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SPECIAL SECTION: NORTH KOREA Guest Editor: Jae-Jung Suh Introduction Making Sense of North Korea: Institutionalizing Juche at the Nexus of Self and Other Jae-Jung Suh In American discourse, both popular and scholarly, North Korea remains either an unknown hermit or a palpable evil. While it is a country everyone loves to hate, its reality remains elusive to most, and many speculate about its contemporary conditions and future viability. As a country, North Korea has existed for over half a century, yet its history remains in oblivion. The most recognizable features of contemporary North Korea—its nuclear problem , famine, and son gun chöngch'i (military-first policy)—seem somehow ahistoric, entities that the North's leadership has produced seemingly out of the blue, and perhaps out ofevil intentions. In general, the world views North Korea—with a population of over twenty million spread over land the size of New York state—as little more than a monolithic unit that speaks with one voice and walks in regimental unison. For its part, the United States, which fought the first "hot" war (armed, open conflict) ofthe Cold War period against North Korea, considers the country to be a threat, constantly wielding weapons to undermine U.S. security and that ofU.S. allies. Mostly, however, North Korea remains invisible. On the occasions that it emerges from the shadows, it does so as a laggard, an outlier, a violator, or a threat. In short, it is the other.1 The state of discourse about North Korea parallels, at least partially, that of politics. The process through which the United States and North Korea produce knowledge about each other has been tainted by the enmity in which they have been mired for over fifty years. This enmity has cut off direct and meaningful channels of communication and exchange, and has created, in Jae-Jung Suh is associate professor and director of Korea Studies Program at SAIS Johns Hopkins University. The Journal ofKorean Studies 12, no. 1 (Fall 2007): 3-14 3 4 Jae-Jung Suh each case, the structural absence ofthe object of inquiry. The dearth offirsthand experience and direct knowledge between North Korea and the United States forces scholars to rely on secondary sources that are susceptible to existing presumptions, whereupon they often unwittingly reproduce them.2 The scarcity of"raw data" has been supplemented, or in some cases replaced, with theories developed in the context ofstudying other communist countries (particularly the Soviet Union), underdeveloped communist countries (such as China), or lately collapsed communist countries (such as Romania). Such knowledge is produced with empirical deficiencies, and the presumed generalizability of these theories elides the problems that underlie them. This vicious circle offlawed knowledge production is exacerbated by the powerful antagonism between North Korea and the United States, which skews and constrains the possible range ofdiscursive space open to deliberations. To the extent that presumptions in the existing theories, which stand in for absent empirics, are affected by enmity—whether of a global Cold War kind or a more local Korean variety—the resulting knowledge contributes to reproducing enmity and misunderstanding. The cycle ofconfrontation is therefore complete: the enmity affects knowledge production, and the knowledge, so affected, reinforces the enmity. Out ofthis vicious circle, North Korea's identity emerges as everything the United States is not: totalitarian, economically bankrupt, morally repulsive, and backward. For those who contemplate offering assistance or who advocate engagement, such an identity provides a starting point: North Korea is needy, deserving of benevolence; an objective, ripe for transformation; or a target, crying out for civilizing mission. For those who dig deeper, North Korea represents a deviation even from the standard deviations, which compels them to add a prefix or modifier to the standard othering discourses, and to underline that the North is the outlier of outliers. Hence, North Korea is often described in terms ofneo-totalitarianism or Confucian socialism.3 The "securitization" framework that bifurcates the world into security and danger —and that squarely places the country in the latter zone—buttresses this discourse. North Korea's political deficiencies and economic difficulties, and even its very existence, are understood within the framework that links them to danger as the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-1665
Print ISSN
0731-1613
Pages
pp. 1-13
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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