A Roundtable Review of Sandra Fahy’s Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea

By | November 27, 2015 | No Comments

Background image (with filter) is of a barren mountain in North Korea, a common sight there. | Image: Ministry of Unification

Background image (with filter) is of a barren mountain in North Korea, a common sight there. | Image: Ministry of Unification

The mid-1990s were trying times in North Korea, where unfortunate incidents combined with prolonged government mismanagement to result in a devastating famine. The number of deaths is a contested statistic, but virtually no one — not even the state itself — disagrees that the period brought great hardship to the North Korean people. To improve our understanding of the social and psychological consequences of famine and the coping mechanisms devised to deal with it, Sandra Fahy, assistant professor of social and cultural anthropology at Sophia University, spoke — nay, listened — at length to those people (students, farmers, soldiers, and diplomats) who lived through the famine and eventually left the country because of it. Through the words of the victims, Fahy constructs a narrative of coping and survival — a march through suffering.

Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea is the product of Fahy’s anthropological labor. Sino-NK assembled a team of scholars, all experts in their own right of some field or focus in North Korean studies, to review this valuable contribution. The reviewers, undoubtedly positive in their overall assessment, position the text in slightly different ways, but all highlight what is best about the work: Fahy’s attention to detail and careful discernment of language and meaning. What emerges is a people-centered story, a tale that empowers rather than victimizes. It is, the reviewers unequivocally conclude, a harrowing but powerful read. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

A Roundtable Review of Sandra Fahy’s Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea

by Sino-NK

Fahy, Sandra. Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea. Chichester and New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 252 pp. ISBN 9780231171342.

Sandra Fahy, Marching Through Suffering1)Originally posted at “North Korea: Witness to Transformation.” Reprinted with permission.

by Stephan Haggard (University of California at San Diego)

In our work on the famine and refugees, Marc Noland, and I documented psychological distress that resembled post-traumatic stress disorder. But our econometric — and ultimately clinical — way of approaching the issue is much less true to the emotional facts than Fahy’s simple focus on loss.  The book is based on a number of interviews Fahy conducted in Tokyo and Seoul and she exercises the restraint of letting her subjects talk at length through her transcribed interviews. Their focus is on both the individual and collective experience of the famine years and their aftermath, but the punch of the book is not in the material facts and coping strategies; it’s in the descriptions of the subjective and social worlds.

There is a temporal organization to the book, but rooted not so much in historical time as in personal time. After stage-setting chapters, Fahy begins with the onset of the famine; she rightly puts a short history of the famine in an appendix to get more directly to her story. Early signs were survived with not only a hope but a belief that things would turn around. As the bottom fell out, Fahy shows how the regime sought to rally the troops by blaming the international environment — and the US in particular — for the travails; survival became “an act of national preservation.” As the realization dawns that deprivation was not passing, Fahy’s subjects trace the social consequences. As one respondent put it eloquently, “human compassion comes from the rice bowl. If there is an abundance to eat, there is harmony; if there is nothing to eat and little work, there will be quarreling.” (p. 71) Fahy’s subjects note the breakdown of families, of domestic abuse, the emergence of crime, and the dissipation of trust.

In my favorite chapter, Fahy talks about language. As the famine deepened, the disjuncture between government propaganda and personal and social reality widened. But how to talk about it given the government effort to purge direct discussion? Fahy’s subjects talk about circumlocution and euphemism, but the chapter shows how these efforts to suppress thought had the opposite effect of increasing clarity.

A chapter on death — including not only deaths by starvation but by execution — sets up the emotional denouement: “breaking points.” The key to these breaking points was not only physical — reaching limits of endurance — but frequently rooted in a deep sense of betrayal; that the social contract had failed. But this realization was always mixed with deep sense of regret and even of their own betrayal for leaving their families and a country they loved. The final chapter details the complex emotions of viewing a homeland from the outside. The story is by no means as simple as a simple march to freedom; too much harm had been done to these simple but extraordinary refugees to see their escape as an unmixed blessing. If you want to know why the human rights agenda matters, read this book and be reminded how complexly damaging state-led deprivation and oppression can be.

Drought in South Hwanghae, hunger in North Korea | Image via Shijie Guan (世界观), no. 298.

