Skip to main content

North Korea: A Study in Secrecy

Duke's Cheehyung Kim is half of this country's pool of North Korea historians

Cheehyung Kim teaches in Duke's history and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies departments
Cheehyung Kim teaches in Duke's history and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies departments

As he watches the latest round of saber rattling emanating from North Korea, Cheehyung Kim sees a familiar pattern in play.

North Korea's most recent threat -- to test-launch a nuclear missile able to reach the United States -- will most likely become the latest in a long line of empty promises from the secretive nation, says Kim, a North Korea historian at Duke.

"North Korea most likely won't ever launch an attack," he says. "They're loud and they're aggressive, but they haven't said anything they haven't said in the past. But the rhetoric is closing any hope for genuine talks with the U.S., with South Korea, even China and Japan."

With North Korea's global profile continuing to rise even as it seems determined to continually isolate itself from the rest of the world, Kim has plenty to keep his eyes on. An American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow at Duke, Kim joins his graduate school mentor Charles Armstrong of Columbia University as one of just two North Korea historians working at American universities.

While most North Korea scholars study security or foreign policy, Kim focuses on history in hopes of bettering American understanding of a people he believes have been misunderstood.

"The most important single thing I learned was that for ordinary North Koreans, much of their lives was just like our lives, if our lives were poor and you had to work a lot to make ends meet," Kim says. "Toiling, dealing with their bosses, their unions, their schedules and the demand for them to produce."

Studying a country known for its isolation and control of information isn't easy.  For his dissertation, Kim leaned heavily on documents, oral histories and other materials provided by people and institutions outside North Korea, which he has visited just once for a single week.

It required a good bit of skepticism, creativity and a lot of legwork. The resulting paper was an exhaustive look at the everyday life of working-class North Koreans in the 1950s.

As he begins his academic career, he plans now to write a lot more about this mysterious country's history. And to think he didn't grow up at all interested in academia.

Coming Slowly to Academia

Born in South Korea, Kim was nine when his family relocated to the New York City area and later to Texas. His father, Sangdae, was a journalist with the Korea Times, a newspaper expanding its overseas circulation in response to growing Asian populations in the United States.

Kim attended the University of Texas, where he studied anthropology and became interested in writing and film. It wasn't until the news of North Korea's famine reached the west that Kim began thinking deeply about his family roots and the oddities of North Korea, its politics and economic system.

"We didn't know any North Koreans because it was illegal to communicate," he says. "We probably have family up there, but I don't know. So all these things generated curiosity for me."

After graduating, Kim worked as a social activist in both the United States and Korea. That work, he says, was life-changing. Among the organizations he worked with was the Korean Peasants League, a group of small farmers in South Korea who crossed the border -- legally -- into North Korea to help farmers there improve their work.

Academia or Activism?

It was this work that brought Kim to North Korea in 2007, for a one-week trip to a mountain town far from Pyongyang, the capital city. It was decidedly not a typical North Korean experience. While he spent his days working with local farmers, he was otherwise confined to a tourist hotel, passing the time eating local food and sampling bilberry spirits, a fruity, harsh North Korean liquor.

He came away with an appreciation for his fellow activists, who were so dedicated to their work they wondered whether they'd ever get married or have children, Kim recalls. Though he would eventually have a family and choose an academic path, Kim still wonders what his life would be like had he continued his activism.

"A lot of scholars have that guilt," he says. "I'm detached from the whole spirit of these people, this dedicated, passionate spirit that I really admire. It was an important part of my life for a long time, and I miss it."

Kim's path took him to Columbia, where he spent several years with South Korean scholars whose materials helped shape both his dissertation and larger view of North Korea. He read magazines and books and watched films to get a sense of the nation's culture.

One valuable source was an obscure, 1950s-era government magazine aimed at improving the lives of laborers. In it, Kim found themes common to lower middle-class workforces the world over.

"As a worker at a factory, you're at your machine, with your team, and you're given a goal," he says. "Within this environment there's a great deal of freedom and choice and micro-level politics that are universal. The propaganda is there, the control is there, but there are situations where government control is ineffective. It's the workers themselves who have to create their own environment."

Kim's focus on the everyday North Korea is a function of his undergraduate training in anthropology, says Armstrong, the Columbia professor who mentored him.

"He's very interested in everyday life and its effect on ordinary people. Most work on North Korea has focused on political science and leadership, but there's obviously much more going on there than just the actions of the top leaders," Armstrong says. "He's able to read these texts that historians don't often pay attention to, and interpret them in interesting ways. That's what anthropologists do; they're less interested in the leadership than the lives of the ordinary people in a society."

Kim concluded that to some extent, life for the working poor in North Korea isn't that much different than life for laborers the world over. But the nation's global reputation for repression and secrecy may give the wrong impression, he says. 

"North Korea's restrictions shouldn't exoticize the people," he says. "So many places in the world don't have electricity. In poor countries, water, electricity, social services simply aren't there. North Koreans are trying to make their lives better, but are simply stuck."