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Konrad M. LawsonI was really glad to see that the Rimjin-gang project got a little more attention. However, I was frustrated by much of what I read here. I decided to put together a posting responding to this piece and I welcome further discussion: http://www.froginawell.net/korea/2010/12/the-north-flank-guard-everyday-life-in-north-korea/
Aidan Foster-CarterI'm with Konrad on this one. I value Japan Focus highly, but there are not a few writers here who might care to ponder his concept of the "North Flank guard". I take the liberty of quoting him: In the academic world of Korean studies, we might call this phenomenon the “North flank guard,” because the form it takes is: 1) A mobilization of scholarly efforts against opposition to the North Korean regime or those who highlight its human rights issues. 2) A refusal to clearly acknowledge North Korean responsibility for the escalation of tensions at numerous points in the last few years. This treats North Korea as a passive force, reacting only to provocation, rather than as an active composite subject which carefully calculates the potential domestic and international gains to be made from any new crisis. 3) The minimization or sometimes omission of any mention or substantive detail of the oppressive characteristics of the North Korean regime. 4) The fallacious pursuit of a historical argument which seeks to trace all contemporary woes back to the sins of Japanese colonialism, or to US and Soviet military occupations. Let’s call this, “The argument of original imperial sin.” In the next two postings, I want to introduce a few of the most recent examples of the “North flank guard” in action and why I find it deeply troubling. The second and third postings: The North Flank Guard: A Military Exercise Escalated into Artillery Exchange The North Flank Guard: Everyday Life in North Korea
Suzy KimKonrad Lawson charges me with a “dismissive attitude towards these North Koreans as sources of information and their work in a publication like Rimjin-gang.” He misunderstands. My intention behind questions about how to interpret the different kinds of information in Rimjin-gang as a way to understand North Korea was not a rhetorical device to “dismiss” the publication or the North Koreans participating in the project. The Rimjin-gang approach raises serious questions about journalism, not least because of the ambiguous nature of authorship. I am forced to quote from my own original article as the detailed facts about the publication seem to have gone unnoticed: Of the eight North Korean “journalists” featured in the magazine, only one (Ryu Kyung-won) is credited with written articles, while the rest seem to have either provided photos or videos of interviews. Moreover, Ryu’s profile at the end of the magazine indicates that Ryu left North Korea in 2003 and currently resides in China from where he does his reporting. While those providing materials for the magazine seem to hold extensive debriefing sessions with the editorial staff in order to provide explanations for the materials they have gathered, they seem neither to write the accompanying text nor do they determine what is in fact used or left out of the final publication. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to know in what sense they are identified as journalists to substantiate the claim that Rimjin-gang is a collection of “reports by North Korean journalists within North Korea.” The problem with ambiguous authorship is that there is no accountability commonly associated with journalism and the reader remains uncertain whether the articles represent the thinking of North Korean “journalists” or the Seoul- and Tokyo-based editors. By claiming that it is produced by North Korean journalists, Rimjin-gang paints itself as representing the North Korean people's views, when in fact, it appears to represent Ishimaru Jiro's own views to an overwhelming degree. I document this point in numerous ways, perhaps most strikingly in the discussion of photo captions that could lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Let me summarize the magazine, chapter by chapter, providing the sub-headings to each section, to make it self-evident why the claim to journalism is problematic. I have underlined the names of the “journalists” to facilitate evaluation of their roles in Rimjin-gang. The names are aliases, and the names of the editors (Ishimaru, Lee Jin-su, and Choi Jin-I) are not underlined. Part I An Economy in Ruins Chapter 1 is a transcript of an interview by Ishimaru and Ryu Kyung-won with Kae Myung-bin (the North Korean economic official) on the North Korean economy, which is Kae’s only contribution to the magazine. Chapter 2 is a commentary by Ishimaru describing the North Korean floods as “self-inflicted.” Chapter 3 is a transcript of a secret taping of conversations by Shim Ui-chun with two male office workers in their fifties in North Korea, which is followed by an essay by Ryu on the history of markets in North Korea with a translation of the 2007 Workers’ Party decree on markets. Chapter 4 is a commentary by Ishimaru on the photos contributed by Kim Dong-cheol regarding the ruins of an industrial complex. Chapter 5 is a commentary by Ishimaru and Lee Jin-su (third generation Korean-Japanese and one of the three editors of Rimjin-gang) on the currency redenomination, including interviews with three North Korean women. Part II Uncovering the True State of a Hidden People Chapter 1 is a commentary by Ishimaru on photos provided by Lee Jun and Lee Song-hui of life inside Pyongyang. Chapter 2 is a transcript of interviews on youth by Ishimaru and Ryu with three female North Koreans in their late teens who have crossed into China, followed by a transcript of interviews by Lee Jin-su with two youth in their early 20s. Chapter 3 is a commentary by Ishimaru on photos provided by Chang Jeong-gil, followed by transcripts from secret video recordings of conversations between Shim Ui-chun and people he interacts with on the streets. Chapter 4 is “A Collection of Anecdotes about the North Korean People,” by Paek Hyang. Part III The Kim Jong-il Regime and the People Chapter 1 is a transcript of interviews with consent by Shim Ui-chun with several North Koreans from various occupations about their perception of the North-South summit in 2007. Chapter 2 is somewhat different from previous formats as it is not a transcript of an interview but a reconstruction of an interview by Shim Ui-chun as a first-person narrative by the interviewee about North Korean people’s perception of their leader, which is followed by a transcript of an interview by Shim Ui-chun with a woman about rumors of an explosion in Ryongchun in 2004. Chapter 3 is a collection of articles by Ishimaru and Ryu on leadership succession, followed by transcripts of secretly recorded video footage of conversations between Shim Ui-chun and various North Korean people about government crackdown on markets. Part IV Oppression Chapter 1 is a first-person narrative based on an interview by Gong Yong-gil with a former political prisoner from Camp No. 18. Chapter 2 is a transcript of secretly recorded video footage by Shim Ui-chun on crackdowns by the “Moral Discipline Corps”, followed by Ishimaru’s commentary. Chapter 3 is commentary by Ishimaru and Ryu about “The Treatment of Refugees Forcibly Deported back to North Korea,” followed by transcripts of interviews with refugees by Ishimaru and Shim Ui-chun. It should be clear from the above that it is difficult to see where authorship lies. The overwhelming bulk of the text is provided by Ishimaru, and it is unclear whether any of the “journalists” are providing any analysis at all. My point in offering “informant” as an alternative label to refer to the North Koreans that Ishimaru works with was to emphasize this lack of authorship and accountability, not to detract from the work that they are engaged in. Indeed, Rimjin-gang differentiates between “journalist reporters” and “free contributors,” classifying someone like Kae Myung-bin (the North Korean economic official) as a free contributor and “Rimjin-gang collaborator” although he is still listed among the “journalists.” He certainly provides information by agreeing to be interviewed but he does not seem to gather information or write for Rimjin-gang. Perhaps the above distinction was made in an attempt to avert the kind of criticism here, but it is still difficult to see how he is any different from officials in any other government who provide information anonymously to the press. “Citizen journalism” (a concept heatedly debated with convincing arguments on both sides) was the direct result of the proliferation of mobile devices, blogs, personal broadcasting, and other forms of user-generated content via the internet (OhMyNews being the best example from South Korea). This diversification in the sources of news, competing with traditional news media outlets, has muddied the definition of journalism. Who can forget the role of the private video footage of the beating of Rodney King in 1992, the role of Twitter in the 2009 Iranian elections, and the recent controversy over Wikileaks? In January 2011, the role of social media was highlighted in the overthrow of the Tunisian president. My point is not to hash out this debate but to question the extent to which the information in Rimjin-gang is generated and shaped by the North Koreans. Citizen journalists can be defined as members of the public "playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information.” A number of North Koreans are certainly collecting and forwarding information for Rimjin-gang, but are they reporting, analyzing and disseminating it? From the above summary, it is difficult to say so. Ryu certainly fits the description best as the only one that contributes articles, but he now resides in China and thus does not report from “within North Korea” as Rimjin-gang wants to claim. There are increasing numbers of sources for information about North Korea readily available through the web, such as DailyNK and Good Friends among others, but Rimjin-gang attempts to distinguish itself from these by categorizing the information that it presents as “reports by North Korean journalists within North Korea.” If Rimjin-gang is to live up to its claim and truly make an impact as journalism, it is important that it be held to the standard practices in the field rather than diluting the definition of journalism because of the difficult circumstances surrounding journalistic activity in North Korea. North Korea deserves no less. My critique of Rimjin-gang’s claim that “No one can report on a nation better than its own people” was neither to make light of the