The State of North Korean Studies

Another guest post, this time on somewhat of a different subject. But I must say, it does give me food for thought as an aspiring student!


The State of North Korean Studies

I would like to present readers with an objective opinion on the state of scholarship relating to North Korea – it is very poor.

In the first instance, it is natural to wonder why the subject of ‘North Korean studies’ even exists. It is after all more precise to classify all such work as  ’Korean studies’ and to further sub-classify the area as ‘political science’. But rather than be satisfied with this, there has emerged a half-subject, a grotesque and misconfigured academic subject of ‘North Korean studies’.

The weakness of the classification lies in the level of interest paid to the subject by social scientists of repute. In ‘North Korean studies’, there is no theoretical debate amongst a number of leading scholars from recognized schools of thought, nor is there a tacitly understood agenda that guides research efforts, such as exist amongst scholars in other disciplines. ‘North Korean studies’ exists in an academic vacuum to which journalists, ex-government officials and creative writers are sucked in, with their tritest opinions being held as respected scholarship.

‘North Korean studies’ counts amongst it key publishing opportunities a number of short-lived, little known journals that, while occasionally having actual scholars, are most often the domain of second-rate post-graduate, first publication efforts, which will undoubtedly disappear from the writers resume as soon as they publish elsewhere. Changes in government, both in South Korea and here in the US, seem to fill the pages of these journals with the opinionated diatribes of the disaffected bureaucrat, adding little to academic debate and adding much less to the academic credibility of ‘North Korean studies’.

The vast majority of works published on North Korea would not obtain a pass grade as an undergraduate essay. Many totally lack in social sciences research methodology, perhaps reflecting the tendency of North Korean studies to attract journalists, ex-government officials and creative writers rather than academics.

If North Korean studies is to become a recognized discipline, worthy of analogous area studies disciplines such as Chinese studies, Korean studies or Japanese studies,  then a more rigorous research agenda is required. The discipline should move away from opinionated attempts to predict the future, such as ’peace regimes in Northeast Asia’ that so predominate the field, and instead focus on a more methodologically sound agenda. Examples could include historical research (recent pieces utilising released Soviet archival material have been one of the only shining lights in the field), linguistic research (from which much is yet to be learnt) and cultural studies (studies below the radar of current political regime such as music, cinema, folk culture and literature). Ultimately, such studies would provide a much better guide to contemporary policy makers than opinionated ideas on the Six Party Talks from which the research source is a series of Korea Times times articles supplemented by the author’s access to the State Department!

North Korean studies has much promise, but its focus really needs a change!

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