Drought in South Hwanghae, hunger in North Korea | Image: Shijie Guan (世界观)

In the Story is Always a “We”

by Emma Campbell (Australian National University)

Our understanding of North Korea remains inadequate but I was skeptical that testimony from the North’s famine would be the place to look for new insights. Yet Sandra Fahy’s first book ‘Marching through Suffering’, an anthropological study of survivors of the North Korean famine, provides new and extraordinary understandings of North Korea from such testimony and it should be of interest to North Korea-followers from many disciplines.

Fahy’s book has two main aims: The first is to show the North Korean famine “as a process, not an event” and explore how North Koreans lived and interacted with the famine “process” as it progressed. The second is a particularly fascinating element of Fahy’s book – to understand how people communicated during this period. Here she explores how North Koreans adapted their speech to interact and transact for the purposes of survival, while minimizing their risk of offending the regime. She provides fascinating examples from interview transcripts: “If someone had died of hunger you couldn’t say that they were so hungry they died. You would say they were in so much pain they died’. As Fahy points out “A sick body implicates no one…. [S]ickness is also idiosyncratic to the person; ‘famine’ is systemic.” (p. 107)

The effectiveness and novelty of Fahy’s exploration of communication is rooted in her strong methodology. The hazards of qualitative research, particularly involving refugees and memories of trauma, is used to her advantage. She is able to discern actualities from these difficult interviews. However, she also examines how the interviewees tell their story and uses this, as well as the discernible facts, to explain, what North Koreans simply describe as irroke saratta [이렇게 살았다; how we lived], during the famine process.

Beyond anthropology and sociology scholars, Fahy’s insights should be contemplated by those in political science and IR fields – for there is little that I have read that can provide a better explanation of why the people of North Korea did not and have not risen against the regime. One of the explanations, as Fahy argues, was that North Koreans believed war was inevitable, and with war came suffering. Thus, many people were prepared to suffer with or for the state (and believed they were doing so), to protect the nation in a state of war. They did not believe that they were suffering because of the state.

Indeed, many North Koreans trusted the state to resolve the food crisis. Extraordinarily Fahy uncovers that, at times, those who were most loyal to the regime were the ones that suffered the most from food shortages. Holding the regime in such high regard, these people believed that the government would eventually relieve their suffering through the Public Distribution System. As a result, they did not turn to “illicit” or anti-Socialist activities such as foraging, illegally planting or trading. As one interviewee explained: “[W]hich people starve to death is really ironic. Who do you think would die first? People who worked the hardest in North Korea and who were devoted to the Worker’s Party. The workers were the ones with good hearts and were diligent, but they died of hunger. Why? Because the Worker’s Party didn’t distribute food. These good people who trusted the government still went to work hungry thinking, ‘eventually the Worker’s Party will distribute.’” (p. 44)

This is a fascinating and, at times, distressing read. And although Fahy is not the first scholar to identify “North Korean people as agentive,” she does so with incredible skill, compassion, and power. As a result, Fahy’s book presents the North Korean population as a community with the possibility of a distinct national identity. Her discussion of communication, including humor, challenges “the notion that North Koreans are brainwashed.” Instead, she argues it identifies “a population that intelligently observes and critiques.” (p. 8) And she reminds us that in North Korea “life is not lived alone. The subject that narrated the oral accounts was always a ‘we.’” (p. 50) Thus, perhaps one unforeseen outcome of this book is to show that life in North Korea is truly “real,” North Koreans are agentive, and thus just as authentically “Korean” – with their own definition of being Korean – as the population of the South.

Shin Dong-hyuk protests the repatriation of North Korean defectors living in China. | Image: Dan Bielefeld

Active Agents of Their Own Destinies2)An extended version of this review derived from the same sentiments will be part of an edition of the UBC journal Pacific Affairs in 2016. It is currently available as a forthcoming review.

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Speech acts have become a key component of engagement and critique of North Korea’s acutely different political and economic system in recent years. The recent Commission of Inquiry into North Korean Human Rights led by Australian Justice Michael Kirby has driven elements of this engagement through institutional agendas within the United Nations. These agendas and engagements privilege in particular speech acts of witness, testimony, and advocacy which address Pyongyang’s perceived violation of the normative, hegemonic rules of contemporary human rights consensus.

The realm of popular media and consciousness has also been marked and dominated by the translation of speech acts by North Koreans who are no longer living in North Korea, variously known as defectors, refugees, or migrants, depending on one’s political and philosophical predilections. These translations have comprised a peculiar strain of literary production: the defector memoir. Borrowing a term from academic geography, the authors and editors of these texts could be described as engaging in acts of co-production. Newly encountered intellectual and political confidants not only support North Koreans writers’ re-territorialization in their own liberated space but co-produce their own encounters with past home spaces in the light of new realities and needs. Works such as those by Shin Don-hyuk, Yeonmi Park, Hwang Jang-yop, and Jang Jin-sung have captured the imagination of the wider world with their vivid, acerbic, brutal, and occasionally lysergic testimonials.

However, these co-productions themselves have necessarily become acts of speech which are dislocated from their original context and location in and of North Korea. The rooted and lived experiences of North Korean famine, desperation, and escape therefore (and possibly paradoxically) become more abstracted moments of politics, speech acts focused on the acts of others and on future acts of regime change and unification. As Christine Hong has described them, defector stories become “weaponized narrative.”

Sandra Fahy’s fascinating book Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea sources its empirical material from the same ex-patriated, diasporic body of knowledge. Yet she achieves something of far more interest, depth, and methodological utility to the scholar in her narration of these narratives of difficulty and distress. With an anthropologist’s ear, Fahy seeks out those speech acts which North Koreans themselves used to negotiate, explain, and experience that period.

Marching Through Suffering primarily offers a journey through its contributors’ own experiences of North Korea’s great famine period of 1992-1997 and journeys to their present reality as North Koreans who no longer live in North Korea; its chapter titles adopt their own temporal categorization of their passage to the outside world. Hence what the wider world knows as a famine, and North Korean institutional narratives present as a second “arduous march” is conceived of by Fahy’s interviewees as “The Busy Years.” The reader then follows their emotional journey from ideological cohesion to disintegration, near death and finally breaking with the nation of their birth.

Utilizing the analytic tools of anthropology and ethnography, Fahy explores the linguistic transformations and strategies present in her interviewees’ past lives, as well as the often-neglected temporal difference in the famine experience for North Koreans, dependent on their regional positionality. The “Busy Years” apparently began earlier (in the late 1980s) for those in the periphery, and arrived in Pyongyang, the heart of North Korean bureaucracy, in the mid-1990s. With Alex De Waal’s theoretical frameworks focused on famine in mind, Fahy unveils a deeply uneasy, mediated, netherworld of familial and community discourse in which people do not die of starvation or experience famine, but freeze to death or experience acute and severe pain.

In a clearly marked difference from the media and popular narrative of North Korea’s difficult period, Fahy builds a picture derived from her interviewee’s accounts and their linguistic and conceptual stratagems of a people possessed of a distinct and determined agency. Faced with extraordinary and at times incomprehensible challenges, North Koreans are determined to survive — in spite of a collapse in conventional morality, social morays, and behaviors. Fahy’s interviewees describe seeing old men steal food from the hands of small children, orphaned and abandoned children left to unsuccessfully fend for themselves and doomed to die in public, and families depending on precarious and illegal private vegetable plots in the mountains for food.

Yet, North Koreans deploy these new forms of private and public language to both cope emotionally and navigate practically the complex web of political and social expectation. Utilizing hidden and subtle uses of humor, the North Koreans encountered in this text demonstrate their adeptness at engaging with the practices and praxis of market economics, both in semi-public spaces and through acts of determined subterfuge.

Ultimately Fahy’s fine book holds an empathic ear to its subject’s stories, narrating their external and internal travels with an assertive yet subtle sensitivity. Fahy’s subjects are not the North Koreans of public and media nightmare and disingenuous, politicized hysteria, sallow, disempowered shadows of humanity, but are active agents of their own destinies, even when those destinies are unknown or unknowable. Even at their moment of breaking with North Korean territory and sovereignty in the act of becoming that most transgressive of political beings — the North Korean who no longer lives in North Korea — Fahy’s subjects make powerful, rational decisions to bridge and survive existential challenges. This reviewer has rarely read a work which does such empirical and narrative justice to a much maligned and misunderstood people, allowing the reader to encounter their march through, encounter with, and survival from a truly disastrous moment of history in valuable new ways.

The emotional and psychological impact of famine is deep and lasting. | Image: Wikicommons

Insight into Burdens Still Carried

by Sarah A. Son (School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS)

It is almost twenty years since the North Korean famine (or Arduous March [고난의 행군] as it is known in the country) reached such severity that it became an issue of grave concern for international aid agencies seeking to provide relief and investigate how the situation had grown so desperate. Much still remains unknown about exactly how the famine took hold and how it unfolded for individual communities, with the extraction of accurate information remaining an ever-present problem in studies of North Korean society.

