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North Korea and the Politics of Visual Representation

David Shim and Dirk Nabers


No 164

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April 2011

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GIGAWP164/2011

NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

Abstract
Within international discourses on security, North Korea is often associated with risk and
danger,emanatingparadoxicallyfromwhatcanbecalleditsstrengthsparticularlymilitary
strength,asembodiedbyitsmissileandnuclearprogramsanditsweaknessessuchasits
everpresent political, economic, and food criseswhich are considered to be imminent
threatstointernationalpeaceandstability.Wearguethatimagesplayanimportantrolein
these representations, and suggest that one should take into account the role of visual im
ageryinthewayparticularissues,actions,andeventsrelatedtoNorthKoreaareapproached
and understood. Reflecting on the politics of visual representation means to examine the
functionsandeffectsofimages,thatiswhattheydoandhowtheyareputtoworkbyallow
ing only particular kinds of seeing. After addressing theoretical and methodological ques
tions, we discuss individual (and serial) photographs depicting what we think are typical
examplesofhowNorthKoreaisportrayedintheWesternmediaandimaginedininterna
tionalpolitics.

Keywords: Visualrepresentation,synecdoche,identity,NorthKorea

David Shim, M.A.


Ph.D.candidateandresearchfellowattheGIGAInstituteofAsianStudies.
Contact:

<shim@gigahamburg.de>

Website:

<http://staff.en.gigahamburg.de/shim>

Prof. Dr. Dirk Nabers


ProfessorattheInstituteofSocialSciencesoftheChristianAlbrechtsUniversittKiel.
Contact:

<nabers@frieden.unikiel.de>

Website:

<http://www.politik.unikiel.de/index.php?ac=nabers>

NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation1
DavidShimandDirkNabers

ArticleOutline

1 Introduction
2
Identity Constructions in International Politics
3
The Significance of Visual Representations
4
Representations of North Korea
5
Conclusion
Bibliography

1 Introduction
Withininternationaldiscoursesonsecurity,theDemocraticPeoplesRepublicofKorea(here
after North Korea) is often associated with risk and danger, paradoxically emanating from
whatcanbecalleditsstrengthsandweaknessesontheonehand,NorthKoreasmili
tarystrength,asembodiedinitsmissileandnuclearprogramsandthefearedproliferationof
related technologies; on the other, its internal weakness such as its everpresent political,

The paper has been presented at the 51stAnnual Convention of the International StudiesAssociation, New

Orleans,February1720,2010,andatthe60thPoliticalStudiesAssociationAnnualConference,March29to
April1,2010,Edinburgh,UK.TheauthorswouldliketothankRosemaryShinkoandPatrickKllnerfortheir
helpful comments and criticism. This work was supported by a grant from theAcademy of Korean Studies
(AKS2010R34).

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

economic,andfoodcrises,whichareconsideredtobeimminentthreatstoregionalandin
ternationalpeaceandstability.
The1990sappeartohavebeenadefiningperiodintheserepresentations.NorthKoreas
refusalin1993toadmitinspectorsfromtheInternationalAtomicEnergyAgency(IAEA)to
its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, and its threat to withdraw from the NonProliferation
Treaty(NPT),whichalmostresultedinapreemptivemilitarystrikebytheUnitedStates,as
wellasitsappealin1995totheUnitedNations(UN)foraidassistancetohelpalleviatethe
worseninghumanitariansituationmadethecountryacontinualissueofinternationalconcern.
Besides these highly polarized binary representations of strength and weakness,
NorthKoreaisconcurrentlyportrayedaspursuingrationalandirrationalactions,poli
ciesorbehaviourpatterns.Inthesereadings,NorthKoreassupposedrationalityisreflected
in its calculating behaviour, which is sometimes referred to as blackmail or coercive di
plomacy,ininternationalnegotiationsregardingitsmissileornuclearprograms.Underthe
threatviolence,coercivediplomacyallowsPyongyangtogainmaximumbenefitsintheform
of economic or food assistance with minimal concessions regarding disarmament. Its sup
posedirrationality,whichisattimestakenasbeingsynonymouswithgenuinemadness(in
saneKimJongil),couldbeinferredfromitsspontaneousorunpredictablebehaviour,lead
ingforinstancetonucleartests,missilestarts,militaryattacksorthenoncomplianceofin
ternationalagreements.
Inshort,NorthKoreaissimultaneouslyseeninrathercontradictorytermswhenitcomes
tointernationalaffairs:itisstrongyetweak,rationalyetirrational,anddeservingofeither
internationalcondemnation,isolation,andsanctions,orcommiseration,cooperation,andas
sistance.Eachrepresentationleadstodifferent,and,attimesincongruous,politicalstrategies
towards North Korea. Different images and representations generate a whole new form of
portrayalofNorthKorea.Inthefollowingpages,wediscussselectedphotographsandphoto
seriesofwhatwethinkaretypicalexamplesofhowNorthKoreaisportrayedintheWestern
media,andhowthissocalledpariahnationisimaginedininternationalpolitics.Itshouldbe
noted thatwe do not profess to cover the full range of North Koreas appearance in visual
discourseapossiblyinsurmountabletask.Itwillbeshown,however,thatparticularpoliti
calstrategiesdependuponapreestablishedfieldofperceptiblerealityinwhichvisualim
agesplayacentralrole.
Anydiscourseanalysisstartsfromthepostulationthatallobjectsandactionsaremean
ingful,andthattheirmeaningisconferredbyparticularsystemsofsignificantdifferences
(Howarth2001:101).Thisisnottosuggestthatdiscoursehastobetextinanarrowsense;
itmakessensetoincludeallkindsofmeaning,astransmittedby,forexample,visualimages
andsoundeffects,intotheanalysis.Asarguedlater,visualrepresentationsinparticularare
ofimmenseimportanceintimesofincreasedtransnationalinterconnectedness,becausethey
bringaboutpoliticalconsequencesbyshapingparticularwaysofseeing(Berger1972),and,
hence,byconstructingreality.

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

Itshouldbenotedattheoutsetthatthekindofargumentdevelopedhererequiressub
stantialtheoreticalelaboration,whichwouldgowellbeyondthescopeofthisarticle.Inthe
next section, the paper outlines some necessary ontological arguments on the questions of
difference and identity, mainly drawing on discoursetheoretical insights. Subsequently, it
will be demonstrated theoretically how visual representations have political consequences,
beforeturningtohowNorthKoreaisvisuallyrepresentedandhowthesedepictionstrans
lateintopoliticalpractices.Theconclusionsummarisesthemajortheoreticalimplicationsof
theanalysis,andbrieflytouchesupontheethicaldimensionofidentityconstructions.

2 IdentityConstructionsinInternationalPolitics
Differenceislocatedattheheartofanyidentityconstruction.Somethingiswhatitisonly
throughitsdifferentialrelationshiptosomethingelse.Takingmeaningasdifferentialrather
than referential simply gives language priority in the analysis of the world as we view it.
Sincethereisnoessentialcommongroundthatbindsasocietytogether,differentidentities
havetobepoliticallyarticulated.Identityremainspartial;itcanneverbefullorcomplete.It
can therefore only be established by difference, by drawing a line between something and
somethingelse.Allidentityisrelational,formedbysocialpracticesthatlinktogetheraseries
ofinterrelatedsignifyingelements.Allprinciplesandvalues,therefore,receivetheirmean
ingfromrelationshipsofdifferenceandopposition(Laclau1990:21,58).
Theeventualityofasocialidentitythusdependsontheconstructionofathreatening,ex
cludedoutside:aradicalexclusionisthegroundandconditionofalldifferences(Laclau
1996:39,52).Itistheunifyingfoundationofanysystem.2Whatfollowsfromthisisthatthere
are relations of equivalence between ingroup actors that create antagonisms in relation to
othersocialgroups.Inoppositiontotheexcludedelement,allotherelementsareequivalent
toeachotherinthattheynegatetheexcludedidentity.Theemergenceofacommunityen
tailsthepassagefromdisconnectedsocialdemandstoauniversaloneviatheconstructionof
achainofequivalencesandthecreationofanexternal,antagonisticforceinourcaseNorth
Korea.IfthereisanythingliketheWestthathaspoliticalmeaning,itcannotbeconstructed
onessentialistgrounds,butrather,andonly,bydrawingarepresentationallinebetweenSelf
and Other. Two consequences follow. First, exclusion has an ethical dimensionit is never
neutral and often takes the form of subordination. Relations between the ingroup and the
outgrouparepowerrelations.Second,equivalenceisnotsynonymouswithidentity.Equiva
lencepresupposesdifference,butcaneventuallyleadtotheformationoftentativecollective
identities.
Moreover,theexcludedOtherkeepsthreateningtheidentityofthechainofequivalences.
Thelattercannotevolveintoapositiveidentity,asitreliesonanegativeoutsiderforitscon
Forcomment,seeHowarth(2001:105);CritchleyandMarchart(2004:4);Gasch(2004:25).

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

stitution.Therefore,politicaltheoristErnestoLaclauconcludesthatinarelationofequiva
lence,eachoftheequivalentelementsfunctionsasasymbolofnegativityassuch,ofacertain
universalimpossibilitywhichpenetratestheidentityinquestion(Laclau1996:14).Identity
needsanexternalforceforitsveryexistence;withoutthisOther,identitywouldbedifferent.
Hence,theannihilationordestructionofthisexcludedotherwouldleadtoaradicalidentity
change,andanegativeassertionoftheexcludedbecomestheprevalentmodeofrepresenta
tion.Inthissense,theOthercontinuouslyfeedstheidentityoftheSelf.
The question remains of how one particular worldview, such as the representation of
North Korea as a menace, can be become dominant or hegemonic. Drawing on insights
fromLaclauandMouffesdiscoursetheory,thearticlearguesthathegemonyrestsontheas
sumptionthatanydiscoursetriestodominatethefieldofdiscursivity.
Particularly crucial for the following scrutiny of representations of North Korea, is that
thehegemonicoperationhasadeeplycatachresticalcharacter.Infact,itoftentakestheformof
a synecdoche, as a part comes to represent the whole (Laclau 2005: 72). Laclau conceptualises
hegemonyasathreefoldprocessofsymbolicrepresentationthatdevelopsfromametonymic
moment to metaphoric substitution and finally to a temporary and incomplete synecdoche
(Laclau1998:158;foracritiqueseeWenman2003).Whiletheinitialmomentofmetonymy
establishesapoliticalfrontierbetweenusandthem,themetaphoricslideconsistsofthe
indifferentcontentsofparticulardemands,whichmakeitpossiblefortheparttorepresent
the whole: synecdoche. In this context, Laclau concurs with deconstructionist Paul de Man
that a synecdoche represents a borderline figure that creates an ambivalent zone between
metaphorandmetonymy(deManascitedinLaclau1998:158).AccordingtoJacquesLacan,
metaphorandmetonymyarethetwocentralfiguresofstyleintheproductionofmeaning
(Lacan 1977: 157). While metaphor creatively replaces one signifier with another that is co
extensivewiththesubstitutiveorparadigmaticdimensionoflanguage,metonymystandsfor
thecombinationofsignifiers,andrepresentsthesyntagmaticfacetoflanguage(Lacan1977:
156157;Barthes1977:60).
Fig.1:SynecdocheandtheHegemonicProcess
MetonymyMetaphorSynecdoche

Inaccordancewithhisviewsonuniversalism,Laclaumaintainsthathegemonycanonlyes
tablishanimpuresynecdoche(Laclau1998:168).ForLaclau,thereneedstobeonesector
ofsocietyrepresentingtheendsofsocietyatoneparticularmoment.Thisonesectorneedsto
havesynecdochicalpotentialtounitedisparateemancipatorystrugglesforsocialintegration.
Itisherewherethefinalmomentofasynecdochethepartstandinginforthewhole
canbeseen,andthetheoreticalformulationpresentedhereisessentialforthefollowingdis
cussionofvisualimages.

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

3 TheSignificanceofVisualRepresentations
Inparticular,visualrepresentationseemstobecrucialintimesofincreasinginterconnected
nessacrosstimeandspace,becauseitisoneoftheprincipalwaysinwhichnewsfromdis
tantplacesisbroughthome(Campbell2007a:220).Imagescanenactpowerfuleffectssince
governments, international organisations and the public are almost always pressed to take
actionwhenconfrontedwithimageryofhumansuffering,suchaswarsandfamines(Lisle
2009; Campbell 2003, 2007b; Moeller 1999; Benthall 1987; Postman 1987). As Debbie Lisle
(2009:148)maintains,[w]eseethattheobjects,issuesandeventsweusuallystudy[]do
notevenexistwithoutthemedia[]toexpressthem.Accordingly,visualimageshavepo
liticalandethicalconsequencesbecauseoftheirroleinshapingprivateandpublicwaysof
seeing(BleikerandKay2007).Thewayspeoplecometoknow,thinkabout,andrespondto
developmentsintheworld,aredeeplyentrenchedinthewaysthisinformationismadevisi
bletothem.Inthissense,visionandvisualityarepartofpoliticaldynamicsthemselvessince
thepracticeofseeingentailsseriousrepercussionsconcerningthewaysinwhichpeoplein
teractwithoneanother.
Despitetheobviousimportanceofvisualrepresentationsinglobalpolitics,littleattention
hasbeenpaidtotheiranalysisinthefieldofinternationalrelations(IR).Onlyafewscholars
arguefortheinclusionofaestheticinsightsintoIRinquiriesinordertoenhancetheunder
standing of the phenomena of world politics and to address the dilemmas that emanate
from them (Bleiker 2001: 519; 2006; Bleiker and Kay 2007; Campbell 2007b; Pusca 2009).
Thereareneverthelessanincreasingnumberofpublications,whichconsiderart,photogra
phyandotherformsofvisualrepresentationsaspartoftheirinquiry.Oneofthelatestex
amples, which proclaimed that art matters (Danchev and Lisle 2009: 775), was the 2009
specialissueoftheReviewofInternationalStudies.3Itseemsthatthesignificanceoftherela
tionshipbetweenvisualrepresentationsandrealityhasbeenacknowledgedinIRprimarily
as a result of the coverage of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 (Campbell and
Shapiro2007).
The publication of photographs showing North Korean leader Kim Jongil serves as a
good example of how visuals are referred to in international or regional security politics
whenitcomestounderliningthenecessityofspecificpolicyresponses,suchasmilitarycon
tingencystrategiesandmilitaryexercises.Intheautumnof2008,theNorthKoreangovern
ment began publishing pictures of Kim Jongil after rumours and reports of his worsening
health began to spread. Regardless of how these pictures are interpretedunderlining his
health or ailmentthis example shows how photographs function as referents to make le
gitimatestatementsanddrawconclusions.

OtherexamplesexaminingtherelationshipbetweenaestheticsandIRare,forexample,thespecialissuesof

Millenniumin2001and2006,andofSecurityDialoguein2007.

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DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

3.1 ThePoliticsofVisualRepresentations
Aphotographsuggeststheabilitytowitnessrealityasitis.Asoneamongseveralmodesof
representation, photography possesses a specific feature, since, as Michael Shapiro asserts,
it is the one most easily assimilated into the discourses of knowledge and truth, for it is
thought to be an unmediated simulacrum, a copy of what we consider the real (Shapiro
1988:124;seealsoBarthes1977).Thephotographsuggestsaqualityofrepresentationwhich
scholarstermmimetic(Bleiker2001),reflective(Hall1997),ordocumentary(Hamilton1997),
andwhichimpliesthepossibilityofseeingtheunvarnishedtruthwithonesowneyes.How
ever,asCampbellobjects,photographsarenecessarilyconstructionsinwhichthelocation
of the photographer, the choice of the subject, the framing of the content, the exclusion of
context,andlimitationsonpublicationandcirculationunavoidablycreateaparticularsense
ofplacepopulatedbyaparticularkindofpeople(Campbell2007a).
It is important to note that a photograph is neither objective nor neutral, since it is al
readyaninterpretation(Butler2009).Thatistosay,photographsproducemeaningbecause
theydeterminewhatkindsofobjectsandsubjectscanbeseenandhowtheyaremadevisible.
Photographsarebydefinitionreductionsofagivencomplexitysinceonlypartsofthiscom
plexitycanbepictured.AsSusanSontagputsit,tophotographistoframe,andtoframeis
toexclude(Sontag2003:46).Therefore,notonlycanphotographsbecharacterisedassynec
dochic representations, but they can also serve, in Laclauian terms, as visual figures of he
gemonysincephotographicpartsvisuallyembodyatotality(cf.Laclau2000b).Asmentioned
above, a reduced representation translates into the modification of what is represented. In
other words, photography is inevitably transformative of meaning because of its selections
andreductions,whichcreateadifferent,andthusnew,meaningofwhatispictured.
Of course, one might argue that any kind of discursive information, be it linguistic or
nonlinguistic, must be translated into a textual form in order for it to be analysable. Sec
ondly,uponacceptingthisstance,workingwithtextorwritingsleadstothedeploymentof
thoselinguisticdevicesthatcorrespondtotheontologicalassumptionsoutlinedindiscourse
theory,foritistheseassumptionsthatguidetheanalysisandareapplied,modifiedandex
tended to a particular case. However, if we are interested in visual images as a means of
communication,wealsoneedtofindwaystoaddressnonverbaldiscourseinamoreimme
diate manner. In fact, as Hamilton summarises, the photograph seems closer to lived ex
periencethanwordsevercanbe(Hamilton1997:87)astatementwhichwouldappearto
favourtheimageoverthewrittenword.Incommonparlance,itisalmostnaturaltosaythat
apictureisworthathousandwords.Thecentralityofimagesinoureveryday(Western)life,
whichhasbeencalledocularcentrismbyMartinJay(1993),revealsthepowerrelationsof
representation,accordingtowhichasinglepicturecanberegardedasbeingmoremeaning
fulthanabundleoftexts.Criticsargue,however,thatimageryhasbeenimportantthrough
outhistoryandtoallsocieties,andobjectthattheclaimsoftheincreasingimportanceofthe
visualareEurocentric(Rose2001:89).

