What is truly known about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea)? In the social sciences, most books on this country present it as viewed through the lenses of hardcore threatening politics, such as geopolitics, the nuclear question and the totalitarian regime, feeding repetitive discourses in academic and media circles. All of which contribute to North Korea being demonized in the West.
In the book Faire du terrain en Corée du Nord (Doing Fieldwork in North Korea), which was the result of fieldwork carried out in the fall of 2013 by a team of seven European researchers, we share our experiences and knowledge about North Korea, to offer a different perspective of the academic research on the country. Based on this book, this series of two articles proposes a summary of this different approach based on our skills as specialists in Korean studies who conduct Korean-language fieldwork in North Korea and are scientifically engaged in research about the two Koreas. We have traveled to the DPRK several times for more than a decade, built direct contacts there, and some members of our research team have conducted numerous projects in the country.
In the context of a “closed field” for social sciences, where ethnographic investigation is almost impossible, it is logical to wonder what kind of scientific research can be conducted in a totalitarian country. This first article will examine fieldwork in North Korea from an academic perspective as well as the limitations and specific problems associated with it. Alternative approaches and methodologies for conducting fieldwork will be explored in the second article.
How to do Scientific Fieldwork in North Korea–the Scholarly Context
For more than twenty years, anthropologists and ethnologists have adopted critical approaches to their objects, as doing fieldwork is never objective or transparent. It has been demonstrated that the facts collected there, even the most seemingly neutral ones, are always reconstructions and interpretations, and what one may take from them is most likely to be discovered in the interstitial spaces and/or detours between these facts.
Nonetheless, conducting fieldwork in the DPRK remains stuck in a kind of scientific limbo, as it is traditional wisdom that doing so is impossible in this country. The announcement that one is preparing to conduct fieldwork in North Korea can invoke jaded comments like: “We know perfectly well what there is to see there—what ‘they’ want us to see and nothing else.” However, there is not so much an actual “reality” to see or discover in North Korea; rather, only social processes to be deciphered. In short, one of North Korea’s particularities is to reduce our work to a form of positivism that sets back social sciences to infancy before the development of critical analysis.
It is true that the DPRK does not easily comply with the conditions of a fieldwork pact as described by the French geographer Yann Calbérac. After all, how can one establish the elements of a fieldwork pact when one lacks the freedom to implement fieldwork? If “the issues at stake in drawing upon fieldwork are to generate belief in the veracity of on-the-ground observations and simultaneously vouch for the arguments that are presented as following from them,” how can fieldwork be conducted in a country that the French journalist Philippe Grangereau has called the “Country of the Big Lie”?
North Korea, a Difficult Field in a Closed Context
The DPRK falls under the category of a “difficult and closed” field in the social sciences. North Korea and Kazakhstan, prisons in any democracy, together with numerous other spaces characterized by surveillance and restricted movement for researchers, are characteristically labeled as “closed contexts.” Despite the rich literature that exists on this subject matter, the question as to why contemporary research on the DPRK has not advanced beyond observing the challenges of accessing material and the unreliability of sources remains. Valérie Gelézeau examines how academic and media discourse regarding North Korea reflects a process whereby that country is Orientalized and confined to North Korea versus South Korea. However, these binary modes of discussion are entirely in keeping with the official, outside pronouncements of the North Korean regime. All of which contribute to the placement of methodological limitations on research on the DPRK.
The point is not to render these challenging fields as “exceptional” but rather to analyze different types of fieldwork situations to identify common modalities of context. Doing so maintains the possibility of developing common methods for approaching and interpreting fieldwork in a “closed context.”
Taking a Critical Approach to Fieldwork Situations
As such, we adopted the critical perspective of a fieldwork situation in a closed context to interpret our studies in North Korea by considering the following three aspects of these scholarly undertakings:
- The policy for preparing fieldwork and developing the program before departing for the field;
- Fieldwork practice on-site, when the researchers are confronted with the surveillance from what M. Gentile calls “the organs,” i.e., the North Korean regime;
- The problem of translating this type of scholarly exploration into text (i.e., an article, report or book).
