Cheehyung Harrison Kim is a historian of modern East Asia and North Korea, with research interests in labor history, social history, visual history, industrial modernity, everyday life, the modern city and socialism. He spent his undergraduate days at the University of Texas at Austin and went to graduate school at Columbia University. He then did postdoctoral work at Duke University as a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. He joined the University of Missouri’s Department of History in 2014. He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at University of Hawaii at Manoa. Kim has experience working as a social activist in the United States and Korea. Vox Magazine reports that Kim is “one of the first university professors in the United States to teach a North Korean history class.”
In this interview, Kim discusses the historical roots of the current North Korean crisis, gives his recommendations for world leaders, and reflects on the complicated nuclear situation.
When did North Korea’s global reputation for repression and secrecy start?
There was always such a description in the United States, especially in the mainstream media, to talk about countries that belonged to the so-called socialist camp. This was part of the Cold War rhetoric of anticommunism. The socialist camp also portrayed the capitalist camp in such ways—however, reality was far different for both camps. For many countries like North Korea, the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were times of much interaction and exchange.
For N.K., the reputation it has now is rather new. Economic decline began in the 1970s, but the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the major cause. Its reputation arose in the mid 1990s with the hunger crisis and famine, especially after Kim Il-Sung’s death in 1994. Kim Jong Il was seen as a lesser leader, more reclusive, more repressive, and more despotic precisely because he tried to manage the famine internationally through media and military tactics. Its own media tried to portray the famine as something N.K. government was managing, and KJI used the military to continue as a labor force and implement order. The country was experiencing chaos in many parts (close to anarchy in some regions), while millions of ordinary people were suffering and dying.
In a way, how N.K. government managed the famine is typical of any government in trying to portray to the public that things are under control. But it is also false to think that N.K. and KJI ignored the famine. When KJI and the South Korean president Kim Dae Jung met in 2000, KJI said that the North Korean people are suffering from hunger. This was at the most formal, publicity-laden event!
The ongoing issue of the nuclear program, which has its beginning in the 1950s but became world news in the mid-1990s, further created the image of repression. The nuclear program was N.K.’s countermeasure to its domestic economic woes, public morale, and growing international hostility and rebuke. The nuclear program would provide energy and the backbone to stand up to South Korea, Japan, and United States. The nuclear program as an energy source is a widely accepted form around the world, but its transformation into weapons is the wrong choice for the world community. For N.K., it was a hard, rational decision.
World leaders have been buzzing for decades, and “North Korea missile test” pops up in the daily news frequently. Is the nuclear threat real?
The nuclear threat as a real war is not real. North Korea is using the nuclear weapons to stand up to the U.S. and South Korea and to send a message to the world that it will bend to no one. N.K. sees nuclear weapons as one definite way to gain international attention and be heard, and it sees nuclear energy as a solution to its energy problem. From the perspective of N.K. military defense, U.S. territories, including Hawaii and California, are indeed on its map, just like N.K. is on the military defense map of the U.S., S.K., and Japan. But N.K. does not want a war; nobody does—not China, not Russia, not S.K., and not the U.S.
These threats are products of a war of words, as we all know this rhetoric well: a battle of language. This fight with words does matter, however. This is how governments gauge each other and how militaries create plans and prepare to respond. Militaries all over the world LIVE for moments like this. They need such battles of words because this is what make militaries move and how militaries justify themselves. This is no different in the U.S. and N.K. The militaries of the two countries are relatively enormous and their economies involve millions of people. The military industrial complex in the U.S. needs constant threats from the N.K. to do what it does and prepare for the future. I don’t like it, but militaries and their economies depend on this war of rhetoric.
Can you talk about some differences between the North Korean and South Korean people in terms of their way of life, cultures, and belief systems?
The people of the two countries are the same, as with all other countries. North Koreans laugh, cry, grow up, work, study, play, love, hate, etc. just like we do. Even their belief system is complex and plural. You could say that most of the people are loyal to the leader and the party, but much of this is performance in the public and directed toward the outside world. Performance does not make it any less real—performance is actually very important in any society, including ours. When we are at work or at school or church or even at home with our family, we play our role. For example, just because you go to church doesn’t mean you never lie, you never get drunk. No, not at all. We all have areas where we perform certain roles. This is what North Koreans do when they get asked about their leader and party. Most Americans say America is the greatest country in the world. We believe this, even as we are critical of many things. Same for North Korea. Their outlook is complex like ours.
