Abstract

While the secretive North Korean government restricts access to its archives, and reliable statistical data is hard to come by, scholars have access to many more sources on North Korean history than most people think. Among the available materials is the diplomatic record of North Korea’s former communist allies, which provides backdoor access into prevailing political, economic, and cultural conditions in the DPRK throughout the Cold War. These materials have shed rare light on flash points in modern Korean history, including the Korean War and incidents that transformed North Korea’s political and diplomatic behavior, for example the 1956 August Plenum of the Korean Workers’ Party. Yet, as this article argues, these materials are not without their shortcomings and come with a few caveats. Scholars should not treat what these materials report as empirical fact on the grounds of which one can write an authoritative history of the DPRK. Just as no responsible scholar of American foreign relations would utilize US records without questioning them for evidence of Orientalist thinking, scholars utilizing the Soviet bloc records should first interrogate the materials for subjective perceptions or racialized assumptions about North Korea’s political and cultural inferiority that influenced the diplomats who authored the documents.

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