Yet in the years since, the now sizable body of North Korean defectors settled in South Korea and elsewhere has become a vital source for anyone seeking to sketch out accounts of life over this particularly dark moment in North Korean history. In reaching beyond description of the facts and circumstances of the famine and its consequences, anthropologist Sandra Fahy draws on defector narratives to provide a degree of ethnographic insight regarding the North Korean famine experience that fills an important space in both understanding that time, as well as in the expanding arena of North Korean defector accounts of life behind the information blockade.

In addition to sharing their experiences through memoirs documenting often harrowing, sometimes horrifying, deeply saddening yet at times also uplifting stories of a former life, the voice of North Korean defectors has become increasingly present in both media coverage of their homeland and academic works rooted primarily in sociology, political science and history. While anthropological studies are also becoming more abundant, Fahy’s work on the famine period exposes and analyses in exceptional detail features of language and thought located in the oral testimonies of thirty defectors, providing the reader with an understanding of North Korean society rarely matched in the English-language literature on the subject.

The book draws on interviews undertaken in 2005-2006 in South Korea and Japan, and is structured according to themes woven through the interviewees’ varied experiences of famine. It seeks to address the central question of how people made sense of the famine period, and thus how they made sense of the failure of state responsibilities along a timeline beginning with the experience of those years, to the breaking points that spurred them to escape the hardship imposed by hunger or “pain” and then the lasting legacy of those experiences. Through the oral accounts we address many of the misconceptions that have and continue to appear in the mind of the external observer: What led so many to endure and struggle on? Why did social coherence persist under such conditions? Unlike many other famines the world has seen in modern times, why did this famine did not manifest in mass refugee movements? And why did resistance and revolt against the regime never materialize as a result?

These questions are approached through an analytical focus on the use of language used to discern “how people thought about those incredibly disastrous events” (p. 7) and how they transmitted those thoughts through speech, carefully mediated to conceal and reveal reality, providing crucial insight into the psychological impact of “managing hunger according to acceptable means” (p. 39) for so long, before reaching each individual “breaking point:” First internally in the form of a decision, and later physically in the form of crossing over. Concurrently, comparisons to other famines under authoritarian regimes help illuminate coherence and contradiction in the particular famine of North Korea, allowed to deepen as a result of the particular governance of the regime, which, as the testimonies described, spurred so many to “march through suffering,” even to the point of death.

In its latter parts, the book provides some noteworthy insight into often glossed-over aspects of the North Korean defector phenomenon, where Fahy cautions “against the interpretation that increased suffering… will lead inevitably to increased likelihood of defection.” (p. 127) The defector accounts provide an important reminder of real attachment to home and community for those North Koreans who have fled, as well as the reality that leaving the North was rarely undertaken with the intention not to return; rather, the ultimate decision to “break” with North Korea came after a time outside, often leading to refuge in South Korea only after “a series of shattering realizations.” (p. 137)

Concurring with much of the existing research documenting the struggle North Koreans have in identifying with their supposed “brethren” in South Korea, at the same time the book engages with the wider geopolitics of the region by highlighting the way their presence “agitates” the unresolved division of the Peninsula. At this point the book may have benefitted from an extension of Fahy’s observations regarding the potential consequences of the “new division” in terms of how this division might inform analysis of the problems and possibilities of the two Koreas becoming integrated into one socio-political unit at some point in the future. However, this in no way detracts from the ability of Fahy’s thorough analysis to provide meaningful insight into the largely invisible burdens still carried by those who have witnessed and experienced the consequences of living in a state which had “no means by which to give us life,” (p. 146) and the book will surely come to constitute important reading for students and scholars of the Koreas.

Jang Jin-sung | Image: Auckland Writers Festival

Jang Jin-sung, author of Dear Leader | Image: Auckland Writers Festival

A Master Class in the Scholarly Treatment of Defector Voices

by Christopher Richardson

Writing in the The New York Times, former North Korean counter-intelligence officer and poet Jang Jin-sung observed that his decision to flee the DPRK was precipitated by a realization “that there are two North Koreas: one real and the other a fiction created by the regime.” It was only upon arrival in South Korea that Jang “recognized the existence of a third North Korea: a theoretical one. This is the North Korea constructed by the outside world, a piecemeal analysis of the regime and its propaganda that misses the political and economic realities of the country.”

One of the peculiarities of North Korean studies is that only recently have North Korean voices themselves appeared anywhere near the centre of discourse in the discipline. The fate of Koreans writing and speaking about their homeland has largely mirrored that of early migrants from the Soviet Union, their testimony deemed marginal or unreliable, fit only to be interpreted through external voices of authority, mostly those who had never set foot on Soviet territory, except on state-sanctioned study-tours. The recent death of Robert Conquest, and mainstream rediscovery of his writings about Stalin, offered a salutary reminder of such folly. One of the first Western historians to take seriously oral accounts of lived experience in the USSR, Conquest was dismissed as overly credulous of defector voices by his scholarly peers, yet lived long enough to be vindicated in his assessment of the vast scope of terror and state induced famine under Stalin.

North Korean studies may not have learned the lessons of history, many still perceiving foreign tour operators and Swiss businessmen to be authoritative voices on the DPRK, whilst dismissing the political writings of Jang Jin-sung, for instance, as just another theory among many, even by Ken Gause. This might be understandable, were it possible for Western scholars and journalists to access North Korea’s archives, or personally visit the citadels of power in Pyongyang to seek evidence to the contrary. Yet they cannot. As Sonia Ryang laments in Reading North Korea, the DPRK “is one of a very small number of nation-states in today’s world into which no outside ethnographer has ventured with the specific purpose of conducting anthropological fieldwork.”3)Sonia Ryang, Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Enquiry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 2. For now, Western scholars and journalists are left to engage in analysis and ethnography from afar, all the more reason to tread with humility in the presence of a growing body of first-hand evidence, accessible via the living testimony of North Korean exiles.

Yet whilst Hwang Jang-yop once seemed a true voice in the wilderness, the Kim Jong-un era has proved something of a high-water mark for North Korean voices, at least in the mainstream discourse, whether in South Korea via reality television series Now On My Way To Meet You [이제 만나러 갑니다; Channel-A] and internationally via a proliferation of defector memoirs such as Jang Jin-sung’s Dear Leader, Lee Hyeon-seo’s The Girl With Seven Names and Park Yeon-mi’s In Order To Live, and – perhaps most crucially – via the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK. However, beyond the inevitable backlash from the DPRK itself against the testimony of “human scum,” there has also been much scholarly and journalistic hand wringing about defector testimony, particularly following Shin Dong-hyuk’s recantation of much of his story as told in Blaine Harden’s Escape From Camp 14.

Although criticisms of Shin Dong-hyuk and Park Yeon-mi have, at times, seemed relentless and vindictive – not to mention lacking in understanding about the psychology of trauma or the need for exiles to change names and dates and locations to protect the identities of those left behind in North Korea – Song Ji-young’s more generalized critique of defector testimony was all the more devastating for its sobriety. In an article Song termed her “confession,” she wrote how, “in my 16 years of studying North Korean refugees, I have experienced numerous inconsistent stories, intentional omission and lies.” Defector testimony, Song concluded, is “not just unverifiable but also occasionally imagined, false or mythical,” suggesting that, “instead of using [defectors] as evidence for North Korean human rights violations, I would propose a close and dispassionate analysis of North Korean defector-activists’ accounts as a source to understand how they respond to the current political and economic environments [in South Korea].”

If this seems a case of babies out with bath-water, Song at least offers one piece of advice for those still determined to utilize defector testimony in their research, suggesting “focus group discussions and participatory observation of open group activities,” a suggestion – I might add – which sounds eerily like the very self-criticism sessions North Koreans left behind in the DPRK, men and women expected to police one another’s speech.

Enter Sandra Fahy’s Marching Through Suffering, a new history of the North Korean famine. Perilously eroding the social contract between ruler and the ruled, the famine of the 1990s not only killed approximately one million men, women and children, it ultimately precipitated the grassroots transformation of the DPRK into the increasingly market-driven and culturally porous society characteristic of the late Kim Jong-il and early Kim Jong-un era.

Whilst the famine is a story familiar to us in outline, Fahy weaves a tapestry of illuminating detail from the fabric of North Korean oral history. With an at-times dizzyingly dexterous interdisciplinarity, Fahy reads defector testimony, almost literally, like a text. In chapters that chronologically chart the course of famine from onset to entrenchment, each new voice is introduced at first unmediated, before Fahy engages in a thoughtful and judicious exegesis, teasing out layers of meaning from what is, and – sometimes most crucially – from what is not said. And also, fascinatingly, from how it is said.

