The North Flank Guard: Everyday Life in North Korea

This is the last of three postings in this series. Read the first posting here for an explanation of the idea of the “North flank guard” and the second posting on its reactions to the Yeonpyeong incident last month here.

In 1985 Roland Jahn, an East German dissident who had been expelled from the country by the Stasi, illegally reentered the GDR. Though he soon returned again to the West at the urging of his fellow dissidents, he managed to smuggle in a video camera. On October 9, 1989, during one of the rapidly growing Monday protest marches in Leipzig, this video camera made its way in the hands of Aram Radomski and Siegbert Schefke who filmed on a night when all foreign journalists had been expelled from the city. The day after the protest, during which some 70,000 or so protesters gathered peacefully and chanted, “We are the people,” the first uncensored footage of the Leipzig marches was shown in the West and therefore, since a majority of East Germans also watched West German news reports at the time, in the East. The reports helped spread the protests and contribute to an explosion in their size.1 The anniversary of that night, which we now know came very close to ending in a brutal police crackdown, is still remembered today as one of the key events of that momentous autumn of 1989.

Footage of such protests, and government reactions to them are no guarantee of success for mass movements. The huge amount of reporting only a few months before covering the June protests in Tian’anmen show this only two well. In authoritarian China, where students are able to relatively easily bypass the internet censorship of Jingjing and Chacha, clearly many of the relatively unpolitical youth of today have either not seen, or have at least not been moved to action by footage such as that of the famous Tank Man, as a PBS documentary suggests.2 However, even if states are effective, to various degrees, at controlling information flows, few would deny, that getting and spreading such footage taken inside authoritarian states that offer no protections for freedom of press, and collecting reports from those who are experiencing life within—however fragmentary or riddled with contradictions—is an absolutely essential component to promoting resistance to state oppression and mobilizing concern and support outside.

If this is true for reporting on large political movements, I believe it also holds true for the far more modest goal of reporting on the changing daily lives in a country like North Korea, where there is no known organized dissident movement. Where great economic hardship prevails, mass protests are completely out of the question, and even being caught watching South Korean television dramas can land you in a labor camp or worse, the collecting of video fragments and anecdotes of daily life still requires incredible courage and can contribute in a small but meaningful way to growth of a political, or at least journalistic subjectivity. Thus the Rimjin-gang (림진강/リムジンガン/臨津江) project, which in 2008 began to publish a journal, and online articles containing the fruits of journalistic efforts of a small number of North Koreans who still live in or move into and out of the country, is incredibly valuable. It helps give us a view of North Korea that goes beyond the tired depictions of goose-stepping soldiers or of Kim Jong-il looking at things . It allows a very small number of North Koreans, as paid journalists, the opportunity to learn the skills of gathering information, analysis, and to participate in the creation of their own narrative of life within the country, albeit within the constraints—as is the case with any journalistic publication—of the editorial direction of the project’s founder, Ishimaru Jirō.

It is thus with deep frustration that I read the December 6 Japan Focus article by Suzy Kim about the project: “Understanding North Korea: Rimjin-gang Citizen Journalists out to cure the “Sick Man of Asia”?” Below I discuss the more troubling aspects of the article.

Suzy Kim, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, and a member of the steering committee of the ASCK (the organization mentioned in the earlier postings in the series), is certainly someone who is qualified to comment on publications which deal with daily life in North Korea. Her 2005 dissertation from the University of Chicago, where she studied with Bruce Cumings, is on the “Politics of Empowerment: Everyday Life Within the North Korean Revolution (1945-1950).” The dissertation is one of a small but growing number of works that make use of the important collection of captured North Korean documents in RG242 at the US National Archives that I have written about in an earlier Frog in a Well posting.3

One of several approaches taken in Professor Kim’s wide ranging article on the Rimjin-gang is a criticism of the founder Ishimaru’s interpretation of the reports coming in from North Korea regarding the role and importance of small markets and claims of a breakdown in authority. I take no issue with this kind of critique. I think it is healthy for us to examine and evaluate the interpretations that Ishimaru and others make of the information being brought in from North Korea. I also heartily agree with Professor Kim when she urges us to carefully consider the circumstances under which the footage was obtained, interviews conducted, and guard against broad generalizations based on a small number of anecdotes. We should keep this in mind when considering all sources.

