Books: “Witness To Transformation” by Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland

WITNESS TO TRANSFORMATION: Refugee Insights into North Korea, by Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland. Washington DC: Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011. 182 pp. US$23.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-88132-438-9. This book review was written by CanKor Human Factor Editor Jack Kim.

In a former life as a management consultant, there was one lesson my superiors drilled into me: good decisions were all about data, data, and data. The more data you collected that was of superior quality, the more likely you were going to make a recommendation that would benefit the client.

Of course, that seems like common sense to most of us. But sometimes this simple lesson is lost upon those who make the “above-my-paygrade” decisions in life. Notwithstanding the limits of evidence-based decision-making, there are plenty of instances we can point out in the geopolitical sphere where catastrophic decisions were made with little regard to the data available. For example, Iraq comes to mind. The Rwandan massacre is another example of the world ignoring the evidence available.

But in many cases it is not only the qualitative analysis of data that is the issue – it is a lack of data in itself that prevents us from making decisions we should have otherwise made. When it comes to human rights, the world’s experience with the Cambodian genocide comes to mind. One of the reasons, especially early on, that the world stood idly by as at least two million Cambodians were murdered by Pol Pot and his cronies, was the Khmer Rouge’s ability to manage the information that came out of the country. In short, the atrocities themselves were hidden behind the curtain of control, sparking doubts of credulity in the outside world.

Of course, if there’s any a regime that has been as successful as the Khmer Rouge in controlling information flows, it is Pyongyang. In consequence, the little information we have contributes to an incomplete understanding of the DPRK itself. Visitors to the country are shown what the regime generally wants them to see (mostly Pyongyang and its environs); those who escape the country have very localized information that does not complete the picture.

The quality of the data that comes out of North Korea is equally troubling. Mostly due to Pyongyang’s desire to control the flow of information in and out of the country, much of the data coming from the regime itself is suspect. After all, if a regime insists upon photo-shopping images to the outside world, what can we really say about the regime’s self-reporting regarding deaths due to multi-drug resistant tuberculosis?

On the flip side, the testimony from North Korean refugees has also come under suspicion, especially from the left. After all, is there not an inherent bias from those who leave a country involuntarily, especially if they are all vetted by South Korean intelligence when they arrive in the ROK? Furthermore, when refugees do speak out, there is no way to verify much of their information. How do we know that these refugees are not exaggerating for their own benefit?

This is where Messr’s Haggard and Noland come in. For the greater part of the last decade and a half, these two scholars have attempted to address the “North Korean data gap.” In one of their previous collaborations, Famine in North Korea, Haggard and Noland made a valiant attempt at explaining how the country found itself in one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 20th century. Building upon this research, the authors have collaborated once more to bring more insight into the motivations of those who attempt to escape the DPRK. The authors rely upon two surveys that were conducted in 2004-2005 and 2008. The first data set is of a total of 1,346 North Koreans who were at the time in northern China. The second data set is of 300 refugees who successfully made their transit to South Korea.  The accompanying analysis in the book looks at the refugee experience itself, the slow but sure economic transformation of the country, how the regime itself is striking back at the growing marketization, and finally political attitudes within the DPRK and the possibility of dissent.

Much of the survey corroborates what many of us North Korea wonks had long suspected, whether it be from previous studies, refugee testimony, or scattered anecdotal evidence. We know that most of the refugees come from a defined area within the country. We know that many suffer from trauma such as PTSD. We know that many of them are women, and long suspected that many were sexually trafficked. We also suspected that the distribution of humanitarian aid is not quite a walk in the park, with some of the aid not reaching those who are its intended recipients. But on the other hand, we know that a growing, literal market system (the jangmadang) is growing into an (but as of yet insufficient) answer to North Korea’s food problems. We also know that Pyongyang has no love for these emerging markets, and that in a conclusion that will surely make those who favour regime change smile, there are cracks in North Korea’s attempts to stifle dissent, especially when it comes to lower-level elites and the role of the jangmadang.

But what makes a book like Witness to Transformation so important, is that we have at least some sort of quantitative data to corroborate earlier research, refugee testimonies, and the anecdotal evidence that seems to trickle out of the DPRK these days. We do not have to rely solely upon unconfirmed reports from such DPRK-watching websites as the Daily NK of what is going on in North Korea. One can attack the methodology of the surveys; even the authors themselves are careful to point out the limits of the sample. Yet at least we have some quantitative data to work with, and with the numbers of North Koreans leaving the country increasing every year, quantitative data as we find in Witness to Transformation will be increasingly important in corroborating the testimony that these same refugees proffer. After all, if we have twenty thousand people significantly telling us the same thing, at what point can we really say that the sample we have is biased?

As long as the conclusions that are drawn are based on the data that is collected (as the authors are careful to do), it remains an immensely important starting point in examining the rather unique and horrifying North Korean refugee experience.

On a final note, critics of the work will have various rebuttals to the conclusions drawn. Some might snort, “so what?” – what can we really do with a preliminary survey like this? Some may say that a larger China survey is necessary to get to North Koreans before they are not only vetted by the NIS when they arrive in the ROK, but socialized by South Korea and its myriad of North Korean human rights groups. Pyongyang would certainly say that results are bunk, as they represent a distorted representation of people who didn’t like the conditions in their own country enough to leave (if the regime does not call out the veracity of the information in the first place).

There is a simple, but at the same time frustratingly impossible, answer to all these criticisms. In this particular case, the onus is on the North Korean regime to show us that Haggard and Noland’s results are bunk; it is their country we are talking about, after all. The North Korean regime can simply let an independent surveying body choose a random sample across North Korea to conduct a similar survey. For a country that can build its own nuclear weapons, this should not be a difficult proposition.

Unfortunately, this rather simple solution is the one that is least feasible. This only underscores the fact that until such a solution is possible, efforts like Witness to Transformation are at the moment, as good as it gets.

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