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The Management of North Korean Materials in South Korean Libraries

“Knowledge is power.” There are no truer words in academia. Yet what happens when knowledge is limited, not just to a select few, but altogether? That is the situation when researching North Korea in South Korea. Researchers face a dearth of information about their chosen topic, whether it be music or military. There are several reasons for this, the most obvious being that North Korea does not easily let information about itself outside its borders. In South Korea, however, there is an added barrier to researching North Korea: the National Intelligence Service’s 특수자료 취급지침, or the “Guidelines for Handling Special Materials” (from here on, referred to as the Guidelines).

Most English-speaking librarians, when hearing the term ‘Special Materials,’ tend to think of audio-visual materials, non-book materials, or perhaps even rare books or other materials that need to have special measures put in place to preserve them. That is not the definition of ‘Special Materials’ in the Guidelines. Rather, Special Materials are: "materials of political and ideological content produced and published by North Korea and anti-state organizations; materials praising or promoting the activities of North Korean and anti-state organizations and their members; materials of praise or propaganda for the communist ideology or system; or other materials that deny the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea or deny the system of free democracy" (Song, 2011, p. 83).

Materials that are designated as Special Materials have limits placed on their access and storage. The following is the table from Song’s 2011 book, “Collection and Utilization of North Korean Materials,” showing the various revisions the Guidelines have gone through* (87).

*Note- The author was told in 2016 there was another revision of the Guidelines. However, the author was unable to obtain a copy of the Guidelines from the National Intelligence Service.

As the table displays, the restrictions on access to these materials and the classification of these materials has changed over the years to allow more access; however, there are still limits. This post seeks to explain the vicious cycle of information limits on North Korea. A literature review of both papers written on the Guidelines and general research about North Korea was conducted and the results were categorized into effects on librarians and effects on researchers. Effects on librarians can be split into three main categories: librarians have no incentive to acquire North Korean materials for their collection, librarians cannot provide online services to increase access, and librarians cannot protect users’ privacy. The effect on North Korean researchers were slightly different. Researchers are faced with unreliable sources and a necessity to conduct somewhat subjective qualitative research.

First, with regards to the effects on librarians, most of the research about libraries with North Korean materials pointed out the obvious- access to North Korean materials is limited. This starts from the collection itself- within university libraries, very few actively seek out and purchase materials from North Korea (Hong, 2008). In addition, while in theory the Guidelines only regulate North Korean materials that have political or ideological contents, a majority of libraries automatically categorize materials published in North Korea as Special Materials and place them under the restrictions. This means that while there could be North Korean materials that could be included in the regular collection, in general librarians prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to categorization. In Hong’s (2008) study, one university librarian said, “What concerns me is while now it might be okay, if the times change someone might come later and ask, ‘Why did you re-categorize Special Materials as regular materials?’” (119). Therefore, the Guidelines end up causing an ambiguous situation for the librarians where they are given freedom to categorize the collections with the responsibility to answer for how they did so, but no specific rules for classification beyond the subjective definitions of Special Materials.

Another limitation pointed out by Kim (2006) and others is the fact that North Korean materials must be kept in an offline space, so there is no possibility of online access. The Guidelines do not allow North Korean materials to be digitized and placed online, where access is more difficult to restrict. In addition, the places with the largest North Korean collections are all located in Seoul, which means researchers who wish to look at those materials must go there (Lee, 2008). This was pointed out by Blancke (2016) as well, when he stated that many new researchers of North Korea have difficulty finding information that is not provided online.

Finally, a fiercely held belief in libraries is the protection of user privacy. According to the ALA Library’s Bill of Rights, all people have a right to privacy and confidentiality when using the library. However, due to the requirements of having to provide one’s identification and write a pledge in order to copy or borrow the materials, the user cannot obtain the materials in a private manner. The library is also required to keep records of which materials are checked out by whom and turn them over to their supervisory agency once a year, as well as being subjected to inspection visits by the supervisory agency (Hong, 2008, Appendix 1). While there is no requirement to provide one’s information simply for looking at the materials in the library, the fact that the materials are stored in a secure location means there is still a lack of privacy for the user.

