Reading North Korea by Chosun: A Roundtable Review

By | June 11, 2018 | No Comments

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The study of North Korea, much like the country itself, is neither static or unchanging. But while changes were taking place within the country, methods used to understand North Korean politics and society lagged behind; this was an unfortunate but inevitable outcome for a country largely closed to the outside world — especially the probing and prying efforts of researchers and academics. However, with a substantial uptick in migration from North Korea to both China and South Korea new sources of information became available: North Koreans themselves, including both those who defected and those with legal status abroad. With access to new sources of information came a shift in methods, prominent among which is the survey method. Not the only methodological development in the study of North Korea (see Christopher Green’s review below), it has become a popular one. as is made evident in Kim Byeongro’s recent historical overview of North Korea, Reading North Korea by Chosun. (Kim Byeongro, 김병로 in Korean, goes by Philo Kim in English.)

A sociologist and political economist who specializes in North Korea as a Professor at Seoul National University’s Institute of Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS), Kim has in recent years been involved in the IPUS’s North Korean refugee research interview and survey projects. By no means driven solely by survey numbers or interviews (Kim spends more time providing a critical historical overview), Reading North Korea by Chosun indicates just how much has changed in both North Korea and the tools we use to study it. Three Sino-NK reviewers (Christopher Green, Robert Lauler, and Peter Ward) critically engaged with the content and significance of this timely contribution to the study of North Korea. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Reading North Korea by Chosun Korea: A Roundtable Review

by Sino-NK

Byeongro, Kim. Reading North Korea by Chosun [북한을 조선으로 다시 읽다]. Seoul National University Press, 2016. 532 pages. 978-8952117632

Imperfect Symbol of a New Era in North Korean Studies

by Christopher Green

The changing face of North Korean studies today is a function of the changing face of Korea itself over several decades. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang in 1989, one major cause of North Korea’s economic collapse, but also a high point for the country’s encouragement of ethnically-based radicalism among South Korean students embracing freedom from the strictures of military dictatorship. The World Festival was followed by the demise of North Korea’s major economic patron, the Soviet Union two years later in 1991, the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, the shocking defection to Seoul of senior North Korean official Hwang Jang-yop in 1997, and the plunging of parts of the DPRK into famine.

Obviously, the period had far reaching effects on North Korean society. But it also impacted academia, triggering a generational shift in the community of scholars studying North Korea. There is a new generation of North Korea scholars at work today, most of whom emerged in these dying days of the 1980s or thereafter, a period of radical change across Europe and East Asia.

Many trained abroad, the new group of voices sprang up and has since the turn of the 21st century been responsible for opening up the study of North Korea to these and other new methodologies. These range from micro-histories to city studies, satellite imagery analysis, network analyses, and of course large- and small-scale survey projects. Methodological developments have facilitated new work on North Korea that uses newly available sources of information to go around the back of the Kim regime, as it were; sidestepping Pyongyang’s dominance of information flows. They throw North Korean society into increasingly sharp relief.

The group includes Kang Ju-won, an anthropologist who investigates all aspects of North Korean influence in Dandong and along China’s border with the DPRK, making him one of the first to write about the impact of (now sanctioned) exports of North Korean labor to enterprises in the peripheral border city. Kang’s work offers an idea of how the community of North Koreans in China live even as the nuclear ambitions of the government in Pyongyang place it under threat of extinction. A second trailblazer, Kang Dong-hwan, is co-author of a book that uses survey responses from North Korean citizens (i.e., not people seeking to leave North Korea permanently) in the border region of China to say things about public opinion inside the country. Kang’s is a precursor to the Beyond Parallel project run by CSIS in the United States, which uses a Seoul-based organization to survey North Korean citizens inside North Korea. Methodologies developed via surveys of resettled North Koreans living in South Korea are now being applied to North Koreans, to the extent possible. It also includes Kim Byong-ro (Philo).

To some, the quality of research in the field of North Korean studies was exceedingly low in the past, and thus contemporary improvements were long overdue. In a 2005 piece published in the leftist magazine Hankyoreh21 upon the passing of Kim Nam-sik, one of the first generation of North Korean studies scholars, historian-activist Han Hong-ku asked controversially how many of the roughly 3000 MA and PhD theses on North Korea published in Korean between liberation from Japanese rule in 1945 and 1990 had, in retrospect, demonstrated any academic value whatsoever. To Han, there was cause to question whether the number could possibly be greater than one hundred, little more than three percent. “In fact,” Han concluded, “it would not be wrong to say that the academic study of North Korea was only [methodologically] standardized in the 1990s.”

