North Korea Commentitis

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. 


  1. And not just about North Korea, either. I look forward to your next piece about the danger of anyone(not just academics) falling in love with the importance of their opinions in this era of social media celebrity

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