Have you ever felt stuck because of all the different choices that you have? Or felt that freedom can create more pressure as you worked?
I am sure that many of us have felt at some point in our university career that freedom we get as students to formulate our own topic and conduct our research can be gratifying but also challenging. We have to negotiate a sea of diverse sources (not limited to print or online articles), determining what sources are most useful, and narrow down the topic to the point that interests us. It is a process that is not just academic but also personal, as you learn about yourself and your value systems, which shape your work and even the sources that you find.
Laidlaw research also became a journey of discovering myself, as I narrowed down my topic and tried to think critically about my sources, which included presidential speeches by the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and official files produced under his regime, all heavily leaden with ideology. I realized that there were many approaches I could take to my research (analyzing how media representations can impact North-South Korea relationships), but I wanted to look beyond their hostility and attempt to understand how their rhetoric about one another originated and impacted not only intergovernmental relationships but also the government’s relationships to their people. The most difficult part about my research was that both “media representations” and “impact” were hard to measure, and I did not want my own pre-conceptions and ideologies to influence my findings.
To minimize the confusion between what media claimed and how much actual impact it had, I divided my sources into two: one that analyzed the representation of the “internal Other” from the top (such as presidential speeches and their autobiographies), and another from the bottom, mostly stories written by the people. By “internal Other”, I was referring to South Koreans in South Korea who bore characteristics associated with North Koreans such as communism, or farming work, while in North Korea the term would indicate North Koreans who would be associated with South Koreans by the government for their bureaucratic status or family history. My original hypothesis was that having this group of “internal Other” was important for both Korean regimes after the Korean War to the end of dictatorial regimes in the 70s by enabling them to purge anti-governmental factions and thus maintain their power. Although it was tricky to separate what people have written from the stories that was expected at the time, I found some stories in North Korean archive written by elementary school students and professional authors at the fifth floor of the National Library in Banpo, Seoul, as well as some on their “RG 242” collection online. For South Korean case, I read papers published by university students in their protests, and while reading them identified some of the common terms they used repeatedly, which showed me how important finding their “juche (autonomy)” was for both South and North Korean people.
As I began writing my paper, I realized I had been conflating a lot of terms together. From reading many speeches, stories, and protest papers I saw a pattern emerging in their shared rhetoric of a necessity to recover people’s autonomy in order to forge a new nation after the Japanese Occupation. The discourse of autonomy, ironically, had been an oppressive one, one leading to educational propaganda, political purging, and economic censorship in both North and South Koreas. I had been developing two projects: one on the internal Other and another one on discourses of autonomy. They connect, as “internal Other” in both Koreas are often linked to a means to achieve unified Korea. Thus, a rhetoric of unification is simultaneously a way for the government to argue that strengthening one’s nation and reaching autonomy is by destroying the “internal Other”. In order to pursue this line of argument, however, I had also been facing squarely some of the limitations of the sources I had been using (mostly presidential speeches) and a need to gather some empirical evidences now (such as historical facts and data on social changes).
What had been particularly interesting about my research were the ways my interviews seemed to corroborate my findings on papers. I had been interviewing diverse group of people (women and men in their 50s as well as some youths), and one of the interviewees (a man in his late 20s) talked about his compulsory military experience and how his bosses often talked about the illegitimacy of North Korean government, as if this confirmed that the South Korean government, as its opposition, was following a “correct way”. Despite some of the limitations in my interviews conducted so far as all of my interviewees in their 50s are well-educated men and women, belonging to the upper strata of Korean society, most seemed to share curiosity and longing for the North and acknowledged that the presence of North as the Other was important for the government to justify some of its policies even today. Acknowledging the presence of the Other in Korean politics, however, people were also indifferent and seemed to think that the division was something that would last a long time as North Koreans had almost irrevocably became a minjok (race) different from the South. In the interviews, similar to my findings from official documents and stories, I found a curious discrepancy in their shared longing for unification but also a conviction that unification can only happen by taking over the Other.
My research had been extremely rewarding for me as I realized that freedom of research and my topic, instead of narrowing down, was just opening wider and wider, and there are still many paths that I can tread. Perhaps that is just the beauty of research: more you delve into your subject, more you understand how interconnected different issues are, and there is so much you can learn about the topic. I had also been becoming more passionate about my topic as I realized just how important the rhetoric of the Other (North and South) was in North and South Korean politics to this day. The impact this rhetoric has upon society and people, although hard to prove, is a worthy subject of study.
I want to thank my ever supportive supervisor Professor Konrad Lawson for his emails and Skypes, addressing all my concerns and difficulties. Thank you for always helping me to achieve above and beyond! I want to thank the staff of the Yonsei University library and the National Library of Korea for their support, as well as wonderful CAPOD for helping us with our research.