Yongusil 51: WCNKS, Seoul–Thinking, Remembering, Forgetting… Dreaming
Following recent bursts of hysteria, obfuscation and confusion in academic, popular and media narratives surrounding the perceived disappearance of North Korea’s Supreme Leader and the possibility of regime collapse, Kim Jong-un’s reappearance, new cane in hand, could only shine a light on the ludicrousness of general commentary on matters in Pyongyang. As if to assert this insalubrious fact, the location and rationale for the Young Generalissmo’s first public appearance in more than a month was the opening of Wisong Scientists Residential District, rather than a military base which might give fuel to proponents of the idea that Kim Jong-un was in the middle of putting down resistance from the Army. Since then, there have been a plethora of visits to building developments focused on the provision of housing to the pedagogical and scientific community in North Korea. Sino-NK has covered in the past the role and place of epistemic communities who seek to encounter North Korea as a space and terrain of enquiry, and these recent visits only serve to highlight the apparent importance of empirical and “scientific” enquiry within Pyongyang’s institutional and political frame.
Questions will continue to surround the validity and veracity of North Korean claims or assertions to empirical and methodological capability, while questions of empirical, epistemological and methodological enquiry will equally continue to surround academic efforts undertaken by actors external to the DPRK. Such questions should have been a key field for debate at an ambitious new undertaking in Seoul, the First World Congress of North Korean Studies.
This gargantuan and impressively well attended event sought, it seemed, to bring together characters and actors from the past, present and future of academic focus on North Korea. Surely the sight of Dae-Sook Suh and Chongsik Lee in debate with the University of Tokyo’s equally esteemed Wada Haruki will live with attendees for a while. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s James Person, Professor Charles Armstrong of Columbia University, and Professor Heonik Kwon of Trinity College, Cambridge University were among the more senior presenters of the current generation. There were a plethora of younger scholars, graduate students, artists, and interested parties adding flavor to the epistemological mix.
While presentations from Sandra Fahy (Sophia University) seeking to conceptualize the place, role and depth of abuse and violence within North Korea’s military industrial complex, Tatiana Gabroussenko’s (Korea University) exploration of Pyongyang’s culinary nationalism and Balazs Salontai’s encounter with its Iranian relationship in particular have wedged themselves in this authors’ mind, unlike other conferences, the Yongusil in this case cannot hope to be exhaustive in its description of the content of an occasion whose two volume proceedings runs to some 1,300 pages of abstracts and presentation papers.
Instead of detail, therefore, perhaps the most productive analysis of this event is to follow the thread from the second paragraph and from both James Person’s assertion that perhaps it is time to reassess what we know we know about North Korea, and Professor Armstrong’s adoption of the modalities of Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns” to describe the hinterlands of our knowledge base surrounding Pyongyang, its institutions, and intent. While the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Unification has been undoubtedly generous in the construction, hosting, and funding of this conference, and while it has also sought in the scheduling and selection of invitees to seek objectivity and balance, for this analyst at least there is are elements of contrasting dissonance in the conclusion.
Knowing about North Korea will never be a monolithic fact, just as North Korean politics and process will never, however much it tries, be a monolith, but will always consist of differing, diffuse streams, contrasting methodologies, conceptual fractures, and lines of flight. The danger in this exercise is that the whole ecosystem of North Korean Studies is co-opted not only within the parameters of the ROK’s wider political and structural agenda, but that it becomes embedded entirely within a single concretizing empirical Weltanschauung.
While the study of North Korea is of course the key task of our epistemological community, it remains difficult to avoid the tautologies, category failures, and assumption fallacies present in research agendas which often appear to hammer North Korea into a “containment and/or collapse” narratological frame. Therefore, a secondary if urgent task might be the study of North Korean Studies. Would perhaps for once, analysis of the roots of a methodological framing responsible for quantitative thickets from which the myopic and the microscopic emerge be more productive than dense, furtive encounters in the fog of statistical assertion?
Perhaps as, the most astute scholar this author met, Eric Ballbach (Freie Universitat Berlin), asserted in the conference wrapping up session, in spite of all narrative contortion, the key fact is that we have always known a lot about North Korea; it has as a nation never been closed or hermit-like. It has always sought to engage, sought to interact, sought to talk, to act, and to perform. Perhaps we weren’t listening, weren’t hearing, or even perhaps Pyongyang wasn’t talking to us (whoever “we” are or “we” were). The brute contemporary fact is that now we know an enormous amount about North Korea, perhaps we know so much that we know too much. In the thicket we see only wood. Perhaps it is time we started to see the trees again.