Cracking the Hermit Kingdom's Black Box: An Innovative Method for conducting research in North Korea

Authors: Robert Huish*, Dalhousie University
Topics: Asia, Field Methods, Political Geography
Keywords: North Korea, Sanctions, Travel Bans, Methods,
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Galerie 6, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


North Korea is a black box when it comes to research. Best described as a total control zone, it is impossible for researchers to apply traditional qualitative methods in the DPRK. Critiques against the regime can be fatal, statistical data is dubious, and even direct communication and contact with North Koreans is controlled if not prohibited. Most “data” on the DPRK is highly inaccurate, and sensationalized. Occasionally refugee testimonies and intelligence reports buttress some understanding of the DPRK, but the challenge remains as how to pursue quality research findings, when checking sources, or other scholarship in the literature is impossible. This paper is based on two-years of research on the security and human rights crisis in North Korea. I argue that instead of attempting to “work on the ground” it is possible to pursue geographic research on North Korea by focusing less on the concept of “truth in place”, and instead on the “impacts of the place”. The paper discusses an innovative methodology used on several research projects between 2014 and 2017 that include defector testimonies and tracking of maritime vessels out of the DPRK. This methodology can be used for the pursuit of human geography research in North Korea, and in other “forbidden places” as well.

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