On Translation: North Korea in the Sinophone Gaze

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China / Chinese foreign policy / Huanqiu Shibao / North Korea / Sino-North Korean relations
Wangqing County Forestry Officials Discuss the Previous Year's Work, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region - courtesy Wangqing County Gov.cn

Chinese writing about North Korea is peculiar. And perhaps it ought to be. Surely, well-informed insights and even genuinely insightful speculations ought to be welcomed to the table with alacrity, regardless of the nationality or linguistic tendencies of the thinker. Translators naturally serve a vital role in the enterprise of tying together Korea-oriented policy and analytical communities.

Chinese writing about North Korea takes on an additional point of interest when it appears to indicate that the Chinese Communist Party is modifying, or considering modifying, its policy direction in an effort to reshape North Korean behaviour. Except, perhaps, that Jang Song-taek is dead and Kim Jong-un is alive and able to take off his own shoes, very little is certain from Pyongyang. Conversation is therefore needed from as many vantage points as possible. We still need to know what the Jang purge meant for fisheries management, for the Byungjin line, for possible internal dissent over the depictions and monumentalization of the dead Kims, for what it meant economically to the DPRK’s northern border with China, and – not least – what impact it had on the fate of North Korea’s largest unfinished Special Economic Zones. Believe it or not, some of these topics are still very hot among Chinese scholars.

Fortunately we live today in a world where Chinese authors are able to launch their missives over the linguistic divide and into the seething, steaming, and occasionally-accurate mass of the Anglophone press. One important outlet for Chinese views on recent events in North Korea is the Global Times, which is often described as “the English version” of the nationalistic Huanqiu Shibao. Both Huanqiu and GT, as they occasionally shortened by their more loyal readers, operate under the arm of the Chinese Commmnist Party organ of the People’s Daily, and are linked administratively. In the case of of covering the Jang Song-taek purge, GT has been helpful, providing reasonably timely factual aid from Zhang Lian’gui, in English, and published essays roughly approximate to Huanqiu editorials.

But such editorials in English should not be mistaken with proper “Chinese writing about North Korea.” Global Times editorials are better described as “based upon Chinese editorials which are translated with heavy alterations and cuts for purposes of consumption by Western readers who are generally and inaccurately led to believe that Global Times represents what Chinese elites and/or the public is reading.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Huanqiu editorials are generally much more combative, revealing, and interesting than the sanitized English versions. Sino-NK, the analysis website which I edit, makes a regular habit of translating (or more faithfully retranslating!) such essays.

When it comes to North Korea analysis, we have seen at various times what a huge impact one passionate translator can have, with perhaps a small team of assistants and probably not much money, in amplifying defector voices. As important for the broader understanding of the North Korean system, the DPRK’s foreign relations, the North Korean economy, and the future of North Korea, I would argue, are Chinese voices.  At some point we are going to get past the point when we read a Chinese author only looking for cracks in the ‘lips and teeth’ edifice and start to appreciate the verve, the vertiginous quality, and the depth of historical allusion in the work. I will certainly continue my own efforts to keep the linguistic and analytical channels open so that these voices, too, can be heard.

Three Questions on Dandong and Chinese-North Korean Economic Relations

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Borderlands / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations

As the third China-North Korea Trade Fair continues, a few questions (modified from those posed by a stalwart reporter from a northern European news magazine roaming Liaoning province) and tentative answers seem appropriate.

Q.: There is a great deal of new construction in Dandong and Chinese real estate companies are clearly trying to attract buyers — including possibly wealthy North Koreans. 

I have been going to the ‘Xinchengqu’ (or New City district) every year since that project began, and have yet to see the area really start to fill up with residents. People appear to be buying apartments as speculation properties and then not living there; this is hardly a phenomenon isolated to the border with North Korea, however. Public transportation to the area is still relatively poor and the government buildings –not bilateral trade — are the main anchor for the community to actually function. The bridge has taken nearly five years to build (an eternity by Chinese standards) and is still shut, whatever the propaganda says about its promised transformational effect.

