In attempting to follow recent events in Northeast Asia in so-called “real time,” I have been struck by how completely incomprehensible the process truly is, and how partial. Historians are also awash in data, but at least we have the luxury of seeing the event in its larger context and in relation, most importantly of all, to its outcomes.
(Perhaps this is why it has always struck me as just a bit ridiculous to write down specific outcomes for courses prior to the beginning of classes, because one must come into contact with actual students, whose individual interests — if the professor is any good at all — should and do shape the experience to a degree. To state that “the student will have a solid grasp of the main currents of contemporary Chinese history” in a course entitled “Contemporary Chinese history” strikes me as being somewhat intellectually demeaning. But, although this too has to do with preplanning and attempting to both enjoy and understand the chaos of the present moment, I suppose I digress.)
In front of a large group of fawning journalists, all slavering for even the smallest memo, a wise man once said that: “There are known knowns, and there are unknown knowns.”
It seems to me that in the case of North Korea more generally and Sino-North Korean relations more specifically, that we as a learning, historical, and analytical community need to do a more scruplous job at the very least of deliniating which areas of inquiry we know nothing about.
It is time when regarding Kim Jong Un, in other words, to leave that Japanese chef behind and embrace testimonials from middle-school graduates in Bern, Switzerland.
Is the present situation really adequate? Is this the best we can do?
Fortunately the directed and nevertheless protean Chinese press comes to the rescue with regard to the new North Korean successor, whose voice, like that of Hirohito prior to 1945, has never been heard by the worshipful public.
(And isn’t it time also to revisit the work of B.R. Myers with regard to the Kim-Hirohito connection, an analytical stretch which actually manages to make it across to the other side of the abyss of understanding?)
For the Chinese newspaper conoisseur (which I aspire to be, and am by no means yet), to be back in Shanghai after a couple of weeks in the provinces is like taking a bath after a month on the frozen front lines in Korea, a parallel which I can speak about authoritatively, having read James Brady’s pre-publication manuscript (it is typewritten) of his Korea memoir The Coldest War, later ripped off by David Halberstram, who died before a single critical review of his epic book by the same name came out.
In any event, to the primary evidence, such as it is…