This spring, University of Alberta students can take a course solely dedicated to North Korean history.
Taught by Brian Gold, a sessional instructor with the Department of History and Classics, HIST 444 (Topics in Transnational History) will focus on the development of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“This North Korean regime is calculated to be crazy,” Gold said. “They are a small, weak country surrounded by superpowers. Yet, in the history of modern dictatorships we have not had one that has lasted 70 years.”
HIST 444 will cover the 19th century as an introduction to Korea, its clash with western influences, and the imperial 30-year occupation by Japan. The course will cover the influence of the Korean War of 1950-53, the rise of the Kim family to power, and the implications of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
“(Kim II Sung) and his inner circle mentality was to be guerrilla fighters,” Gold said. “If you can survive, make attacks here and there, and keep the big enemy who is overwhelmingly more powerful than you off guard, then that is victory and you stay alive.”
Gold lived in South Korea for a decade and specializes in Korean history. He’s taught courses at the U of A on East Asian popular culture and history of East Asia. He also runs his own consultancy firm and is the Public Affairs Director for the Edmonton Korean Canadian Association.
Gold will share insights with students from his 1994 trip to North Korea and his upcoming trip in April. He will visit the capital city of Pyongyang for the Day of the Sun, which is the country’s largest holiday commemorating the birth of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung. Gold will also see the Korean countryside from a train to the border town Sinŭiju.
“We will not be allowed to get out of the train, not even for a moment,” Gold said. “It will be interesting to see. Apparently not many outsiders have gone there.”
Gold describes North Korea as a “very different place” that is totalitarian in nature, stands for uncompromising independence, and is a product of “brilliant” nationalist cultural construction. He visited the country before the greatest famine in its history, spanning from 1994 to 1998, and saw the people of Pyongyang were thin, despite receiving better rations than the rest of the nation.
“I do expect a lot of things to be surprisingly the same,” said Gold. “In 1994 they were able to maintain an embargo. Today, I think there will be a little bit of consumerist glitz, some here and there. They are not in splendid isolation.”
Gold thinks enthusiasm in Korean history is due to Canada’s participation in the Korean War. He said many Korean Canadians have care in discovering more about the country. Most of the students who have registered for the course are Chinese students who have a vested interest in Korea because the countries are close together, Gold said.
“Even if you have no interest in North Korea, the country occupies this space in our media discourse as this wacky, alternative, evil, place,” he said. “The reality is, how the outside world has interacted with it is quite different than the sensationalist press reports.”