It is certainly possible that a small number of North Koreans with the necessary connections in the Korean Workers’ Party could afford more substantial residential real estate in the city. As my own recent fieldwork has indicated, Kim Jong-un is allowing more loyal North Koreans to live in Manchuria and stay for longer periods of time, with their nuclear families, than his predecessor. He has also allowed overseas Chinese (hwagyo) in the DPRK to have easier phone access and cross-border access to China, surely aware that remittances are important and that small-scale business ties are good for North Korea, so long as they do not cross into the formation of anti-Kim groups, in which case they will be rapidly destroyed. (See the currency revaluation of November 2009, which China is still angry about and which is a good example of how the regime occasionally will move to cut off the nascent capitalists at the knees.)  

Q. North Korea is touting plans to build six more special economic zones, bringing the total number to 19. How successful would you say they have been in attracting investors?

A. When it comes to the zones, I think you have to draw a firm line between Kaesong and Rason — zones that are functioning, with relatively stable investment — and zones that are merely existing on paper or are dormant, like Hwanggumpyeong. The vast majority of the new zones just exist on paper. This is true up and down the border with China, again with the exception of Rason.

There is also the matter of North Korea announcing ‘Economic Development Zones’ which would be subject only to North Korean law. The main one deep within North Korea is in Unjong, a suburb of Pyongyang focused on high-tech. I haven’t been there myself, but Chinese media has carried a couple of long stories about it and Chosun Exchange (Geoffrey See and Andray Abrahamian, two young entrepreneurs) had good things to say about their recent visit there. But of course the location of it makes it possible to have basic infrastructure set up in the first place, which is a major failing of the more peripheral zones.

My working paper for Korean Economic Institute, in part, argues the following: Essentially, North Korea has mothballed the two SEZs that had full Chinese financial backing –Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa. In spite of the fact that the PRC central government was out beating the drum consistently for investors, North Korea has replaced these zones (directly, in the case of Sinuiju) with totally new plans on different territory in the same region with no infrastructural development or preparation, or apparent external investment.

Yet somehow, these zones are always mentioned when it comes to Western media predicting or attempting to locate the roots of possible economic change in North Korea. The new zones have thus been much more successful as an instrument of external propaganda than as an instrument of channeling investment into the country, much less cultivation of a new entrepreneurial class. Don’t mistake activity for economic effectiveness or an actual plan to achieve more tangible foreign direct investment.

Q. According to media reports, trade between China and North Korea declined in the first half of the year. How much do you think the execution of Jang Song-taek has hurt the trade?

When I spoke with Chinese experts in Yanbian about this, their feelings and their anecdotes were uniformly negative. There was a feeling that the Jang execution had fundamentally set things back and that it might take years for China to rebuild trust and relationships with North Korea. But, in fact, after a relatively brief hiatus of a few months, starting in spring 2014 bilateral trade appears to have come back more vigorously than before. The customs houses on the eastern edge of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region have seen trade volumes increase over 65% from the prior year (according to Yanbian Chenbao, a CCP newspaper).

Of course this is all relative — North Korean business presence in Northeast China is still rather limited and does not look poised to make huge progress in the year ahead. Without fundamental economic restructuring within North Korea, the activities of North Korean businesses in Manchuria will remain limited and peripheral — still important to the central government as a means of gaining hard currency legally, but nothing at all like the scale of money the DRPK could make if it were able to successfully experiment with attracting large-scale foreign investment on the scale of, say, Shenzhen.

Image by Matthew Bates, courtesy of Sino-NK.

The Dandong Trade Fair

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Borderlands / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations

As the rest of the world gets accustomed to seeing Kim Jong-un walk with a cane, we might do well to figure out what, if anything, is changing about the way that the broader North Korean state engages with the economic powerhouses that engulf its southern and northern peripheries. KEI’s Director of Research recently assessed the outlook for improved inter-Korean economic relations in the aftermath of the surprising visit of a high-level North Korean troika to the closing day of the Asian Games in Incheon. And while there have been no equally high-level trips to Beijing from Pyongyang, North Korea’s economic relations with China, particularly developments along the shared frontier, are arguably as important to the future of the DPRK economy.