plight of North Koreans, nor to advocate intellectual elitism (though I admit that there was potential for misunderstanding there), but to highlight the precarious nature of making generalized claims. Indeed, no one has privileged access to the truth. The conclusion to this is NOT that nothing can be said, but that there has to be sufficient context and background information in order to back up general claims. Admittedly, Ishimaru's footnotes and editorializing is an attempt to provide that context, but as I document in the article, there are problems with the kind of context and background information he provides. In that spirit, my piece was really meant to push Rimjin-gang to live up to its claim to journalism, pointing out areas in which it can improve, rather than to say that it isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Whether it is helpful or not will ultimately have to be evaluated by those who read the magazine, but surely there are instances when incorrect or misleading information is worse than no information at all. Lawson also makes light of historical explanations as “original imperial sin,” as if to say that colonialism, war, division, and isolation are mere myths. Here, I think it’s worth quoting C. Wright Mills: “The first fruit of this [sociological] imagination – and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it – is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one.” (C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959, 2000), p. 5) I have often used the passages surrounding this quote from Mills to help students understand what social structure means and to point out the importance of thinking about individual agency within the larger social framework. As Mills so eloquently explained, agency does not happen in a vacuum, and true appreciation of historical agency and the possibility for change lies in understanding the structural conditions that shape agency in specific contexts. Indeed, this is both a ‘terrible’ lesson and a ‘magnificent’ one precisely because structural conditions both limit and enhance agency in different contexts. To dismiss Korea’s history of colonialism, division, civil war, and its place in cold war geopolitics as the “fallacious pursuit of a historical argument which seeks to trace all contemporary woes back to the sins of Japanese colonialism, or to US and Soviet military occupations,” as Lawson states, is to dismiss historical explanations as a way to understand the present. To reuse the illness analogy from the original article for different purpose here, the symptoms of illness alone do not provide an explanation for the underlying causes of the disease. Choosing to focus on the historical causes for North Korea’s contemporary problems doesn’t mean that the symptoms aren’t of concern. It simply means that the best way to address those symptoms is not to keep reiterating the symptoms that everyone is familiar with but to try and find the root causes for those symptoms. Ishimaru himself understood this point – he saw foreign aid as only minimally helpful in the short term, masking the symptoms, but doing nothing about the underlying causes of North Korea’s many problems. We disagree on what the root causes are. But, to focus on the root causes is not a “refusal to clearly acknowledge North Korean responsibility” or acknowledge the “oppressive characteristics of the North Korean regime” or dismiss North Koreans “as a passive force, reacting only to provocation, rather than as an active composite subject” as Lawson charges. Rather, it is to highlight the extent to which their choices are constrained precisely by the specific structural conditions such as the quasi state-of-war in North Korea as a result of the past 60 years of conflict with the United States and its allies. Let me provide one example of the ways in which structural conditions constrain policy choices. The use of the National Security Law since 1948 to imprison political prisoners in South Korea should have ceased once the military dictatorships ended and a civilian government was ushered in with the success of the democracy movement in 1993. And yet, the National Security Law continues to imprison political prisoners in South Korea, and indeed, it remained in effect even under the late President Kim Dae-jung, who himself had served time on death row as a political prisoner under the NSL. This is only one small indication of the fact that individuals or even ruling political parties are often constrained in their choices by much larger structural forces, in Korea’s case this being the security paradigm and cold war geopolitics rooted in national division and history of civil war. As someone who continues to engage in human rights issues, I appreciate the important work of calling attention to the many human rights abuses that occur throughout the world, including North Korea, but it is important to understand the underlying causes of the abuses, without which it would be difficult to pinpoint the correct targets for pressure and eventual change. I intended my article to point out the deficiencies and drawbacks of Rimjin-gang in this regard. This was the reason for the spirited debate with Ishimaru after his presentation at NYU, for which I am grateful. Indeed, it was the copy of Rimjin-gang that he presented to me that made possible a thorough critique of the publication.