A State of Non-Legitimacy: Un-Framing North Korean Elite Exiles’ Voices in Knowledge Production

18 September 2014
Leiden University
The Netherlands

20140627001258_0When the North Korean state speaks, it often is with a voice laden with terror, threats, anger and wrath. As often, the North Korean state speaks in a register that is unpredictably soothing, asking for peace and understanding. It is a voice heard worldwide, on the television, the internet and in newspapers, usually accompanied by the voices of North Korea experts interpreting and making understandable what seems foreign and incomprehensible. These are the only voices we hear speaking on behalf of an otherwise unintelligible North Korea. Missing from this discourse are authentic, unmediated North Korean voices, but how could there be, given the unparalleled repression within North Korea?  

North Korea, after all, is a black hole, an almost absolute absence of information. But is it? North Korea tends to be looked at through state or external interlocutors’ filters (linguistic, academic, ideological). Even when uncensored and unmediated voices of North Korean elite exiles have increasingly been trying to make themselves heard in discourse regarding their own country, scant serious attention has been paid to these voices. Continuously haphazard framing by interlocutors has left them in a fundamentally problematic position: they find themselves in a state of non-legitimacy in a field where other stakeholders occupy mutually recognized positions. Possessed of unique knowledge, experiences and insights,  the exiled voices speak in Korean and offer radically different ways of understanding North Korea. Both facts have hindered broad academic acceptance of these voices as serious contributors to debates on North Korea.

A State of Non-Legitimacy gives six of the most prominent elite exiles from North Korea a platform to make their voices heard in a serious academic setting. Never before have elite exiles in this number spoken publicly about their views on North Korea. The conference un-frames their voices by recognizing that their analyses have been confined to government circles and as such have been withheld from the public arena. With this conference, outside of the Korean peninsula nonetheless, this will change.

One voice has penetrated the silence surrounding the elite exiles. Jang Jin-sung’s Dear Leader has stunned the world, both for its literary merits and its completely different understanding of North Korea. A public lecture by Jang, currently the highest-profile elite exile from North Korea, will conclude the academic conference.

The urgency of the human rights situation in North Korea is such that research that is more reflective of the reality in North Korea is needed without delay. This empirical understanding of North Korea, along with the findings of the UN COI report detailing North Korea’s human rights abuses, must no longer be left out of formulating principled approaches for engaging with North Korea. It is with this in mind that Leiden University hosts this academic conference, in the hope of offering ways forward for more realistic approaches to North Korean policy-making in the Netherlands, Europe and beyond. This would be based on accurate understandings of North Korea that emphatically include the input of elite exiles, and would thus go beyond facile and unproven notions of North Korea engagement policies.

Leiden hosts this ground-breaking conference on North Korea in observance of its motto-cum-policy: a bastion of liberty. Freedom of speech is taken extremely seriously in Leiden and it is here that these people, who have risked everything to be able to speak, now present their views on the North Korea they know from the inside out.

The public lecture is free for anyone to attend with prior registration through the university’s website (not available yet). Due to security concerns, the academic conference is only accessible on registration and subsequent approval by the organizing committee.

Please contact Professor Remco Breuker at this address for more information or fill out the contact form.


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