Informants or Journalists?

What I find most disturbing, and yet completely in keeping with the North flank guard approach, is not her critique of interpretations of sources or call for care in dealing with them, but with her dismissive attitude towards these North Koreans as sources of information and their work in a publication like Rimjin-gang. Given Professor Kim’s background as a human rights worker, and as someone who has herself attempted to find a people’s voice in Communist documents, I find this particularly disappointing.

First, she refuses to call these North Koreans, who risk their lives to collect video footage, conduct interviews and prepare reports on daily life journalists, but instead gives them the designation of ‘informant.’ This is truly unfair. If Ishimaru were simply interviewing these people as subjects, the term might be more acceptable, but they are clearly more than that. Even if, as is the case with many a more inexperienced reporter, these North Koreans have been given relatively detailed instructions on what kind of information to gather, what questions to ask, and so on, Professor Kim does these individuals a disservice by refusing to recognize the active role they play in selecting and collecting the information. Inevitably, since they are on their own in the country, they must make strategic choices about how, when, and where they get information, and what to get. Even if, as Professor Kim suggests, Ishimaru, as editor, interprets their reports to fit his broader understanding of what is going on in North Korea, I cannot see how this is unusual for a small publication whose editor is committed to a certain outlook of how North Korea should develop. Let us, by all means, criticize the interpretations, but appreciate the difficult circumstances under which these individuals, with minimal journalistic training, are working.

These reporters are also criticized for not following the “basic ethics” of journalism given the “security” environment of North Korea, and their work for blending various genres in the magazine including commentaries, editorial pieces, interviews, and secretly recorded conversations. How can this be called journalism, she asks? Surely she is embracing a far too narrow definition: pick up any newspaper or magazine put out by a small organization covering some range of issues or a locality, or which is published underground in an oppressive environment. One will find many features in common between such a publication and the work of Rimjin-gang. Is professor Kim arguing that journalism is only to be had in a fully democratic society with mature and well developed media corporations following well established standard practices?

Professor Kim is persuasive in showing that these individuals actually produced anecdotes and analyses which suggest multiple interpretations. Let us rejoice in this and appreciate the fact that a project like this is providing an opportunity for this to come out, and thus offer us a more rich understanding of life in North Korea. As Kim puts it in her dissertation, where she expresses frustration at the difficulty of finding an ‘authentic’ voice of the people in a large collection of mostly Communist government documents from North Korea, “there was nonetheless that precious gem, a glimpse of the popular voice, which I have tried to highlight here because they permeate quietly under the current of the official line…”4

Why should we not try to do the same, whether or not we are looking at North Korean journalists within the country, those who work in China, or who have moved to South Korea? Instead, Professor Kim’s article takes every opportunity to cast doubt on the motivations and highlight the insidious editorial or political pressures that are brought to bear upon these voices, thereby seeking to delegitimize the work completely. Even as Professor Kim is perfectly happy to make general claims about certain realities of everyday life by quoting a few limited anecdotes found in Communist Party (North Korean Worker’s Party) records or Communist Party women’s magazines (and I do something similar at times in my own research, I believe we can and should do this, if with care and qualification) her article leaves us with the unmistakable impression that the testimonies of defectors or reports of North Korean journalists are too clouded with bias and levels of mediation for us to attempt the same. We might call this extreme generosity towards one particular kind of source with complete dismissal of another kind of source (and certainly, this is a feature of flawed argumentation in general, across the political spectrum) the the one-way taint.

