Yongusil 60: Warsaw Calling – Contextualizing Korea at the Polish Academy of Sciences

By | March 16, 2015 | No Comments

Wojciech Jaruzelski and Kim Il-Sung – Photo credit: Chris Niedenthal/FORUM

Wojciech Jaruzelski and Kim Il-Sung | Image: Chris Niedenthal/FORUM

As much as Europhile Poland would like to forget, relations between Warsaw and Pyongyang were once very cordial, and the connections between the two unlikely socialist brother nations (in the pedagogical and academic field) were among the most mysterious and intriguing in the now distant Communist bloc. These past connective glories have not completely atrophied. Driven on by erstwhile contributor to Sino-NK, Nicolas Levi, focus on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea can still be found within the halls and corridors of the Polish Academy.

Nicolas himself was the driving force behind the focus of this Yongusil, an extensive and informed gathering of academics and young scholars at the Polish Academy of Sciences on March 10, 2015. Meeting under the title “The Korean Peninsula in a global context. Opportunities and Challenges in the 21st Century,” the focus of those presenting stretched not only into the future, but far into the historical past, reliving past challenges as well as those of our current era.

Intriguing comparisons were the order of the day, it seemed. Young-mee Yu Cho, Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at Rutgers University, traced the shifting sands of Hanja usage and acceptance on both sides of the DMZ. Equally, Atur Jochlik, a PhD Candidate at the Silesian university of Katowice, delivered a most unique comparison between governmental and social forms found in Plato’s Republic and those of contemporary Pyongyang.

Korean nationalist and nationalism’s response to colonial attempts and processes to construct the colonial, imperial subject were carefully explored by Dr. Natalia Kim of the Higher School of Economics, Moscow in a paper entitled “A Conceptual Attitude to the Problem of Liberation in the Korean Nationalism.” Kim’s analysis of a “new nationalism” now past made for a fascinating counterpoint to the work of Sino-NK’s own Steven Denney, who addresses contemporary manifestations of nationalism–also called “new.” Perhaps rather less careful in its infant stage was Robert Winstanley-Chesters’ first public presentation of new work on the sporting and leisure spaces and places of the Korean Peninsula. Winstanley-Chesters tracing the ghosts of colonial physical culture into Kim Il-sung’s similarly physically determined North Korea of the 1970s.

Nicolas Levi himself, now of the Polish Academy of Sciences, on an important if perhaps disappointing day for Choe Ryong-hae and other figures in Pyongyang’s bureaucratic machine,  carefully examined the ebb and flow of power in North Korea’s elite, alighting on a satisfying structural approach in contrast to the myopic urgency of so much “Pyongyanology.” Equally satisfying was the presentation of Theo Clement, a PhD Student at ENS Lyon in France. Focusing on the border spaces of North Korea’s northeast, the liminal edge of Pyongyang’s sovereign writ (so beloved of Sino-NK), Clement investigated the Special Economic Zones, so much the focus of recent academic fervor.

While it is debatable as to whether Pyongyang is engaged in any form of opening, we want to finally note in summary of this stimulating and challenging academic exercise the potentially revealing work in progress presented by Michal Lubina, Associate Professor at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. Lubina’s focus on another once cosseted “hermit kingdom” of governmental and bureaucratic difficulty–Myanmar–and its interactions in a new era of openness with the Korean Peninsula. This work will one day be underpinned by a revealing documentary and evidential base when the archives of Yangon and Naypyidaw are opened. Perhaps Myanmar’s opening will prove prophetic or at least instructive when it comes to any future changes in governmentality north of the 38th parallel.

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