North Korea in the Encyclopedia of World History

I recently ordered a very reasonably priced used copy of The Encyclopedia of World History, now edited by Peter N. Stearns but based on many earlier editions by William L. Langer. I vaguely remember hearing mention of a book referred to only as “Langer” and my roommate, who introduced me to the work, explained that some professors use the book for reference. They recommended it to him as a handy source to check dates etc. and even, apparently, hinted that this mysterious “Langer” book might be handy to use when preparing for PhD oral exams.

With PhD oral exams only precious weeks away for both my roommate and I, the desperate race is on to synthesize all our notes, remember the various arguments made by the many authors we have read, and read, skim or read reviews of any straggler works on each of our four book lists that we were supposed to have read ages ago but haven’t even looked at yet. While my examining advisors seem to be most interested in “big picture” questions, broad narratives, and problem-based discussions rather than wanting to use the rite of passage known as “orals” to check our memory of dates and details, we still have to know the facts. It wouldn’t do for me to place the Kwangju massacre in April 1960, for example. The facts are, as one of my old professors described it with an unusual laundry metaphor, “the clothes pins upon which we hang the sheets of history.” Enter tools such as the personally compiled timeline, people lists, and books like this encyclopedia which, except for a few topical essays, resembles a massive thousand page timeline.

Unfortunately, when I look through books like this, I just can’t resist the urge to go “meta” and look at them from a critical perspective. It is especially tempting for chronologies, dictionaries and encyclopedias since they have the tendency to magnify all the historiographical issues by virtue of their more acute need to condense, abridge and generalize. I have a lot of sympathy for those who work on compiling such volumes as I am sure it is no easy task. However, if I had the time, and I’m already on borrowed time writing this entry, I would love to discuss some of the broader issues of a work like this such as its distribution of world events, the almost complete domination of political and military history, the consequences of using a national history category approach (though to its credit, the encyclopedia does a lot of cross-referencing when multiple categories have bearing upon events), and the tendency to portray history as a series of distinct events rather than showing trends and continuities across time or describing structural elements.

This evening I read through the approximately 5 pages dedicated to the topic of “Korea (North and South), 1945-2000” among a total of over one thousand pages of world history in this encyclopedia (p1028-1033). That is actually not that bad in terms of space provided, all things considered. Korea has certainly done better than postwar Mongolia (1/3 page, 8 event entries). Also, it did better than postwar Japan (about 3 pages). This is easier to understand when we note that the period of the Korean War from 1950-1953 takes up a full page worth of entries (with lots of cross-referencing to US entries, and one link to China when it intervenes). Korea also does well when compared to postwar coverage of Europe. All of peaceful postwar Scandinavia gets about 4.5 pages, Poland just over 4, Greece about 2, and only large powers like Russia (12 pages + a full page map) get significantly more space for the postwar.

What I wanted to leave the reader with today, however, is that there is an almost complete absence of North Korea in those five pages of entries. It serves as a reminder of just how little scholarship about, knowledge of, and perhaps interest in North Korea there was when this edition of the encyclopedia came out in 2001.

After entries for 1954 (mention of prisoner releases) North Korea completely drops out of the picture. There is no mention of the postwar purges of opposition factions in the North, nothing about the “August Challenge” in 1956 (Andrei Lankov’s books discussing this come out in 2002 and 2004, but Dae-Sook Suh’s work was available in the mid-1990s).

In fact, I had forgotten the category included North Korea until we get to the mid-60s:

1966, Oct. North Korea, which at first had sided with Communist China in its dispute with the Soviet Union, tended to return to its old allegiance following the deposition of Nikita Khrushchev and the onset of the Cultural Revolution in China.

In 1967 there are these entries somewhat related to North Korea:

North Korean gunboats seized the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo and its crew of 82 outside the 12-mile limit in the Sea of Japan. Despite U.S. naval and air demonstrations and a momentary danger of war, the ship and crew were held by the North Koreans until Dec. 22, when they were released.

Also in January, a North Korean paramilitary unit assaulted Pak’s presidential home; a similar assassination attempt in Aug. 1974 killed Pak’s wife.

April 15. The North Koreans shot down a U.S. intelligence plane 90 miles off the Korean coast.The government made no secret of its hatred of “U.S. imperialism” nor of its determination to effect the reunification of Korea under Communist auspices in the near future, despite the continued presence in South Korea of some 60,000 U.S. troops.

However, there is nothing about what is going on within North Korea during this time and in fact, there is no mention of North Korea or North Koreans actually participating as an agent in history again at all until we get to September of 1990. It is only when the black box, or the menacing black blob lashes out that we find mention of it. Curiously, for the 1983 entry I expected to find some mention of the North Korean attack on South Korean officials in Burma, but instead we find merely a listing of the population for each country in that year (19.2 million in the north and 59.1 million in the south – isn’t it only around 49 million in the south now? Did ten million Koreans move to LA and Qingdao?)

The 1990s then mention North Korea in almost every entry, usually as a party in negotiations, but also, more frequently, as a source of nuclear threat. The only entries during this decade which actually mention anything about what is going on inside of North Korea are the death of Kim Il-sông and the take over by Kim Jong-Il (who gets his first mention in an entry for December 1990).

Thus, from 1953 until 1990, there are only three event entries which even bring up actions by the North Korean government and other than a population statistic, absolutely nothing at all on its internal development. Again, I think we can partly attribute this to the fact that there just isn’t that much out there, especially in English language scholarship, on what was happening inside the DPRK.

So what is discussed? The vast majority of the events for this period are South Korean political struggles and the author of these entries barely disguises a disgust for the oppression and corruption of the government. A whole essay could be written on the way that the strategic inclusion of events, details, or turns of phrase reveal this. I do wish, however, that this kind of work could try just a little harder to go beyond the realm of politics and student protests. In fact, the only partially non-political event mentioned is the November 1970 self-immolation of Chôn T’ae-il, protesting labor exploitation. However, even this was a form of political protest. The entry concludes with the only line directly discussing labor, “Later in the decade, labor union memberships mushroomed.”

Note: I just noticed that the whole Encyclopedia of World History is online. You can find all the entries at the website but can only view few at a time before moving to the next page. I think it might be supported by advertising revenue but I strongly recommend getting a hard copy (which comes, for PC users, with a full version on CD-ROM), since used copies are out there fairly cheap (earlier editions even cheaper).


  1. I was a little harsh in the criticism when I said this: “its distribution of world events, the almost complete domination of political and military history, the consequences of using a national history category approach (though to its credit, the encyclopedia does a lot of cross-referencing when multiple categories have bearing upon events), and the tendency to portray history as a series of distinct events rather than showing trends and continuities across time or describing structural elements.”

    I am just now getting around to reading some of the topical essays, and they mitigate somewhat the deficiencies I claim the work has…

  2. I’m currently reading a good article in Korean on the economic history of North Korea since the 1950s which cites a lot of recent research on the DPRK that has been published just in the last 4-5 years. It seems as though North Korean studies have only really taken off in South Korea very recently, so perhaps it’s going to be while before they filter through to the English language literature. (Of course we have excellent stuff by Lankov and Charles Armstrong, but they seem to have focused on the early period so far.)

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