Han is of course wrong to dismiss a mountain of scholarship so cheaply. The claim he makes – essentially that it is all useless – is both sensationalist and, more importantly, inaccurate. New research doesn’t exist in isolation. It builds on the successes and failures of past efforts. Nevertheless, he is right to acclaim the superiority of contemporary work, even as several core problems persist.

First is a marked disposition to judge the DPRK by the values and culture of South Korea, a phenomenon known as South Korea-centrism. In the field of North Korea research, in particular, this results in the perspective that the North Korean system should be benchmarked with reference to systemic factors of relevance to South Korea (its constitution, or the bureaucratic structures of its agencies and institutions), and that the South Korean system is “the” (the definite article; not “a”) model for North Korean reform and future growth and development.

South Korea-centrism is frequently underpinned by a defensive nationalism. It rejects foreign interference not merely in Korean affairs, but also in Korean Studies per se. Exclusion of non-Koreans is partly a matter of rational self-interest – if you can limit the competition, why wouldn’t you? — but also happens because, to quote Ko Yu-hwan, the subject of North Korea is “closely related to the fate of our nation.” By “nation”, Ko means not South Korea, but of the Korean nation as an ethnic group. An evocative term, the “fate of the nation” thus situates North Korea as a sui generis topic of research and promptly nationalizes it, thus asserting South Korean primacy in dealing with any and all things to do with it. (It is rarely imagined that North Korean or defector scholars might deserve primacy in dealing with it, which is a problem of a different order.)

In 2016, Kim Byong-ro published the provocatively titled Reading North Korea as “Chosun” Korea to face South Korea-centrism head on. The book sets out to analyze North Korea from a sociological perspective on its own terms. A Rutgers graduate, Kim believes that North Korea should be approached as the “Chosun” of the title, the name by which North Koreans call their state, not as “North Korea”, a designation given to that state by others and which has the effect of appearing to lock it in a permanent condition of peninsular competition with the South, when the reality is far more complex. The book, which explicitly critiques and rejects both anti-communism and South Korea-centrism, is patchy in terms of quality, but proves that North Korean studies in South Korea is moving in a positive direction.

However, vigilance is needed. The rhetorical violence of South Korea’s extreme anti-communist discourse, which loomed over academia just as it did the state itself from the founding of the ROK in 1948 right through to democratization in June 1987, did not die with the arrival of democracy, and returned most recently with a secretive vengeance during the corrupt conservatism of the Park Geun-hye era from 2013 to 2017. The opposite phenomenon, the downplaying or diminishing of right-wing voices at home and abroad, has replaced it in the era of President Moon Jae-in. Witness for evidence the garoting of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. That’s the problem with pendulums; they won’t stay still.

IPUS latest Unification Perception Survey shows that 95.5 percent North Korean migrants surveyed in 2017 thought unification was “very necessary.” That figure has never been lower than 89.1 percent (2016). Philo Kim’s work draws heavily from these surveys.

Sprawling Narrative of an “Autistic” Society 

by Robert Lauler

One may could be excused if thinking that Dr. Philo Kim’s 2016 book on North Korea entitled, Reading North Korea by Chosun (북한, 조선으로 다시 읽다), might bring deep historical perspective to North Korean studies, as some scholars have done in the past. In fact, Kim’s book does nothing of the sort; instead, according to Kim, “Reading North Korea by Chosun Korea means to portray North Korea as it is, not as a wishful thinking of the South [Korea].” Kim does have a point: “North Korea” is used shorthand in both English and Korean (북한) for isolation and insanity. Using “Chosun” (조선) in its place is perhaps an easy semantic shift to help reframe the discussion on North Korea, particularly in South Korea where Chosun evokes historical memory of a united Korea. It is more difficult to say, however, whether semantics alone means Kim’s book succeeds in providing an intriguingly new and methodologically sound work of analysis to the body of academic work on North Korea.

Kim’s overarching claim is that the trauma and destruction caused by the Korean War is to blame for North Korea’s inward-looking (he calls it “autistic” or 자폐적), oppressive society. Divided into four major sections, the book rightly devotes considerable space in the first section to the fratricidal conflict and the post-war reconstruction period of the 1950s. Kim’s narrative, however, does not differ much from existing scholarship on the subject, including the pages spent on detailing the extent of North Korean human losses during the war. He sheds light on North Korea’s regional self-sufficient system (지역자립체제), and argues persuasively that this system not only sprung from the conflict, but was a major factor in the country’s economic development (and, later, an Achilles heel for a North Korean government trying to throw national resources at food shortages during the Arduous March). His analysis of the Juche ideology, which is part of the same section, covers its development into a religion and rattles down the reasons why it should be considered as such. Unfortunately, it largely sidesteps any active debates concerning Juche, missing an opportunity to actively argue against other scholars writing on the subject, notably Brian Myers and his recent work, North Korea’s Juche Myth.

