North Korean leader Kim Jong Il can be criticized for many failings, but if one of his goals has been keeping his country in the global media spotlight, he has been wildly successful. Of course, North Korea gets this international attention for all the wrong reasons: military provocations, a clandestine nuclear program, a bankrupt economy, an atrocious record on human rights, and an eccentric if not deranged leadership. Some of the accusations leveled against North Korea in the Western media and popular press may have a basis in fact, others are more questionable. But until recently, substantive knowledge of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was notable mainly for its absence. Before the 1990s, little was written about the DPRK beyond official North Korean propaganda and its opposite, anti-North Korean propaganda from the South. Much of this has changed, both because of new sources of information (including material from North Korea's former communist allies), but more importantly because of the growing interest in the subject after South Korean democratization in the late 1980s and the first US-North Korean nuclear crisis of the early 1990s.
(Online publication June 24 2011)
Charles K. Armstrong (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.