Opinion: Beyond the 'rare glimpse'
of North Korea

The problems in North Korea are manifold, but pre-existing narrative frameworks that treat the country as a bizarre joke prevent us from thinking about the nation and its society in a nuanced and constructive way, writes Victoria University of Wellington Associate Professor Stephen Epstein.

As of 2017, we do in fact know much about North Korea, even if the workings of the inner echelons of power remain opaque. (Photo: Chris Price/Flickr)

How rare is a “rare glimpse” of North Korea?

While the term is commonly seen in headlines, the 100,000 Google hits yielded when you enter the search terms “North Korea” and “rare glimpse” suggest these images are not as novel as media narratives depict.

British newspaper The Telegraph recently misidentified a picture taken in Dandong, China – which included a monumental statue of Chairman Mao – as being from “Kim Jong Un’s secretive state”. One could dismiss the mistake as mere carelessness, if it were not so indicative. A statue in an empty-looking square? Sure, lump it with other photos of North Korea to evoke a totalitarian regime with a personality cult. Glimpses become even rarer if you don’t understand what you are looking at.

Why does this matter?

In persistently portraying North Korea as mystifying and bizarre, mainstream narratives tend to let stereotypes stand in place of sound analysis.

Kim Jong Un may be a ruthless dictator, but he and his predecessors have never been "crazy dictators". (Photo: Thomas Rosner/Flickr)

The point here is not to minimise the manifold problems that North Korea poses but to highlight how pre-existing narrative frameworks allow us to treat North Korea as a bizarre, but nonetheless menacing, joke without thinking about the country in a nuanced way.

Kim Jong Un may be a ruthless dictator, but he and his predecessors have never been "crazy dictators". They are savvy, clever, and rational (even to the extent that it suits them for the world to think that they might be unhinged). Guided by a strategy of regime survival, they have pulled off a remarkable feat in playing a poor hand as well as they have, against far more powerful adversaries.

The world may rightly be unhappy with the North Korean regime’s threatening stance and its appalling human rights record, but dismissing Kim Jong Un as a crazy buffoon impedes finding an effective solution. True irrationality would mean that the regime is so erratic that it acts against its own interests (which may not always coincide with those of its populace). No evidence exists to support that view.

North Korean citizens certainly recognise the outside world’s perceptions of its society are at odds with their own.

While the nation’s writers must follow heavily prescriptive guidelines in crafting material for their literary magazines, talent does exist. Several years ago, I translated a North Korean short story entitled Second Encounter for Words Without Borders, because I was struck by its interesting and humorously-handled subject matter of the experiences of a North Korean minder leading a suspicious Western journalist around Pyongyang. The opportunity to see how North Korea imagines others view the country offered an unusual window into the country.

As of 2017, we do in fact know much about North Korean society, even if the workings of the inner echelons of power remain opaque.

There are now some 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea; many maintain contact with families through North Korea’s increasingly widespread cellphone use.

Outsiders regularly come and go from North Korea, and many are not as closely monitored as one is often told. Indeed, hundreds of New Zealanders have now visited North Korea, including Gareth and Jo Morgan who motorcycled through the country and wrote a book-length travel narrative about it.

As the world’s media focuses its attention on North Korea and demonises it as a rogue regime, it is worth being aware of unheralded civil society engagement that is taking Kiwis to North Korea, such as migratory bird research and English teacher training.

South Korea-based hiking guide and former Kiwi police officer Roger Shepherd is heading to North Korea on 25 May 2017 to continue his explorations of the Baekdu-Daegan, the mountainous spine which runs the length of the Korean Peninsula.

Shepherd has been undertaking an ambitious programme of scaling and photographing peaks along the ridge and has seen more of it than any other person alive. He will exhibit his remarkable shots on both sides of the DMZ.

Kiwi Roger Shepherd has seen more of the Baekdu-Daegan mountain range than anyone in the world. (Photo: Hike Korea/Facebook)

Shepherd’s photographs of mountains treat the beauty of the Korean Peninsula itself in neutral fashion, unburdened by the weight of ideology.

Such an approach offers a true rare glimpse of North Korea.

Associate Professor Stephen Epstein is the director of the Asian Languages and Cultures Programme at Victoria University of Wellington, and served as the 2013-14 President of the New Zealand Asian Studies Society. He has published widely on contemporary Korean society, literature and popular culture. He has also co-produced two documentaries on the South Korean music scene, Us & Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-pop world (2014) and Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community (2002).

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.