The book’s second section covers subjects ranging from politics, economic development to education and even the loosely defined “culture” of North Korea. The parts of this section vary greatly in depth. For example, the book’s discussion of the North Korean language cites no significant scholars in the field, blandly listing words that are different in North Korea compared to South Korea; the analysis is not helped by the author simply stating that “based on his experience speaking with North Koreans” the differences in two Korea’s languages represents no serious issues in a future, unified Korea. (p. 223) This analysis contrasts with one on the country’s economy development, but even this discussion relies considerably on Kim Il-sung’s statements on the subject. Another part of the book on North Korea’s implementation of foreign investment in the 1970s simply cites Kim’s own work from the early 1990s. (p. 171) The book’s third and fourth sections are little better, clumping together a dizzying array of topics: marketization, changes in class structure, the rise of the new moneyed class (donju), mass defections abroad, human rights, the influx of outside information, changing perceptions by North Koreans of the outside world, the North Korean nuclear issue, and the country’s future as a “strong and prosperous nation.” Each of these topics could be written up as a book themselves, and they appear little more than “commentary” than serious summarizations of existing work.

Intertwined through this sprawling narrative of North Korea is survey data collected by Kim’s employer, the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, from 2008 to 2015; interviews conducted by the author himself; and survey data from other scholars, notably Kang Dong-wan of Donga University in Busan. The inclusion of this survey data is one of the prime selling points of the book. The surveys canvassed opinions toward many important questions of both North Korean defectors and North Korean citizens living in China. Kim uses this data to infer opinions among the general North Korean population. For example, one question asks North Korean defectors “to what degree” they believe in the Juche ideology. Kim states that 70-75 percent of North Koreans “strongly believe” in Juche ideology, basing this number off extrapolations from surveys done of both defectors and North Koreans in China. Another question asks “how much” North Koreans “put their trust in” (신봉하다) Kim Il-sung. Kim extrapolates from this data that at a minimum 60-70 percent, and maximum 99 percent, of North Koreans “support” Kim Il-sung (p. 453).

Based off other survey data not readily cited in the text, Kim states that a whopping 98-100 percent of North Koreans “desire” unification. (p. 468) He also cites a survey where North Koreans responded that they “prefer” China over South Korea (79 to 16 percent, respectively). (p. 469) These survey results, however, raise more questions than answers. The survey data is not linked with the suggestion that the “desire” for unification may be due to the hyper-political nature of North Korean society, in contrast with South Korea. Meanwhile, the preference of China over South Korea appears to simplify a complex question: What does “preference” mean or entail? Would then North Koreans prefer Chinese suzerainty in North Korea over South Korean rule in the event of unification? As they stand, these survey results require a great deal more context to be taken seriously.

Moreover, while a total of 30 interviews were undertaken by the author from 1998 to 2013, there are few specific excerpts from these interviews in the book. In some sense, this takes away from the overall narrative as the “voice” of North Koreans talking about their own society arguably fails to come through as clearly as they have in other works on North Korea.

Kim ends the book with the inevitable question that naturally lurks at the closing of books on North Korea: what will the future bring? Kim breaks the scenarios down into three possible ones: collapse, unification, or North Korea “opening and reforming.” Kim argues collapse won’t happen within the next 10 years despite growing internal pressures for change, while stating that South Korea largely holds the key to either peaceful unification (implicitly meaning, of course, on “South Korean terms”) or as a “mediator” in bringing forth reforms and opening in North Korea, a role that would have it both reign in the hostile policies of the USA and fend off China. (p. 473) Kim’s suggestions are notable in that they largely ignore the role of China, which has a major economic and political influence on the country. This is puzzling given his past work on the China and North Korean economic relationship. He fails to analyze China’s increasing investment in the country and how this could affect the future, even the scenario, offered by some, that China aims to make North Korea it’s “fourth province” in the region. This has the unfortunate effect of seemingly “wishing away” such a scenario on the author’s part.

In Reading North Korea by Chosun, Kim has created a book that covers a great deal of material concerning North Korea. The book’s breadth, however, may lead readers to question whether the book overreaches in its comprehensiveness. The book’s uneven degree of depth across sections, moreover, degrades the book as an academic work, while the methodology and context surrounding the book’s survey data raises fundamental questions. Students of North Korea may be wise to read this book with a very critical eye.

Market in a small village in Onchon County, South Pyongan Province. Markets have sprung up the countr over in response to the breakdown in the public distributions service. | Image: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt

Taking North Korea Seriously on its Own Terms

by Peter Ward1)Full disclosure: The author has served as a translator for Philo Kim in a personal capacity.

