Contact us | KOREAN


background left image
background right image
background handphone image
background pen image

Fledgling Historian’s Immersion in a ‘Paradise of Data’  KF Junior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center  “For a historian, it’s almost impossible to find the absolute truth. All that you can do is analyze as much data as possible, and take your best shot.” This was the advice I received from a Japanese scholar when I was examining an important event in the 1970s and did not know how to deal with the seemingly contradictory opinions about the incident. This advice has been invaluable as it gave me the confidence to work out my interpretation of the events and discern the materials to support my argument.  Visit with Don Wolfensberger, director of the Wilson Center Congress Program, to the U.S. Congress.

The entire six-month period of my assignment as a Korea Foundation junior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has been full of such revelations and discoveries. And when I say, “It was challenging from day one,” I mean that there have been so many priceless lessons, eye-opening discussions, and important encounters – all alongside the incessant stream of data coming in a variety of forms from all types of sources – that it has been hard to digest and reflect upon and make full use of all of this information.

North Korea Documentation Project

Without a doubt, my time at the Wilson Center has been the most formative experience of my career as a historian. In Korea, my research was mostly limited to studying the works of other scholars and to assessing particular events and historical periods based on an analysis of academic trends in that area. I would work directly with primary materials only when it was cited in the works of other scholars or in newly issued releases of research centers and the media. It’s not hard to imagine, then, how excited I was to gain access to the wealth of primary sources at the Wilson Center and the libraries and archives in Washington, D.C.

The amount and value of the data accumulated by the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP) of the Wilson Center is, simply put, overwhelming. Apart from the U.S.-related reports, there are several hundred documents obtained from the archives of former socialist countries in Eastern Europe, China, South Korea, Mongolia and other countries, which have been translated into English. Some of the Eastern European documents are no longer available in their home countries because they have since been “re-classified.” In the case of South Korean documents, a number of items have not yet been released in the Korean language, making the English translations of the Wilson Center the only sources for their viewing.

Whether looking for primary or secondary materials, the benefits of being a Wilson Center scholar extend far beyond the walls of the center’s building. Soon after their arrival, the scholars meet the Wilson Center librarians – the professional staff ready to assist in navigating the numerous catalogues and arranging for books from the Library of Congress (LOC) or university libraries in the area. In a few days, the requested books are delivered to the Wilson Center, including those from the LOC, the world’s largest library. Thanks to this service, I was able to work with original North Korean materials from the mid-1970s for about a month, without even leaving my desk at the center.

Another researcher borrowed from the LOC a book, which had been published in Pyongyang in the 1950s, that discusses the future direction for its economic policies. I doubt that you can still find a copy of this book in North Korea, since the purges there will often erase both the people and what they have written. We can also communicate by mail or in person with the LOC librarians, who specialize in a particular area of science or geographical region, for information about what materials are available on a certain topic. I don’t think there is a need to make a pitch for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which is also located within a short drive from the Wilson Center. For example, with a librarian’s help, you can order boxes of documents, and in an hour or so, you are able to read the original materials, often handwritten items from many decades ago.

Presentation of research findingsResearch Enrichment by Wrestling with Data
My responsibilities as a KF junior scholar included spending about 50 percent of my time at the center editing the translations and preparing the documents for publication. This task turned out to be a kind of “pleasant torture.” “Pleasant” because the leader of the NKIDP, James Person, considerately assigned to me the documents from the 1970s – the period related to my doctoral dissertation. Needless to say, in the course of editing the documents, I was able to read so many materials, which for the purpose of writing my dissertation and related articles I just needed to arrange the information and select the materials to be cited. But it was a “torture” at the same time, because the documents were compiled by foreign diplomats assigned to the Korean Peninsula, who often had very limited, if any, command of the Korean language. Besides, every language has its own phonetic system, which influences the way foreigners perceive Korean sounds. And worse: the documents were then translated into English, another language with its own phonetic and writing systems. As a result, the names of persons and geographical sites, as well as the titles of Koreans mentioned in the documents are recorded in such distorted ways that it takes considerable creativity to figure out whom the diplomats were talking about.

