Academic Roundup I: New Work on North Korea by Timothy Rich and John Ishiyama



The last couple of months have seen a spate of new empirical work on North Korea in some of the major regional journals. Our apologies to those who don’t have access through their institutions, but if our summaries are of interest these pieces may be worth tracking down. Although all academic work is vulnerable to criticism, these pieces demonstrate a point that is central to this blog: that it is possible to put together data on the North Korean political system that yields insight. We start with two pieces by Tim Rich and John Ishiyama and follow up in a subsequent post on work by James Reilly on the China-DPRK connection.

John Ishiyama’s (University of North Texas) piece at The Journal of Asian and African Studies looks at trends in the entourage accompanying Kim Jong Il over the 1997-2010 period; he examines 256 on-the-spot-guidance visits—only a portion of those undertaken, but apparently those noted by the KCNA as such—and 30 individuals who accompanied the Dear Leader. He then triangulates analysis of the leadership by Kenneth Gause (“The North Korean leadership: System dynamics and fault lines,” in Kangdan Oh (ed.) North Korean Policy Elites. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analysis, 2004), J. Lim (“The power hierarchy: North Korean foreign policy-making process. East Asian Review 14, 2 (2002): 89–106) and Michael Madden’s North Korea Leadership Watch to code elites as conservative, moderate or open (within the North Korean context, of course).

First, he finds a high level of volatility on the part of those accompanying the leadership, a characteristic I noted in similar work with Luke Herman and Jaesung Ryu. Second, he finds somewhat contradictorily that the share coded as "conservative" fall sharply around 2000 and stays low through the end of the Kim Jong Il era. He argues that this shift “appears to have resulted from the North Korean regime’s response to the sunshine policy of South Korea, and the economic and political realities on the ground after the great famine and economic collapse of the late 1990s.” This is consonant with the idea that there was at least some effort at reform in 1998, however limited in scope.

The puzzle for Ishiyama is why this shift in personnel was not accompanied by any sustained change in policy, either internally or externally. His explanation: that the hostile stance of the Bush administration pushed the reform movement off track. Those identified as more moderate were nonetheless constrained by external pressures.

We are somewhat skeptical of this interpretation, as the derailing was partly of the North Koreans’ own making and seemed to consolidate in 2008. We cannot rule out that external forces played a role in what Marc Noland and I call “reform in reverse” after 2005, But a more troubling finding for the exercise--and our work on the topic as well--is that the composition of the elite may not matter for what North Korea does one way or the other. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to pursue this work.In concluding, Ishiyama notes that a very high share of the Kim Jong Un entourage remains impossible to code, but that could change over time and other metrics--such as career paths--might be revealing as well.

At International Relations of the Asia-Pacific (14,3), Timothy Rich (Western Kentucky University) parses North Korean coverage of the nuclear issue. He scrapes all English-language content from KCNA for the 1997-2012 period and uses a content analysis program (WordStat from Provalis) to correlate mentions of the nuclear question with coverage of other issues, countries and people. Some of the incidental descriptive findings are as interesting as the main hypotheses. For example, he finds that the frequency of total references to the US (~10K) over the period are less than those of Japan (~65K), South Korea (~60K), China (~24K) and even Russia (~16K); even when measured by the metric of the share of total days with US mentions (62%), it only narrowly exceeds Russia (51%) and China (57%).

With respect to his main hypotheses, references to the nuclear issue do correlate with references to the US. But in one of the more counterintuitive findings, nuclear coverage is not higher under conservative governments in the US, the South, or when both are conservative; to the contrary, nuclear coverage is higher under liberal governments in the US and South. Interestingly, nuclear coverage is not correlated with coverage of either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il but does correlate with coverage of Kim Jong Un.

Content analysis has plenty of limitations, including the need to burrow more into what the nature of the coverage actually is; promises to negotiate on the issue get the same coding as saber-rattling. Nonetheless, Rich shows what can be done and opens up plenty of possibilities for looking at trends in KCNA coverage; for a more descriptive take, see the NKNews’ KCNA Watch.

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