As a professor at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS), much of Philo Kim’s work has been published in the Korean language (a substantial portion can be found here), as is this book.2)His work in the English language is far less extensive than what he has written in Korean, but he has written an English-language book – based on his PhD dissertation submitted to Rutgers University. Kim’s book reflects his research work closely. What’s more, it is typical of South Korean scholarship in general: all major, new research in Korean is published in articles, with the research monograph being an extinct format. Thus, readers who are familiar with South Korean scholarship of North Korea, and/or Philo Kim’s work personally, will be disappointed to find that for 32,000 won (around $30) you get less original content than you might expect. Indeed, Kim discloses that Chapters 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 13 and 14 contain quotations or repurposed research that has been updated.

Thus, Chapters 1 and 2 of the first part are based on research articles that Kim penned on the system of regional self-reliance and the Songbun system. Kim summarizes the main points of his research, including data and his core conclusions. The research itself is clearly excellent. In Chapter 1, Kim summarizes his sophisticated understanding of how the North Korean economy was engineered to survive in the form of micro-economies at the county-level in the event of an invasion or economic crisis. The system was ultimately implemented in the 1990s, and led to the emergence of segmented marketization, which forms the basis for chapter 9 of the book.

Chapter 2 examines the emergence of the Songbun system from class dictatorship in the wake of the Korean War. At root, the Songbun system was designed to reward obedience and loyalty during the Korean War. Hence, the families of fallen soldiers, loyal revolutionaries, and of the revolutionary classes (factory workers and peasants) were privileged to differing extents. As he notes in Chapter 9, this policy has begun to break down as a result of marketization, with groups previously discriminated against (like those with family in China) seeing their fortunes improve dramatically.

However, Songbun is not simply a human rights abuse, or a system of social control. While Kim spends much time dealing such issues, he is willing to consider the social functions of the Songbun system, and how it has been used by the regime to attain legitimacy and a degree of popular consent. After all, those who live in North Korea today are the very people who did not flee before 1950 or during the war.

In Chapter 6, Kim depicts organizational life as being a mechanism by which to institutionalize collectivism. This is an interesting argument, because most scholarship and human rights reports on this part of the North Korean system have emphasized the social control aspects of this system. However, Kim takes North Korean ideology seriously insofar as collectivism is concerned. The regime does not abuse human rights for the sake of it, its human rights abuses are a function of its ideological priorities, which are to be found writ large in its social policies. This does not explain away or justify what happens, but it does help us better understand it. The social logic of the North Korean system may be a far more compelling explanation as to why the system has survived on more than fear alone. Systems have to make internal sense to those who are part of them; it is rarely enough to silence people through fear alone, and fear can only last for so long.3)Christopher Green and Steven Denney make this very point in their article on “domain consensus.” See: Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, and Steven Denney, “How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korea’s Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era,” Review of Korean Studies 17, no. 2 (2014): 145-178.

Kim also points to the presence of Confucian and nationalistic rhetoric as components in the emergence of a “Chosun” (North Korea’s name for Korea and North Korea) culture and people. The creation of a North Korean national identity can be dated from the 1960s, or even the 1940s, but it became a constitutional reality in 1972 with the capital of the North officially being moved from Seoul to Pyongyang. The use of nationalistic rhetoric and Confucian terms has been well documented. However, we should not forget that North Korea and the North Korean people are often referred to in official ideology as “the Kim Il Sung nation.” (This is, indeed, what sets North Korean nationalism apart from South Korean nationalism — the cult of personality.) What’s more, as sources as diverse as Brian Myers and Heonik Kwon, the North Korean regime and its personality cult have transgressed filial piety and other Confucian family notions even whilst making use of its language.

The second half of the book covers the system after the collapse of the Socialist bloc, and with the emergence of Kim Jong-un, the rise of markets, the military, and the intensifying focus of the international community on the nuclear issue and the human rights problem. It closes with a chapter summing up how the system has persisted to present. Philo Kim offers a compelling, historically rooted sociological, institutional and cultural explanation of this process. The book may have been improved by a greater, more in-depth focus on fewer themes, as it is, it often feels like a hodgepodge of existing research edited to resemble a coherent narrative.


1 Full disclosure: The author has served as a translator for Philo Kim in a personal capacity.
2 His work in the English language is far less extensive than what he has written in Korean, but he has written an English-language book – based on his PhD dissertation submitted to Rutgers University.
3 Christopher Green and Steven Denney make this very point in their article on “domain consensus.” See: Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, and Steven Denney, “How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korea’s Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era,” Review of Korean Studies 17, no. 2 (2014): 145-178.

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