Frogs in a Well

Professor Kim also makes a bizarre attack on using these North Korean journalists as a source by pointing out that ‘natives’ are often wrong or limited in their perspective:

“…it is common knowledge that the “native” perspective does not have privileged access to the truth. Indeed the fallacy of a project like Rimjin-gang lies in believing that it has a better grasp of what is going on inside North Korea because the information is coming from within. The magazine opens with the statement, “No one can report on a nation better than its own people.” (3) This is not as self-evidently true as one might presume. Some of the most common East Asian proverbs instruct how a frog in a well knows little about how to place itself in a larger context, and it is undeniably the darkest just under the lamp where its own shadow is cast. Indeed, the magazine itself acknowledges potential for inaccuracy among North Koreans – a comment about Kim Jong-il’s family during an interview is corrected by a footnote with the statement that “much of the rest of the hearsay conveyed in this comment is incorrect.” (313)

It is true, the ‘native’ perspective does not have privileged access to the truth and I think we can safely agree with Professor Kim’s observation that, as a matter of general principle, the authors of Rimjin-gang are wrong to assume a people are necessarily best at reporting on their own nation. Are we surprised to find that these reports, which include hearsay, rumors, and personal opinions of the North Koreans interviewed contain factual error? I’m certainly not, but just as wild rumors reported to the Communist Party and recorded in their documents have been useful to me in understanding what fears existed in society at the time, we can learn almost as much from the language and content of questionable accounts as we can those which we have reason to believe accurate. In fact, I would ask Professor Kim in return, who is best situated to report on what is going on in North Korea? We have been told already that it is not defectors/migrants or editors like Ishimaru. Is it the Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK? Is it foreign tourists or NGO workers who are extremely limited in their access to the country? Surely their well is smaller than that of most frogs. Or is it academics like us, perhaps, or the scholars of the ASCK?

Wouldn’t our understanding of North Korea, and thus the view from our various respective wells (I needn’t remind the reader of the founding goals of this website), be broadened by applauding, indeed multiplying efforts such as Rimjin-gang, and getting hundreds, no, thousands more of these journalistic, literary, and documentary works from within North Korea, leading hopefully, to ever greater independence, diversity and depth in the writings, interviews, and personal accounts that emerge?

Suzy Kim does not think so. For Professor Kim, “true journalism” requires nothing less than a peace treaty and the normalization of relations with North Korea. Imperfect projects like Rimjin-gang, she argues, will do more harm than good:

[Normalization of relations] is the first step so that North Koreans can “form a space with the freedom to study and debate.” In the words of Kae Myung-bin, “If we can gather together all the opinions of our people, all of their knowledge and power, I believe our society can arrive on our desired path and start a historical movement. The main players in this country are we, the people.” (83) It is time to give this vision a chance. Rimjin-gang can be a useful venue by which such visions of debate of different opinions and perspectives can have free reign. However, without the proper historical context to make sense of North Korea’s current condition and a concerted effort to present a diversity of views, it can only stifle such a vision, perpetuating the tragic state of war.

I share with Professor Kim a desire that negotiations will some day soon bring a peace treaty and the normalization of relations but I see no reason to believe why this will rapidly produce a “space with the freedom to study and debate.” While I too am touched by the quote from Kae Myung-bin which emphasizes the power of the people, unlike Professor Kim, however, I think we should encourage projects like Rimjin-gang, even when they lack “the proper historical context” or “a concerted effort” to present a diversity of views (note her addition of the word “concerted” since she has herself argued already that there are in fact a diversity of views in Rimjin-gang accounts). We ask too much of such a young and fragile publication. Let there be a hundred Rimjin-gang projects, each with their own approach, but let us first appreciate the innovative efforts of the one we have.

UPDATE: Professor Kim posted an extended reply to my critique in the comments of the original article and I encourage interested visitors to read and evaluate her response to my points. I will only add here a reassurance to readers that, as a student of the aftermath of Japanese empire, I hope my previous postings here at Frog in a Well, and the dissertation I am currently writing on the politics of retribution against collaborators in Korea and China (1937-1951), will produce sufficient evidence that I am not one to “dismiss Korea’s history of colonialism, division, civil war, and its place in cold war geopolitics.”

  1. Mary Elise Sarotte 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe Princeton University Press (2009), 20-21.  

  2. Part six of the documentary shows the film maker presenting an image of the Tank Man to a few Beijing University students. I have my doubts about this scene, in which the narrator claims that students don’t know anything about the Tank Man. He may be right, generally speaking, but in this specific case at least one of the students whispered “89” but then reported not being able to recognize the image. It is possible the students knew or suspected the reference but refused to acknowledge it on camera.  

