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North Korean Identity as a Challenge to East Asia’s Regional Order

  • Korean Social Science Journal
  • Abbr : KSSJ
  • 2017, 44(1), pp.51-71
  • Publisher : Korean Social Science Research Council
  • Research Area : Social Science > Social Science in general
  • Published : June 1, 2017

Leif Eric Easley 1

1이화여자대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

North Korea presents serious complications for East Asia’s regional order, and yet its identity is subject to frequent oversimplification. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is often in the headlines for its nuclear weapons and missile programs and for its violations of human rights. Media reports typically depict North Korea as an otherworldly hermit kingdom ruled by a highly caricatured Kim regime. This article seeks to deepen the conversation about North Korea’s political characteristics and East Asia’s regional architecture by addressing three related questions. First, how has North Korea challenged the regional order, at times driving some actors apart and others together? How are these trends explained by and reflected in North Korean national identity, as articulated by the Kim regime and as perceived in the region? Finally, what academic and policy-relevant implications are offered by the interaction of North Korean identity and regional order? To start, measuring national identity is a difficult proposition (Abdelal, et al., 2009). Applying the concepts of national identity and nationalism to North Korea are complicated by analytical problems in separating the nation, and especially the state, from the Kim regime. This study chooses to focus on “identity” rather than “nationalism” because “North Korean nationalism” implies a certain ideology that contrasts to the nationalisms of the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea), Japan or China. North Korean nationalism is particular indeed, but the focus here is a larger phenomenon, encompassing North Korean national political characteristics both as put forward by the Kim regime and as perceived in the broader East Asian region. Thus, for the purposes of this study, “identity” is the preferred concept of analysis rather than “nationalism.” Conducting research on North Korea presents challenges in terms of methodology, access, and data validity. Political scientists pursuing quantitative research on North Korea face a dearth of reliable statistics as well as political and logistical obstacles to fieldwork. For qualitative studies, North Korean government transparency is extremely low, officials are difficult to engage in dialogue, and government propaganda is pervasive. Historians lack access to North Korean archives and to many insights from the intelligence community. Foreigners working in North Korea are subject to surveillance by the state. North Korean researchers are generally not free to travel or correspond with international colleagues, and working on a project not condoned by the regime would risk grave reprisal. Sociologists and anthropologists have difficulty measuring aspects of North Korean identity due to heavy reliance on refugees and defectors who represent biased samples, especially on political topics. Surveys of North Koreans (both in and outside of the country) face validity issues involving socio-economic class, geographic region, exposure to external political values, and self-censorship (Go 2016). In academia, there is a lack of interdisciplinary dialogue on enhancing the validity of empirical observations on the DPRK. In the popular media, North Korea is often the subject of extreme characterizations (“worst country,” “most secretive state,” “crazy leader,” “evil regime”). While the North Korean regime may earn many negative labels, such generalizations are not a useful starting point for analysis or policy. Moreover, challenges to accessing information are no excuse not to pursue research on a national case of significant consequence to regional peace and security (Isozaki and Sawada, 2017). Increasingly, there are more data sources and informed studies on the DPRK than many international observers appreciate (Kim 2010, p. 319 as discussed in Kang 2011, p. 145). This study attempts to leverage the growing scholarly literature on the DPRK, as well as primary sources available in Korean, to elucidate the connections between North Korean identity and East Asian regional order. The next section considers Pyongyang’s place in the regional order in terms of troubled economic projects, isolating sanctions, limited institutional engagement, and provocations threatening international security. The subsequent section reviews the existing scholarship on North Korean identity, because before one can investigate the causes and effects of a particular identity, it is important to show (rather than just assume) that such an identity exists and is not merely instrumental. North Korea’s identity largely motivates its actions in the region, while Pyongyang’s challenges to the regional order affect neighbors’ views of the DPRK. North Korean identity is not monolithic, either in its projection from Pyongyang or in the perception of international observers, so the sections that follow critically examine the identity espoused by the Kim regime, and survey how North Korean national identity tends to be viewed in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and Beijing. The article concludes with findings on the interactions between North Korea’s changing identity and East Asia’s evolving regional order.

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