Fieldwork in North Korea: A Challenging but Necessary Scientific Field (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series of two articles based on the book Faire du terrain en Corée du Nord (Doing Fieldwork in North Korea) discussed the epistemological challenges of fieldwork inquiry in a “closed context” such as DPRK.[1] In the second installment of this series, we will explore alternative approaches and methodologies to conducting such fieldwork.

Alternative Approaches and Methodologies to Conducting Fieldwork

Asymmetry of Relations

Classical anthropology was defined by its relationship to otherness, including spatial otherness, vis-à-vis its object of research.[2] The post-structuralist approach from the 1970s onwards made the problem more complex: in order to be able to deconstruct the unconscious and systemic biases around the human object studied, it became necessary to restore its status as a subject. This then requires having to come up with and define another relationship to the otherness of the scientific field.

The temptation to turn “the North Koreans” into an absolute and irreconcilable “other” is always strong. Certainly, there are different types of asymmetries between our North Korean interlocutors and ourselves from an economic, scientific, informational point of view, etc. Many do not have the ability to properly understand us or our behaviors due to reasons such as not having access to external information or being able to travel abroad. Sometimes, the communication between us and our North Korean colleagues can come across as alienating asymmetry, especially since this inequality can even become a strategy to limit our demands while monetizing even the slightest favors.

During our last collective fieldwork in 2018, we conducted an experimental seminar by applying a participatory activity that was both ideologically safe for our North Korean partners and extremely valuable in lessons. After giving a presentation on the investigative technique of mental maps and its contribution to urban design and planning, we asked our colleagues and the students at Pyongyang University of Architecture to make some with us. This new experience was carried out with obvious pleasure and made it possible to collect through the drawings valuable information on their representations of and their way of living and/or developing the city while exchanging our own images. This was more instructive than the exchanges we had been able to have in more traditional workshops because the drawings were spontaneous.

Furthermore, drawing can be viewed as less politically engaging and, therefore, less dangerous than speech. We were able to use this experiment as a form of disruptive investigation (aka “breaching”) to bring out meaning in a style of communication that is not restricted by official discourse codes.[3] From this experience, we were able to come up with alternative, participatory or co-creative and non-verbal methods of inquiry, where we ourselves can intervene to reduce the asymmetry.

Another action was inviting our North Korean colleagues to Paris for a week of field visits and a scientific workshop around a common theme in 2017 and 2019. Architectural field visits often result in being able to better explain what is happening in one place (here), to ask questions and, therefore, better understand how things work somewhere else (there): for example, discussing the water supply in Paris with North Korean colleagues lead naturally to compare and talk about how it works in Pyongyang. In some respects, our fieldwork of Pyongyang was also conducted in Paris, revealing that fieldwork can be “multi-sited.”[4]

The combination of all these actions has formed the basis of our method of scientific engagement, based on contact with peers, mutual respect and common research interests, which is the only kind that is valid in a closed field of this type.

The “Power”—a Nebulous Other

However, there remains another that is far more absolute and elusive than all the people we met; it is the nebulous force of the “power,” or the “organs,” as Michel Gentile defines it, whose hidden dynamics are sometimes revealed to us.[5] For example, one day, our guides ended up letting us walk around and document an apartment courtyard in Pyongyang, where the daily life of the locals is observable. The next day, the guides told us they had problems with their hierarchy because a resident had called the agency in charge of security to complain about strangers intruding. Thus, our guides, who supposedly represent this Power, were called to order by the exact same Power, demonstrating the difficulty of their role as mediators between us and those in control.

The fieldwork cannot exist if the other is objectified more than objectivized. Even though human interaction is often denied in the DPRK, it does take place, if only with our colleagues and guides.[6] All of this confirms once again that the field is not raw data but a co-construction between researchers, workers in the field, observers and mediators.

Translating the Field: Writing the Social Sciences in a New Way

Our book also questions the classical protocols of social science research, particularly the production of academic materials, by using a device generally banned from scientific discourse—humor. The distancing necessary for our being able to reflect upon theoretical assumptions and perspectives, along with the psychological pressures experienced in a difficult terrain, requires the use of alternative practices of discourse. Irony can serve as an effective tool as it is a form of both distancing and questioning.

