The Future of North Korean Studies

What is the state of North Korean Studies as a field of research, and what is its future? In June 2022, a total of 15 scholars from Europe, Asia and the United States came together in Vienna to address these and related questions for “The Future of North Korean Studies,” a workshop hosted by the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna. Over the course of two days, these four propositions were thoroughly considered:

  • Defining the field: Is North Korean Studies a discipline?
  • Output and audience: What do we produce and for whom?
  • Data, sources and methods: What is our data, where does it come from and how do we use it?
  • How do we institutionalize the study of North Korea?

This article summarizes the key insights derived from workshop discussions. It concludes by introducing the newly established European Centre for North Korean Studies (ECNK) at the University of Vienna.

A Growing Interest in North Korea and the Need for Cooperation

The workshop was held to take stock of and find ways to respond to developments regarding the study of North Korea. These are briefly outlined in this section.

Until the mid-1990s, research on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was a niche field of academic research and political analysis. The prevalence of a broadly defined term such as “North Korean Studies” suggests that this might still be the case.

Nevertheless, interest in North Korea has increased considerably in the past three decades, triggered or catalyzed by a number of events, several of them dramatic. These include the first nuclear crisis of 1993-1994, the first hereditary succession of power from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il in 1994-1997 and the humanitarian tragedy of the famine around the same time.[1] The first inter-Korean summit of 2000 and the second nuclear crisis since 2002 were also noteworthy events that generated broad interest.[2] The first nuclear test in 2006 elevated North Korea to a new, and relatively high, baseline of public attention.

The DPRK is one of the few state-socialist societies to have survived the end of the Cold War. For this reason, and because it is located at one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots, it is of substantial interest to many stakeholders, including academic institutions, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Demand for reliable, theoretically informed and scientifically rigorous knowledge about the DPRK is high. Accordingly, research output on the transformations in North Korea’s economy, politics and society has grown in quantity and quality. Interest in the DPRK’s culture, literature and language has increased as well.

But while growth in research and interest has been dynamic, it has also been mostly spontaneous and uncoordinated. Except for South Korean researchers, for whom there is better organization, the field is characterized mainly by individuals or small teams who are dispersed across many countries and organizations. The number of such researchers is considerable,[3] and they use increasingly sophisticated methods and work with a growing degree of specialization. However, the current form of organization, or lack thereof, is reaching its limits.

Increasingly complex questions require research collaboration, interdisciplinary coordination and improved research designs to be answered properly. This necessitates joint applications for research funding and support for the pursuit of advanced degrees as part of larger research projects. Knowledge needs to be transferred systematically through visiting fellowships and professorships, and other professional opportunities to foster cooperation among researchers with backgrounds in Political Science, Economics, Korean Studies and other disciplines. The time has indeed come to consolidate the advances made in the study of North Korea and to institutionalize a field that exists de facto but lacks more formal organization and coordination.

Against this background, the following sections summarize some of the key insights of the workshop on “The Future of North Korean Studies” that was convened at the University of Vienna in June 2022. The workshop was held under the Chatham House Rule.

Defining the Field: Is North Korean Studies a Discipline?

The question of field and scholarly identity is related to the old and controversial debate of whether multidisciplinary approaches such as Area Studies can be rigorous enough to compete with single disciplines, such as Political Science or Economics. We inevitably touched upon this fundamental issue in our discussion, but the main debate revolved around whether North Korean Studies is independent of Korean Studies and has enough critical mass to be treated separately from, for example, History.

The answers were not as clear as one might expect, considering that the workshop participants were not a random sample of scholars, but rather all work on North Korea in some capacity. It seems that political scientists, in particular, prefer to identify themselves and their work on the DPRK in a disciplinary sense, which can at least partially be understood as a rational approach to the demands and expectations of the academic job market.

Yet, there was broad agreement that the field has reached a point where such a discussion about North Korean Studies as a distinct discipline is warranted. This was explained by the large number of researchers who have North Korea as one of their main areas of interest, the growing specialization of research projects, the common use of (North) Korean-language source material and the application of rigorous disciplinary methods to the study of North Korea.

