Curriculum Opinion

Considering North Korea Beyond the Headlines

September 13, 2017 10 min read
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Editor’s Note: As tensions with North Korea continue to rise, my colleague Anne Hilton, who completed a master’s degree in Korean Studies and visited North Korea twice while living in South Korea, shares resources to help you cut through the stereotypes and more deeply examine the country, its people, and the complexities of its politics and nuclear program. These resources are most appropriate for students in high school and middle school.

by guest blogger Anne Hilton

What does North Korea make you think of? What’s the very first word or phrase that comes to mind? Nuclear weapons? World War Three? Military marches? Famine? Axis of evil? How about your students? What’s the first word or phrase that comes to mind for them?

Were any of the answers surprising? Were the answers similar?

Is there an image that’s particularly iconic in your mind or in students’? Do those images reinforce the words or phrases you came up with, or do they broaden the idea you’ve built up of North Korea?

Don’t be surprised if you’re finding a pattern of perceptions about North Korea in your answers and your students’ answers. North Korea is the country everyone loves to hate. Be it their leader’s idiosyncratic behavior or their insistence on making and testing nuclear weapons, media and political leaders alike focus on the strangeness of North Korea and eagerly perpetuate superficial stereotypes about the country and its people.

But by using the tools of global competence as a starting point, you can empower your students to consider North Korea beyond the stereotypes and gain a better understanding of the country. Below are some resources to help you do just that.

Consider Context and History

The first step in understanding North Korea is to take a few steps back. Investigate how the Korean peninsula was divided in the first place. Why was the division decided at the 38th parallel? Who had a say in this decision, and who did not? (Spoiler alert: Koreans did not!)

And after this division, how did North Korea actually become the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Why was Kim Il Sung chosen as their leader?

To understand the general history of Korea, try Korea’s Place in the Sun by Bruce Cumings. It is a quick, engaging read.

Next, take a close look at the Korean War. How did it start? How did it end? Who were the major players? The Pulitzer-Prize-nominated book by David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter, is a comprehensive read and a good place to start. Cumings also has a slightly more accessible read on this subject, The Korean War.

Another fascinating glimpse of North Korean history often ignored is the period after the Korean War. For example, the North Korean economy grew much more rapidly than the South Korean economy initially. Likewise, North Korea, now sometimes referred to as the “hermit kingdom” (a reference to an old term for Korea by Western powers), was a relatively open country after the Korean War—it wasn’t until several years later that it began to close itself off from the world. Koreanist Andrei Lankov examines this period, and specifically, the failed efforts to de-stalinize the government, in his book Crisis in North Korea.

Consider the North Korean Experience

And what do North Koreans say about their own history and the Korean War? Here, we’re sadly limited—we can learn from the official North Korean government voice or from North Korean defectors and we can occasionally learn from North Koreans who have not defected. There are also secondhand accounts from observers who are not North Korean; but all of these sources are somewhat problematic, as explained below.

Government and Official Voice

The official news from North Korea is pure propaganda, and while you can gain valuable insights into what’s going on by reading between the lines, don’t trust anything you’re reading without verifying it elsewhere as best you can—what’s being reported in international news reports, especially in Korean news reports? Where do those stories align and diverge? Have your students analyze both and try to determine what might be true and what might be false. Even if your students aren’t sure at the end of the day, they’ll be practicing exactly what intelligence analysts do every day! (Plus, call it a lesson in basic media literacy!)

Universities frequently carry North Korean newspapers in their libraries, and if you’re lucky enough to visit or live in Seoul, you can visit the North Korean Information Center in Korea’s National Library.

On the other side of the equation, many classified U.S. documents about Korea have since been declassified, and your students can use these to look at what the U.S. knew or thought—but may not have publicly said—about North Korea. (For example, read about the disparate economic growth between North and South Korea in a declassified CIA memo from 1972!)

There are remarkable stories being told by North Korean defectors once they’re safely out of North Korea. The most famous of these might be The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan. But time and time again, many more recent stories told by defectors were found to be either greatly exaggerated or, more rarely, completely made up.

Current citizens
Every once in a while, we can hear directly from North Koreans who have not defected. The issues we find with these testimonies are similar to those of the official news arm of the North Korean government. North Koreans who are allowed to talk to outsiders tend to be limited in what they can say—either directly or indirectly through self-censorship. Visitors to North Korea have also found themselves limited in who they can speak with, and they’re always being watched—as are those with whom they speak.

Non-North Koreans
Besides defectors, the greatest source of information about North Korean perspectives comes from non-North Koreans who visit or live in the country and then write about it. Many of them rely equally on defector stories. Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, is a good example of the latter, although it is certainly worth the read. Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is another excellent read.