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

11

Regardless of the debate about whether an image is more powerful than a specific
amountofwords,thereisadisputeintheliteratureabouttherelationshipoftextsandim
ages.Attheheartofthediscussionstandsthequestionofwhetheranimagecanspeakforit
self. That isto say, whether imagesrely on texts in order to be comprehended. For Roland
Barthes(1977),therehasbeenanhistoricalturnaroundintheconnotationprocesseswiththe
emergenceofthepressphotograph.Asheputsit,[f]ormerly,theimageillustratedthetext
(made it clearer); today, the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an
imagination(ibid.:26).4WhatcanbeinferredfromBarthessworkisthemeaningguiding
functionoftexts.Captionscontextualise,emphasise/prioritiseorevenaddparticularaspects
totheimage,sothatitisreadinaspecificornewway.SusanSontagarguessimilarly,stating
thataphotographcannotprovideaninterpretationjustbyitself,withoutatext.Itrequires
captions, which then channel its interpretation (Sontag 2003; Bleiker and Kay 2007). Judith
ButlerexplicitlycriticisesSontagsargument,assertinginsteadthat,itdoesnotmakesense
toacceptSontagsclaim[]thatthephotographcannotbyitselfofferaninterpretation,that
weneedcaptionsandwrittenanalysistosupplementthediscreteandpunctualimage(But
ler2009).ButlerreferstotheUSDepartmentofDefensesframe,aregulatedvisualperspec
tive,establishedforthepublicinrecentandcurrentwars,whichstructuresthereadingand
interpretationofimagesinadvance.
Whatcanbeconcludedfromthisdiscussionisthatontheonehand,imagesmaybebe
comingincreasinglymoresignificantthanwordsinoureverydaylife.Butontheotherhand,
wordscangovernorfacilitatetheinterpretationandhencethecomprehensionoftheseim
ages.AsGillianRoseunderlines,itisimportantnottoforgetthatknowledgesareconveyed
through all sorts of different media, including senses other than the visual, and the visual
imagesveryoftenworkinconjunctionwithotherkindsofrepresentations(Rose2001).

3.2 Methodology
Thefocusofthefollowingmethodologicaldiscussionisonlanguageandformsoflanguage
use.Theanalysisstaystotallyclearofanyrelationshiptowhatpeoplereallythink.[Itis]not
interested in inner motives, in interests or beliefs; it studies something public, that is how
meaning is generated and structured (Waever 1995: 254). Theorists employing discourse
theoryforempiricalanalysesmakeastrongcaseforthestudyoflanguage(Howarth2000;
Howarth,NorvalandStavrakakis2000).Ashasbeenemphasisedabove,however,language
mustnotbeseenastextinaconstrictedsense.Itisconceivedofheremorebroadly.AsDer
rida,forinstance,stressed,

Thequestionofwhethertheimageinformsthewordorviceversaisalsodebatable.Forinstance,Hamilton

argues that the image is still supportive of the text by giving it a representational legitimacy (Hamilton
1997:87,italicsremoved).Ashestates,theapparentobjectivityofthecameraproducedimagemayhelpto
fixthemeaningofagiventext,byprovidingitwitharepresentationallegitimacy(Ibid.,italicsinoriginal).

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DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

wesaywritingforallthatgivesrisetoaninscriptioningeneral,whetheritisliteralornot
andevenifwhatitdistributesinspaceortimeisalientotheorderofthevoice:cinema
photography,choreography,ofcourse,butalsopictorial,musical,sculpturalwriting.
(Derrida1998:9ascitedinCampbell1998:271)
Acrucialquestionintheanalysisofvisualrepresentationsishowweanalysevisualmateri
alssuchaspaintings,photographsorfilms.Whatarethetechniquesormethodologiesused
to understand imagery? First of all, it is important to note, in accordance with Stuart Hall
(1997:9),thatthereisnosingleorcorrectanswertothequestion,Whatdoesthisimage
mean?Thatistosay,therealortruemeaningofanimagecannotbededuced,asinthe
caseofacausalmechanism.Therefore,onlyinterpretativeinquirywillhelpidentifyandun
derstandthemeaning(s).However,thisshouldnotopenthedoorsformethodologicalarbi
trariness.Indeed,itisimportanttojustifyonesowninterpretationofimageryconvincingly.
TothisendthepaperadoptsinsightsfromwhatGillianRosehascalledcriticalvisualmeth
odology.5AsRoseexplains:
By critical I mean anapproach that thinksabout the visual in termsof the cultural
significance, social practices and power relations in which it is embedded; and that
means thinking about the power relations that produce, are articulated through, and
canbechallengedby,waysofseeingandimaging.
(Rose2001:3)
Toanalyseimages,itisimportanttoexposeandunderstandtheirproductiveeffects,repre
sentational patterns, and recurring visual key themes. That is, to reveal the ways in which
visualrepresentationsenactsubjectivitiesbypositioningtheviewerinrelationtotheviewed.
Thepaperthusaskshowimagesareentangledintheprocessofidentityconstruction,and
examineshowtheyallowonlyspecifickindsofseeinghowimagesdeterminetherealmof
the visible and, no less importantly, the invisible, which render specific actions and state
mentsaslegitimateornonlegitimate.
Concerning the image itself, there are specific photographic arrangements which affect
itsrhetoricalforce(Shapiro1988).PresentdayimageryofNorthKoreaisassembledmostly
intheformofphotoessaysthatdeploytheirsignifyingeffectsthroughthetellingofapar
ticularnarrative,aspecificreality,whichismediated.6
ForRose,therearethreesitesduringwhichthemeaningsofanimagearecreated.Thefirstconcernsthecir

cumstancesofitsproduction;thesecondreferstotheimageitself;andthelasttargetstheaudiencewherethe
imageisseen.EachofthesesitesoperatesonthreefurtherlevelsormodalitiesasRosecallsthem.Thetechno
logical,compositional,andsocialmodalitiesfunctionasmethodologicaltoolstodifferentiatethequalityofan
image.Whilethecompositionalandsociallevel(referredtohereascontextualmodalities)willbeadopted,the
technologicalaspectcanbeneglectedbecauseallphotographsinthispaperaredigitallyproducedpictures.
Further,assertingthatthethreemodesofmeaningmakingoverlap,thepaperfocusesmoreonthesiteofthe
imageandaudiencethanonthemodeofproduction(Rose2001:16).
ThedepictionofreallifeinNorthKoreahasbeenthefocusofmanyrecentpublications:Demick2009;Hassig

andOh2009;Myers2010.

