What’s going on in the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (DPRK)? It is really difficult to produce an answer to this question because what we see and hear about the DPRK through the medium of publications and other information provided by the DPRK government and party authorities cannot be taken at their face value as they are mostly for propaganda purpose and do not reflect the actual situation in the DPRK.
In this respect, it may be a good idea to try to verify such information by comparing it with comments from defectors from North Korea or perhaps from Korean residents in the Northeastern Region of China, especially those living near the North Korean provinces of Hamkyong and Pyongan that share borders with China. The Korean residents in China are known to keep communicating with North Koreans who ply between the two countries across the Amnok (Yalu) River for commercial and other purposes.
At this juncture, it might be interest to learn what transpired from an international conference on North Korea in Seoul, which was jointly hosted by the Institute of Far Eastern Studies (IFES) of Kyungnam University (President: Dr. Park Jae-Kyu) and Friedrich Naumann Stiftung Foundation (Fur Die Freiheit) of Germany at the Jungsan Hall of IFES/UNKS on June 11, 2014 on the theme of “North Korea’s Development Capacity and International Cooperation for Knowledge-sharing in Gender, Agriculture and Tourism Perspectives.”
The Conference began with the opening remarks by Resident Representative Lars-Andre Richter of FNF, welcoming remarks by Director Yoon Dae-Kyu of IFES and a keynote speech by Assistant Minister Youn Mirayng of Unification for Unification Education.
The Conference consisted of three different sessions.
Session 1 on the topic of “Knowledge-sharing and North Korea from a Gender Perspective” featured President Choe Keun-Sook of Korea Women’s Development Institute as moderator, two presenters and two discussants.
The first presenter, Professor Kim Hae-Soon of Chung-Ang University in Seoul, spoke on the topic of “State and Gender Relations in North Korea with a Focus on Women’s Activities in the Jangmadang Market.”
The second presenter, Entrepreneurship Programs Coordinator Nils Weisensee of Choson Exchange, covered the topic of “North Korea’s Female Factor: A Case of Knowledge-sharing for Women in Business.”
The two discussants were Professor Kim Gwi-Ok of Hansung University and Professor Cho Young-Ju of Dongguk University.
Session 2 on the topic of “Partnerships in Agriculture: Building North Korean Capacity” featured as moderator Senior Research Fellow Kwon Taejin of Korea Rural Economic Institute, two presenters and two discussants.
One of the presenters was DPRK Country Representative Linda Leuis of the American Friends Service Committee spoke on the topic of “DPRK Agricultural Training: The AFSC Experience.”
The other presenter, Senior Program Manager Lee Jusung of World Vision covered the topic of “DPRK Agricultural Training: The World Vision Experience.”
The two discussants were Professor Lim Sang-cheol of Sangji University and Professor Yang Moon-Soo of the University of North Korean Studies.
The third and final session was on the topic of “developing Capacity in Tourism and International Assistance I Knowledge-sharing,” which featured one moderator (Professor Shim Sang-Jin of Kyonggi University), two presenters and two discussants.
The first presenter, Professor Lim Eul-chul of Kyungnam University, spoke on the topic of “North Korea’s SEZs and Tourism: Evaluation and Prospects.
The second presentation was done by Managing Director Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours and DPRK Manager Troy Collings of the same Tours, who spoke on the topic of “DPRK Tourism in the Kim Jong-Un Era: Cases and Prospects.
The two discussants were Senior Research Fellow Lee Bong-Hee of Gangwon Development Research Institute and Associate Research Fellow Shin Yongseok of Korea Culture Tourism.
Keynote speech by Vice Minister Youn:
It is a great honor for me to deliver the keynote speech at this prestigious international conference on “North Korea’s Development Capacity and International Cooperation for Knowledge Sharing,” although this was a rather sudden and unexpected request. My career in North Korean research is approaching almost thirty-years, during which I took part in various conferences and seminars either as a presenter or discussant. I remember feeling nervous on those occasions for various reasons; but now as a keynote speaker, I have a different kind of nervousness as this provides me with a moment to reflect on myself whether I have spent those years wisely.
From the moment I learned the Korean language, I grew up regarding North Korea as a “the puppet North,” “commies,” or “reds.” Around the time I entered university in the late 1970s, I began to learn about socialist ideologies either in hiding or indirectly through novels, literatures or writings written by my upperclassmen. For the first time, I began to think of the North as another part of Korea as a whole, and as our fellow countrymen and women. However, it was not until the end of the 1980s that I began to observe North Korea without attaching labels or epithets. What I mean by “without labels” is an effort to remove the so-called “red” and “commie” colors of preexisting stereotypes attached to the North. While I continued to pursue objective observation of reality, I still have doubts whether my research then was truly free of prejudice.
