The Academic Starvation of North Korean Scholars

October 15, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

The recent absence of Kim Jong Un from the North Korean political landscape shows just how starved for substance academics are on this subject.

Following a 40 day hiatus, Kim Jong Un, though supported by a cane, strolled back into public life earlier this week in a carefully orchestrated media event. For a regime and that has built its outward political image upon the personality cult of the Kim dynasty, the absence of the young leader from the public stage since September 3rd was certainly unusual. Despite Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather before him having had their own occasion moments of sustained public truancy, as the first such notable period for the new leader, it was unquestionably a news-worthy event.

And predictably, due to the genuine, though superficial, intrigue that surrounds the ‘hermit kingdom’, a sizeable proportion of this media-coverage adopted the unprincipled and speculative nature of tabloid journalism. However, what was similarly predicable, though it should not have been, was that the academic community would join in.

Scholarship concerning North Korea is by no means vacuous. The research and analysis of academics such as Andrei Lankov, Brian Myers, Victor Cha, Don Oberdorfer and Bruce Cumings, combined with the journalistic accounts from writers such as Barbara Demick, have painstakingly opened up this closeted nation – effectively producing a body of knowledge from snippets of disjunctive information.

However, in recent years, as public intrigue has grown, the field of North Korean studies has become crowded with professional scholars whose continued employment and academic significance is built upon analysing new information within an environment that is conspicuously devoid of just such new information. Accordingly, an event as non-suggestive and unadorned, as the temporary absence of Kim Jong Un, has attracted widespread academic engagement of the most un-academic nature.

Here are the facts prior to his re-emergence: Kim Jong Un had been seen to be gaining weight and walking with a limp, and then subsequent to the recognition of his absence, an official government release has described Kim as experiencing “discomfort”, followed by an unexpected visit from Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So (presumed to be second in command) to Incheon in South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games.

To explain this situation, news organisations blankly hypothesized health-related explanations including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes-related illness, gout, a broken ankle, hyperuricemia, and hyperlipidemia; and with political explanations including, assassination, regime collapse, coup, imprisonment, exile, and abdication in favour of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Much of this was fanned by an academic community desperate to remain relevant, yet seemingly with either nothing to say, or a willingness to engage in a speculative level of analysis that would simply not be tolerated in any other area of academia.

Curtis Melvin, from the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS, buoyantly asserted nothing in particular with the statement “we can say confidently that Kim Jong Un has experienced an adverse episode of some sorts”. Lee Sung-Yoon, from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, followed suit by explaining Kim’s absence as “in totalitarian North Korea, Kim is the state. He is free to come and go as he pleases”. While Katharine H.S. Moon, Chair of Korea Studies and Senior Fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, analysed Hwang Pyong So’s visit to South Korea as “the clearest answer is that there is no clear answer”. And, perhaps South Korean Defence Minister Han Min-Koo did not recognise the irony of trying to supply some clarity to the situation with the ambiguous statement that Kim Jong Un was “at a certain place north of Pyongyang”.

Remco Breuker, professor of Korean studies at Leiden University, began by following this trend, noncommittally declaring “We’re not sure where he is, or what’s happening”. But then saw it appropriate to ruminate “we don’t know whether he’s in the hospital or whether he’s been put under house arrest”. Then, seemingly growing in confidence, Breuker unequivocally stated “Kim Jong-Un’s never been in charge, it’s the people behind him. The old friends of his father. Those are the people in charge”.

In this vein, South Korea Unification Ministry spokesman, Lim Byeong Cheol assured us (without detail) that Kim’s position within North Korea was unchanged. Whereas former British ambassador to North Korea, John Everard, claimed recent events were so unusual that it is “more likely that his absence is due to politics, not health.” Everard based his theory upon his own analysis of the body language of the Incheon delegation: “they smiled and chatted, which North Korean emissaries are not supposed to do” and they did not “not gush the kind of praise of Kim Jong-un that would normally be expected”. And Jasper Kim, CEO of the Asia Pacific Global Research Group, was comfortable dismissing Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So’s visit to Incheon as a conspiracy to elicit “confusion and chaos, both domestically and internationally”.

However, special mention must be reserved for former poet laureate and member of the political elite in Pyongyang, Jang Jin-Sung. Jang fled North Korea in 2003. Ten years later, Jang was confident in declaring in a co-authored report that, based on the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Sung-Taek, “we have just witnessed a coup in North Korea”. He then saw the latest disappearance of Kim Jong Un as validating this claim, and as an indication of an ongoing pseudo-civil war within North Korea. Johnathan Fenby, in reviewing Jang’s 2014 book “Dear Leader” summed up the credibility of Jang’s current understanding of North Korea and claim to information that is seemingly imperceptible to others: “this book is, in a sense, 10 years out of date” and “there is no way of checking on the narrative”.

Due to the nature of the subject matter, North Korean academia is plagued by an ongoing deficit of substantive and indicative detail. However, operating within an academic environment starved of information does not justify a regression into speculation in order to fill the knowledge gaps. Nor does it justify the public comments of academics who are devoid of specific insight on current events, yet nonetheless believe that through vacant and superficial statements, they can catch onto the coat tails of tabloid speculation and increase their own public profile. North Korean scholars need to embrace the fact that not all new events within North Korea require their voice – that their silence does not tacitly de-validate their existence.