Today I had the privilege of having lunch with, and hearing a presentation by, Isaac Stone Fish, the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. The theme of his presentation was the difficulty of reporting on topics in China and North Korea when the state chooses to be opaque. Here is a good NY Times piece that goes over some of the same themes that he talked about. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/opinion/09iht-edfish09.html?_r=0
As readers of my blog know, I have an interest in North Korea and have written about it several times. I would not consider myself an expert, but I am at the least well informed about it. At the same time, there is little that I can state confidently about what happens on the inside of the country. Normally you should be skeptical of anyone who claims to be an expert of a place but has never spent anytime there. Is North Korea different? None of the experts that are regularly quoted in newspapers or tv shows about North Korea have spent significant amounts of time there, or have even been there. The closest I have ever been was looking at North Korea from across the DMZ.
There are of course defectors, but there is only so much that an individual defector can know, and it is impossible to fact check most of what they say. Mr. Fish, in his talk, brought up a recent story about there being no more Choco Pies (a South Korean snack) in Pyongyang that was based on the testimony of just one defector. What is the line between credible and just a rumor? I think it is possible to write and think about North Korea with what we do know, but I do think that keeping these questions, and a sense of doubt, is probably necessary as well.