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

13

The compositional and contextual aspects of images are useful for the analysis of visual
representations. While the composition of images refers, for instance, to the content (what is
shown?),colour(whatisthehue,saturationorvalueofimages?)andspatialorganisation(how
are the elements of the image positioned in relation to each other?), contextual factors com
prise,forexample,thetime,practices,settings,andrelationswithwhichimagesareencircled
(Rose2001:Ch.2).7Allthesequalitiesconstituteelementsofaparticularthematicdiscourse.
On the basis of these methodological propositions, the following section discusses se
lected but characteristic imagery of North Korea. The photographs chosen cover the time
spanofoveradecade,beginningwiththemid1990s,withanemphasisonmorerecentpor
traitsofNorthKoreanreality.Itshouldbenotedthatthisselectionisnotmeanttoserveasan
extensiveaccountofhowNorthKoreaisrepresentedvisuallybytheWestorWesternmedia.
However,thephotosareemblematicoftheoftenstereotypicalwaysinwhichNorthKoreais
lookedat,thusestablishingboundariesanddifference.ItwillbearguedthatimagesofNorth
Korea showing its military strength and internal weakness are highlighted as idiosyn
craticaspectstoemphasizeitsOtherness.TheuseofimagesmarksNorthKoreainparticular
ways,whichseparatethemfromus.Itshouldalsobestressedthatthearticledoesnot
question the correctness or content of the selected images but rather intends to show that
specificdepictionsdependonaparticularunderstandingofwhoandwhatisdeservingrep
resentation and publication. Further, the problem is not so much the presence of such im
agery[],butrathertheabsenceofotherviewsamongsttheimagerytheglobalvisualecon
omytransmitstoaudiences(Campbell/Power2010:188).Theprevalenceofonevisualper
spective, necessarily indicating a lack of alternative representations, affects the ways how
peoplecometoknowandrespondtoevents,developments,andissuesrelatedtoNorthKo
rea.Inthisvein,thevisualrevealsitspoliticalandethicalsignificance.

4 RepresentationsofNorthKorea
Amongpolicymaking,academic,andmediacirclesvisualimageryofNorthKoreaiswidely
assumedtoberareandunusual.Thissupposedlackofimagesmighttoalargeextentbeex
plainedonthebasisofthelocalconditions,whichrestricttheinternationalmediasaccessto
what is happening in the country. Possibly because of this, pictures and films depicting
NorthKoreaanditspurportedrealityareregardedasevenmorespecialanddesirable.Rare
visits by foreign observers provide rare glimpses into a nation widely considered to be
the worlds most isolated.8 This exceptional (or presumed to be exceptional) situation sug
Itshouldbenotedthatthedistinctionofthecategoriesisnotclearcut.WhileRoseattributescertainaspects

such as focus, angle, or positioning of elements to the compositional mode, for some scholars these aspects
havetobeconsideredascontextualfactors(e.g.BleikerandKay2007).
Suchstatementsrefermostlytothecountrysassumedlackofparticipationinregionalorinternationalrela

tions.However,ifmeasuredintermsofofficialdiplomaticrelations,forinstance,NorthKoreaisnotevenre
motelyasisolatedasTaiwan.

14

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

geststhatbecausewedonotseemuchofNorthKorea,wedonothavesufficientknowledge
about it, which in turn creates a legitimate reason or quasiimperative to visualize itone
must see it to believe it. This situation points to the linkages between ways of seeing,
knowledge and politics. Images not only promise to help us to see and, therefore, under
standwhatisreallygoingon,buttheyenableustoknowwhichwillinformourpolitical
andethicalresponses.
Despite the abovementioned claim that images of North Korea are lacking, numerous
photographicessays,illustratedbooks,documentariesandtelevisionseries,aswellasplat
forms,socialnetworksorservicesontheInternetsuchasflickr,youtubeorGoogleEarth,reveal
theprincipledavailabilityofimageryofNorthKoreaanditsenduringvisualizationincon
temporary discourses (BBC 2005, 2009; Bech 2007; Boston Globe 2008, 2009; Van Houtryve
2009a,2009b;KangandWatanabe1997;LIFEundated;McNulty1995;Lee2008;Fragala2009;
Righetti 2003; Morris 2005).9 They show that, contrary to popular belief, imagery of North
Koreaisnotasrareandexceptionalaspresumed.10
SothebasicquestioncouldbetoaskhowNorthKoreansandNorthKoreaappearinvis
ualdiscourse.ContemporaryimageryoftheDemocraticPeoplesRepublicofKorea(DPRK)
revealssimilarcompositionalandcontextualmodalities,whichresultinrecurringandsome
times contradictory (but in certain thematic fields congruent) representational patterns and
key visual themes: backwardness, bleakness, madness, dangerousness, isolation, poverty,
scarcity,andweakness.ThesedepictionsshowhowNorthKoreaisvisuallyconstruedasthe
veryantithesis,andhenceOther,ofmodernglobalisation.Theimagestelluswho theyare
andhowlifeproceedsoverthere.Showingpredominantlythesamemotifs(pitifulandmis
erable women and children, empty and deserted places and spaces, monuments, homoge
nousmasses,weaponsandsoldiers)andemphasisingvisual(contextualorspatial)contrast,
thesephotographsresultinwhatcanbetentativelydescribedasahegemonicvisualityan
interpretativeorvisualframewhichallowsforthedepictionandreadingofimagesonlyin
specific ways. This visuality regulates the (in)visibility of objects, subjects, and circum
stances,andthereforedetermineswhatisexistentandwhatisnot(Butler2009).