These three fundamental elements are at the core of our book and are meant to expose the conditions under which research is carried out. For example, the stratagems around the status of the illustrations in the book raise the question: “Do our trips to the DPRK qualify as fieldwork?”
If one views fieldwork from a simplistic, experience-based perspective as a discovery to be presented, then the answer to the question above is “No.” However, if one sees fieldwork as a researcher-constructed space with a set of networks and as a process that allows for an ever-developing space of discussion regarding the issues that are brought up, then the answer is “Yes.” Conducting fieldwork in North Korea raises the following topics: being unable to freely conduct research, disinformation or non-information, a fetishist focus on the scopic dimension, surveillance, and interpreting what one observes on-site. All of these are problems familiar to scholars who worked in the former Soviet Union or pre-reform China. Fieldwork in North Korea is a process, a field to work.
Doing Fieldwork in North Korea: Specific Problems and Limitations
When surveillance, the unreliability of statistical sources and the fact that, apart from the official documents, one has limited access to things are all part of the environment, the dilemma of how one is supposed to organize their fieldwork is very real.
As shared in our book, we developed a fundamental method of scientific engagement, which consists of working in the field with the long-term North Korean colleagues who accompany us there and with whom we share our scientific interests. Our themes of the city, architecture and urban planning in both Koreas are subjects on which the Centre for Korean Studies of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, or EHESS, the project leader institution) has more than thirty years of expertise. As anthropologists, geographers, historians, archaeologists, architects, and specialists in literature or visual studies who have been working on Korean cities for years, our observations of North Korean cities are always implemented during our pre-negotiated, on-site visits, seminars and workshops with our partners.
Our research projects evolve according to our previous fields, which then helps us redirect our research toward more feasible subjects. For instance, following two general presentations on urban agriculture in 2018 at Pyongyang University of Architecture, Benjamin Joinau, one of this article’s authors, noted his North Korean colleagues’ interest in this topic and observed its implementation in Pyongyang. This is how he decided to create a field project to study this aspect of Pyongyang’s public spaces.
According to B. Joinau, access to the visibility of urban spaces in North Korea depends on variable factors for the same agent, depending on the context of the visit. Therefore, in this analysis, visibility regimes include whether one is visible in a public or private space and if having access to seeing sites, phenomena and/or people is possible. The distance between the object and the spectator, and between the spectators themselves, all factor into this social distinction as well.
Pyongyang’s highly planned monumentality, for instance, establishes strong distances between the monument and the spectator that tend to focus on the visual, physical inscription in space. For foreign visitors, vision tends to be the most excited sense, to the detriment of doing and speaking. This scopic saturation can be particularly anxiety-provoking, and it is how being in the DPRK differs from being a part of a tourism group or going on an official trip to another country with an open context.
Scopic Saturation, Sensory Fatigue and Overinterpretation
The impossibility of doing anything on an official visit to North Korea outside of sleeping can produce a harmful intensity. Your time is completely filled with no vacant period in which to recover, think or de-stress.
There is a type of visual fatigue that results from the aforementioned visual saturation. The research trips are generally short and expensive, meaning that their outcome must be achieved in a short period of time. This type of “concentration” often causes the visitor to overinterpret everything they see in order to obtain the information that is refused to them. For the researcher, this results in scopic exhaustion, as the eye cannot “run” aimlessly. Instead, it is forced to inspect and scrutinize everything.
