April 12, 2017

Dr. Andre Schmid – Reflections By Juliana Pena

On Tuesday March 28th, Penn was visited by Professor Andre Schmid of the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. His talk was hosted by the Kim Program in Korean Studies as part of the Korean Studies Colloquium. Professor Schmid talk, entitled “Is There a North Korean History Without Kim Il Sung?” centered around his own doubts as a historian of North Korea of the possibility of studying North Korean history without the Kim family and propaganda. Through his research, Professor Schmid has focused in on the socio-economic and household issues within North Korean society- a contrast to the “Kim Regime” centric focus that is the focus of many historical texts of North Korea.

Professor Schmid pointed out that our understanding of North Korea is very much a reproduction of North Korean propaganda and contains an obsession for the Kim family. Although historians and critics alike admonish the North Korean leadership, we tend to have an odd satisfaction with North Korea’s bizarre behavior; even to the point that fake, absurd news regarding North Korea is seen as believable and accepted as just another odd thing done by the North Koreans.

For me, research such as Professor Schmid’s is essential to our understanding of North Korea, and to act as a catalyst for the changing dialogue about North Korea.  As Professor Schmid pointed out, research from North Korean scholars, in addition to journals, magazines, and other primary sources, are available and plentiful; and are just waiting to be used in research, to deepen our understanding of North Korean society. As a student of business, I found Professor Schmid’s analysis of North Korean consumption patterns fascinating, as I saw how, from analyzing magazines and catalogues, households changed from consuming for a purpose to “consumption for consumption’s sake”. The ability to track consumption patterns through primary sources, and derive connections to the changing power dynamics of the North Korean regime and local industrialists broadened my understanding of North Korea’s socio-economic development beyond what I have ever been able to find on my own.

Prior, I had a very narrow understanding of North Korean economics, relying on propaganda material and articles focusing on agriculture and food production; all heavily focused on the North Korean regime. Now, I have a better understanding of consumption and socio-economic conditions from the bottom of society – up.

March 31, 2017

Dr. Andre Schmid – Reflections by John G. Grisafi

Professor Andre Schmid, University of Toronto, spoke at Penn on Tuesday, March 28, hosted by the Kim Program in Korean Studies. Prof. Schmid’s talk was titled “Is There A North Korean History Without Kim Il Sung?” Schmid said the title is an essential question which captures a very real doubt that he has harbored for many years as a historian of North Korea.

Telling the history of North Korea is certainly no easy task. Schmid said he once though it too difficult to do a history of North Korea. There was likely too much propaganda, too much Kim Il Sung, and not enough sources. But now Schmid is writing a book on the history of North Korea, focusing on socio-economics and issues of domesticity. Schmid said that with this project, he is trying to prove wrong his own previous assumptions.

There is an analytical conundrum in the study of North Korea, said Schmid. Our histories have a paradoxical tendency to reproduce in North Korea’s own framework. Observers of North Korea are often stuck in a mode of analysis which owes much to North Korean propaganda and the categorical modes of Cold War thinking. People are often obsessed with Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. We critique North Korea and its leadership cult, yet at the same time there is a pleasure taken in reveling at the bizarreness of North Korea. Schmid said it is bot much of an exaggeration to say that our histories of North Korea have pretty much become biographies of the three Kims. Even our periodization of North Korean history is based on their reigns. The nature and center of power in North Korea has become an a priori assumption.

Schmid discussed two examples of how to interpret North Korean history differently. His first example was the notion that North Korean subjects in the early years of North Korean history were unable to move freely or to “vote with their vote.” Officially, North Korean subjects could not choose where they lived in the 1950s and 1960s. This was presented by the state in terms of superior rationality of economic planning. But this was easier said than done. Planners found that the population was actually quite elusive. In reality, people made their own determinations about where they wanted to live, factory managers chose who they wanted to hire, despite the regulations that were on the books, revealing the limits of state power. 30 percent of workers in the industrial and transport sectors of the economy in 1959 had moved outside the restrictions of official plans. Schmid cautioned of the basic historian’s fallacy of taking intentions to be actual outcomes. Just because Kim Il Sung proclaimed something does not mean it was actually carried out.

The second example Schmid gave was consumption and material culture. Early discussion in North Korean literature of material culture is focused away from consumption and rationalized through linkage to practical purposes and goals, such as the various functions curtains fulfill in the home. The focus was away from any suggestion of consumption for consumption’s sake. But a few publications go through a change and begin to discuss ways of decorating homes and discuss objects and household items for their own sake. Photos were published which featured homes and objects without showing people in the rooms or even Kim Il Sung photos on the walls. Photos, even those with people, showed more objects and more aspects of consumption and concern for material culture than was previously the case. Some publications even featured articles and photos about fashion.

Too often we think of North Korean ideology as being completely homogenous and uniform and only coming from the top down. Publications, though, reveal that there were other sources that informed North Korean ideology aside from the top-level sources. North Korea has a socio-cultural world beyond that proliferated by the top-level sources. Even before the end of the Cold War and the opening of Soviet archives, historians in the West began to poke holes in previous interpretations of the Stalinist period through the totalitarian model. The way we understood Stalin and the Stalinist period in the 1950s is completely different than the way we understand them today. Schmid argues that we can ask questions and begin to poke holes in the way we have understood North Korea. We can move away from being locked in Cold War categories and rethink the way we historicize North Korea.

February 15, 2017

Dr. Hyun Jae Yoo – reflections by John Grisafi

Dr. Hyun Jae Yoo, Research Fellow of Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University and visiting scholar in the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies, gave a lecture on Tuesday, January 31, 2017 as part of the Korean Studies Colloquium. He spoke about “Circulation of Coins in East Asia: 1650-1800.”