Discussion with James Person, head of the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars., The 2011 Critical Oral History Conference organized by the NKDIP

For instance, the only way to identify the South Korean person, whose name appeared as “Kim Bae Gu,” was through a reference in the same document, that he was the main political rival of Park Chung Hee in the presidential election of 1971. So this was Kim Dae-jung, of course. Pak Hon-yong was mentioned in a Chinese document as “Bak Xon Yeng,” but luckily the other participants of the meeting were known and it was easy to identify him. It’s much tougher when the person mentioned is of a relatively lower ranking and less famous. I struggled for half a day to figure out the actual name of the person identified as North Korean “Deputy Prime Minister Li Dju Jen” (Ri Ju-yon) in a GDR document. What do you do when a name’s spelling is gibberish, the rank is not clear, and the person is not mentioned in any other document in your possession? You can only “give it your best shot.”

For another work task, I arranged and scanned documents that had been gathered by the NKIDP but not yet processed. Even this assignment, though rather tedious, was, in fact, very helpful for my research since it allowed me to read just recently declassified documents as well as to look through the collections of Korea-related documents from the various presidential and private archives in the U.S. Had I attempted to access these documents at their places of origin, it would have taken weeks of travel time, not to mention the expenses.

Broadened Research Perspective

Every year, the NKIDP organizes a “Critical Oral History Conference” (COHC), for which they select a certain time period (for example, last year it was 1974-1976), prepare a briefing book with related diplomatic documents, and invite relevant parties, including diplomats, policymakers, and scholars, to discuss the significance of that period. The COHC in October 2011 was my first test as a historian at an international conference of this scale and importance.

Again, consideration of the Wilson Center staff and a bit of luck played a role. Since my dissertation deals with inter-Korean relations during the selected period of the conference, I was designated a provocateur for discussion about the demise of détente on the Korean Peninsula in 1974. I could hardly hide my excitement: how many scholars of history get a chance to talk to people who participated in the events that they study, and moreover, get the chance to ask the policymakers of that time about why they made this or that decision?

No less valuable for my research have been the conferences and seminars within and outside the Wilson Center and interactions with other scholars. I attended discussions and lectures by distinguished American specialists of North Korean politics, economy, and history. But it did not need to be a Korea-related event to inspire research: drawing parallels with other countries, regions, and historical epochs is another important skill I strove to hone through my experience as a KF junior scholar.

Listening to Wilson Center senior scholar Hope Harrison’s lecture about German division and confrontation during the Cold War helped me to realize aspects of the competition that I had been overlooking; learning about the history of Burma and several Southeast Asian countries from discussions with Kenton Clymer helped to clarify changes in the Cold War structure; and I could continue on and on with the instances but it’s time to wrap this up.

I’d like to end on two rather sobering observations that I made during the program. The first is nothing new but I could feel it even stronger in Washington, D.C. that the American perspective of the events and situations outside the U.S. is immensely self-informed and U.S.-centrist, to such an extent that the standard is always about what the U.S. has decided to be right, without giving a single thought to the fact that other states might approach the same questions from different directions.

My second observation is an unfortunate lack of interest about South Korea in the U.S. Of course, having a colorful rogue, or “evil state” to the north, which constantly poses controversy, contributes much to this situation, but overall it’s quite sobering to see how few people in the U.S. follow the developments in South Korea or are eager to learn about the history and other aspects of my home country. Overcoming this trend and ostensibly bringing the South Korean experience to the discussion table is one of the tasks that I set out for myself during my six-month assignment at the Wilson Center. And it is also the goal I will pursue as a historian in my future academic career.

Ria Chae, KF Global Intern
Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate School of International Studies
Seoul National University

copyright 2011 한국국제교류재단 ALL Rights Reserved | 137-072 서울특별시 서초구 남부순환로 2558 외교센터빌딩 10층 | 02-2046-8500 | newsletter@kf.or.kr