There has been an awful lot of ammunition provided lately to proponents of the point of view that Chinese-North Korean relations are in a downward spiral. The North Korean hijacking of a Chinese vessel from a small port outside of Dalian in September certainly did not help matters. But to point only to the problems and disputes — while they are many — should not blind us to the ongoing daily interactions and transactions that fuel the North Korean consumer economy and keep the DPRK afloat.

This past June, I prepared a research paper for KEI that showed that North Korea’s strategy for Special Economic Zones with China was changing rapidly, and argued that the power struggle around Jang Song-taek was intimately tied to the lack of progress on the Yalu River showcase SEZs at Hwanggumpyeong and Wihwa Islands. The new Economic Development Zones that Pyongyang proposed in lieu of these Chinese-financed zones have since made very little headway. In the meantime, the North Korean government has welcomed a University of British Columbia professor again to Pyongyang to lecture on SEZ law, small-scale training programs are going forward (often off-site, in places like Singapore), and the Rason Special Economic Zone has hosted very small seminars on SEZ set-up. In general, however, SEZs remain extremely peripheral to the broader economy and in many cases are nascent and conceptual at best.

The upcoming Sino-DPRK trade fair in Dandong, scheduled for October 16-20, thus should serve as an ideal test case for a number of things. (The formal title of the event is ‘The Third China-North Korea Trade, Culture and Tourism Exhibition Fair / 第三届中朝经贸文化旅游博览会.)

Read the rest of the essay at The Peninsulathe Korean Economic Institute blog.

New European Writing on North Korea

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EU-East Asia relations / German / North Korea / North Korea foreign relations
Overlooking Musan, DPRK, at the Tumen River (Yanbian-North Hamgyong border) - photo by Chuck Kraus, 2007

In terms of high-quality research being done on North Korea and its ties in Northeast Asia, a great deal of good scholarly work is being done these days in Europe. Look no further than two autumn conferences: This coming weekend sees a major North Korea conference hosted by Hazel Smith at the University of Central Lancashire (UK). With a keynote by Donald Gregg, the conference will feature dozens of experts from around the world from academics to policy makers to journalists — Tania Branigan, having just filed a dispatch from Manzhouli and with a fine track record of writing the DPRK, will be making the trek.

Further south, readers of the Sino-NK website will know that my colleagues and I have taken a great deal of interest in and sustenance from the work of Remco Breuker at Leiden University, he being the principal investigator on a major grant on Manchuria-Korea historiography and, most recently, host to a groundbreaking conference of former North Korean government officials which occurred last month. Dr. Breuker’s ongoing work on an edited volume from the conference will be adding scholarly heft and breadth to the literature on how the North Korean state works, and how it has changed since the arrival of Kim Jong-il as a formidable player on the institutional scene.

Leiden, Central Lancashire, and, I would selfishly add, Leeds University (in combination with Sheffield University, and in addition to Oxford and Cambridge) remain strong centers for scholarly production on North Korea and northeast Asia. But we need to look further south in continental Europe, today bypassing ‘de-bordering‘ Koreanist colleagues in Paris and Berlin, to Austria.

When it comes to North Korea scholars in Europe, few are more dispassionate and well-informed than Rudiger Frank of the University of Vienna. Thus I was delighted to learn that Dr. Frank has a new book out, entitled “Nordkorea. Innenansichten eines totalen Staates” published by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt on 22 September 2014. At 431 pages, it is substantial indeed.

Unusually, Dr. Frank elects to use the first person in the book, the better to be transparent about his own subjectivities both in and about the DPRK. As one scholar has previously noted in her review of Victor Cha, such a method does not always work, but in this case it seems to be advantageous, as the technique also allows him to return in highly readable ways to his scholarly roots. His 1996 Ph.D. dissertation was on the North Korean-East German relationship, and this book engages in some extended discussion of GDR-DPRK parallels and historical gulfs. If his work can be said to come remotely close to the synthesis of personal and historical that Tessa Morris-Suzuki achieved in her Exodus to North Korea, readers are in for rare insight.