The first Kim Program lecture of the Spring 2017 semester, “Circulation of Coins in East Asia: 1650-1800,” was given by Hyun Jae Yoo, a research fellow of the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar in Penn’s Kim Program in Korean Studies. Introducing Yoo, Dr. Eugene Park, director of the Kim Program, explained that this talk was somewhat out of the ordinary for two reasons. The first was that it is relatively uncommon to hear a talk on the economic history of early modern Korea. Second was that it is also relatively rare to have a talk by a speaker from a non-Anglophone country comfortable enough speaking English to give such a lecture.

Yoo began his lecture by reviewing some of the history of currency. He explained that traditionally, barter systems were acceptable for conducting trade when there was a “double coincidence of wants.” But when this is lacking, it is necessary to have some sort of medium of exchange. This, according to Yoo, is the commonly-held theory for explaining the origin of coins. He then noted how some forms of currency have intrinsic value (for example, the material value of the metal in a coin) while other forms have designated value, which is usually indicated on the currency and must be backed up by a government or other entity for that value to have meaning. Early forms of metallic money in East Asia were not necessarily coins and came in various shapes, including what is known as “knife money” in Korea, roughly dagger-shaped pieces of bronze.
The design and composition of coins was also a topic of Yoo’s lecture. Coins in East Asia in this period were composed primarily of copper (60-70%) in an alloy with zinc (20-30%) and contained a negligible amount of lead. The process began with refinement of copper ore and then the melting of the copper before molding it into shape. The government of Chosŏn (1392-1910) Korea produced two types of coins this way. Round coins were intended for domestic use while ingots were used for foreign trade. Korean coins at this time were stamped with characters which read “ever-normal circulating treasure,” signifying the status of the coins as legal tender for circulation regardless of date (unlike contemporary Chinese coins, which were stamped with the name of the imperial era in which they were minted).
But the primary objective of Yoo’s talk was answering the following question: “Why did East Asian countries mint coins despite such high costs of production?” (Yoo’s emphasis). According to Yoo, the value of a coin was not very high when factoring in the refining procedure, which was difficult and time-consuming for the government. The most expensive part of making coins, though, was the metal itself. Yoo said that the cost of raw materials made up 69% of the production cost of coins. Despite, or perhaps because of, the cost, coins were relatively uncommon in Chosŏn Korea. In the late 17th and early 19th centuries, there was, according to Yoo, a scarcity of metal coinage in Korea. Coins were thus not used in the majority of private transactions in when barter would suffice.
Why then, did Chosŏn Korea produce the coins? Yoo argues the most important usage of coinage in East Asia, particularly in Korea, was fiscal policy, to regulate prices in the economy or to issue currency to commoners and relieve economic hardship. Specifically, he explained that the exchange rate for silver to coins (that is, the amount of silver the government would pay out for coins) was significantly lower than that of either China or Japan. This allowed the government to make a profit off coinage, a practice known as seignorage. Thus, the state’s motivation for minting coins was not to so much to provide a medium of exchange for everyday economics, but so the that the government could influence trade and the economy.

December 5, 2016

Divided Families Panel — by Elaine Lee

On Monday, November 21, Penn for Liberty in North Korea, Penn Korean Student Association, the Asian Law and Politics Society, and a non-governmental organization called Divided Families USA partnered to host an informational workshop on North Korean refugees: “Faces of the Divided Korea.” Numerous guest speakers formed a panel to engage in a discussion: Michael Lammbrau, founder of the Arirang Institute, Benjamin Silberstein, PhD candidate at Penn, and Daniel Lee, Korean Affairs Fellow of New York Representative Charles Rangel. The event began with a screening of a documentary on reunification of Korean families divided by the Korean War.

The documentary screening set the stage for discussion with the panelists, depicting heartbreaking separation of families and the difficulty of coordinating such reunifications due to absence of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea. Recordings of live interviews with reunited family members humanized the tragedy of family separation, showing the many difficulties not just in coordinating such reunifications and obtaining the funding for travel, but also in identifying actual family members and confirming that the right people were being set up to meet. The documentary also stressed the pressures of time in reunifying as many family members as possible, because many of those who were separated from their loved ones have significantly aged since the Korean War, which ended in 1953. Most importantly, the documentary revealed that there has been significant activism within the United States among Korean Americans, who care deeply about reunification of Korean families, have been working hard to secure funding for travel, and lobby their governments to pass a bill that would stress the humanitarian significance of working toward reuniting divided families.

The remainder of the event focused on raising awareness about H.Con.Res.40, a bill pushed forth by Divided Families USA. Daniel Lee moderated the discussion, as he is currently working in Washington, D.C. to supervise passage of the bill. Lee stressed the bipartisan and humanitarian aspects of the bill in the hopes that lack of contentiousness should ease the passing of the resolution and expedite reunification efforts, especially since the number of Korean Americans who have yet to reunite with their families in North Korea are declining rapidly. While questions from the audience raised concerns about actual enactment and engagement with North Korea, Lee emphasized the immediate need to first pass the bill through the House before any further steps.

Placing this issue of Korean family reunification in an international context, the speakers noted that humanitarian reunions of this sort can have implications for other refugee issues that the United States will need to address in future foreign policy. Not just a Korea issue, reunion of families remains a basic universal right, recognized by the United Nations. The most effective ways to address this moving forward are increased advocacy and awareness of both humanitarian issues in North Korea and the lack of support for reuniting Korean families, and mobilizing Korean-American interest to lobby Congress. Additionally, Lee stated that another next step would be to secure moderators for future reunions.