4.1 NorthKoreaasaWimp
Agoodexampleofwhatis(made)almostinvisibleinWesternrepresentationsofNorthKo
rea is smiling or joyful ordinary North Korean people. Tomas van Houtryves photo essay,
TheInternetinparticularseemstoprovideanalmostboundlesssourceofacademic,journalistic,governmen

talandprivateinformationonNorthKorea.Forinstance,EvanRamstadreportsoncitizenspiesuncovering
whattheybelieveareNorthKoreassecretswiththehelpofGoogleEarth,anonlineserviceprovidingsatellite
images(Ramstad2009).
EspeciallyafterthepublicationofpressreportsaccordingtowhichNorthKoreanleaderKimJongilsuffered

10

astrokeinAugust2008,theinterpretationofphotographyofKimJongilbecamepopularamongNorthKorea
observers(Kolonko2009;Fragala2009;Time2008a,2008b).

15

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

published recently in Foreign Policy (see Figure 2), is indicative of this visual frame (Van
Houtryve2009a).WhiletheessayclaimsthatvanHoutryvetookarrestingphotographs[]
rarelycapturedandevenmorerarelydistributedintheWest,itsheading(TheLandofNo
Smiles) suggests that happy or cheerful North Korean people are impossible to find. The
captionofoneoftheimagesreinforcesthisframebyexplainingthat[w]henvanHoutryve
approached North Koreans, they walked off or averted their eyes. He never once photo
graphedasmile.Evenchildrenranawayfromhim(ibid.).
Figure2:TheLandofNoSmiles(ibid.)

The observation of supposedly dismissive North Koreans made in the essay is not uncom
mon among many North Korea visitors. In his illustrated book entitled The Last Paradise,
photojournalistNicolasRighettisimilarlynoted,
Apartfrommyguide,inthestreetnobodyspeakstome.WhenIamalone,noonees
tablishescontact;nooneseemstopayanyattentiontome.LifegoesonifIdidnotex
ist.Noteventhepoliceorsoldierstaketheriskofapproachingme.Fearimbuesusall.
(Righetti2003)
Whattheseexcerptssuggestisthatthedifficultyofestablishingcontactbetweenvisitorsand
localsinNorthKoreaisduetotheanxietyandreluctanceonthepartofNorthKoreanpeople:
They[theNorthKoreans]walkedofforavertedtheireyes[]Evenchildrenranawayfrom
himornobodyspeakstome[]nooneestablishescontact.Thehinderedcontactisex
plained by North Korea analysts mostly in political terms, according to which ordinary
North Korean citizensare prohibited from approaching foreigners. However, putting aside
the likelihood that these North Korean people could at that time of day have simply been
(nonpolitically)indifferenttowardsthem,thequestioncouldbeposedtheotherwayround:
whyshouldNorthKoreansapproachstrangersholdingacamerawho,presumably,donot
speaktheirlanguagebutneverthelessattempttotalktoandphotographthem?

16

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

These citations are not meant to suggest that the photo essay and illustrated book (or
other records of North Korea) are wrong or untrue; the concern is not related to the com
pletenessortruthfulnessoftheimages.11Ratheritisaquestionofwhattheydo,howthey
function,andtheimpactofthisoperation(Campbell2007b).Thatistosay,howinterpreta
tions, identities, and responses are enacted through specific ways of seeing. Since images
shouldnotbeunderstoodasmediatingobjectiveinformationbutratherasevokingaffective
responsesonthepartoftheviewer,achangeinthecharacteristicsoftheimagefrominfor
mativetonormativecanbeconcluded.Inotherwords,photographsdonotnecessarilyshow
whatisgoingon;rather,theytellushowweshouldfeelaboutwhatisgoingon(ibid.).
The photo essay published in Foreign Policy is interesting for another reason as well.
WhiletheintroductoryremarksmentionthatvanHoutryvetookphotographsofPyongyang
and its people, the title The Land of No Smiles indicates a synecdochic relationship be
tweenimages,textandtitle,inwhichthebeingofthewhole(land)isinferredbythevisual
representationofthepart(Pyongyang).Astheintroductionadds,They[theimages]show
starkglimmersofeverydaylifeintheworldslastgulag.
In general, such synecdochic representations are not uncommon in media accounts or
photoessayssincethelatterattempttocapturetheverycharacterofpeople,placesandcir
cumstanceswithinasinglemoment.AnarticleonNorthKoreasfoodsituationpublishedin
theObserveronAugust18,1997alsoexemplifiesasynecdochiclinkbetweentextandimage
(seeFigure3).
WithregardtophotographicrepresentationsofHIV/AIDSinAfrica,BleikerandKay(2007),
forinstance,havenotedthatsomepicturesofhumansufferingshowexclusivelydecontextu
alisedmiseriesinwhichthedepictedareabstractedfromtheiroriginalcontext.12Thephoto
graphs are taken from a specific perspective, leaving out particular cultural or societal fea
turesandshowingonlydesolate,passivevictimswhoaremarkedbytheiragony.
This kind of photographythe exposure of individuals mostly in the form of photo
graphiccloseupsischaracterisedbyapersonalcode,whichcanhavedepoliticisingef
fects(Shapiro1988).Suchphotographsmostlyevokepityinsteadofcompassiononthepart
of the viewer, providing her with a secure and safe position away from the remote scene
where the pictures were taken. It is important to note that depictions of suffering can be
comeawayofaffirminglifeinthesafehereandnow,givingpeopleasenseofbelongingtoa
particular group that is distinct from others (Bleiker and Kay 2007: 151). The suffering or

Photographersorphotojournalistsoftenhavenocontroloverhowtheirimagesarebeingusedorcirculated

11

sincethepicturesarerefinedbythepublisherseditorialdepartments.VanHoutryvespersonalwebsiteshows
thathiscaptionsfortheimagespublishedinForeignPolicytendtobedescriptiveratherthaninterpretative.
TheabstractionofimagesfromtheiroriginalcontextresemblesLaclausproblematisationof(distorted)repre

12

sentation.Thatistosay,imagesareexamplesofdistortedrepresentationssince,paraphrasingLaclau,anim
ageinscribesaninterestinacomplexrealitydifferentfromthatinwhichtheinterestwasoriginallyformu
lated,andindoingso[]constructsandtransformsthatinterest(Laclau1993:290,italicsinoriginal).

