New European Writing on North Korea

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.

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