North Korea According to Our Words: How Do We Write about Those We Do Not Understand?

By | December 02, 2012 | 7 Comments

How can a country shrouded from the prying eyes of the international community be accurately portrayed in reporting and prose? | Image courtesy Tomas van Houtryve / VII Network

How can a country shrouded from the prying eyes of the international community be accurately portrayed in reporting and prose? | Image courtesy Tomas van Houtryve / VII Network

North Korea According to Our Words: How Do We Write about Those We Do Not Understand?

By Shirley Lee

In a shrinking world, cross-linguistic and intercultural collaborations have become increasingly important. This is especially so in the case of North Korea, a country relatively distant and unexplored in the Western discourse. Yet western commentators on North Korea often fail to engage with two groups who have much to offer on the subject: defectors, and those with ties to North Koreans who supply information directly from within the country. We should learn from and build on the lessons of the Orientalist and post-colonial eras not only by talking to, but actively working with those whom we claim to study. – Shirley Lee, New Focus International

The Spectrum of Writings on North Korea | There is a large community whose work with North Koreans takes place out of the public eye. Having spent part of my childhood in expatriate Korean communities in Asia I have had a glimpse into the secretive world of Korean-Chinese migrants with links to border crossings and the dangerous work of Korean missionaries and human rights activists, as well as to those with business ties to North Korea. The presence and the dangers of North Korea felt not only real, but disconcertingly close.

Despite this background, I came to a dispassionate interest in the North Korean situation only recently, following my study of the Persian world, that had similarly attracted me because of the ways in which it is misunderstood by the West. As I began to engage more seriously with both the Korean and Western discourses regarding North Korea, some things particularly struck me. These related to the spectrum of public commentary on North Korea that stretches from the most superficial mass media to more focused and nuanced but less prominent outlets accessible to anyone who wishes to find and engage with their content. What follows is not a comprehensive survey, but rather an assessment of the main areas on which commentary on North Korea appears to focus.

Let’s consider first those writings that have stemmed from active participation, mostly in terms of humanitarian work with defectors, NGOs, and underground railways. Especially with the latter, the material seems largely intended to support particular religious or political value systems with the assumption that these will be accepted by the reader. In addition, there is a group, mainly of defectors, who speak from an emotional perspective in the form of direct testimonies. The insistent and emphatic nature of this material is intensified by the indifference of mainstream attitudes in South Korea, perhaps more insidious than the ignorance of the western audience. Stories and information that deserve an audience are sometimes drowned out by an evangelical tone or by negative but superficial associations, as has been touched upon in this article by A. Cathcart. Too often, these aspects of presentation set up barriers for the reader, and this can lead to premature dismissal of the person or group concerned and, therefore, of the content. The packaging blocks the message.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are writings based on observation rather than on participation. Western media coverage of North Korea tends to fall into this category. This can be in the shape of sensational “breaking news” items such as the space given to public appearances of Kim Jong-un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, in countless international articles. Other news items are based primarily on information supplied by the regime—as in this Guardian piece covering the DPRK Paralympic athlete Rim Ju Song. Descriptions of visits to the country are perhaps separate from merely observational writing, although these are necessarily limited to engagement with the regime’s facade rather than with the North Korea that lies behind the information blockade. Scholarship and research in the form of paperback books, such as works by B.R. Myers[1] or Victor Cha[2], provide a more substantial source of information for a non-specialist audience, although it requires more than a passive curiosity to seek out such material. Finally, there are a number of websites and blogs in the West that appeal either to students of North Korea’s internal or external policies and relationships, or engage with cultural aspects of the DPRK. Sites such as NKNews have taken up the task of providing easier access to substantive DPRK-related material.

Describing and Experiencing: Are they Mutually Exclusive? | There is certainly value in seeing what can be gleaned from exposure to a limited range of the country’s facets, these comprising what the regime chooses to show and promote and, in some cases, what they unwittingly reveal. It seems, however, that a disproportionate amount of energy and resources are given to studies that represent a narrow view. Such studies on North Korea also tend to appeal to that part of the Western mindset that seeks to study an exotic “other,” despite self-conscious efforts to remain unbiased or excuses to the effect that we are limited by the nature of our sources.

An obvious problem, though it is often overlooked, is that this kind of observation is made from the outside. Take the world’s obsession with commenting on and trying to understand the North Korean tears that fell at Kim Jong-il’s death. Defectors tried to explain that many of these tears were genuine, although not necessarily willing: the tears being the fruit of both a physical and psychological dictatorship. Yet the process of understanding could be taken much further than what is offered by journalistic interviews; for Westerners to understand even their own emotional reactions requires specialist work and much reflection, and it is surely a much more difficult task to grasp the psychological workings of a poorly understood people under as alien regime as that of North Korea. The Korean language memoir (currently undergoing translation) of ex-DPRK psychological warfare officer Jang Jin-sung, whose literary propaganda was admired by Kim Jong-il, tackles such problems from a North Korean perspective; and this independent website (in Korean) has contributions from and interviews with intelligent and articulate defectors who reflect on their experiences.