Similarly, we chose to apply decentering and distancing treatments to the illustrations in the book. We asked Sun Mu, a North Korean visual artist now living in South Korea, to transform our field photographs into drawings.[7] He also created comics out of some of our anecdotes in the field based on our notes. This patchwork of text and images is like collected fragments of interpretation that could be viewed as hypotheses posited in relation to the totalitarian temptation created by a political regime that organizes, informs, and controls fieldwork in North Korea.

Thus, our book presents itself as a type of fieldwork manifesto that tries to convey the complexity of our research while also demonstrating our determined desire to gain a greater understanding of North Korean realities, despite the difficulties.

Conclusion: Scientific and Ethical Integrity

Despite any successes we may have encountered over the years, there remains a major difficulty in organizing fieldwork trips to North Korea—ethics.

We have seen that the surveillance of the individuals in contact with the researcher is an issue. It is not only about the research and its use, but also the risks that we may cause our informants to take or the fact that the people we are in contact with may be the subject of investigations, which always carries uncertain consequences.

The difficulty of how to maintain neutrality is another ethical issue.[8] Faced with an emotionally harsh reality but engaged in their research and faithful to long-term personal relationships with their local guides and colleagues and their individual values, researchers may be tempted to ignore the injunction of neutrality that their profession dictates and put themselves in danger in closed or even violent fields.[9] To attempt to penetrate North Korea, where the researcher is directly confronted with the violence of the system, even if only in a hushed way, is also to take the risk of being made a tool of the totalitarian system. However, avoiding the country contributes to its isolation, confinement and the making of this “anti-world,” which certainly plays into the hands of the North Korean system.

Fieldwork in the DPRK is by no means this romantic, naïve and positivist idea of a reality to be discovered but is quite literally–a field to work. It is a complex process that is inscribed in temporality. It is a process that fully engages the researcher as a person. There is no doubt that it is increasingly urgent and necessary to continue conducting fieldwork in North Korea.

Like all countries in the world, North Korea reacted to the pandemic by increasing control over its population in an extreme manner. The country remained closed for more than three years, which affected our contacts and our ability to conduct fieldwork. As with our scientific partners in other countries, we have tried to keep in touch despite the distance (we ran a remote workshop on December 6 and 7, 2022), and, as elsewhere, we hope that the reopening of the country will enable a gradual return to normal. In this context, on the basis of the “field to work” initiated more than fifteen years ago (2006) at the Centre for Korean Studies of EHESS, we intend to resume our engaged projects as soon as possible.

  1. [1]

    This text is based on the chapters written by Valérie Gelézeau and Benjamin Joinau in Faire du terrain en Corée du Nord [Doing Fieldwork in North Korea] (L’Atelier des cahiers, 2021).

  2. [2]

    See, for example, Claude Lévi‑Strauss, Anthropologie structurale (Paris Plon, 1958), 415, and the answer of Jean Bazin, Des clous dans la Joconde: l’anthropologie autrement (Toulouse, Anarchasis, 2008), 409.

  3. [3]

    Harold Garfinkel, Research in ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1967).

  4. [4]

    George E. Marcus, “Ethnography In/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 24 (1995): 95-117.

  5. [5]

    De Ceuster, Koen, “Les cadres idéologiques et pratiques d’un terrain en Corée du Nord,” in Valérie Gelézeau and Benjamin Joinau, Faire du terrain en Corée du Nord [Doing Fieldwork in North Korea] (L’Atelier des cahiers, 2021), 37; and Michael Gentile, “Meeting the ‘organs’: the tacit dilemma of field research in authoritarian states,” Area 45, no. 4 (December 2013),

  6. [6]

    It should be noted that these roles (colleague, interviewee, collaborator, interlocutor, etc.) are relative positions that can evolve, disappear, be reversed or negotiated. The same person (including us) can play all these roles successively, or even simultaneously.

  7. [7]

    Sun Mu fled North Korea in the late 1990s and took refuge in South Korea in 2001.

  8. [8]

    Philippe Descola, Les Lances du crépuscule [Twilight Spears] (Paris : Plon, 1994).

  9. [9]

    Myriam Houssay‑Holzschuch, “Géographies de la distance : terrains sud‑Africains [Geographies of distance : South African terrain],” in Thierry Sanjuan, Carnets de terrain. Pratique géographique et aires culturelles [Field notebooks. Geographic practice and cultural areas (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008): 181‑195.

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