It is somewhat embarrassing, but I expect that some of the attendees here today may have read my book, “The Women’s Policy of North Korea,” which was published in 1991. Following Professor Lee Tae-Young’s “North Korean Women,” published in 1988, I consider my book to be the second full-fledged work in North Korean Women’s Studies. While writing my book, I often had many doubts on my own research, as facts and information on North Korea were difficult to prove or verify so sometimes I felt it was just like the old story of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” However, through writing my book, I was able to gather small fragments of facts about North Korea, and I can confidently say that I was able to compile and systemize this data to create a certain standard of information on North Korea.
Following my first publication, I further developed the book to become my doctoral dissertation entitled, “Women in Two Nations and Four States: A Comparative Study of the Impact of Regimes and Culture on the Status of Women in the Two Koreas and the Two Germanies, 1945-89,” during my study in the United Kingdom. For this dissertation, I collected data from Berlin Branch of Federal Statistical Office (for information on East Germany) regarding women’s lives during the division, and interviewed women of East German region immediately after reunification. I also meticulously organized sets of partially available classified data on North Korean women, as well as open and unclassified data from both West Germany and South Korea. In sum, my dissertation can be regarded as a study that examined large amounts of unorganized data and then rigorously systemized those data to build information.
In this vein, my doctoral dissertation may be considered insufficient to the basic standards of doctoral dissertation that require “academic contribution” and “creativity and originality.” Despite the possible lack of originality or creativity, a self-evaluation of my dissertation is that it was a new contribution to academia as it provided a systemized set of advanced information. My doctoral dissertation may be insufficient in creating knowledge that increases the understanding of the lives of humans through the systematization of information, but is sufficient enough in providing a new set of information.
I have written and presented many papers on the status of women, human rights, and environmental conditions of North Korea. This is the reason why some scholars of North Korean studies introduce me as an expert on North Korean women’s issues. However, this introduction as an expert on North Korea or women’s issues makes me uneasy for various reasons, one of which is that I am not confident enough to claim that I have created a new knowledge on those issues.
In the case of South Korea, the Constitution was proclaimed and established in 1948, but Civil Law was not established until 1960 to replace the Choson Civil Ordinance that went into effect during the Japanese occupation. Furthermore, the Civil Law of 1960 was still based on and borrowed heavily from the Choson Civil Ordinance which included many articles that discriminated against women. A group of visionary South Korean women fought against the Civil Law for over ten years, demanding legal amendments for at least ten issues. The movement for this legal amendment was nicknamed as “The Ten Points Platform.” It took until 1987 for the South Korean government to heed their voices, and small changes were achieved including the enactment of the principles of eight-hour work day and equal pay for equal work, albeit remaining many inadequacies. Until the year 2000, the patriarchal familial registration system and the discrimination between son and daughter - especially in terms of inheritance ? were intact in laws. During the early days of the enactment of the Civil Law, many illiterate wives, vulnerable to the overpowering legal status of their husbands, were chased out of their homes in unfair divorce settlements, never to see their children again. Parental rights were held completely by the father, and the divorced wife’s ability to see her children was entirely up to the will of her husband, even if she came from an affluent family. All of these legal inequalities were corrected, slowly but surely, through the struggle of women themselves led by the visionary group. Other countries are pointing out that the women’s rights movement in Korea has stagnated in recent times, and in response to this criticism, domestic analysis is attributing this situation to the fact that too much energy was wasted on the civil law amendment movement.
Contrary to the South, North Korea abolished all the laws of the Japanese colonization period and declared complete gender equality after the enactment of land reform law in March; the Labor Law for Workers and Office Employees in June; and “North Korean Law on Gender Equality” in July of 1946 by the Provisional People’s Committee of North Korea. The patriarchal family system was abolished, and in the case of divorce, the woman was given preferential treatment for the custody of very young children. The principles of the eight-hour work day and equal pay for equal work were established in North Korea from 1946. Up until the year 1990, the North Korean legal system was an enviable system for young South Korean college women.
However, close observers of North Korea would agree that social status of North Korean women is not that high as it claims. This is because charters and rules of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) and the words of its leader take precedence over law, which carries no real weight. For many years, North Korea regulated family relations without any civil or family laws. It was not until 1990 that North Korea enacted a family law, and the enactment of civil law followed in 1991. This demonstrates the evaluation of the true status of North Korean women is unfeasible simply by looking at its legal regulations and laws.
