1956 August Plenum Incident – Traditionalism vs. Revisionism
Recently, NKR conducted an interview with David Hall, author of the article “The 1956 August Plenum Incident: A Historiographical Analysis” published in the Fall 2020 issue of NKR. It is our hope that readers will find this interview to be an easily digestible introduction to his article on North Korean historical analysis strategies that can serve as an entry point for new readers, and perhaps offer some additional contextualization and analysis for those already familiar with his work. The audio interview as well as a full-text transcript can be found below. We appreciate Mr. Hall taking the time to speak with us and hope that readers find his insights as illuminating as we have.
Greetings, I am Samuel Dodge with the North Korean Review, and I have the pleasure to be speaking today with Mr. David Hall. David Hall holds a master’s degree in history and Korean language from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies and has been accepted to a master’s program in North Korean Studies to begin this September at the University of Central Lancashire. He is now with us today to discuss his recent article on the 1956 North Korean party purges commonly referred to as the August Plenum Incident, published in the Fall 2020 Issue of NKR. First off, David, welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Yeah, thank you for having me.
That being said, before we get into questions regarding the content of your article, for those of our readers who may not be familiar with your research, could you give us a quick introduction to your background as a scholar and author and how that background plays into your particular approach towards historical analysis.
Yes, of course. So, my initial interest began with North Korea when I was writing for me undergraduate dissertation. I was looking for a topic to cover and I’ve been collecting North Korean postage stamps now for about over 10 years, so I thought, “Oh, why not use those? They’re a fantastic historical piece evidence and they’re very much underused in academia.” So, I wrote about those. It was my supervisor, actually, who suggested to me how far did I want to take my new interest, if you want to call it that, in Korea and particularly North Korea. And I said, “Well, you know, as far as I can. Possibly to PhD. level.” And he suggested, well, in order to do that I would have to learn Korean. So, it was suggested that go down to London and do this master’s degree in history and Korean language. So, that’s my background really as a scholar and an author and its during that master’s degree that I actually wrote this paper.
Excellent, thank you. And perhaps you might be able to give a quick summary of the scope of the research and what you feel the importance of this article is?
Yes, of course. Well, I was writing it around about 2018, which was just a few years after Jang Song-taek (Chang Sŏng-t'aek/ 장성택) was purged and Kim Jong-un’s relatives were purged as well, so I thought it was quite a topical piece to talk about was early purging in North Korea and the kind of culture of purging in North Korea. Of course, as we see Jang Song-taek wasn’t the first one to be purged in North Korea and probably isn’t the last either. So, yeah, my interest kind of stemmed from that. We did a seminar about the August Plenum Incident and I was kind of thinking that I wanted to explore that historiography a little bit more, so I wrote my essay about this, this historiography, and I kind of wanted to do something more with it rather than just, you know, submit it for an essay and get a grade. So, I did a little bit more research and decided to submit it to the North Korean Review.
In the article you point out the shortcomings of both the traditionalist and revisionist perspectives on this incident but are particularly critical of the arguments present in revisionist works. Would you care to expand upon some of the primary deficiencies that you encountered in each of these perspectives?
Yes, of course. For the revisionists… Sorry, for the traditionalists, let’s start with those. The main critique that I would offer of those is that they followed too closely to the official North Korean party line. Of course, the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s before the widespread collapse of communism, before the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent opening of archives and declassification of materials, both in America and in the former Soviet Union and its allies, there wasn’t really that much available archival evidence to work with. So, of course scholars writing in that time would have to focus on what information they had, and what they did have was official publications from the North Korean State. So, perhaps newspaper articles that they could get ahold of, or indeed the collected works of Kim Il-sung and our understanding of the time as well and obviously information that we may have been able to get from South Korea. So yes, the main critique that I would offer of the traditionalist scholarship is, certainly the earlier ones did tend to focus a little bit too much on kind of echoing the party line of North Korea, which of course is skewed in itself and is politicized, you know, morphed into what it is that Kim Il-sung and his party wanted it to be.
And then, if we focus on the revisionist scholarship, well I really only identified one. It was James Person. I think like with the traditionalists there’s still not really enough evidence for us to be able to draw definitive conclusions about early events in North Korea and in my case particularly the 1956 August Plenum Incident. So yeah, I think I mentioned in the article, in the concluding part, that we just need more evidence. We just need more archival documents. We need more sources of information before we can just draw these definitive conclusions. I think it is important for us to just keep an open mind, until we get more types of evidence.
Your mention of the particular lack of archival evidence and access to primary sources regarding North Korean events leads into our next question. Recognizing the lack of publicly available North Korean, Chinese, and Russian sources, as highlighted in your article, what are the next steps that can be taken, if any, to further academic discourse on North Korean historical events, such as the August Plenum Incident? Is there any more to be gained from the continued pursuit of currently available sources, or does the lack of significant primary sources represent a roadblock that first must be resolved before meaningful research can proceed?