There are dimensions in Fahy’s writing that I have never encountered in the scholarship before. As she writes, “the sonorous qualities of resonance, pitch, rhythm, tone, hesitation, and the way that the voice exits the speaker and positions both speaker and the listener in its sonorous matrix cannot be rendered except in the form of narrating the effect of listening on myself…. There is almost the wish to write these accounts with symbols lifted from modern musical notation to capture the unknown aspect of the voice.” (pp. 15-16)

In writing both scholarly and lyrical, Fahy chronicles the suffering of North Koreans in a famine precipitated and exacerbated by the state’s preference for preserving its social system over the preservation of human life. Fahy leaves the reader in no doubt this was a state-authored calamity. Yet Fahy also portrays the resilience, adaptability and agency of North Koreans, firstly – during the so-called “busy years” – as men and women genuinely sought to “march through suffering,” according to the wishes of their Supreme Leader, but also as they finally began pursuing personal survival at the expense of their socialist way of life, to the point of crossing into China or defecting to South Korea. A joke told to Fahy by Jang Jin-sung even provides an unexpected moment of laugh-out-loud North Korean famine humor. (pp.97-98)

Marching Through Suffering is a masterpiece. It is also a master class in the scholarly treatment of defector voices. At a time when such testimony is facing increasing scrutiny and criticism to match its increasing prominence, Fahy demonstrates how it is possible, and indeed necessary, to approach North Korean voices in ways both scrupulous and humane. I suspect that not only would Fahy be unsurprised by the criticisms of defector voices elucidated by Song Ji-young, but would find them far from terminal. On the contrary, Fahy demonstrates how so-called “weaknesses” in North Korean testimony – for instance, group memories presented as individual recollections, hearsay presented as fact, even outright “lies” – may themselves further illuminate the complex relationship between an individual’s thought and speech and the state within the DPRK, between North Koreans and their interlocutors outside the DPRK, and also – as much as it can ever be known – between North Koreans and their own inner voices, their “self-talk.”

Importantly, as Fahy explains, North Korean exiles “recall experiences that at the time of their formation were typically voiced through coded and clandestine means, if at all. The very things forbidden to articulate in North Korea, things they had grown practiced at overlooking, camouflaging, or suppressing, are the very things the researcher in Seoul or Tokyo may call upon the interviewee to voice… it would be foolish for the researcher to seek unobstructed articulation or hope that the interviewee will speak ‘the truth’ of her experience so that it can be captured… survival once hinged on selective use of speech and silence…. The paradox is most troublesome: the researcher seeks articulation of experience when survival of the initial experience necessitated inaccurate, bungled, and altered articulation. These are the limits we must work within.” (pp. 176-177) This is why the vivisection of Park Yeon-mi’s testimony, for instance, is such a ludicrous and unethical diversion. Likewise, those who have suggested that Shin Dong-hyuk’s recantation tarnished the conclusions of the UN COI demonstrate a profound lack of understanding about how jurists consider evidence before a verdict. As Justice Michael Kirby wrote at the time, “Was I surprised at [Shin’s] recantation? Not at all. My experience over 34 years as a judge repeatedly involved instances of such a kind. Human justice is fallible. But it is still essential.”

With similar humility before the evidence, Fahy acknowledges the limits of understanding, noting how, “interviewees expressed something interesting during their personal narratives that reflect a retreat into culturally rooted North Korean ways of knowing.” Or, as Yoon Jae-young tells her: “this is my lived experience. Speaking from experience all I can say no matter how I may appeal to you, you won’t ever realize it completely … Until [unification] all we can do is appeal to you and say irokke saratta, ‘this is how we lived.’” (pp .171-172) The time will come when all 24 million North Korean voices will be heard, and those places now hidden will be revealed. North Korean studies will endure the same test once faced by Robert Conquest and his Soviet-watching peers. It will be a river roaring through the Augean stables. Sandra Fahy’s scholarship opens exciting new possibilities of analysis in readiness for that moment.


1 Originally posted at “North Korea: Witness to Transformation.” Reprinted with permission.
2 An extended version of this review derived from the same sentiments will be part of an edition of the UBC journal Pacific Affairs in 2016. It is currently available as a forthcoming review.
3 Sonia Ryang, Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Enquiry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 2.

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