Let’s now consider the situation in South Korea, where opinion related to North Korea has, sadly, been politicized to the extreme. Opposite sides of the political divide approach the subject of North Korea with a militant attitude, and there have been innumerable cases where defectors have been exploited for political gain. Despite their apparent concern for the human rights of North Koreans and defectors, neither left- nor right-wing politicians have been consistent in their show of support. In fact, many defectors agree that they are silenced or exploited by both sides. Under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, defectors testified to being prevented from speaking publicly in a way that might portray North Korea in too negative a light: all in the name of engagement with (or appeasement of?) the North Korean regime. Conversely, under the Lee administration, defectors have been adopted by opportunist groups linked to the conservative party in order to rally support for a tougher stance against North Korea, and in return to be denied the most basic assistance as refugees.

Although I base the following assertion on personal and anecdotal evidence, I am confident that a significant number of intellectuals in South Korea—despite their silence on the issue—care deeply about the issue of North Korea’s human rights abuses. They are reluctant to involve themselves in an issue that has become politicized and feel they are helpless to speak out in the face of such a polarized debate, where it seems impossible to take a stance on human rights without being perceived as politically partisan in one way or the other. No public intellectual in South Korea to date has dared to speak out prominently and apolitically about the country’s general apathy and antipathy towards North Koreans and defectors.

An exception, however, is Kyung-sook Shin, author of Please Look After Mother, who stands out for having drawn attention to the forcible repatriation of North Korean defectors by the Chinese authorities. This was included in her acceptance speech as the recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize in Hong Kong earlier this year. Receiving the prize as a Korean on Chinese soil, she explained how she could not avoid the issue in her speech. On her return to Korea, she received criticism from various sides for “mingling politics with art,” despite the fact that she had explicitly defined her comment as arising from an objective and humanitarian impulse.

The Problematic Nature of Sources and Discourses | Arguably, it is more difficult for Koreans and other East Asians than it is for Westerners to write with a sense of detachment when the situation is so present and immediate. At the Edinburgh Writer’s Conference this summer, the “metaphor of the burning house” raised a pertinent question for writers in the wake of events such as the Arab Spring. What would you do if your own house was burning down? Would you act and call for help immediately, file a descriptive report, or pause to deliberate on the causes of the fire? What if it were your neighbor’s house that was burning down? Or a house on the next street, in the next town, or in another country altogether? Some writers deemed that besides taking action, one could only have enough breathing space in the mind to be a news journalist, and definitely not enough reflective time to be a novelist (able to keep up with the news but unable to produce comparative or analytical writing, if we transpose the analogy to the academic world).

Others asserted that they had witnessed the creation of novel frameworks of discourse in the midst of crisis. One memorable example is the mushrooming phenomenon of art-graffiti in Egypt: in the absence of access to traditional platforms such as publishing houses and stable print media, graffiti began to be used to articulate complex ideas through “inter-textual” communication with other graffiti works, and a new kind of communicative framework came into being. However, this platform for discourse remains localized and ephemeral.

Perception of reality and reality itself often diverge; how does the West think it knows North Korea? | Image Courtesy Tomas van Houtryve / VII Network

Perception or reality and then reality itself; how does the West think it knows North Korea? | Image courtesy Tomas van Houtryve / VII Network

The dichotomy that exists between the writings of agents and that of observers, or of writing that is based on a subjective impulse versus an objective one, appears analogous to features of post-colonialist thought in the humanities. Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism argues that Western studies of the East have largely reflected those qualities the West thought were contrary to their nature, rather than reflecting the reality of the subject or people being studied. In the sphere of Classics, arguably the cradle of Western civilization, scholars such as E. Hall have applied Said’s lessons to untangle our distorted view of the (artificial) divide between “West” and “East,”[3] while writers like Tom Holland have done the same for a popular readership with books such as “Persian Fire.”[4]

The philosopher T. Mcevilley has put forward a similar argument in his book, “The Shape of Ancient Thought.”[5] This takes the form of a comparative examination of the scholarly traditions of Eastern and Western philosophies. His discussion of the post-colonial dilemmas within the academic field of Indian studies makes the following points. India gained independence from Britain in the mid-twentieth century but this event did not lead necessarily lead to intellectual liberation. Many Indian scholars perceived that inaccurate or selective narratives were being used to describe their history and present identity. Understandably frustrated at not being in control of the ways in which their identities were being characterized, a number of oppositional works were produced by Asian writers which were, predictably, dismissed by the West as politically motivated (the subtext of this critique being that the Western perspective was not). Neither could it be assumed that the West was objective in its stance. In fact, the initial judgment of Easterners as less intellectually rigorous than Westerners had arisen from a prejudiced and subjective study of Eastern scholarly traditions. In my view, this appears to stem not so much from inherent friction between East and West, but rather from the tension that arises between those describing and those being described.