The practice of interdisciplinarity was cited frequently and approvingly as that which most characterizes the field. Although strongly supported in the abstract, it was noted that this approach presents challenges for publishing in top-ranked journals and positioning oneself for early career development. Not unrelated to this problem, participants noted the segmentation of the field along disciplinary boundaries. The question of which is better, “area or discipline,” was a relatively divisive issue. Some view an exclusive focus on North Korea as giving way to explanations based on essentialist claims of “national characteristics,” whereas others expressed skepticism over how much can be achieved by treating North Korea only as a case rather than as a topic in and of itself.

To promote discourse and collaboration across disciplines, our discussions indicated a strong desire for common theoretical and conceptual frameworks to study North Korea, even if there was no consensus reached over how exactly that ought to be accomplished. This, perhaps, underscores where North Korean Studies stands as a community. It is an eclectic mix of scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds that bring different—and often competing—epistemologies and methodologies to the table.

Accordingly, North Korean Studies is not (yet) seen as a discipline, but it has developed in that direction. Demand for bridging scholarly divides for the purpose of fruitful collaboration and field sustainability indicates where future discussions, debates and institutional resources might be directed.

Output and Audience: What Do We Produce, and for Whom?

Somewhat unexpectedly, we spent a substantial amount of time discussing both how to engage media and the consequences of regular media exposure. North Korea garners disproportionately large media attention, resulting in a large number of interview and other requests from scholars. The degree to which this is happening seems to be a relatively unique feature of North Korean Studies. The related experiences and lessons learned were diverse. The attention generated by the media is understood as having some welcome consequences, such as exposure for the researcher, but it is also seen as creating the risk of superficiality and populism in commentary and even research. Worse still, there are concerns about being misunderstood and even exploited by an industry whose standards and objectives often differ starkly from academia. A similar debate was pursued regarding collaboration with various governmental counterparts and NGOs. The participants agreed that researchers of North Korea would benefit from professional development training to support better non-academic engagement (e.g., interview training). Participants from outside academia strongly concurred, underscoring the need to better support collaboration.

Due attention was also given to academic publishing; those in attendance agreed, or at least acknowledged, this kind of output represents the main metric of assessment for scholarly achievement. Discussion of publishing centered, again, on the issue of identity, specifically regarding where those writing on North Korea publish their work. There was an instructive debate on the comparative value of publishing in disciplinary journals versus regionally focused outlets, with implications for the quality and kind of research pursued. The discussion suggests that North Korean Studies is far from having achieved a critical mass, such that publishing in a journal devoted specifically to North Korea would be wise, especially for those not yet tenured or permanently employed. Incentive structures differ across disciplines, but this observation indicates that the exchange of knowledge and ideas among scholars of North Korea is not primarily taking place via academic journals at present. The implications are worthy of further consideration.

Teaching was not discussed with much intensity, which is at least partly explained by the prerogatives set by the organizers of the event, but also by the experience that purely North Korea-oriented degrees are not always popular among students due to their limited value in competitive job markets. Given the lack of marketable skills training in Area Studies generally, this is an issue worthy of greater attention but was beyond the scope of the workshop.

In conclusion, finding the right balance between academic work and public engagement was identified as a key challenge for researchers of North Korea.

Data, Sources and Methods: What Is Our Data, Where Does It Come From and How Do We Use It?

The data question is among the more unique aspects of researching North Korea. Given the scarcity of reliable data and difficulties of access for field research, it is warranted to ask whether there is even enough quality material available to support high-end scholarly outputs on North Korea. The workshop participants agreed on the substantial difficulties and barriers faced here, but also highlighted the large amount of existing data that does meet the requirements necessary for rigorous research. The main concerns were availability in the sense of sharing existing data, and the issue of protecting data that might get lost or not be identified unless corresponding measures are taken. The latter refers, in particular, to oral history and primary source collections in the hands of private individuals who are not part of the academic community.

