Subject Video Content: Contemporary Politics of North Korea

I have developed and delivered the blended learning subject Contemporary Politics of Northeast Asia: North Korea (POL2CPA) as a semester-length second-year undergraduate subject within the Global Studies and Asian Studies programs at La Trobe University.

I’m sharing my content videos from this subject as a resource for educators at the tertiary and late-secondary education levels.

The material in these videos is being continually updated. Constructive feedback on the content and suggestions for readings lists and interactive online resources are most welcome.

Learning Goals

North Korea is a fascinating and challenging case study. Its status as a relative anomaly in today’s international system helps to bring into focus how the global, the regional, the national and the personal interact to produce the emergent outcomes that we see represented in the news. Yes, North Korea is a bit weird their government does things that don’t on the surface make sense. Our goal in POL2CPA is to attempt to untangle how this works.

In this subject, students learn that there is far more depth to the North Korea story what is represented in the popular media. We’re going to sit with the moral and ethical discomfort of trying to understand a government with a reprehensible record of human rights abuse and degradation of its citizens. We need to do this so we can answer the question “why?” Why is North Korea the way it is? What does this tell us about how North Korea interacts with the world? And what does this mean for how the international community interacts with the DPRK?

Specifically, students will learn to:

  • Identify and describe key actors and issues in the international politics of Northeast Asia, specific to North Korea as a case study.
  • Develop an understanding of recognised theoretical approaches to the international politics of Northeast Asia.
  • Utilise different forms of textual and audio-visual communication in presenting research findings.
  • remove
  • Apply recognised theoretical approaches to important political issues in North Korea.

North Korea studies is not for the faint of heart. The field is highly politicised, it’s coloured by the deep wounds of colonial subjugation, the traumas of wars hot and cold, and authoritarianisms on both sides of the DMZ. It’s tinged with the sadness of the ongoing division of a nation that was unified for a thousand years, along with the Machiavellian power games of great power politics.

Subject Delivery

POL2CPA is designed to holistically integrate video and textual content with stimulating assessment activities and a rich weekly seminar. My content videos provide a brief conceptual and historical introduction as a foundation for the students’ deeper exploration of each topic in the academic readings and assessments.

Each weekly seminar includes: Informal discussion around the weekly topic, including content video, readings and current events; Structured hands-on activities related to the weekly topic, often involving playing around with a web app, data set or media artefact; and workshopping specific tasks related to the assessments.

There are four assessment activities in POL2CPA, each related to a different section of the topic material: (1) Multiple-choice quiz; (2) Political system report; (3) State fragility risk analysis; and (4) Critical evaluation of denuclearisation politics.

Weekly Content Videos

 Shared here are my content videos for each weekly topic, along with some online resources useful for student projects and class activities. These videos are one element of the content for POL2CPA. In the actual delivery of the subject, these videos are complimented by peer-reviewed texts and authoritative IGO and NGO reports.

You’ll note the music clip at the beginning and end of the lecture, which I use as an auditory cue in each of my twelve video lectures for Contemporary Politics of Northeast Asia.  The clip is an excerpt from the song “Pangapsumnida”.  I’ve used this song as both a karaoke anthem in North Korea and a catchy intro for each video in the subject, but I’ve also included it as deliberate dark irony as a thought prompt for my students.  Pangapsumnida translates as “nice to meet you”, a cruel juxtaposition given the brutality of the North Korean regime and the gravity of the material that we cover in this subject.

00. Subject Introduction

In this video…

  • Welcome to POL2CPA!
  • Content delivery.
  • Weekly seminar.
  • Assessments.
  • Getting help.

01a. The collapse of Choseon Korea and Japanese colonisation

In this video…

  • Korea in the Sinic regional order.
  • Breakdown of the Sinic regional order.
  • Internal decay of Choseon.
  • The Japanese occupation of Korea.
  • Birth of Korean nationalism during the occupation.
  • Legacies of the Japanese occupation.

02. Post-Word War II partition of Korea and the Korean War

In this video…

  • The partition of Korea.
  • Post-liberation Korea (1945-1950).
  • The Korean War (1950-1953).
  • Legacies of the Korean War.

03. North Korea’s political system

In this video…

  • Formal institutional structure of the DPRK state.
  • The Workers Party of Korea.
  • The Korean People’s Army.
  • Coercive institutions.

