If you want to read an example of the generally worthless state of international relations scholarship, it’s hard to do worse than North Korea in Transition.
It’s not that it’s put out by a bunch of cranks. It’s featured by the Council on Foreign Relations. And it’s not that it is not interesting. I highlighted several passages, many of which were thought provoking.
But… International Relations scholars, famously, can’t predict anything. The beginnings of wars, the outbreaks of peace, the collapse or emergence of empires — I’m aware of no solid model that can predict these as well as, say, the weather two days from now.
Some authors, like Bruce Cummings, appear to just be intellectual jokes
“American television rounded up all the usual images of North Korea: frightening soldiers goose-stepping through Pyongyang, a madman at the help who starves his people, missiles fired “over Japan” ( all missile launches are to the east, to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation)”
But generally, over and over, authors told us only what we already knew, and missed titanic changes under the surface.
It is noteworthy that the chair of the North Korean side in the DPRK-China Joint Guidance Committee for Economic Zones is Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong I’ls’ brother-in-law and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission
(yes, it is a noteworthy indeed that Jong Song Taek was arrested during a committee meeting, and tried as a traitor.)
Kim Jong Un is known to have focused on taking control of the military and the intelligence apparatuses with teh full support of the two key
power holders, Jang Song Taek and Ri Yong Ho, under the tight supervision of Kim Jung Il.
(Well, we know something – perhaps what is not something we’re sure of. Currently the only question is to what fraction of Jang’s family tree is annihilated.)
This isn’t to say the entire book is trash. Chapter 8, “Low-Profile Capitalism: The Emergence of the New Merchant / Entrepreneurial Class in Post-Famine North Korea” by Andrei Lankov is very solid. In fact, it’s probably worth the price of the book.
The rest of it ca be tossed, though, unless you want to be a pimp, a tourist, a loser, or an escapee in the academic ghetto.