What does it take to be a North Korea expert?
This was on the smarter side of questions I was asked during my own media speed battle around Dec. 19th. It is no doubt a valid one, given the amazing discrepancies between questions and knowledge, and between actual expertise and the number of experts. Having worked on North Korea for over 20 years now, my answer is this: There is no single factor; rather, it is a combination of a few components that makes a good North Korea expert.
(1) Use common sense. After all, North Koreans are human beings and can thus be understood as such. It takes no rocket science to see that they need food, shelter and all the other elements of the basic levels of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.
(2) Make use of universal knowledge and meta-theories. Sometimes we become victims of our own propaganda and forget that despite its particularities, North Korea is a state in Northeast Asia. It has a government, a leadership, an economy, a people and a history. No specific expertise is needed to understand that survival is the regime’s key goal, and hardly any realist would have difficulties explaining North Korea’s foreign policy. But strangely, these simple facts are often either ignored or lauded as deep insights. It is not enough to know Korea; knowing your social science is imperative to avoid amateurism. American scholars, among others, have impressively demonstrated what can be learned about North Korea that way.
(3) Know the system. North Korea is not the only place in the world where state socialism has been practiced. As a minimum, one should be informed about the functioning and the effects of a one-party state, systematic repression, a state-owned economy, a non-convertible currency, central planning, or the absence of competition and markets. Actual experience of having lived (in my case often frustrated, but also surprisingly happily) under such conditions is even more helpful. It is no coincidence that Russian names appear so high in the ranks of the most knowledgeable North Korea scholars.
(4) Know Korea. Common sense, meta-theories and systemic knowledge will get us far, but not far enough. After all, North Korea is (North) Korea, with a history that has led to a unique set of institutions also known as culture, customs, values, and traditions. Uncritically applying our own cultural and moral standards as a yardstick will often lead to more or less significant misunderstandings. True, cultural determinism is an extreme that needs to be avoided; but so should ignorance. This is why South Korean scholars, and Chinese experts of Korean origin, are able to offer particularly deep insights.
(5) Know your sources. Yes, the amount of foreign language materials on North Korea is increasing, and one can communicate with North Koreans or defectors through an interpreter. But if you agree that a proper understanding and appreciation, not to speak of expert knowledge of Shakespeare’s pieces requires command of English, then you will agree that Korean is indispensable for studying the inner workings of the North Korean system. That’s why Koreanists often have a competitive advantage in particular in the understanding of subtle messages.
(6) Commit yourself. It takes time and a long-term effort to develop experience, the ability to see what is extraordinary, and to understand the background and the context of events. This is why students of any subject are required to read more than just one book, and why learning is said to be life-long. As dreadful as it often is, only a long-term reading of propaganda will let you see what is hidden between the lines (to discard this as Kremlinology reminds me of Aesop’s tale of the fox and the grapes). The same applies to travelling. First-time visitors to North Korea often feel like Columbus, discovering “new” things everywhere that have been seen and reported dozens of times before. Even if they can avoid that trap, they get just a static image, a snap-shot. Only going to the same places again and again will let you notice significant developments.
In addition to these six points, one could think of other factors such as the command of Russian, Chinese or Japanese to have access to valuable secondary sources. Being as free as possible of positive or negative emotions is also helpful to minimize biases.
It is admittedly very difficult to find all these criteria combined in one person. The list above looks more like an outline of the various approaches taken to North Korea. Maybe that is why none of us can seriously claim to possess superior knowledge or full understanding. But I would nevertheless argue that the above is the ideal that we should strive to get as close to as possible.