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

17

deathoftheotherismetonymicwiththeaffirmationoftheselfasamemberofaparticular
group (Biehl 2007: 139). In other words, the viewers identity is substantiated through the
viewingofsuchimages.13
Figure3:Anationshungerinachildsface(Observer1997)

Figure3showsachildlyingonafloorinaNorthKoreanhospitalandcarriestheheadingA
nationshungerinachildsface.Thispictureepitomisesaparsprototorepresentationwith
themotionlessandlistlesschildembodyingthenationshunger,thatis,thesuffering
andplightofthepeopleoftheDPRK.Theailingboyservesasthesynecdochicsignifierfora
vulnerable country and provides the reader with an interpretative frame, which allows for
thereadingoftheimageonlyintermsofanationwidehumanitarianemergency.Similarto
the example above, the partial content (boy) assumes the legitimate representation of the
whole (nation), thereby revealing the hegemonic mode of the image. The photograph
togetherwithitscaptionspurportstoofferasummaryofthenutritionalconditionsinthe
country,suggestingthatNorthKoreasrealityisproceedinginthesamewayastheboys.The
part(boy)becomesconstitutiveofthewhole(thenationsreality)or,asChandlerhasnoted,
[t]hatwhichisseenasformingpartofalargerwholetowhichitrefersisconnectedexisten
tiallytowhatissignifiedasanintegralpartofitsbeing(Chandler2007).

In John Bergers Ways of Seeing, an example is given of how representations of the Other serve as identity

13

constructionsoftheSelfbyreferringtothegenreofEuropeanoilpaintingsdepictingfemalenudes.Whilefe
malenudepaintingswerenotonlyrepresentationsoffemininity(other),theywerealsoconstructionsofmas
culinity(self),accordingtowhichmenactandwomenappear(Berger1972:47,italicsinoriginal;seealso
Rose2001:12).

18

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

Inconclusion,therefore,synecdochicrepresentationscanbecrucialinmobilisingandfa
cilitatingreliefactionssincetheysuggestcausalchainsbetweenthewellbeingofachildand
thewellbeingofawholecountry.Byreducingcomplexity,theycreatetheincentivetoact
todosomethingandsuggestthatactionsareeffective.Itisimportanttonotethelinkbe
tweentheenablingofeffectiveactionsandsynecdochichalrepresentations.AsCharlotteEp
steinnotes,synechdochism[]constitutesasetofbeliefsorpracticeinwhichapartofan
objectorpersonistakenasequivalenttothewhole,sothatanythingdonetothepartisheld
toimpactthewhole(Epstein2008:112).Onthebasisofthissignificantargument,thepaper
establishes the link between particular representations of North Korea and related policy
practicesinthenextsection.

4.2 NorthKoreaasaMenace
ThemainargumentofthisarticleholdsthatNorthKoreaisrepresentedinconflictingterms.
Theinnercoherenceandpossiblecontradictionsoftheserepresentationsseemtoplaynorole
inthisambiguouspicture.Withinthefieldofinternationalpolitics,NorthKoreasthreatpo
tential is frequently associated with its missile and nuclear programmes and the possible
proliferationofrelatedtechnologies.OneofthelatestexampleistheUSDepartmentofDe
fenses 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which considers North Koreas nuclear ambi
tions and its development of longrange missiles one of the most significant threats to the
U.S. homeland (US DoD 2010: 4). Even though North Korea has never successfully tested
longrangemissiles(nottomentionthatPyongyanghasalwaysemphasisedthatitwouldtest
satellites),thereportsimplyassumesthatsoonerorlaterNorthKoreawillhaveasuccessful
test[]and[]willbeabletomateanuclearwarheadtoaprovendeliverysystem(ibid.).
Aspartofthesethreatrepresentations,itisacommonpracticetoreinterpretimageryre
leasedbytheNorthKoreangovernment.Forinstance,photographsofNorthKoreanmilitary
parades are usually taken and distributed by the countrys official Korea Central News
Agency(KCNA).OutsideNorthKorea,theseimages,are,however,habituallyseenasexem
plifyingthebelligerenceanddangerousnessoftheNortheastAsiancountry,asintheabove
mentioned US Department of Defense report (ibid., see also Time 2003).Another good ex
ample of remaking sense of official North Korean imagery is the photos of North Korean
leaderKimJongil,whicharereleasedbythegovernmentsinceautumn2008inanapparent
attempt to dispel doubts concerning reports of his deteriorating health condition. Yet, they
aremostlyreadexactlytheotherwayaround.
Another popular motive among threat representations of North Korea are photographs
ofitsmilitary,which,forinstance,showaperfectlyorganisedgoosesteppingstructure.Of
tenthisissimultaneouslyconstruedasasurprisegiventheweakeconomyandisolationof
the political system. The text under the photo shown in Figure 4, published by LIFE maga
zine,constructsamystifyingoxymoronbycontrastingthecountrysmalnourishedeconomy

19

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

and infrastructure with a purportedly thriving army as the nations primary employer,
consumer,andunifyingforce.Thephotographisagoodexampleoftheconcurrentintegra
tionofNorthKoreassupposedweakness(malnourishedeconomyandinfrastructure)and
threat(militarystate).
Fig.4:NorthKoreasMilitary(LIFE[undated])

Itisalsoastrikingexampleofthedisseminationandreinforcementofhegemonicviewsby
an uncritical, echoing press. Photos published outside North Korea also shape the medias
cognitiveapprehensionofNorthKorea,authorisinginadvancewhatwillandwillnotbein
cludedinitspublicrepresentation.Inthisprocess,mediaandpoliticsformacoherentrepre
sentativecomplex.Ininternationalpolitics,totaketheexampleoftheguidelinesontheEUs
foreignandsecuritypolicyinEastAsia,NorthKoreasnuclearprogrammeandtheprolifera
tionofrelatedtechnologiesareamajorthreatfacingtheregion.Thisdangerwouldalsoaf
fecttheEUsincethreatstoregionalsecurity[]haveadirectbearingontheinterestsofthe
EU(CEU2007:2).
It is through the combination of picture and text that discourse exercises its genuine
power.AsJudithButlercontends,Interestingly,althoughnarrativesmightmobilizeus,pho
tographsareneededasevidence[](Butler2009:69).Theconstructionofthreat,incredibil
ity, and a certain myth of the North Korean people as a homogeneous, robotlike mass go
handinhand.Pictures,suchasthatshowninFigure5,undoubtedlystructureourcognitive
apprehensionofNorthKoreaasaninternationalactor.Themechanismofpoliticalrepresen
tation and an echoing media illustrate the constructive power of politics to ratify reality,
thatis,toregulateourperspectiveonsomethingwehaveneverdirectlyseen.