Recalling his arrival in North Korea in October 1991, Rudiger Frank notes his realization that the country was otherworldly in terms of his own cultural and political reference points in East Germany in the 1980s; Moscow in the 1950s seemed likely to be about the closest parallel. Interestingly enough, in a recent Guardian story on the Kim family, one historian stated that “North Korea’s government is a highly conservative patriarchy run by old men for whom Moscow 1956 is the standard for dangerous liberalism.” (Nothing, it seems, makes for a positive book review like vindication of a possibly questionable sentence recently written by the reviewer.)

The text does some of the standard introductory work for readers, providing an overview of the DPRK’s history with additional emphasis on the growth of nationalism and its fusing together with Confucianism and Communism not so much as ruling philosophies as the elements in the construction of a North Korean ‘Weltanschauung.’

The Kims and leadership obviously get their due in the text, but here the beauty of the comparative approach seems to shine through: The Kims are not odd men ‘looking at things’ but typical socialist bureaucrats making promises and dreams that their systems cannot seem to deliver upon. (Frank makes a reference here to the mythological figure Till Eulenspiegel that I do not understand — perhaps that chaos inevitably will be made of such presumptions of order.)

Finally, in spite of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions (can we call them his achievements? certainly he takes credit) and the execution of Uncle Jang Song-taek, Dr. Frank ultimately sees Kim Jong-un as one of various signs of hope that North Korea will be able to change for the better. The third generation leadership, he argues, has shown intensive interest in improving the people’s livelihoods, deepened international contacts with its neighbors, set up Special Economic Zones, and expanded universal education. ‘These are interesting steps forward,’ he writes, perceiving tentative steps toward a broader opening and reform (or as the North Koreans call it, ever paranoid of creeping Dengism, ‘adjustments’) on the near horizon.

Like the writing of Kim Jong-ryul, a North Korean diplomat who defected into Austria and wrote a fascinating memoir, Rudiger Frank’s book looks poised to open a few new pathways into understanding North Korea from within, but also its place in the world. Keeping an eye on Dr. Frank, and other European scholars who take the long view while trying to parse Pyongyang’s latest moves, is therefore recommended.

New Chinese Writing on North Korea

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Borderlands / Sino-North Korean relations
NKs in Hamgyong bukto 2

Chinese scholarship and journalistic analysis of North Korea tends to be very strong, if occasionally oblivious or channeled due to political censorship. From a scholarship standpoint, China’s increasing distance from the DPRK has resulted in a relative opening up of the Chinese discourse on North Korea which has been absolutely fascinating to observe.

Today I ran across a new author I hadn’t been familiar with previously: Kang Chun-nü [康春女], who is a Chinese national of Korean descent who lives and writes as a freelancer in Hong Kong. In 2012, she translated the Yoji Gomi letters to Kim Jong-nam (the older brother of the current dictator), and has been quoted in lots of relevant places. In some ways, her peripheral status in Hong Kong allows her to publish more freely than on the mainland, and she has been availing herself, writing books that surely men like Zhang Lianggui and Zhu Feng read with some relish.

She has a new piece entitled ‘North Korea under Kim Family Rule.’ This essay spares very little by way of niceties for the DPRK as it has evolved under the Kims:

金正日发明了“先军政治”,那么军队又怎么样呢?所有食物以军队为先。/ Kim Jong-il put forward the concept of ‘Songun politics,’ so what about soldiers? It means the soldiers get all the grain first.

In another section of the article, Kang describes a very sad scene she apparently witnessed in North Pyong’an province, DPRK:

一次,在辽宁丹东市对面的朝鲜城市新义州坐汽车去一个镇子,车就要开的时候,上来了五个又黑又瘦,双手空空,从军队退役回家的士兵。售票员让他们买票,他们生气地嚷道:“我们刚刚当了八年的兵,哪来的钱买票?”售票员告诉司机这些人不买票就不开车,结果双方争持了五个小时,直到天黑下来,那几个军人到底也没买票,司机不得不开车。参军八年的结果是身无分文,穷到连买一张回家的汽车票钱都没有。其他普通百姓的情况就更可想而知了。/ Once going through a small town in Sinuiju, near Dandong, Liaoning province, [our] bus was due to leave. Five men, not just dark but also thin, their hands totally empty, got on the bus, having been demobilized from the Army, and on their way home. The bus attendant in charge of the money told them they had to buy a ticket. They got very angry and said blurted out: ‘We just spent eight years in the military, how do we have money to buy tickets?’ The attendant told the driver that these men hadn’t bought tickets, and that he shouldn’t drive the bus anywhere. After eight years in the army, the result was that they didn’t have a cent, and were so poor that they couldn’t afford the one bus ticket they needed in order to return home. Surely it is possible to imagine that other common people [普通百姓] in North Korea have been in a similar situation.

