This past weekend, Cornell hosted a conference titled “Understanding North Korea: The Many Faces of Juch’e.” The conference was hosted by the East Asia Program, the Einaudi Center and the Peace Studies Program.
Juch’e refers to North Korea’s self-reliant culture and its desire to become a nation free from foreign powers, after having being occupied by the Japanese and then the Soviet Union.
Korean scholars from Seoul University, the National Institute of Korean History and the Korean Folk Life Association as well as American scholars from Columbia University, Binghamton University, the University of Michigan and Cornell gathered to discuss Juch’e and other issues concerning North Korea through presentations and discussions.
Obtaining different perspectives was an important objective for all the attendees of the conference.
“There are different perspectives and I’m here to get a U.S. scholar’s perspective about North Korea,” said Joo Kang Hyun, the director of the Institute of Folk Studies of Korea, and the author of the Korean best seller Riddles in Korean Native Culture.
Chong-Ae Yu grad gave a presentation called “Success and Failure of North Korea’s Modern Industrial Agriculture” on Saturday afternoon. “[Differing perspectives are] why the discussions were very important. There is important work done by South Korean scholars that hasn’t been introduced yet to American scholars,” Yu said.
The presentations were based on papers the scholars wrote on various topics under the umbrella of Juch’e. These papers will eventually be compiled into a book. One objective of the conference was to prepare the papers for publication. After this conference, the presenters will revise their respective papers with the critiques and feedback they have received from the other scholars.
Prof. Jae-Jung Suh, government, the coordinator of the event, gave a presentation entitled “Persistence of ‘Danger’ over the Korean Peninsula: Clash of Identities between North Korea and the U.S.” Suh addressed the clashing of two identities, which he called “the other vs. the other.” He said that North Korea is perceived as “the other” by the United States, most notably by an image of North Korea as an “irrational and inherently aggressive state.”
“It began with small analysts but it is now widespread and reproduced by government agencies. It’s now so embedded, it’s hard, if not impossible, to change the image despite the changes that occurred in North Korea,” he said.
The United States, on the other hand, is viewed as “the other” by North Korea, where they believe “the U.S. threatens the existence of North Korea.” Suh explained that these clashing identities were the core of the tension that exists between North Korea and the United States.
Suh’s presentation was followed by a commentary done by Prof. Naoki Sakai, Asian studies and comparative literature, who talked about American hegemony over the Pacific. Sakai said that the American media presents North Korea as a paranoid nation.
“It’s not about North Korea but about self-image. In order to secure alliances, this fantastic representation of North Korea makes a lot of sense … North Korea is a classical enemy with which you can engage in warfare,” Sakai said.
All the presentations were followed by critiques given by a designated commentator; the speaker was free to address these comments afterward. A question and answer session followed.
Before Suh addressed the various points raised by Sakai, he expressed his satisfaction with the discussions that took place.
“[This view] comes from different perspectives and backgrounds. I learned a lot from this interdisciplinary dialogue,” Suh said.
Yu described how the critiques have been helpful for her. “The feedback was very specific and it helped to fill in the gaps of my article.”
“It taught us what we can do as Korean-Americans. I wanted to be more knowledgeable about the situation since it’s one of the most disputed issues out there,” said Roy Park ’08, when asked how the conference was beneficial to him.
One of the commentators, Prof. Meredith Woo-Cumings, political science, University of Michigan, described the event as a “very nice conference. The intent was to exchange knowledge between American and South Korean scholars with regards to North Korea. This is the first interesting conference in that regard and the organizer did an excellent job.”
Archived article by Virginia Nam