Understanding the real face of North Korea ‘a complex process’: expert

The global narrative of North Korea is mired in myth and fiction, but the journey towards more nuanced understanding of the state is a complex one, says expert Shine Choi in an interview with the Asia Media Centre.

In your book, you state that ‘North Korea is a work of fiction’. Why is that?

Linguistically, the use of “North Korea” as a label to refer to the DPRK is rejected by the state. There are two ways of referring to North Korea in Korean: Bukhan and buk-chosun. Bukhan is a very South Korean way of referring to North Korea. North Koreans use the name buk-chosun. So linguistically, there’s a disagreement as to what the correct name for North Korea is. 

In the larger political sense – as I highlight in my book, Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics – theres a lot of labour which goes into the construction and mediation of DPRK. And the idea that you can simply go to the country and see what the reality is there, or that you can ask a North Korean official or an ordinary person what’s the North Korean reality, is false and far too simplistic.

What’s the best way of understanding the ‘true’ DPRK?

To understand North Korea, we first need to understand the history of the Korean peninsula. We have to understand North Korea is a state that was created as a response to Japanese colonialism and fear of American imperialism, to prevent colonialism and imperialism from happening again on the Korean peninsula.

To understand why North Korea is so militaristic; why it requires nuclear technology; why it doesn’t want to be part of the global market; why it disagrees with the way in which human rights institutions and United Nations institutions work, we have to go back in history.

But here’s the issue: Much of the historical material produced about North Korea comes out of the United States context. Many things we know about North Korea, even from the historian or academic perspective, come out of the US system. There’s always going to be a US slant to everything. All these factors make understanding North Korea a really complex and political process.

You’ve written before that sanctions ‘don’t work’. Can you elaborate on that?

The United Nations is the most democratic space in the international system, where all states have one vote each. But in the UN Security Council, there are permanent members that can veto motions. So DPRK’s position is if sanctions are to be discussed, it should be done in the General Assembly, because it’s a more democratic dimension of the UN. If the discussion is taking place in the Security Council, then we need to ensure it’s not merely a place where the great power interests are represented – which it actually is

If the legitimacy is being questioned and if we aren’t able to discuss the valid points North Korea is making about the Security Councils undemocratic nature, then any kind of sanction or punishment is always going to be seen as a form of war.

New Zealand has always supported sanctions as a key part of policy towards DPRK. So what does it mean if sanctions aren’t the best approach?

While New Zealand should of course respect and comply with UNSC resolutions, I think it’s important to also do something else. There’s still room for interpretation as to what kind of activities and engagement with North Korea would be okay under the sanctions.

[Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs] Winston Peters recently talked about how not everything in North Korea is lost. It was a throwaway statement, but I think it's worth thinking about more strategically as to what that means. Because people still travel to North Korea; there are still ways in which you can have cultural exchanges, whether it’s through arts and culture, or language and educational exchanges, and so on.

You recently wrote that conflict sells…

The Korean conflict really sells. It sells really, really well. It’s what media want because they know people will click. Just use a more appealing headline that sounds slightly different, to make it seem like there’s some sort of real development – and it’s going to sell. 

Media do not seem to be taking that extra step as concerned global citizens to go beyond merely the thing that tantalises, to get people to reflect a bit more about the broader and historical issues. 

Here’s a fact: It is not fun to learn about North Korea. There is an assumption that since theres so much interest on North Korea, if we just produced more scholarship or media on North Korea, people will be in a better place.

In reality, if we really want to understand North Korea, a lot of the work we have to do is really boring. Which is what I do. I go through archives of North Korean documents, ploughing through pages and pages of North Korean pronouncements, Kim Il-Sung’s writing, obscure writing on imperialism and independence, et cetera – and a lot of it is really boring. But by putting in the effort to understand the basic ideas and contexts that shape North Korean politics, we get to the interesting ideas to help us to see and listen differently.

What are the top three myths about North Korea?

  • That all North Koreans live in fear. Day in and day out. Fear is more complicated than that kind of statement would lead us to believe.
  • The idea that if only North Koreans could see what’s going on in the world, they would surely see things from our perspective – that the North Korean state is evil. I think in many ways, North Korean defector stories have affirmed that view. But, as I write in my book, the way in which North Korean defectors are allowed to tell their stories and experiences is constrained by a very narrow understanding of human rights. So it’s a bit more complicated than that.
  • The idea that every North Korean material is somehow propaganda, or doesn’t have artistic, academic or entertainment value. I’ve seen a lot of North Korean cartoons, stories and art – some great, some awful.

Do you have any media recommendations for a journalist seeking to know more about North Korea?

There are lots of great scholarship on North Korea in the Journal of Critical Asian Studies. Lots of new publications are coming out from university presses.

The complicated thing about popular publications about North Korea – memoirs, history books and so on targeting the popular consumer – is they’re so entrenched in the way in which North Korea sells in the media. It has to be dramatic, has to have a narrow understanding of human rights, or be strange, or be about the Kims. So that’s what I struggle with, because many mainstream books and documentaries about North Korea suffer from that.

A film I’d recommend, which was co-produced by a Belgian company, is called Comrade Kim Goes Flying. It’s a romantic-comedy filmed in North Korea by North Koreans using North Korean actors. It was an international collaboration. I’d recommend that if we wanted a more nuanced picture of North Korea.

Interview by Francine Chen, Digital Content Editor. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

– Asia Media Centre