Specifically, after the Arduous March and the intensification of North Korea’s economic crisis in 1995, a large increase in the number of defectors proved that many of the “data” that we were suspicious of their factuality were indeed fictitious. Female North Korean defectors reported how wives show their respect for their husbands by calling them as Sedaeju or head of the household in public, but despised the husbands by calling them as “day lamp”?comparing them to the uselessness of lamps during the day?for staying at home all day without paid work after their factories shut down. While the wives went out to the jangmadang or marketplace to support their families, husbands sat idle in the house all day and complained to their wives for not preparing them dinner. Useless husbands like these are derided also as geolgeurim or wall paintings. Even worse, many North Korean women testify that “nine out of ten women are beaten by their husbands.” This is a clear indication that North Korean women have never in fact been liberated nor will be liberated any time soon.
The reason why I mention about the status of women in the South and North is that our information on North Korea is extremely limited. We are gathered here today at this conference to discuss both the strengthening of development capacity and knowledge sharing with North Korea. However, I believe that both the contents and the method of “knowledge sharing” that we are engaging in today differ completely with “knowledge sharing” as defined by the global standard. This is because even now, when discussing North Korea’s development capacity, we are faced with huge research obstacle as obtaining verifiable and sizeable amount of data on our object, North Korea. We can only rely on information created from the systemized data compiled from limited resources. Of course, the increasing number of defectors contributes to the advancement of information as the defectors serve as “data deliverers.” In addition to this, many foreign scholars have visited North Korea personally to collect real data on the environmental and rural development issues, among others. That being said, I am sure that this international conference, above all others, will be rich with pertinent, relevant data, and approach North Korea’s development capacity from new angles and different points of view through reorganized, systematized information.
However, taking Fritz Machlup’s interpretation of information and knowledge into consideration, we must keep in mind that data is simply the raw material for information; information is organized in a specific contextual setting; and knowledge integrates all the information to explore ways that deepen the understanding of, and pays new path for the advancement of, mankind. That means we have a long way to go for the “knowledge sharing” on North Korea yet. As the accumulation of information on North Korea is rather in nascent stage, we need expend our efforts and time to reach the “knowledge sharing” level for North Korea’s development.
In today’s society, there are various facets of “knowledge sharing” such as quality control of information; intellectual property rights and patent; the so-called “tragedy of the commons;” “open access” and the public release of information; and the “tragedy of the anticommons” in the digital world. Problems arise as information is disseminated to everyone through the Internet community, where anyone can have access to and arbitrarily provide and modify information on the Internet. This leads to the “information quality” problem.
The simplest way to address the problem is through the example of the Wikipedia, a resource that contains boundless information, but at the same time is an unacceptable reference for academic articles. However, completely blocking a person’s right to upload information to the Internet is no different from the past religious and academic organizations that acted as an “ivory tower” that privatized information. This is also called the Second (information) Enclosure movement. Is the protection of intellectual property rights, including online information, truly beneficial for scholars? The tragedy of Edward Snowden is directly connected to this information controversy, testing the limits of how much information one individual can acquire in the digital community, and more importantly, how much of that information one individual can release to the public.
In comparison, research of North Korea is relatively free and unrestricted from these “knowledge-sharing” disputes. North Korea is essentially an outlander in the modern digital world and unlikely to open information in the Internet since the information provided by the North Korean regime is for propaganda use, and copyrights of online sites operated by it will not be subjected to private profits. As for South Korea’s online information resources, the information available on North Korea is of very low credibility and quality, and even supposedly “confirmed” information is nearly impossible to verify. As some may imagine, if North Korean information held by various international organizations happens to leak, it would be a completely different matter ? that may develop into a second “Snowden incident.” However, the probability for occurrence of such incident is insubstantial and the exchange of information on North Korea will continue to remain offline in South Korea. From this point of view, it appears that we have become the last “offline knowledge-sharing experts.”
And yet, in a way, this is a relief. Information technology is already advancing at a pace that is impossible to measure. In the near future, information relating to North Korea will not be exchanged between persons, but will be directly accessed by the world’s scholars through North Korean Digital Archive/Libraries. From that point on, we will be entering a generation where we then must address the issues of “knowledge-sharing” such as information quality and management of those libraries. When that generation arrives, there will be no place for people like myself who are “digitally challenged.”
I am very much looking forward to seeing today’s conference provide an opportunity to contemplate the issues of knowledge-sharing relating to North Korea that matches the pace of the modern world from multifarious perspectives and methods.