These days I am reminded on a daily basis not to ‘silence North Korean voices.’ When Chinese scholars are able to channel the same, we need to listen to them, too.

North Korea Commentitis

comment 1
North Korea / Pensee
Kims in Jagang

Since the non-events in North Korea seem to require some academic or historical context, I’ve been quoted these last few days in Le Monde, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. As my colleagues in the Leeds University School of History assured me today at a weekend undergraduate recruiting event, this is all great, because it’s not every day the media takes an interest in one’s work. Huzzahs all around!

Yet, being at least slightly aware of the compromises and inevitable oversimplifications this activity entails, I must dwell on the darker side of the phenomenon that now faces me — and my colleagues in the field: The danger exists of developing a case of ‘North Korea commentitis.’

Since commentary and social media discussion among university scholars, think tank members, and ex-diplomats on the Kim Jong-un disappearance seems to be moving quickly to stage 2 (cannibalism), colleagues in the field may wish to have a working definition, so as to avoid this condition.

‘North Korea commentitis’ is a condition which I would define as someone (ideally an academic) who imagines he or she is harnessing some kind of power or real influence by being quoted. Unfortunately, unless one is extraordinarily thesis-driven and focused — giving essentially the same answers to every interview — it usually doesn’t. You’ll get a few pats on the back from a Dean or a colleague, and maybe a few more calls the next time a relevant news story flares up, but in and of itself, your momentary appearance in a news story is rapidly swept away in journalism’s ceaseless machine, and more actual work remains to be done.

(Thus my appearance this afternoon at the uni recruiting event; amazingly, all my departmental colleagues were in the dark about my many appearances, not having spent Friday afternoon feverishly googling my name, monkeying with the BBC iPlayer for North Korea content now swallowed into the void, or following the minutae of my Tweets.)

This is stage one.

‘North Korea commentitis’ moves to stage two when you start imagining you’re entitled to comment on everything when you’re not, and you shouldn’t. Sometimes dwelling in stage two is inevitable, like when a journalist with whom you have a reasonably good working relationship suddenly needs a quote on a topic that is quite far from your area of real expertise — in ten minutes.

Fortunately there is a post-comment immunization for the second stage ‘North Korea commentitis,’ which is the heightened production of rigorously argued and edited, thesis-driven essays & articles, since any comment you make is invariably going to paraphrase or otherwise truncate what are surely sound ideas if they were actually spun all the way into proper fruition. You can also choose not to tweet the living bejeezus out of said piece, but your colleagues in the field will probably find it anyway, wondering if you have lost your academic marbles. So get that peer-reviewed work under review! Although it may not come out until well after you have borne the slings and arrows of harsh criticism (or worse, faint praise) for your comments on that questionable journalistic piece, peer-reviewed work is your best defense against any momentary flubs made in stage two of this contagious condition.

The third stage of ‘North Korea commentitis’ entails imagining deep down that one’s own professional reputation (or ability to be rapidly located on the Internet, hardly synonymous with success) is actually more important than the topic under discussion.

The beauty of disputing one’s own views with colleagues then, becomes a wonderful exercise in narcissism since you can’t separate yourself from the positions you’ve staked out and ultimately, this argument is about you, that sort-of famous person who may or may not be ignoring your student office hours in order to speak furtively on the phone to a journalist from a Spanish website you may or may not have heard of half an hour ago.

Or perhaps the third stage of ‘North Korean commentitis’ can be said to have been truly reached when one elects to write a self-citation heavy blog post about being quoted (or misquoted) again in major media outlets, instead of working on a real research project. (See: Adam Cathcart, ‘North Korean Commentitis,’ SinoMondiale: More of a Single Scholar’s Journal with a Capital J than a Weblog, says Melville House Press, 11 October 2014.)