This “hermeneutic obsession,” or pressure to find meaning in every phenomenon, is exhausting and leads to many mistakes, especially when the researcher’s capacities for contextualization and interpretation are insufficient. Hence, the question of how a foreign researcher should acquire enough first-hand evidence and concrete, informative elements when access to the field is denied to them very much exists. While we will not get into it here, this paradox can be overcome in many cases depending on the methods specific to each discipline. One way to acquire elements of comparison within the framework of traditional cultural practices can be to gain familiarization on the same field in South Korea, as the cultural “commons” specific to the two countries has not been completely erased. Our time in the Republic of Korea (ROK) as in the DPRK has always allowed us to glean something instructive, and we always leave having learned more about how to see.
Surveillance and Interpretation
In addition to always being accompanied when in the DPRK, surveillance comes with other more significant issues. The “minders” assigned to us are also people we can learn a lot from and with whom we can discuss what we are seeing and experiencing. This is especially true after repeated contact when they become—as is the case now for us—our colleagues rather than just minders. Given our shared experiences, we have built projects and can carry on scientific discussions with them. However, this situation can result in a classic form of interpretive bias that can confuse the trip’s framework or one’s personal experience of the surveillance. As was the case in the former USSR, North Koreans who are in contact with foreigners are subjected to surveillance themselves—they are briefed and debriefed before and after encounters with us. Moreover, our behavior can also have an adverse impact on the person accompanying us, making us mindful of how we interact with them as well. Thus, the situation we experience on the ground does not actually tell us much about North Korean society.
This brings us back to the question of the interpretation of observed facts. If everything is taken to be a lie, how can one explain a given fact? Is one to assume that the riders of the Pyongyang Metro are all actors, as the geographer Caroll Medlicott concluded? For example, how is one to interpret the presence of many evening readers sitting under streetlamps in Pyongyang in the evening? Were they rationing electricity? Did they wish to get some fresh air? Were they escaping the domestic surveillance of their spouses? What does using the street in this way mean in this city? Very often, behind these practices that we perceive as anomalies (i.e., reading in the evening under a streetlamp and not at home), we seek confirmation to questions, which, in this case, are about confirming the electricity supply problems in the capital. But the official explanation given by our North Korean guides and colleagues (readers are students looking for a quiet environment to study outside of the family apartment), who are also our informants, was done so from the context of their social reality, which is no more biased than our question. As such, it is necessary to use all the methodological resources available to the social sciences to make sense of the answers provided by our informants to explain the phenomena seen. Applying certain outdated ethnography that tended to either expect “true” explanations from informants or deny granting any value to their explanations and answer for them is no longer acceptable.
This first article has examined social sciences fieldwork in North Korea from an epistemological perspective as well as the limitations and specific problems associated with this “closed context.” Alternative approaches and methodologies for conducting fieldwork will be explored in the second article.
Nathalie Koch, “Introduction—Field methods in ‘closed contexts’: undertaking research in authoritarian states and places” Area 45, no. 4 (2013), https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12044.
Valérie Gelézeau, “Le terrain en Corée du Nord ou la retombée en enfance des sciences sociales [The field in North Korea or the fall into childhood of the social sciences],” Hypothèses CRC‑EHESS, September 30, 2015, https://parisconsortium.hypotheses.org/6562.
Yann Calbérac, “Terrains de géographes, géographes de terrain. Communauté et imaginaire disciplinaires au miroir des pratiques de terrain des géographes français du XXe siècle [Geographers’ fields, field geographers. Community and disciplinary imagination reflecting the field practices of French geographers of the 20th century],” (thèse de doctorat en géographie, université, Lumière Lyon II, 2010): 311-314.
Ibid., 88; and Yann Calbérac, “Le terrain : la fin d’un grand récit ?” [Fieldwork, the end of a metanarrative?] Bulletin de l’association de géographes français 92, no. 1 (2015).
Valérie Gelézeau, “The unresolved Korean border, the polarized meta-nation and the North Korean problem,” North Korean Review (April 2020): 111-120.
Michael Gentile, “Meeting the ‘organs’: the tacit dilemma of field research in authoritarian states,” Area 45, no. 4 (December 2013), https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12030.