A “Policy of Engagement” Beyond the Political Sphere | What can we do about this? There are excellent examples of what is, for the general reader, an incomprehensibly distant experience made accessible by those who have both lived through the experience and stepped back to write about it. That magical point of analytical synthesis may be reached by those who go beyond objectivity and allow themselves to enter the subjective space, yet remain detached in their writing. Primo Levi does this with his own suffering in “If This Be a Man;” Herodotus, regarded as the father of historical writing as well as of analytical prose, is sympathetic enough to the “barbarian” Persians that he acknowledges democratic qualities in their elites; V.S. Naipul attributes his ability to write about Indian identity to being both Indian and not Indian.[6]

It is perhaps the responsibility of those who have not suffered trauma to work sympathetically with those who have and cannot detach themselves from it. In this way, we can engage with the knowledge that lies within the subjective experience of those whose world we are trying to understand. In terms of scholarship, analysts such as M. Noland and S. Haggard have done this wonderfully in terms of social science in their book “Witness to Transformation;”[7] Barbara Demick has done something similar through her creative account of North Korean defectors’ experiences in “Nothing to Envy.”[8] The Leiden initiative seems to promise more work undertaken in this spirit. As North Korea is an extreme example of man’s inhumanity to man, a new framework of co-operative awareness that succeeds in articulating the North Korean experience could teach us much that might be applied to all kinds of cross-cultural studies beyond that of North Korea. But first we must apply it in articulating a more profound understanding of the world’s most isolated nation.


[1] Brian Reynolds Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2010).

[2] Victor Cha, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2012).

[3] Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[4] Tom Holland, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (New York: Anchor Books, 2005).

[5] Thomas Mcevilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (New York: Allworth Press, 2001).

[6] V.S. Naipul, India: A Wounded Civilization (New York: Vintage, 2003).

[7] Marcus Noland & Stephan Haggard, Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea (PIIE, 2011).

[8] Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2010).

7 Comments

  1. The vast majority of North Koreans lives in North Korea, as the Adam Cathcart’s article points out (.01% who have defected to South Korea). How many of them would want to get away if they could? Isn’t their home country a home country even under a dictatorship? And how can they be in a position to categorize the only system they actually know – the one that rules them? Those of them who know about defections – not from their personal environment, but in general – how do they feel about the defectors?

    To understand a country that doesn’t even understand itself (because it lacks a functioning public) can’t be easy. Trying to “understand North Korea” would be the approach between either “evangelical tones” and mere interest in the ideological and political superstructure, wouldn’t it? Shedding light on the lives of North Koreans in North Korea itself seems to be what B.R. Myers or Victor Cha are trying to do? (The two links above, [1] and [2], seem to lead nowhere.)

    Critics can say that this doesn’t make the North Koreans themselves talk. But then, they can’t talk. According to this article, even North Korean refugees in the South are having a hard time of that.

    Ignorance is probably the rule. A number of former public-diplomacy workers with the Voice of Germany/Deutsche Welle would have their story to tell, and they try to. Several of them have lost their jobs, apparently in ideological struggles, caught in suspicions and allegations from dissidents on German soil (and some mainstream media who played along with the dissidents in 2008, and lost interest soon after).

    To the former DW-employees, this may feel as if they live in a room with padded walls – walls that eat every word they try to say. When people have a story to tell which they believe should be of public interest, that’s how they appear to feel. And maybe that’s how the critics of these DW-employees felt before they began to take control of the narrative (and of events at Deutsche Welle) themselves, in 2008.

    To “escape” from North Korea, or to “move” from China, to a comparatively free country, won’t make the past go away. Would a public that listens to their stories really heal their traumas? Would measures taken by the public heal their wounds? Would the understanding of a public that listens, and doesn’t try to make use of them or to manipulate them heal their wounds?

    Something like the Leiden initiative works with no convenient timetable that would satisfy people who suffer. What it can do, maybe, is to provide the public with practical information. Practical and ethical use of such information would depend on the individual, and on governments and NGOs.

    But it appears to me that information about China remains scarce, too – even though China isn’t “the world’s most isolated nation”.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful response. I agree with the questions you raise in your first paragraphs, that not even North Koreans (whether inside or outside the country) can fully understand their own country. Yet that is precisely why co-operative study where ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ work together may work well: we have the detachment for analysis, and the experience for raw content.

    I also feel your second point, having worked with leading Chinese poets who feel a kind of contempt for those scholars and journalists who ‘know Chinese literature’ but only know about those Chinese scholars and writers who are known to the west. That is why I think an authentic collaborative framework between the ‘describer’ and ‘described is important in any field.

    Shirley

  3. PS I meant ‘final point’ instead of second point.

  4. To avoid misunderstandings – when I wrote that “The two links above, [1] and [2], seem to lead nowhere”, I meant that literally. No download, but just a notice showing:
    It seems we can’t find what you’re looking for. Perhaps searching can help.

  5. Thanks for pointing this out! We are looking for a solution; in the meantime, the broken links have been removed. Readers will simply have to scroll up and down while the complete and appropriate solution is sought out.

  6. If there are about 24,000 NK defectors in SK and the population of NK is about 24,000,000, that would be 1 out of a 1000, or 0.1% of the population.

  7. That’s an important decimal point; correction made! Thanks Dan.

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