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Christopher Green: ‘You cannot generalize North Koreans' self-understanding’

The notion of North Koreans as brainwashed and unable to think critically about their heritage and what it means to be North Korean is pervasive. More so, it is untrue, argues Christopher Green: ‘North Koreans, like any other people are diverse in their opinions and self-understanding.’ PhD defence on 26 February.

For his PhD research, Christopher Green conducted a survey of 352 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, approximately 1.5% of the defector community in South Korea at the time, and held follow-up interviews with almost 100 of the participants.

What does it mean to be North Korean?

Green: ‘This research attempts to investigate the self-understanding of North Korean defectors living in the South. What aspects of their past life in North Korea do they find pride in? What can this tell us about diasporic identities?’ Green’s research shows that arts, sports, literature, science, and technology are the most significant sources of pride for North Korean defectors, while they are least proud of state-imposed ideology and the North Korean economy.

However, attitudes towards North Korea are mainly determined by age and where the defector lived in North Korea. Those who feel most culturally connected to the Kim family are likely to be middle-aged or older generations who experienced the era of Kim Il Sung – the founder of North Korea – and either grew up in or lived in the capital Pyongyang for a considerable amount of time. Pyongyang residents generally experience a higher quality of life than those who live outside of the capital.

Post-war pride or growing up in famine

‘The older generation has vivid memories of the Korean War. For North Korea, the post-war period from the 1950s until the 1970s was a time of progress. Or at least, a time when tomorrow would usually be better than today. If you grow up in a period when your country is rising from the ashes of a war, a war the government tells you have won, you are likely to be proud of your country. These feelings of pride stay with you.’

‘On the other hand, if you’re a millennial and you grew up outside the capital Pyongyang, you are quite likely to feel resentful towards your country of birth. Unlike the older generations, young North Korean defectors did not experience an era of growth and even experienced the famine of the 1990s, a period of mass starvation and economic crisis.’

Ethnocentric view of identity considerably overstated

‘The response of the North Korean defectors also reveals that one of the dominant English-language narratives about North Korea, that of ordinary North Koreans having an extremely ethnocentric view of identity compared to people from comparable countries, is considerably overstated. There is among North Korean defectors an ethnocentric notion of what it means to be North Korean, but this is not necessarily greater than the equivalent feeling in South Korea or elsewhere.’

Green notes, ‘This assumption of extreme ethnocentricity is a result of our having limited access to the people of North Korea, and relying almost exclusively on the top-down narratives propagated by the state. It ought to go without saying that these narratives are wholly unreliable.’

North Korean defectors, a community hard to access

North Korea receives a fair amount of scholarly attention, but the question of how North Koreans understand themselves is one that has been largely left underexposed. And although there have been South Korean and US government-led studies on the North Korean defector community, an individual study of the identity of North Korean defectors of this scale is rare. This is particularly the case since access to the North Korean defector community is so difficult. ‘For security reasons, the South Korean government’s registries are not publicly available. The only way to access a large number of North Korean defectors is through your own network. This research is the result of a decade of living in South Korea and working with organizations such as Daily NK, an online news outlet that deals with information from inside North Korea.’

‘At the end of the day, what this research has taught me is to be even more careful than I already was with attempting to translate the various views and experiences of a whole community in a single voice. The self-understanding of North Koreans, like our own self-understanding, is complex and infinitely varied.

Press contact: Maarten Muns, Scientific Communications Adviser, Leiden University
+31 71 527 3282

This research was part of a broader research project, A war of words: What ancient Manchurian history does to Korea and China today. Read more. 

Text: Ifang Bremer 

Header image: Michał HuniewiczKaesong, North Korea. Find the license here.

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