The Guardian’s North Korea Network, and a Note on Journalism, Fieldwork, and Academia

The Guardian has created a new North Korea Network, of which the web journal which I edit, Sino-NK, is very much a part. Graciously, the editors in London also saw fit to endorse my Twitter feed (@adamcathcart)  as a must-follow for micro-analysis of the DPRK and its foreign relations.

There are, naturally, hard limits to the Guardian‘s partnership with our website. While I was in Yanji at the same time as The Guardian‘s highly talented Tania Branigan, the existence of the new network surely does not mean that we teamed up as investigators in the field while she was on assignment, or that I have somehow become a journalist —  rather than the “journalling academic” engaged in regular fieldwork that I truly am.

Quite the opposite.

When in Yanji in particular, but also in places like Tibet (and to a lesser extent, Sichuan), rather unlike a journalist, I endeavour to avoid things that might stretch the limits of legality in the Chinese context– such as meeting with North Korean refugees or getting involved with Tibetan dissidents. Engagement and advocacy are distinct, and while one can act as an advocate while in the UK — and I have tried, surely, to do that on the North Korean refugee issue — there would be very little point to my meeting in clandestine with North Koreans in China illegally.

None of this means that I am unable to comment on contemporary events in my capacity as an academic while travelling in China, one of the Koreas, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Japan, etc., much less writing a ton once I return home to the United Kingdom.  Fortunately the topics about which I pontificate are not nearly as “dangerous” as, say, Xinjiang, but one does have to be mindful of context and the long-term.

My research is primarily historical, which means that I am looking for access to document collections (the larger and rarer, the better). Fieldwork serves an important function in my research, in that it puts me closer to rare documents and archives, and also gives me a far more tangible sense of what and where I am writing about. Having spent a few years in total in northeast China and Sichuan, I like to think, gives my work more immediacy and less abstraction.

Being listed as a resource for journalists is absolutely fine with me, and I very much hope that my work remains “policy relevant,” as this recent Executive Summary of my trip to the northeastern Chinese border regions with North Korea should indicate. Likewise, the Guardian partnership and endorsements are all to the good, and as long as I’m able to maintain my academic access and integrity, I’m happy to see those associations and writings pushed forward into the blazing light of day.


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