The question of Korean language proficiency was discussed as well. The workshop participants supported a pragmatic approach, agreeing in principle that such a capacity is a core skill for a scholar of Korea. But they also agreed that the necessary degree of proficiency depends on the specifics of the research pursued and that collaboration and division of labor in research teams should leverage individual strengths.

Regarding available and appropriate research methods, participants acknowledged the difficulties in using, for example, popular social science methods, given problems associated with data generation. Making valid inferences about the North Korean population based on available data (e.g., defector testimonies) was problematized due to selection bias concerns, among other problems, but the discussion focused more on matching appropriate research questions to data already available or that which can be plausibly generated. In this sense, the discussions reflect an understanding of what can be done and what cannot or should not be pursued.

To conclude, the main concern in terms of data and methods focused on data availability and preservation, with a strong desire for a stable and easily accessible database repository or similar resource.

How to Institutionalize the Study of North Korea?

Finally, we asked the workshop participants to brainstorm how best to institutionalize North Korea Studies and express ideal solutions regardless of the resources or capacity necessary to realize them. Answers can be clustered into four main areas. They are as follows:

(1) Networking and community building: Create a directory of North Korea experts, searchable within and across disciplines, to support networking and community building; host events to facilitate the exchange between Korean (North and South) and Western scholars; provide a platform for networking with scholars in North Korean Studies; facilitate cooperation with International Organizations; and provide a convening point for researchers.

(2) Training: Host workshops/mentoring for book writing and publication; convene workshops on methods; create a platform for junior scholars to get feedback from senior scholars; host digital content to complement courses.

(3) Collaboration: Host workshops, conferences and online seminars; provide a platform for publications and joint applications for research grants; and offer opportunities for affiliations, visiting positions and fellowships.

(4) Data: Create a list of DPRK data sources; host an online repository for data on North Korea; host a database of teaching materials, including syllabi; and facilitate documentation (saving, tagging, categorizing) of primary and secondary materials such as oral history transcripts, rare primary sources and related sources.

Addressing the Challenges: The European Centre for North Korean Studies (ECNK)

The problems and solutions tables are large and complex. They cannot and should not be shouldered by one institution alone. We believe that enabling cooperation between interested institutions and individuals would be a sensible way to address the challenges facing scholars of North Korea.

Accordingly, on September 1, 2022, the European Centre for North Korean Studies (ECNK) was founded at the University of Vienna. Located in the heart of Europe, Vienna is one of the region’s most international cities and home to the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and a great variety of related NGOs. We aim to leverage this unique locational advantage and combine it with the benefits of being based at one of the oldest institutions of higher education in Europe, founded in 1365, to deliver value to the North Korean Studies community.

The ECNK aims to support the institutionalization of North Korean studies by providing a stable, long-term platform for interdisciplinary and comparative research about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The ECNK endeavors to help interested researchers on all levels from within and outside Europe to accomplish one or more of the following:

  • Define and develop North Korean Studies as a field through research and collaboration.
  • Identify and deliver to current and potential stakeholders.
  • Find, discuss and improve access to and quality of data, sources and methods.
  • Institutionalize the field of North Korean studies.

The ECNK will support these objectives through the following actions:

  • Hosting individual researchers (in-residence) who have acquired funding and need an institution through which to pursue their research projects on North Korea.
  • Building and supporting a network of researchers who focus exclusively on North Korea or pursue North Korea-adjacent research through nonresident fellowships and other positions.
  • Hosting research groups to pursue all or part of a grant-funded research project on North Korea.
  • Connecting European and non-European researchers on North Korea by hosting joint events, such as conferences and workshops.
  • Hosting North Korea-related databases.

We invite every interested scholar to join our efforts. Please visit for more information.

  1. [1]

    Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2007); and Hazel Smith, Hungry for Peace. International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2005).

  2. [2]

    Yoichi Funabashi, The Peninsula Question: A Chronicle of the Second Korean Nuclear Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2007).

  3. [3]

    The exact number is difficult to determine, but we can assume that it correlates with output. To take just one example, a recent catalog search of the library of the University of Vienna listed 272 books with “North Korea” in their title published in the four decades between 1950 and 1990—and 10,610 for the next three decades, 1990-2020.

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