If you start actually creating headlines when you talk to that Spanish website, and it goes viral, then jump to stage four and write your own essay about it; I have no idea what to do at that point, since I’ve never done it myself.

In trying to figure out the Kim Jong-un disappearance, I’ve been reliant not just on North Korean state media, but also on my colleagues in the field for insights and critiques. Many of us read each other just about every day on some level (whether news stories, blogs, Tweets, Facebook posts, and occasionally properly in paper), and the comments we make to media outlets stem often directly out of that discourse. When I can get my work critiqued in essentially real time by people with Ph.Ds and people going for Ph.Ds in the relevant disciplines and cranking out their own formidable body of work, there isn’t much other choice.

Nobody is entirely original, and even high-level defectors with an irreplaceable intuitive sense of Pyongyang politics and genius-level verbal skills need to read articles written by non-defectors (possibly in English) every once in a while. If you read Chinese, read as much of that stuff as possible, try to learn some working Korean as quickly as possible, and help others get access to the info you’re harvesting. Keep up. Don’t be lazy and entitled. In other words, we all need to learn from one another, and it’s OK to watch each other learn.

Yet, at times like the present, it’s natural to develop a.) some kind of idea that your work is helping to drive perceptions of something you care an awful lot about, or have invested a great deal of energy in, b.) the idea that your ideas are significant and c.) the idea that you might notice something that no one else has before, so you deserve the microphone (sometimes literally).

But you have to beware catching a case of ‘North Korean commentitis.’ I have had it myself, I may still have it. And long may the public and journalists be interested. But, for the love of God, can we please just get back to discussing actual data instead of ourselves?

No! We can’t. Well, maybe we can. It’s up to you. Anyway, in a subsequent post, I’ll lay out a few working principles for and problems with academics talking to journalists, and ways we academics might do a slightly better job. 

North Korea Misinformation Bingo

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North Korea / Op-Ed / 新闻自由
North Koreans off the shores of Dandong, PRC, on 6 October 2014. Photo via Xinhua/Huanqiu Shibao.

When it comes to North Korea, there are an awful lot of hypotheses floating about the information spectrum these days. Whether or not these all have been encouraged, tacitly or otherwise, by the South Korean state (undercutting Kimist legitimacy) or by the North Korean state (as a means of changing the subject from, say, human rights abuses), or are mainly driven by cutthroat competition in the online journalism sector, is anyone’s guess.

But two things are for certain: 1) There are a lot of rumors floating around and 2) Most of them are probably wrong, or, at the very least, are mutually exclusive with other rumors. Thus, as a somewhat insouciant way of setting the stage for tomorrow’s media coverage of North Korea (the DPRK) as Kim Jong-un reappears or fails to show up, it could be a good time to lay out the choices so that you, too, can play ‘North Korea Misinformation Bingo.’

If five of your hypotheses are proven false in physical sequence on the board, you win! Or, if being correct is important to you, you lose. Or something like that. Actually I don’t know how to play bingo.

Presenting the theories:

  • Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, is in control of the country
  • Kim Jong-un is a puppet; Hwang Pyong-so and his colleagues in the Organization and Guidance Department are in control of the country
  • Kim Jong-un is in control of the country
  • Kim Jong-un has gout
  • Kim Jong-un injured himself while exercising
  • Kim Jong-un is a cheese addict
  • Kim Jong-un is under house arrest
  • Kim Jong-un will attend midnight services at the mausoleum
  • Kim Jong-un is in Wonsan
  • Kim Jong-un is getting ready for a state visit to China
  • Kim Jong-un is getting ready for a state visit to Mongolia
  • Choe Ryong-hae was purged
  • Choe Ryong-hae remains powerful
  • The musicians of the Unhasu Orchestra were executed after making pornography
  • Jang Song-taek was executed by hungry dogs
  • Jang Song-taek was executed because he wrote a love letter to the Chinese Communist Party
  • Kim Jong-un loves Hitler
  • Chinese troops are moving into North Korea
  • North Korea is about to do a fourth nuclear test
  • North Korea is in the process of opening up its economy
  • North Korea is going to complete its report on Japanese abductions
  • North Korea has admitted it has gulags
  • North Korea is going to release at least one American hostage soon
  • Kim Jong-nam is interested in returning from a Macau casino to run the country
  • Kim Jong-il died in 2006
  • Kim Jong-il died in 2011
  • Kim Jong-il isn’t actually dead

How did you do? Perhaps we will need a few years to sort this out and arrive at a proper score.