Then what about the effects of the Guidelines as perceived by the user? As with any academic research field, North Korean researchers need to have access to up-to-date, reliable information about their subject. However, as anyone who has studied North Korea can explain, that sort of information is a rare commodity. In current research, North Korean researchers tend to point out two effects of the lack of information on their work: an inability to trust the data, and North Korean research being more subjective or qualitative.

The first charge, that researchers have to carefully consider the data, is shown in articles about economics (Kim, 2019), human rights governance (Gu, 2019), the North Korean welfare state (Min & Go, 2019), as well as in articles about the difficulties researching North Korea (Tan, 2019 & Blancke, 2016). Tan’s entire article is about how to triangulate data to overcome this issue. If research is only as good as the data it is based on, then North Korean research faces serious issues.

That simple fact compounds the other issue in North Korean research: it is often subjective and usually qualitative. As Kim (2019) points out, if the basic information cannot be trusted, no matter how sophisticated the research method is applied, the results of analysis are also difficult to trust. Therefore, within North Korean research, the author’s point of view and interpretation play an even heavier share in the research results than in other areas of research. This is contributed to by the fact that quantitative research is limited by data that can easily be accessed (Koo, 2019). Tan (2019) said one must consider information sources of a variety of perspectives, even those that might be favorable to North Korea. However, he was careful to point out that citing those should not be seen as an endorsement of their statements, or even a verification of those source’s credibility. Rather, the author must use as many sources as possible so as to not turn into those “scholars working on the field [who] may choose to adopt a deliberately biased interpretation in order to suit their own personal or ideological convictions” (Tan, 2019, 46). In North Korean research, it all comes back to a lack of a variety of perspective-giving information.

It is obvious that both librarians and researchers are affected by the lack of information about North Korea- librarians because they cannot properly do their job as librarians, and researchers because they struggle with the fundamental tools to conduct their research. The difference, however, is where the blame falls. In the literature found, librarians pointed to the Guidelines as the key cause for their issues, whereas research such as Yoo (2018), Jeong (2016), and even Tan (2019) point to the secrecy of the regime as the main cause for lack of information on North Korea.

Clearly, there is a logical explanation for this. Librarians are more directly affected by the Guidelines. The Guidelines are literally rules that must be followed in the librarians’ work, and as such, the librarians have more impetus to research them. North Korean researchers only see the affects of those rules; namely, the difficulty of finding sources, and since there is truth to the fact that North Korea is a secretive state, simply lay the blame there. Of course, not all researchers do this. Ward (2018) wrote a news article in Korean discussing the limitations South Korea sets on North Korean media. However, there is not a concerted demand by researchers to have access to North Korean materials from the library.

Libraries are service-oriented institutions. They exist to serve the information needs of the people. That being said, libraries are also limited by the demands of the people. If there are no users for a service, the service is discontinued to make way for a service that is in demand. Libraries in South Korea that have North Korean materials will only improve when the people show an increased desire for them. The people, particularly researchers, will only have an increased desire for support from the library with their research if they have the perception that their information needs can be met there, which is currently not the case. That is vicious cycle and harsh reality of the environment created by the Guidelines.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


Blancke, S. (2016). Difficulties in gathering and understanding intelligence about North Korea. North Korean Review, 12(2), 123-129.

"Library Bill of Rights", American Library Association, June 30, 2006. (Accessed November 28, 2019)

Min K. & Ko, H. (2018). Changes in the North Korean Welfare System: A comparison of the Kim il sung, Kim jong il and Kim jong un eras. North Korean Review, 14(2), 46.

Tan, E. (2019). Source triangulation as an instrument of research on north korea. North Korean Review, 15(1), 34-50.

Ward, P. (2018, 9월 5일). [ 글로벌 In & Out ] 북한 웹사이트의 국내 차단 , 폐지하자. 서울신문. Retrieved from (Ward, P. (2018, Sept. 5). [Global In & Out] Let's abolish the interdiction of North Korean websites in Korea. Seoul News.)

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