Recently a stop motion slide show appeared on the Internet, depicting Pyongyang as a city bustling with activity. This visual experiment makes pair with an ambitious project, called a Crow’s Eye on the Peninsula, which premiered at the Biennale exhibition in Venice earlier this summer, winning first prize. Both instances testify to a public interest in North Korea that goes beyond military action and political commentary, an interest to understand why North Korea is so often depicted as mysterious in spite of a growing amount of studies, direct testimonies and visual sources. North Korea, as a country and a topic of studies, indeed deserves better questions and David Shim’s Visual Politics and North Korea (London, Routledge, 2014) goes in this direction.
This is an essential work for anyone seriously interested in North Korea. It is perhaps not as widely known as it should be, and indeed its current retail price will not help; the book nonetheless represents a much-awaited addition to the field of North Korean studies.
The author is an assistant professor at the department of International Relations of Groningen University (in the Netherlands) and a research fellow at the German Institute of Area Studies. He has also served as a food aid monitor for the World Food Programme (WFP) in North Korea, working in the country’s northeastern provinces during the autumn of 2008.
‘What do we really know about North Korea?’ and ‘How do we know (what we think we know about) North Korea?’
His experience, combined with his academic background, allowed him to craft a work that is both innovative and accessible, aimed at two ever-recurring questions: “What do we really know about North Korea?” and “How do we know (what we think we know about) North Korea?”
The first two chapters explain the main concepts in visual culture, and how they can be applied to the field of international relations. They also explore what Shim calls the “practices of looking at North Korea,” addressing, among other things, a very important aspect of nearly all North Korea-related imagery produced worldwide:
“Visual imagery of the country seems in general to be seen as rare or special (…) this belief is indicative of the perceived paucity of reliable information and knowledge. A common footnote in media coverage of north Korea is, for instance the emphasis on the fact that “rare visits” by foreigners provide ‘rare glimpses’ into a nation that is commonly believed to be the most isolated in the world.”
And while there is a basis of truth to the inscrutability of North Korea, namely the restrictions that its government places on access to (and by) foreign media, or on the disclosure of official documents, the idea that in 2014 images and videos of North Korea could be considered “rare glimpses” into a “secretive country” collides with the countless publications, reports and documentaries available to the public, as well as the ever-growing number of websites, social media accounts and photo-blogs dedicated to the “hermit kingdom.”
It’s a process that is tautological and paradoxical at the same time: somehow ignoring documentary and visual sources from the past, Western media have, in the last two decades, come to consider North Korea as the secretive country par excellence; therefore, every image we manage to take whilst in the country adds to its mysteriousness rather than clearing things up. The more we see about it, the less we are supposed to know, understand and believe.
INTERPRETING IS BELIEVING
Shim argues that our opinions determine not only the way we interpret images produced in North Korea but also the type of images most of us manage to take while in the country
Images influence our thoughts and this is all the more true in the case of North Korea, in fact, Shim argues that our opinions determine not only the way we interpret images produced in North Korea but also the type of images most of us manage to take while in the country.
The third and fourth chapter are really the best part of Shim’s work. One, “Seeing on the ground,” deals with imagery produced by foreign reporters in North Korea. The other, “Seeing from above,” explores visual material on North Korea produced outside the country, focusing on satellite imagery and the way it is used to formulate and sustain the mainstream narrative on the DPRK in Western media and part of the academic world. Such narrative speaks of a country ruled by irrational leaders, bounded by irrational beliefs, with no official documents data or reliable information of any sort. A country about which we know very little, and that little cannot be trusted. However, how much of this is true and how much is this judgment influenced by opinions we have formed somewhere else?
The significance of imagery from North Korea is divided by Shim in one that helps reinforce stereotypes about the country, as opposed to another, that can help readers formulate alternative views. In particular he analyzes the work of Tomas van Houtryve, a photographer who decided to visit North Korea in 2007 and 2008 disguising his identity – much in the style of BBC’s John Sweeney – to produce a photo-reportages for Foreign Policy. The other work is that of the Associated Press’ Jean H. Lee and Vincent Yu, recorded in images from a trip the two took in 2010, when Kim Jong Un was already known to be the country’s heir apparent.
Equally important in Shim’s view is the kind of visual produced by pictures taken without the consent of North Korean authorities, in particular satellite imagery, which is considered more “genuine” and revealing because it was spared the censorship that can be applied in Pyongyang by either showing only the presentable side of North Korea (a practice well described by former UK ambassador John Everard in Only Beautiful Please), or by asking visitors to delete unwanted pictures a moment after they are taken.
However, as Shim points out, satellite imagery is neither equivalent to unquestionable proof that something is going on (from building a nuclear reactor to expanding a labor camp) nor is it an easy visual media to operate with, as it requires years of specialized studies. If anything, the misuse of such images by U.S. and UK governments, which led to the war in Iraq, should teach that aerial views are not better than any other image we can get simply because they were taken without the official permission of a government.
The mysteriousness of many aspects of life in North Korea is destined to go on for a while, and researchers will have to work with what they have at hand. There are many other dictatorships in the world today. Some of them are equally brutal, difficult to access in some aspects or even worse in some regards. In a country where unfiltered contact with the population is very rare, visual analysis can help us understand what lies beyond the stereotypes.
Hopefully a paperback edition of the book will become available soon. In any case, for anyone interested in Korean affairs, and especially those who are planning a visit to the DPRK in the next future, this is definitely a recommended reading.
Picture: Eric Lafforgue
Recently a stop motion slide show appeared on the Internet, depicting Pyongyang as a city bustling with activity. This visual experiment makes pair with an ambitious project, called a Crow's Eye on the Peninsula, which premiered at the Biennale exhibition in Venice earlier this summer, winning first prize. Both instances testify to a public interest in North Korea that goes beyond military
Gianluca Spezza is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies (IKSU), University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK. His work has been published and interviewed on The Guardian, BBC, Newsweek Korea, and DR among others. He writes about North Korea, international organizations, international relations and national identity. Email him at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter @TheSpezz