North Korean is in the news again. Lately, the stories about the impossible state have been relatively normal, even by the DPRK’s standards: the secretive leader Kim Jong-un may have health problems, he may be purging the country’s leadership. National rulers develop health problems, same as the rest of us, and dictators conduct purges to protect themselves. With all things North Korean, some skepticism is warranted. The first question we need to ask: how do we know about this? How do we know anything about North Korea in general? Most of the outside world’s knowledge about North Korea comes from defectors. Another important source of information on the DPRK were the negotiations conducted under the auspices of the Six Party Talks, or the Agreed Framework talks of the 1990s.
Defector testimony and information gleaned from negotiations offer different parts of the picture. Defectors from North Korea come from all walks of life, and leave from many different reasons. The common thread through all North Korean defectors is that none of them are supposed to leave. Books such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Nothing to Envy and even The Reluctant Communist by Charles Robert Jenkins (an American GI who defected to North Korea in the 1960s to avoid getting transferred to Vietnam) talk about almost anything with regard to life in North Korea. The thrust of books published for mass consumption tends to be about what everyday life in North Korea is really like, but there are thousands of defectors. Some of them were even government officials, and have given interviews to newspapers, television, and other media. Plenty of defectors give lectures to the general public. Their stories are easy to come by.
As for learning from the negotiations, it is a little trickier. Where defectors can simply tell us their stories, North Korean negotiators are presumably still loyal to the regime. They are charged with obtaining something the regime wants from foreign countries. Whether they state it directly or not, what negotiators say during meetings reveals Pyongyang’s goals to the rest of the world. The diplomats who represented the United States at talks with North Korea often give interviews, and they write memoirs. So do South Korean and Japanese diplomats, in their own languages first, of course. As with the defectors, it is not hard to here from former negotiators like Christopher HIll in their own words. They give interviews, speeches and write memoirs.
Despite the testimony of defectors and negotiators, there is still plenty of room for confusion over North Korea. Our understanding of the “Hermit Kingdom” is not helped by the fact that the crazier stories make good copy. The truth is, we would rather hear stories about a seemingly gluttonous tyrant eating himself to death while he condemns his enemies to death by means befitting a Bond villain because that gives us a sense of excitement that trying to tease out the truth does not. Then again, sometimes North Korea really is just as weird as it appears to be.