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Fieldwork in North Korea

It is difficult to get access to North Korea. That makes scientific fieldwork very difficult. Korea expert Valérie Gelézeau shared her experiences during a lunch lecture at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) on 16 February.

Anthropologists like to make a ‘thick description’ of reality. This term - devised by well-known scientist Clifford Geertz - means describing human behaviour in the context in which it occurs. Without this context, some of the interpretations are lost. 

'Arriving at a 'thick description’ in closed areas like North Korea is much more difficult,' Gelézeau explained. Until recently she worked for Leiden University, but she now works for the Centre for Korean Studies of the EHESS in Paris.Over recent years she has been to North Korea several times to carry out fieldwork.  

But can you really call it fieldwork there? The short, orchestrated visits to North Korea were at times more like study trips. The visitors were supervised by North Korean 'guides', and kept apart from the North Korean people. There was therefore no opportunity to work on a Clifford Geertz-style ‘thick description’.

Gelézeau: ‘You can compare it with doing fieldwork in a prison, or research in a nuclear power station where there are strict security measures. You don't get much opportunity there either to work out the context. In that sense North Korea isn't unique.' 

Gelézeau believes it is a myth to think that the present generation of Korea researchers can formulate a complete and objective image of the country. That would take a solid network, better command of the language and more time. However, current fieldwork does contribute to raising the debate so that a later generation of Korea experts can build on these initial experiences. 

IIAS organises regular meetings on Asia Studies. These meetings are often open to the public. 

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