Naturally any prediction or hypothesis comes with a certain amount of risk, risk which is assumed not by the North Korean people — who are already effectively the eternal butt of the postmodern joke, being engaged in ‘risky business’ by living in a country with high levels of childhood stunting — but for the individuals making the claims. Or perhaps there is no risk at all; perhaps one can in fact be wrong regularly about North Korea and continue to have a voice in perpetuity, irrespective of whether one is a defector or not.

There is obviously a certain danger in focusing attention on the community who does much of the analysis, such as it is, I mean of course the ‘North Korea watchers’ (i.e., the ones getting published or who mass media outlets decide deserve quoting). The obvious problem with looking at this group is that the main subject really ought to be North Korea itself, the country’s system, its people, its history, its foreign relations, etc. Until North Korean readers are allowed onto the Internet and into Western bibliographies en masse and can start staring and writing back, the community could probably stand to be somewhat more self-correcting. Social media has certainly enabled a certain level of instantaneous critique, but the fragmentation of the debate into microblog entries, Facebook snark, and unedited blog posts doesn’t always lead to progress.  Andrei Lankov seems to have figured this out. For the rest of us, one longs for a few new big articles or books that go properly head-to-head on some of the debates in question — presumably these are in the works, or ought to be. There is nothing like a blank space of 10 or 12,000 words with sixty or seventy footnotes with the promise of a battery of proper peer review to explain what you really mean.

In the meantime, there are all kinds of individual and complicated narratives in and about North Korea that deserve unpacking — and they don’t all fit neatly into little binaries, and they aren’t all entertaining or just something to be used for ‘click-bait.’ Someday a person is going to write a proper study of North Korea memes in our time; even as a great deal of extremely serious empirical work continues to be done, the number of times that scholars who make themselves available to media are called upon to essentially firefight against misinformation is, well, appalling. Or profitable. Depending on your point of view.

I suppose at the end of the day, we all have to learn to be forgiving when people we otherwise respect as serious scholars or analysts are incorrect in their assumptions or get overly touchy about being called out or challenged — challenged not so much for having a point of view, but for not explaining in detail why they believe it. And we also need to be ready to learn from one another when we are incorrect. As I recently told a couple of smart colleagues who thought I had mischaracterized the leadership of an important North Korean governing body, ‘Berate me, I’m yours.’ And while I wasn’t happy about being imprecise with my own writing, I think that I meant it when I thanked them both for their critiques.

Finally, while this post is very much a ‘break in voice’ for me as an academic, and as much as I think the internet is already overly chock-full of opinionated irony and less actual information than there ought to be, I’ve decided to put it out there anyway, as a response to the craziness, as a break from my own ‘revise and resubmit’ mania for a really long co-authored peer-reviewed journal article, and (to be fully transparent) to get a few more random clicks on my unfunded website via these somewhat cynical keywords, many of which are misinformation themselves: ‘China is in control of North Korea’ ‘North Korea’ ‘North Korea rumours’ ‘Kim Jong-un’s sister’ ‘Kim Jong-un’s sister is in control of North Korea’ ‘North Korea cheese addiction’ ‘Kim Jong-un is in Wonsan’ ‘Kim Jong-un disappearance’ ‘OGD’ ‘OGD in control of North Korea’ ‘Kim Jong-un coup’ ‘coup in North Korea’ ‘cult of personality’ ‘Kim Jong-il is still alive’ ‘Kim Jong-un golf cart’ ‘Kim Jong-un weight gain’ ‘Kim Jong-un BMI’ ‘North Korea Misinformation Bingo’ and, yes, ‘North Korea clickbait.’