That’s always an interesting point when we talk about countries that are so closed down to foreigners as North Korea, is the lack of access to resources. It’s definitely gotten better over the years with the declassification of early, say CIA documents in the US and other documents in [the] former Soviet Union. And definitely the Wilson Center is a fantastic source of evidence for gathering those research documents together, and particularly when they are translated as well for scholars who don’t speak Russian, or Chinese, or Hungarian, or German for example. It’s really fantastic for us to be able to use these resources. But yes, there’s only so far that we can go with diplomatic documents and from ambassadors and other representatives in North Korea back to their home countries and from, you know, diplomats to other representatives that would have been reported on. So yeah, in a way there will get to a point where we’ve used as much as we can and gotten as much as we can from these little fragments of evidence, but hopefully we will get some more documents cropping up. Balázs Szalontai, for example, has done some great research with the archives in Hungary and people like Andrei Lankov has done fantastic work with Russian source material. So, hopefully as we progress with our academic understanding of North Korea and more scholars come forward, we can get different types of languages that we can look at through other scholars that are native to that language and, you know, people just pick up an interest in it. That’s one of the great downfalls, unfortunately, with the whole field of North Korean Studies is we don’t really have that many scholars, particularly compared to people who are interested, for example, in China and Japan. When we look at Korea we are, kind of, the East Asian study platform. So yeah, when we get more people interested in studying North Korea and looking at these documents, I think we are going to have a lot more to say and a lot more to discover about this.
Being that you operate on the same academic playing field as other scholars looking into the North Korean problem set of having difficulty accessing necessary sources, what would you say is the distinguishing point that makes your research fresh or presents a point of view that, perhaps, hasn’t been explored yet?
What I intended to do was to bring together all the different levels of the historiography and, sort of, incorporate the primary source research into that. I don’t think that’s really been done before, especially not as far back as the 1950’s. When I looked at Theodore Shabad’s analysis of North Korea, I don’t think that’s really been brought into the academic discourse before. I certainly haven’t seen it referenced in many books or articles. So, I think going back to as far as we can, even to just before the incident and trying to gather as much as we possibly can, I think that’s a really good way to approach that.
You’ve analyzed a breadth of scholarship on North Korea that spans quite a large bit of time. What are some of the changes in approach that scholars have been taking as we move from the early era, say from the 50’s to the 80’s, into the 2000s and in the last 20 years or so?
Well up until about the collapse of the Soviet Union, like I say it was mostly traditionalist. It was mostly based on the North Korean narrative because that’s really all we had access to, just Kim Il-sung’s works and perhaps some newspapers and other kinds of information that the country allowed us to see. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and then the death of Kim Jong-Il… up until, sorry, about the death of Kim Jong-Il in 2011, we had a switch in scholarship. With George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002, we saw that academic discourse on North Korea become more politicized. It became more… Well certainly in the West, sorry. It became more politicized about this speech that he gave and that’s why I mentioned in the article, scholars like Victor Cha kind of changed the nature of scholarship on North Korea. It wasn’t just about historical and political research anymore. It was about making a particular political point, certainly in the case of American scholarship, because of that, because of what the president said. After the death of Kim Jong-Il and when Kim Jong-un came to power, we kind of saw archives being opened, of course materials being declassified, the Wilson Center’s getting more and more material and putting it online, which is fantastic, especially nowadays. So, we had more stuff that historians can work with and more stuff that political analysts could work with. So, we certainly had a change in scholarship then as well, back to a more, I wouldn’t say “traditionalist,” but back to a more traditional historical way of analyzing North Korea.
Now the final question that I want to address goes a bit beyond the scope of your article. In one of your critiques of the arguments presented by the more revisionist perspective of this incident, you noted the apparent contradictory nature of claims that it is unclear whether or not plans by opposition faction members to remove party members would have included the removal of Kim Il-Sung himself. You stated that “factionalists were prepared to ‘replace the party leadership,’ which naturally would have included it’s leader Kim Il-Sung.” A notable counter example that has often been cited from outside North Korea would be early Mao-era party purges in China. In the absence of hard evidence coming out of North Korea, many scholars have relied upon the application of Chinese paradigms to interpret North Korean events. In what ways do you think the Chinese model is and is not applicable to the analysis of North Korean internal politics, particularly in relation to the August Plenum Incident?
Well, that’s not really something that I particularly looked at was comparisons between North Korea and Mao’s China. Perhaps that’s another piece of research that could be done to add to what I’ve already written in the article. But what I will say about China and North Korea is that when we look at incidents like the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the kind of fallout between China and North Korea over this particular issue, is that North Korea doesn’t always follow what China is doing. Sometimes it will follow, perhaps, what the Soviet Union is doing, and quite a lot of the time we’ve seen that North Korea will act or at least try to say that it will act independently, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when Kim Il-sung’s consolidating his power and he’s building his personality cult, and then when we see in 1972 the monolithic ideological system and the new Juche Constitution, that’s definitely a pinnacle of when Kim Il-sung’s, sort of, expressing his independence as a leader. I think a lot of scholars have tried to mirror China and North Korea and say that they are quite similar, but in a lot of ways they are quite different as well.
Alright David, that wraps up the questions that we had for you today. Once again thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Are there any final thoughts that you would like to leave readers with?
Not really, no. All I would say is just I hope people enjoy reading the article, or whoever already read it I hope they enjoyed reading it, and yes, I’d like to thank the North Korean Review for considering my article and publishing it, and of course SOAS for supporting my master’s degree while I was doing that, and yourself for conducting this interview. ∎