  3. She also uses the transcribed and published version of these documents put out by the 國史編纂委員會, a large multi-volume series: 北韓關係史料集, though the cover of these volumes has a mistaken hanja character, rendering the title 北韓關係史科集 so you may want to search for that as well. Access to the published collection was under various pointless “security” restrictions to access at the Korean National Library as of 2008 when I last checked the collection there. However, I was able to get the Harvard-Yenching library to order a copy of this collection so it can be seen without restriction by visitors in Boston. One annoying problem with the published version is that it does not give the original archival references for each document, making it harder to cross reference with the originals – a problem Professor Kim also notes in her dissertation.  

  4. Suzy Kim “Politics of Empowerment: Everyday Life Within the North Korean Revolution (1945-1950)” Unpublished dissertation, University of Chicago (2005), 9.  


  1. Kim’s article has other problems: a thoroughly tendentious approach which is rather inappropriate given the paucity of sources and multiple possible readings. It’s an interestingly selective epistemology, more like gotcha journalism than carefully considered scholarly engagement

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this mini-series, and am extremely disappointed to see a scholar such as Kim discount the project jumpstarted by Ishimaru and be extremely selective with her sources. Everyone around the world wants to know what is going on in North Korea, and these people who risk their lives to provide us with whatever information they can should be applauded, not cut down because they lack the proper “credentials”. Kim’s standards for what defines journalism are unrealistic. News, just like historical scholarship, is about making the most of your sources and using them to portray how things are (or were). From what the Rimjin-gang has shown us, life in NK is pretty grim.

  3. I fully share the frustration with you. Prof. Kim keeps calling Ishimaru naive in making his interpretations, but asking for perfectly tuned journalism is her own academic naivitee. Her article reads like a seminar essay which fully shows academic sensitivity, and thus caught by frivolous points. It is also funny to see how it is allowed to teleologically use anecdotes like the shoving woman as a sign of an internally collapsing regime in the colonial history but not in the contemporary one!!!

  4. You write that you “encourage interested visitors to read and evaluate [Professor Kim’s] response to my points.” But other than stating your commitment to the study of 20th-century Korean history, what do you have to say in response to her comments? Does her reply merely affirm your opinion of the “North Korean Flank Guard”? Or does she successfully refute your critique of her article?

  5. Thank you Samantha. The reply, which was in ways more carefully crafted than the original article, was lengthy and opened up a number of new directions. To do it real justice I would have to compose a similarly thorough response, which I don’t have the time to do at this time. I do see it as a retreat from the more dismissive position of the original article. I find the last half of the response interesting, and I have no quarrel with its argument for the importance of appreciating structural constraints in historical and contemporary political analysis. It appears to set me up as a straw man figure who is portrayed as holding the opposite to be true but I think that is probably an innocent extrapolation from phrases she selected from postings here. The important question in structural arguments in history, and I suspect Professor Kim would agree, is the degree to which the constraints they purport are determinative, and what strength they have relative to other factors. That is an empirical question which deserves careful evaluation in each case.

    My critique in the case of “original imperial sin” (which, admittedly, I have not written a post focusing on and thus might easily be misunderstood) is sometimes the product of a kind of scholarly laziness which falls back on one tired explanation, without considering other potentially more persuasive explanations for some historical or contemporary phenomenon. The point is not to say that the legacy of colonialism is unimportant, or without significant impact. There is truly superb work that has been done in this area, including Professor Kim’s advisor Bruce Cumings, who anyone studying early postwar Korea is deeply indebted to. My point is to say that the “legacies of empire” argument has become a fall-back mantra, seen as sufficient to explain anything undesirable about postwar Korean society when other factors might be equally, if not more, important. This comes into focus most clearly when the Korean experience is put into comparative perspective, something that I feel has not been done enough. I hope to make this argument in more concrete terms in work I am currently doing and apologize for not expanding more on this here.

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