Mining Archives Reveals North Korean Political Patterns

Point of View by James Person, coordinator, North Korea International Documentation Project

Sep 04, 2007

While skimming through articles on North Korea and its leadership, one will invariably recognize such adjectives as "enigmatic," "secretive," and "paranoid." Such expressions appear so frequently that the uninformed reader might conclude "enigmatic leader" was simply one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's many official titles.

North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), does indeed restrict the flow of information in and out of the country. Meanwhile, the United States has no history of diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and has severely limited access to the country's ruling elite. Such restrictions have hindered Western policymakers, journalists, and academics from understanding the intentions behind the DPRK's seemingly "enigmatic" actions. Yet since the end of the Cold War, scholars and policymakers have learned a great deal about the history of the North Korean party-state, which, because of the continuity in leadership and security issues, can help explain the present actions of the DPRK leadership.

In the early 1990s, historians began mining the archives of North Korea's former fraternal communist allies to obtain records documenting the history of Pyongyang's foreign relations. This process led to numerous important revelations documented in the publications of the Center's Cold War International History Project and the recently launched North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP).

Inaugurated in January 2006, in cooperation with the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, the NKIDP has uncovered materials from the now opening Eastern European, Russian, and Chinese archives that reveal North Korea's profound sense of mistrust and betrayal toward allies and foes alike. The harsh lessons learned after Soviet and Chinese interventions in internal North Korean party affairs, outright Soviet distrust of Pyongyang (which Moscow perceived as Beijing's proxy) during the Sino-Soviet split, and the Soviet refusal to provide Pyongyang with nuclear technology, have probably led the North Koreans to believe only they can guarantee their own security.

Through a deeper understanding of North Korea's history and security concerns, one can begin to detect leadership mindsets, worldviews, and behavioral patterns. Toward that end, the NKIDP has begun to gather equally insightful non-archival materials such as oral histories, memoir materials, and statistical information on North Korean science and technology.

We hope this growing database of materials will serve as an important resource to policymakers and media. As North Korea slowly opens to its southern neighbor, we can only hope that North Korean archives and sources will become part of the debate about the history and future of the DPRK.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant