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.