These sources are enlightening but also problematic in that any stories claiming to present North Korean perspectives are secondary sources at best and are distributed through the lens of another person. And in order to publish such stories, authors occasionally break the law, betray agreements they’ve made, or endanger the very people whose stories they’re trying to tell. But within this category come valuable resources. Andrei Lankov’s North of the DMZ is perhaps the best example of a resource about North Korea that focuses broadly on life in North Korea, from the privileged residents of Pyongyang, to the rural farmers across the country. Indeed, if understanding both the politics and culture of North Korea is the goal, Lankov’s writings are an invaluable resource.

Consider the Nuclear Option

Speaking of North Korean perspectives, why would North Korea want nuclear weapons in the first place? To answer that question, you and your students will need to delve even more deeply into the world of international relations, particularly into the realm of economics, sanctions, and the end of the Cold War. The path toward nuclear weapons is neither short nor unsurprising for North Korea.

While North Korea’s economic growth outpaced South Korea’s initially, it stalled out in the 1970s, and North Korea’s industrial framework quickly became obsolete. In a mountainous country with less arable land than Switzerland, North Korea has always struggled agriculturally (when they were a unified nation, the land in what is now South Korea was always the breadbasket of the country, while the land in North Korea was the industrial workhorse). Food rations were reduced for the first time in the 1970s, and the agricultural reforms implemented in the 1980s, along with the end of the Cold War, ultimately lay the groundwork for the terrible famine (called the “Arduous March” in North Korea) of the 1990s.

It was from this situation, that North Korea’s nuclear program grew. The end of the Cold War meant the end of vast subsidies—including energy—from the Soviet bloc, and North Korea could only rely on neighboring China for (limited) assistance. The end of the Cold War also meant the end of Soviet protection—via its vast nuclear arsenal—from the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 at the Soviet Union’s behest in exchange for the promise of four light-water nuclear reactors, but the USSR never delivered on that promise, and North Korea was experimenting in the nuclear world by the early 1990s. In 1994, the U.S. and North Korea agreed to a similar deal—in exchange for freezing its nuclear program, North Korea would receive two light-water reactors from the United States, and oil in the interim to tide them over until those reactors could be built. As we know now, what became known as the Agreed Framework failed, but it’s important to note that both sides reneged on their side of the bargain.

In the midst of this, South Korea adopted what was called its “Sunshine Policy” (named after an Aesop’s Fable), begun by former Korean President Kim Dae Jung (for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize) and continued under his successor, President Roh Moo Hyun. The argument in favor of this policy was exactly the moral of the fable—North Korea would be more likely to cooperate when shown carrots rather than sticks. This policy was at odds with U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies toward North Korea, but it nevertheless resulted in more inter-Korea communication and collaboration since the Korean War.

It’s important to remember that North Korea’s nuclear program and subsequent nuclear tests aren’t happening in a vacuum. Each year, for example, the U.S. and South Korea conduct massive joint military exercises that North Koreans have always viewed as a threat, and you’ll find that news reports on North Korea’s military provocations rarely consider them from the perspective of North Koreans. Herein lies the key to understanding North Korea. If your students are able to do that, they’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of most news agencies and even most political leaders in their understanding.

And now we live in a world with a nuclear North Korea. It’s unrealistic to expect North Korea to willingly give up its nuclear weapons—that ship sailed when the repeated negotiations failed. As Lankov wrote in a recent column, “North Korean leaders know that dead people do not need money, and they believe that without nuclear weapons they will be as good as dead.”

In that same column, Lankov outlines what he considers the best (and really only) option to pursue going forward in a world of terrible choices. What do your students think would be the best path forward?

Additional Resources

North Korea is an incredibly complex, fascinating country, and there’s much more to it than its nuclear program. Below are a few additional sources to help you and your students look at North Korea beyond the headlines in a thoughtful, globally competent manner.

  • 38 North is perhaps the best site out there when it comes to North Korean issues and analyses. This is a good resource to reference when comparing what you see on the news in the U.S. and on North Korea’s central news website.
  • Arms Control Wonk has a podcast series on North Korea’s nuclear program and clearly lays out where North Korea is and what could happen next.
  • Andrei Lankov is one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea, and his work is even more interesting because he strives to understand North Korea from a North Korean perspective. In addition to numerous books, he writes regularly for international media. If you want to understand North Korea, read his writing.
  • North Korea South Korea, by John Feffer, is out of date, but it lays out the political landscape with ease and accessibility and provides excellent background information explaining how we got to where we are now.
  • A State of Mind is a 2004 documentary that follows two middle school girls as they prepare to perform in North Korea’s famed Mass Games. This would be a good film for students and adults of all ages.
  • North Korea: Another Country, by Bruce Cumings, strives to understand North Korea from North Korea’s perspective, and his perspective is worth a read.
  • Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform. If you’re interested in learning more about the great famine in the 1990s in North Korea, this book by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland is the best and most comprehensive resource you will find.
  • Asia Society has countless articles and resources about North Korea, and Asia Society’s Policy Institute has been dedicating much of its attention to North Korea’s nuclear program as of late. They recently released a new report on preserving peace in Asia.

Connect with the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo taken in North Korea by the author. Used with her permission.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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