South Korea is failing North Korean studies

Stifling censorship, outdated technology, and a lack of curiosity

Martin Weiser

International relations, Education, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

21 November 2017

North Korean studies is too important to be left to its brother state alone, Martin Weiser writes.

After more than 70 years of Korean division, the field of North Korean studies has still not given us the answers we need to the most pressing problems. With frustrating frequency, the same questions are raised again and again. Would North Korea give up its nuclear program for the right deal? Is the North Korean leader rational? Can we achieve our goals better with sanctions or with engagement?

While these questions are important, only a surprisingly small part of the scholarly debate deals with what we can actually know. All presumptions we might have about North Korea should drive us to find evidence to support them. Yet for various reasons, reams of diplomatic documents, countless testimonies, and an ever-growing collection of North Korean print and online material are little reflected in the field of North Korean studies.

Instead of effectively tackling these oceans of data, debates have largely focused on which theory might explain best the little we actually know. And while a better appreciation of the available sources has been urged for decades, today little has improved.

Given the urgent demand for North Korean expertise, why are potential treasure-troves of information being ignored? There are three reasons.

More on this: North Korean studies: the unloved subject

The first is censorship – and not just by the North. In 2016, South Korea’s internet censorship body decided to block a US-based IT blog, North Korea Tech, claiming it violated the country’s National Security Law by republishing North Korean content. While the ban attracted media attention at the time, little has been said about its actual negative impact on research.

Also censored by South Korean authorities is the Japan-based Korea Press Media database with its 300,000 newspaper articles and 60,000 journal articles. It is quite telling that a researcher at South Korea’s Institute of National Unification wrote that North Korea’s Law on Administrative Control was adopted only in 2009 or 2010. It had been mentioned in a major North Korean journal already as far back as 2003 – a fact easily searchable through the above database.

South Korea’s heavy restrictions on material from the North do not end there. While most North Korean print publications are now accessible to anyone at libraries, restrictive regulations are still largely in place. Seoul National University, often perceived as South Korea’s most prestigious university, still allows only access to ten North Korean books on a single day, and will not even reveal what exactly is available in its North Korea section. Many other libraries stick to the rule that no copies are to be made of North Korean texts under any circumstances.

The second reason is that the field of North Korean studies appears to suffer from a severe lack of curiosity. The argument ‘nothing can be known about North Korea’ is often joined by its smaller sibling, ‘it is all just propaganda anyway’.

More on this: The neglected Korea

The vast amount of material available now includes information which would probably surprise many North Korea specialists. In 1982, North Korea issued an invitation to Amnesty International, and in 1996 reportedly planned to invite the United Nations to the ill-famed Yodok labour colony. Neither fact has received any scholarly interest or criticism.

Similarly, North Korea’s presumed meaningless Social Democratic Party was able to criticise the domestic human rights situation and point out the benefits of semi-competitive elections in a magazine distributed abroad and with English translation – all apparently without being noticed by any North Korea experts.

Explicit criticism of the human rights situation by Kim Jong Il himself, as can be found in several texts in the “Selection of Kim Jong Il’s Writings”, has been left unexplored. Also unasked is the question why, in a 2001 UN report, North Korea was willing to cite almost the full text of its regulation on detention cells, information it has never released either before or since that report.

This lack of curiosity is especially striking in legal research. Not only does no public, full-text-searchable database on North Korea’s legal system exist, but scholars also have taken only minute efforts to map what North Korea has released itself on the topic. In my own research I have come across more than 4000 legal changes disclosed by the North Korean government, however, I estimate the true number to be far higher.

More on this: Beware the Guns of August in North Korea

Last but not least is a lack of digitisation. It is staggering that in South Korea, a country with the world’s highest smartphone ownership and fastest internet, North Korean studies still trails even moderate standards of digitisation in Asian studies. North Korea’s main newspaper Rodong Sinmun is still only searchable for headlines and not full text, while the more important government newspaper Minju Choson remains unsearchable.

Similarly, a project to digitise the writings of the Kim family came to an abrupt halt in 2004 and was never picked up, requiring scholars to skim through seemingly endless speeches on farming practices and Juche philosophy to locate the few bits of actual policy information. Digitisation of full books is virtually non-existent and after a very promising start digitisation of journals went dormant in 2009.

Neither in South Korea nor abroad have librarians attempted to compile a list of known North Korean publications, including which publications are already available in libraries and which are still in need of collection. Through this gap, a 1993 guidebook on citizen classification reported on in 2007, and a 2003 collection on economic legislation released online in 2013, are both yet to find their way into any major library.

Having researched the North for five years from the South, my takeaway is that North Korean studies is too important to leave it to its brother state alone. Even if the new Moon administration radically winds back censorship, librarians and scholars in South Korea have not shown sufficient creativity and curiosity to take full advantage of the possibilities they have had for the last two decades.

The current problems facing North Korean studies do not require large sums of money to address. Online databases can be quickly set up; millions of North Korean texts can be mined from the internet; and crowdsourcing allows a comfortable division of labour. The solutions are there, we only have to use them.

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