s ongoing research asks similar questions to the work of Sarah Son and, separately, Emma Campbell, interrogating the contours of national identity and belonging in contemporary South Korea using theories of (re)socialization.

Denney draws on more than 300 surveys and interviews with more than 100 resettled North Korean defectors, administered collaboratively with Green and their South Korean research assistants, to tease out what it means to belong in a society in which ethnicity is allegedly being challenged as a reliable marker of identity. Green, whose work focuses on popular attitudes towards and reproduction of tangible markers of North Korean national identity, uses the same sample to interrogate what it means, for resettled defectors at least, to be North Korean today.

The first panel of the (Korea-focused) day. From left to right: Steven Denney, Dracie Draudt, Théo Clément, and Christopher Green.

The first panel of the (Korea-focused) day, populated by members of Sino-NK. From left to right: Steven Denney, Darcie Draudt, Théo Clément, and Christopher Green. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The concern, as always, is that the methodology employed could in principle lead the participants to answers, thus compromising the data. As any empiricist will tell you, people are hugely frustrating and inevitably do not do what they say. A person may say that she feels no connection to the country she immigrated from, or may profess an attachment to the new host country, but she then returns home after the focus group, calls her mother in Hamgyongbuk-do; listens to North Korean songs online; cooks her dinner in the North Korean fashion; and meets her North Korean friends to drink North Korean beer.

Given the limitations of the environment, working with North Korean defectors is a particularly challenging variation on this theme. Variables such as ethnicity and gender and whether testimonies are paid can all shape the dynamic of the interview and the resultant data. Jiyoung Song, well experienced in working with North Korean defectors/refugees, says that North Korean interviewees are aware what the researcher wants to hear. Song explains:

As a researcher, the big question facing North Korean human rights is not the lack of testimonies or evidence, but the abundant unverifiable data and being denied access to the country, information and ultimately a peaceful Korean peninsula.

Denney and Green are well aware of these challenges, having looked at the questions they ask through multiple lenses along the way. They are working to mitigate them. How they go beyond the survey questionnaire and interview material may determine how useful, and truly interdisciplinary, their research is to the Korean Studies field. Time will tell.

Darcie Draudt rounded off the borderlands panel, discussing the DMZ as a space of connection and division. Draudt’s conceptualization, reminiscent of the work of Charles Armstrong (1995) and more recently Robert Winstanley-Chesters (2016), offered agency to the heavily fortified 38th parallel; a pernicious force that creates victims and victors while imbued with the power to violently divide a people. While the land border is clearly defined and, for the most part uncontested, it might be interesting to look at how key concepts in this research — the agency of things, the passive violence of the border, and the active participation of citizens in maintaining the potency of this space — plays out on the sea border. Water is, after all, a “fluid” space requiring far more imagination and technological assistance to divide North from South.

The second panel of the day offered a steady combination of historical and IR approaches to discussing the DPRK. In the second, Donghyun Woo’s presentation on Soviet Koreans in occupied DPRK (1945-1948) was followed by Kevin Gray’s discussion of the Sino-Korean border economy and the continued failure of sanctions, and Cholong Sung’s nuanced early-stage work on the cultural identity of North Koreans in Great Britain as seen through the community’s use of music.

Gray’s presentation was a well-polished dissertation on China’s role in the ineffectiveness of international sanctions, even if he didn’t address the fundamental question underpinning the entire debate: Why are we still having the sanction/engagement debate? Leaving this question aside meant, for some, much of the discussion that followed his presentation seemed contextually unanchored. Woo is in fertile territory with his historical research; the influence of Soviet Koreans on the nascent North Korean state is an underexplored topic. Sung’s work may turn out wonderfully, and she certainly has discovered interesting avenues of inquiry; in her case, a larger sample would greatly enhance the evident qualities of the research findings.

Finally in the third panel, Markus Bell, Justyna Radziejewska-Gollob, Sarah Son and Jacob Reidhead faced head on the multitudinous role of Koreans as transnational agents of change vis-a-vis North Korea.

Bell, an anthropologist by training, offered a good start point for a panel dealing with such a topic. It is all-too common to reflexively conceptualize the role of expat or diasporic ethnic Koreans in peninsula life as a recent phenomenon, one led by resettled North Koreans and born of the decline of the North Korean state since the 1990s. However, North Korea is less homogenous than official voices frequently claim; thousands of ethnic compatriots from China and Japan have brought their own perspectives as well as assets to the DPRK since the 1940s. Change in North Korea is not limited to North Korean laborers working abroad in increasingly large numbers since the beginning of the Kim Jong-un regime, the subject of Radziejewska-Gollob’s work, or the small but vocal sub-set of the defector population that seeks to make a difference through an increasingly assertive, global form of North Korean human rights advocacy, mostly from bases in Seoul, the center of Son’s academic and professional life.

Focusing on the Japanese returnees of the 1950s and early 1960s, Bell found his otherwise intriguing work challenged on grounds of historicization, or a lack thereof, in the resultant Q&A. Given the date that most Zainichi returnees went back to Korea, just 14 or 15 years after the end of World War II, differences in material conditions in Japan and North Korea were not enormous. Late-1960s Japan was still a very poor place away from a few pockets of bright light, with visitors recalling a great many beggars with missing limbs and tattered army uniforms. Moreover, the socio-political system that returnees found in North Korea would not have been totally unfamiliar to them; widespread surveillance and a repressive security presence were the sin qua non of life in both colonial Korea and wartime Japan. No doubt if returnees had gone to the ROK they would have been just as shocked. Northeast Asia was a tough neighborhood in the post-war years.

Taking the approach of increasing the sample size to resolve questions of bias and generalizability, Reidhead presented a thoroughgoing methodological paper which, whilst it had its detractors among the historians in the audience, was impressive in its scope and ambition. Scraping large volumes of articles for keywords and building up a layered, 3-D network map of how discourses develop, interact and mutually reproduce over time, Reidhead described a tool which shows the development of the North Korean human rights discourse since its inception in the late 1990s, and could certainly be targeted at any other discourse you care to name.

In the end, whether scholars of North Korea and related subjects choose to raise the number of inputs and observations or attempt to embed themselves with a small subset of the population to acquire a perceived higher quality of data is ultimately a matter of personal preference and disciplinary competence. The more the merrier. To come close to understanding North Korea, a challenging research environment if ever there was one, and the people who were once residents of that deeply problematic country, the more methodologies that are brought to bear, the better.