04. Official ideology in the DPRK and the cult of the Kim’s

In this video…

  • Ideology and its importance in authoritarian political systems.
  • Explanation for the state of the world: The US as the great external enemy.
  • Legitimacy and emotional attachment: The Kim Il Sung personality cult.
  • Social cohesion and in-group behaviour.
  • Imagines a preferred order and a blueprint for action: Juche.
  • Kim Jong Il and Songun Politics.
  • Kim Jong Un and the Byungjin Line.

05. Evolution of the North Korean economy

In this video…

  • Central planning and the command economy.
  • Land reform and collectivisation.
  • Ideological mobilisation of labour.
  • Structural problems of the command system.
  • Famine and economic collapse.
  • Marketisation of the DPRK economy.
  • Rise of a North Korean middle class: The Donju.
  • The Byungjin Line and economic reforms.
  • Current challenges to the North Korean economy.

06. State repression in the DPRK, human rights and Responsibility to Protect

In this video…

  • Is North Korea a totalitarian state?
  • Social control mechanisms in North Korea.
  • Punishment.
  • Fleeing North Korea to escape repression.
  • UN Commission of Inquiry and Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
  • Human Rights vs Humanitarianism.
  • External pressure or change from within?

07. Energy crisis, food insecurity and the Arduous March

In this video…

  • North Korea’s structural energy insecurity.
  • Soviet collapse and North Korea’s energy shock.
  • Systemic crisis in the economy.
  • Systemic crisis in agriculture.
  • The great famine.
  • Legacies of the Arduous March
  • How energy and food insecurity help shape North Korea’s foreign policy.

08. North Korea’s environmental vulnerabilities

In this video…

  • Geography of North Korea.
  • A political geography of North Korea.
  • Environmental problems in the DPRK.
  • Environmental degradation and the threat multiplier effect.
  • Threat multiplier case study: Typhoons and flooding.
  • Environmental regulations in the DPRK.

09. COVID 19 in North Korea

In this video…

  • History of pandemic disease in Korea.
  • North Korea’s COVID-19 response measures
  • Impacts of COVID-19 and associated response measures.
  • Systemic implications of COVID-19.

10. Could North Korea collapse?

In this video…

  • Making predictions vs scenario mapping.
  • Scenario #1: State failure and collapse.
  • Scenario #2: Managed systemic reform.
  • Scenario #3: Popular uprising and revolution.
  • Scenario #4: Coup d’état.
  • Scenario #5: Externally-imposed regime change.
  • Why does the future of North Korea matter to regional states?

11. North Korea’s strategic culture, foreign policy and nuclear weapons

In this video…

  • North Korea’s strategic environment.
  • North Korea’s strategic culture.
  • The DPRK’s nuclear fuel cycle.
  • A deployable nuclear weapons capability.
  • Nuclear weapons tests (2006-2017).
  • The value of nuclear weapons to the Kim regime.

12. Korean Peninsula security and nuclear diplomacy

In this video…

  • First nuclear crisis.
  • Second nuclear crisis and the Six Party Talks.
  • 2017 nuclear crisis.
  • Season of summits.
  • Where to now for Korean Peninsula nuclear diplomacy?

[Bonus Video] Tourism to North Korea: Political, economic and social dimensions

* This video was delivered as a guest presentation for the 3rd year undergraduate subject Critical Issues in Contemporary Asia (AST3CIA) in the Asian Studies program at La Trobe University.

In this video…

  • What it’s like to visit North Korea.
  • Economic and political significance of tourism.
  • Significance of tourism for social change.
  • Ethical questions around visiting North Korea.
  • Field research in North Korea.

[Bonus Video] Modernity as rupture in Korea

* This video was delivered as a guest presentation for the 2nd year undergraduate subject The Making of Modern Asia (AST2MMA) in the Asian Studies program at La Trobe University.

In this video…

  • Making of modern Korea: Modernity and colonisation.
  • Nineteenth century Choseon social structure.
  • The rupture: Collapse of Choseon and the Yi dynasty.
  • Japanese occupation: Modernisation and industrialisation of Korea.
  • The great rupture and the decolonisation of Korea.

Helpful Resources

Full listing of Ben Habib’s North Korea-related research, public engagement and teaching outputs. See also Ben Habib’s Edge Dwellers Cafe Podcast for episodes on North Korea.

See below for online websites, apps, data sets and organisations that we draw on in the video content, class activities and assessments in this subject (listed in alphabetical order).

Thank you to all of the wonderful colleagues and scholars whose collective wisdom is expressed in this video series.