How We Should Study the North

It has been argued that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) still remains the terra incognita of many academic fields. While there have been substantial contributions to North Korean studies over the past decade, our understanding of the DPRK remains plagued with misconceptions and false assumptions. Mass media continues to project an image of the North clouded by stereotypes and hysteria, making it difficult to study from a point of view other than that of an outsider. Yet, it is no longer the case that lack of information or interest that renders the study of North Korea challenging. Borrowing the words of Charles Armstrong, if seen as a “foreign policy ‘problem’, [the North] will not be taken seriously as a subject of research” (2011). With the recent surge of scholarly work on North Korea, many publications provide more reliable claims based not on the ‘know thy enemy’ disposition, but on evidence and rigorous research.

            No matter how systematic and sound the research methodologies can be, one’s work will always have to bear the limitations due to the endless amount of concerns with regards to the reliability of statistics on North Korea. At first glance, the concerns on reliability are grave enough to discourage one from conducting research on North Korea. Therefore, any statistical figure on the North cannot be taken at face value but must be collected in a time-series format to allow observation of trends over time periods of interest.

There are infinite variables that can possibly affect a state’s economy and the North’s case is certainly not an exception. Moreover, what makes the DPRK most unpredictable for North Korea watchers is its reliance on a policy of strategic deception, or maskirovka in former Soviet terminology.[1] Over the past decades of the Republic’s history, its economic policies have swung like a pendulum between inch-by-inch decentralization and recentralization. However, as I have discussed already in my previous writing, the most obvious and consistent feature of the DPRK is that it has never experienced a change in the government. Furthermore, once the oscillations are contextualized on a political historical timeline, it becomes very noticeable that little to none of the political basis on the North’s economy has been modified. Never has the North shown signs of weakening the emphases on self-sufficiency (jaryukgaengseng) and the national ideology of Juche.

In the context of the fact that two Koreas are still technically at war, efforts must continue to be taken in order to deter the further hostilities from the North, thus preventing an escalation. Nevertheless, if perceived as a ‘surreal enemy’, one’s research on the North would fail to provide insights into the North’s internal rationale that drives its policy decisions. Such an approach does not provide us a solution, but a list of the reasons why the North’s internal and external status-quo is not sustainable.

Sooner or later, the North will have to make adjustments to its political and economic policies. As a matter of fact, a reform through a collapse of the Kim regime is certainly a possible scenario. However, regardless of whether the DPRK’s reform will be classified as ‘Chinese-style’ or ‘Vietnamese-Style,’ or even ‘DPRK-style,’ a successful transformation into to a functioning economy and a responsible member of a global society is virtually impossible without some degree of the regime’s decentralization, and self-drive by the North. It is equally as important to investigate what kind of political dynamics other states need to construct before they can actively engage with Pyongyang, without being deceived by the North’s maskirovka.


Armstrong, C. (2011). Trends in the Study of North Korea. The Journal of Asian Studies,70(02), 357-371. doi:

Marumoto, M. (2009, March). Project Report: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Economic Statistics Project (April-December 2008). Retrieved December 19, 2012, from

Merril, J. (1989). Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press.

[1] There are many examples of such actions, dating back to June 1950 when the North offered Seoul a new peace and unification initiative just a week before the surprise attack (Merrill 1989, 176). A more recent and notorious example is the fabricated data the North submitted to the IAEA about the status of its nuclear development program.

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