During a preliminary lecture for a class which isn’t familiar with Korean history, how do you approach establishing the “facts” about North Korea in the very beginning? What are some common questions students have?
It is imperative in my course to see North Korea as part of modern history, at the intersection of postcolonial history, socialist history, and the economic history of industrialism. Regarding facts, the more you look, the more you find about N.K. There are 50 years of good research out there from many disciplines, from history to art, from scholars all over the world. What N.K. government writes about itself always need to be contextualized and verified, but you can always read historical facts behind propaganda. All governments use propaganda, so as long as we treat N.K. as part of the modern world, then we have to be skeptical of all government information around the world. In summary, in my course, N.K. is compared with the world, including the U.S., which reveals the fact that what happens in N.K. also happens in other places. Useful critique is possible when comparison is properly established. Why N.K.’s problems are seen as unique and different is really the important question.
One question that always makes for a good dialogue is: why won’t North Korean people rise up? We start by talking about what resistance is. There are numerous forms of resistance. Organized popular protest is only one of them. Sometimes, mass protests are not the best choice for people. Do we rise up every time we witness injustice? We do not, though we should. We have all the freedom to rise up, but we don’t. Popular protests are difficult—important but difficult. Resistance also happens in daily life in small ways. These are not downright oppositions but small ways for ordinary people to make their life enjoyable and fulfilling. These kinds of resistance are what we discover in N.K., in all areas.
On how North Koreans have been misunderstood, you told DukeTODAY that “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. Toiling, dealing with their bosses, their unions, their schedules and the demand for them to produce.” This was from an interview four years ago. Has anything changed?
I think I was talking about my forthcoming book. I was saying that ordinary North Koreans do not blindly do as they say. They complain, argue, fight, resist, negotiate, and constantly try to make their lives better. This is more so today than ever, mostly because the private sector has become very large; almost everybody is involved in it or uses it daily, and so there is a new class of wealthy people. Most North Koreans have better access to information and goods than ever before. The rise of the market economy is also creating greater levels of inequality according to job and region.
In this regard, it is no longer possible to call N.K. socialist. It is a state-controlled capitalist country with a large unregulated free market for jobs, trade and services within and outside N.K. This kind of labor market has already become dangerous for North Koreans: young men are drawn to harsh labor in China and elsewhere, and young women are drawn to the marriage market in China and dangerous sex work across the border.
Here’s a scenario: You’re asked to share your historical expertise and brief the U.S. president’s foreign policy team on three things they must know about North Korea.
First, we should engage with N.K., because all sides can benefit economically, culturally, politically. Second, N.K. is not a socialist country. It has already opened itself to capitalism and the market economy, for better or worse. Third, N.K. is already interacting with the world. It is not a self-isolating country. If the U.S. really wants a non-nuclear N.K., then we should engage and persuade them with mutually beneficial conditions.
You worked as a social activist in the U.S. and in Korea. What organizations were you involved with and how did those experiences affect you?
I worked for various organizations and coalitions in the U.S. and South Korea. Thinking back about my activist days is emotionally complicated; many of my fellow friends are still involved in it, much more than I am now as a U.S.-based academic. Nevertheless, from about 2002 to 2008, in the US, I worked for Nodutdol for Korean Community Development (based in Queens, New York) and Nodutdol’s coalition, Korean Americans against War and Neoliberalism. In South Korea, at about the same time as a representative of Nodutdol, I worked with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the Korean Democratic Labor Party, Korean Peasants League, and coalitions like Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement, and Korean Alliance Against US-Korea FTA.
Personally, working for these organizations profoundly changed my life, a kind of an awakening moment if you will. Experiencing 1) how mass-based protests and demonstrations are organized, 2) how discourse, analysis, and funding are involved in running these protest campaigns, 3) how human relationships sustain these organizations, and 4) how exhilarating and awesome social movements can be all reshaped my identity and how I want to aspire to live my life. I knew the theories prior to joining these organizations, but being part of social movements was much more intense. I don’t live like I did in those days, but I still hold dear certain principles. In everyday life, these principles translate into things like: being environmentally aware, discussing politics and society with my family, being conscientious about consumerism, being aware of privilege, race, and class in daily life, etc.
Are you currently working on any projects?
My book on North Korea in the 1950s and ’60s is coming out next year from Columbia University Press. It’s about North Korea’s industrial drive and the factory workers who lived through it.
Erik Moshe is a freelance writer and an HNN features intern