Yongusil 57: BC Koh and North Korean Autonomies: Pacific Affairs Perspectives
Every young academic of course dreams of making an impact, discovering something new, becoming definitive on some topic or another, publishing a really meaningful piece of article with some longevity and authority. Few young academics can hope to repeat BC Koh’s experience of publishing his debut piece of academic writing “North Korea and its Quest for Autonomy,” in the Fall and Winter 1965 edition of Pacific Affairs, the University of British Columbia’s august and rigorous journal and having it become a scholarly landmark worthy of a semicentennial review and reassessment.
This Yongusil highlights an intriguing revisiting of Koh’s work by Pacific Affairs in the journal’s December 2014 issue under its “Enduring Issues/Changing Perspectives” strand. Koh’s original focus, North Korea’s strategizing of ideological development in light of Sino-Soviet split and competition and its (even then) complicated practical and philosophical relationship with world communism, has of course served Pyongyang’s narrative and practice well over its history. Koh’s text has been regarded as a keystone in analysis of North Korean ideological sense’s leaching out into governmental and international praxis and its presentation within publications, propaganda and narrative as Juche or “Juche thinking.” A revisiting of the text allows the reader to set it in a context that is still really in the making, an autonomy of practice and interaction as opposed to ideological or philosophical structure or systematics.
The editors of Pacific Affairs of course have sought to extend the review of the original piece out to those intellectual fields on which it was received, as well as giving the now-retired Koh eloquent right of reply. This extension allows for highly worthwhile responses to its original form from several well-known current practitioners of North Korea analysis, namely BR Myers, Charles Armstrong and Rudiger Frank. BR Myers, for instance, takes the opportunity to engage in a further demolition of the conceptual encounter between the perception of Juche and Western academia, asserting that it is his “contention that the word Juche generally functions in Western academic writing as a license to relax standards of logic, textual corroboration and accuracy.” However, it is not Koh who bears the brunt of Myers’ acerbic critique. While for Myers Koh has not attributed the fascinating Japanese dimension to Juche (or shutai as militaristic Japanese fascists of the 1930s might have referred to it), it seems his work at least sights its useful location as that North Korean relational slipperiness deployed in Pyongyang’s navigation of difficult relationships in hot times.
Beyond Myers’ furiously energetic denunciations, Koh’s work is further contextualised by Charles Armstrong of Columbia University’s masterful emplacement of Juché and other North Korean ideological forms within a philosophical Weltgeschichte of Cold War, liberationist and anti-colonialist history. Figuratively speaking, these are the historical hinterlands and half-forgotten spaces that serve as the foil to our current dull, flat world of unipolarity and hegemony. Finally, Rudiger Frank of the University of Vienna takes forward Koh’s conception of North Korea’s use of ideology and perception in the smoothing of the way and papering of the cracks so far as diplomatic and political difficulty in concerned. In “North Korea’s Autonomy 1965-2015,” Professor Frank sketches a history of Pyongyang’s interaction and engagement that he asserts is possessed of a “remarkable consistency.” North Korean autonomy would by nature be about minimizing dependency rather eradicating it, seeking the cracks, fissures and lines of flight in international relations, but all too often as a means of avoiding engaging in real (and indigenous) structural reform, development or coherency.
Pacific Affairs have therefore done the interested and the concerned a great service with their revisiting of BC Koh’s original piece. It is an article which is as fascinating to read today as the labyrinthine tales of North Korean revolution articulated by other scholars from his time such as Dae Sook-suh, Robert Scalapino and Chong-sik Lee. As North Korea appears to dabble with future engagement with old partners, such as the Russian Federation once more, Pyongyang’s conception of autonomy and independence may again be key to our ideas and actions.