North Korea Demystified

by Han S. Park


It is a fundamental tenet of democratic thought that in democracies, policies are conceived of, fought for, and ultimately approved or denied in the public sphere, subject to review by the court of public opinion. But in a situation in which the public lacks credible information with which to evaluate alternatives critically, this process is distorted, and democracy itself is ultimately subverted.

This is the current situation for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Disconnected from the world, this xenophobic nation has historically gone to great pains to limit the flow of information across its borders. Referred to as an “intelligence black hole” by the BBC and a “rogue nation” in public pronouncements by government officials the world over, the DPRK is shrouded in self made mystery.

With such a paucity of authoritative firsthand information on North Korea available to the citizens of the world’s democracies, discourse on the subject is impeded, and the democratic deficit regarding national policies towards the DPRK (defined here as the difference between what the public would choose if it had all the pertinent information and what the government actually does) is necessarily broadened. More directly, public policy must itself be based upon credible and accurate information if it is to be effective.

Indeed, at no other time has the need for this information been more acute. The six-party talks regarding the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula made plain the DPRK’s ambition (and ability) to play a larger role in world affairs, and its formal nuclear tests have exacerbated the tension and urgency of the situation. The death of Kim Jong Il and succession of his son Kim Jong Un, and recent reopening of bilateral discussions with the United States further increase the necessity of a nuanced understanding of contemporary society within the DPRK. If the world is to effectively deal with the reality of North Korea, reliable information is critical.

North Korea Demystified is a response to this problem. It takes as its point of departure the notion that all leaders and governments, no matter how odd or dysfunctional their behavior may seem, act in a fundamentally rational matter—but that this rationality must be put into context in order to be properly understood. That is, their rationality is not independent of their historical experience, their culture, their value structure, or their institutional constraints, and all of these things must be considered in order to discover the rationality behind the decision making that appears on its surface to be so ‘irrational’ and/or ‘dangerous.’ Only by understanding this can these policy responses be rendered intelligible, perhaps even predictable. In this respect, the book speaks to broader and more timeless themes of theoretical import. As a test case, the book seeks to demystify the “intelligence black hole” that is North Korea. In so doing, it supplies the reader with much needed factual information garnered through firsthand experience by those who have actually visited and done research in North Korea. Each chapter consists of previously unpublished research by prominent experts in the field. The book is organized topically in order to make its information quickly accessible.

The primary goal of the book is to take this perspective and use it to supply the reader with much needed factual information garnered through firsthand experience by those who have visited and done research in North Korea. To that end, the contributors form an impressive array of experts from around the world who provide invaluable, timely insights based on their research. Whereas other studies of North Korea most often rely merely on available secondary resources (e.g., texts, films etc.) rather than firsthand experience or interviews in supporting central claims, this edited volume, led by foremost North Korean expert Dr. Han S. Park, has the unprecedented advantage of all its contributors having actually spent a considerable amount of time “on the ground” in North Korea gathering information for their research.

This volume also differs from most in the breadth of its coverage: its goal is to provide a comprehensive overview of North Korean society rather than an in-depth treatment of any single characteristic of it. North Korea Demystified not only puts a face on the hermit kingdom, but it also provides the reader with the theoretical guidance necessary to actually understand it, placing the Kim family in the broader context of the society in which the family has propagated itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, North Korea Demystified represents the first edited volume on North Korea to address the succession of Kim Jong Un.

North Korea Demystified is an important volume for all political science and history collections focused on the politics and cultures of East Asia. In addition to being an invaluable resource to a scholarly audience, the book will also be of interest to policy makers, journalists covering East Asia, businesspersons interested in North Korea as an emerging market, and students (both advanced undergraduate and graduate).


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