20

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

Fig.5:AHomogeneousMass(BostonGlobe2008)

WhileNorthKoreaisrepresentedasathreat,itisalsoconstruedasstandingoutsideof,or
defying,internationalobligationsandnorms.Inthiscontext,observersfrequentlycitemis
sileandnucleartestsaswellaswithdrawals,nonratifications,andnoncompliancewithin
ternationaltreaties,suchastheNonproliferationTreaty(NPT)andtheComprehensiveTest
BanTreaty(CTBT),andwiththeUNSecurityCouncilsresolutions(CEU2009).Theimageof
NorthKoreaasanoutcastisfrequentlymirroredintheinternationalpressandthepictorial
representationsofNorthKorea.
UndertheheadingNorthKoreasBigStick(Figure6),theexplanationthatcomeswith
the picture maintains that North Korea is believed to possess a large number of chemical
weapons,andtohavebeenpursuingnuclearweaponssince1956.Ithasalsobeendevelop
ingitsmissiletechnology,anditscurrentlineofrocketsmightbeabletoreachHawaii.
AlthoughSouthKoreanmissilesareshownaswell,thecaptionfailstoprovidethesamein
formationonSouthKoreasmissiletechnologyandnuclearambitions.Forinstance,accord
ing to the South Korean government, it is currently attempting to develop its own rocket
technologytolaunchasatellitefromitsownsoil.WhileNorthKoreaclaimstobepursuing
thesamegoals,theproblematicapplicabilityofrockets,whichentailsocalleddualusetech
nology(bringingsatellitesintoorbitwiththesametechnologyusedforlongrangemissiles),
isalmostalwaysstressedwithregardtoNorthKoreasrocketprogramme.Furthermore,con
cernsregardingnuclearproliferation,covertnucleardevelopment,andthenondisclosureof
nuclearactivitiesarenotunknowntoSouthKoreanpolitics.In2008,theSouthKoreanMinis
try of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) released classified documents showing former
presidentParkChungheesambitiontodevelopnuclearweapons(Yoon2008).In2004,the
SouthKoreangovernmenthadtoadmitthatscientistsofthestaterunKoreaAtomicEnergy
ResearchInstitute(KAERI)hadconductedsecretnuclearexperimentsandactivitiesfromthe
1980s until 2000. These experiments involved the conversion and enrichment of uranium,
and the separation of plutonium (Kang et al. 2005: 4049).Although the experiments were

21

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

notofficiallyauthorisedbythegovernmentandtheamountofnuclearmaterialinvolvedwas
marginal,thedirectorgeneraloftheInternationalAtomicEnergyAgency(IAEA),whoinves
tigatedandreportedontheactivities,foundtheirnatureandthefailureoftheadministra
tiontoreportthemamatterofseriousconcern(IAEA2004:paragraph41).Theadmission
showedthatpastSouthKoreangovernmentshadnotonlyfailedtoabidebythesafeguards
systemoftheIAEAandtheNPT,buthadalsointentionallymisledtheIAEAandviolatedin
ternational agreements. For Kang et al. these revelations entail a major reevaluation of
what governments and analysts around the world thought they knew about South Koreas
nuclearhistory(ibid.:paragraph42).
Fig.6:TheNorthKoreanMissileThreat(LIFE[undated])

Thefooteroftheimageprovidesalinktoanotherphotoessaywhichallowsviewerstosee
theaftereffectsofanatomicbomb.Thejuxtapositionoftheconsequencesofanuclearat
tackwithNorthKoreasaforementionednuclearambitionsandmissilecapabilitiesisadirect
articulationofitsdangerousness.WhatisleftoutisthattheUnitedStatesistheonlycountry
tohaveusednuclearweapons.
Therefore,whileSusanSontagmaintainsthatanarrativeseemsmorelikelytobeeffective
thananimage(Sontag2003:122),itisarguedherethatthetwogohandinhand.Following
JudithButlerinthisregard,itisattemptedtoshowthatpoliticalnarrativesmightmobilisean
echoingpressandaninternationalaudience,butphotographsservetoconstructthetruthon
more solid ground. The political inscription of identities and of particular subjectivities for
NorthKoreaasaparticularOtherofaWesternidentity,aremutuallyconstitutive.Itisinthis
waythatpoliticalrepresentationandvisualprocessingcontinuouslyfueleachother.

22

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

Tobesure,representationsofNorthKoreaasathreat(andalsoasawimp)donotneed
tobebasedonhardfactsinordertobeaccepted.Publiclystatedanticipationsorestima
tions of an imminent event are sometimes sufficient for a particular reality to emerge
(Campbell1998:3).AgoodexampleistheimminentlaunchofaNorthKoreanprojectilein
1999.AsSuh(2004:155)notes,USintelligenceagenciesallegedlyhadevidenceofmeasures
beingtakenbyNorthKoreatotestfireamissile.Althoughthelaunchhadnotyetbeenexe
cuted,itwastreatedasafact,whichenabledcertainactionssuchaspubliccriticism,theis
suanceofstatements,anddiplomaticactivity.Inotherwords,thepracticesofproblematising
NorthKoreatookplacebeforeanactionwaseventakenbythecountry.
ThemorerecentexampleofaNorthKoreanrocketlaunchinApril2009showsthatthe
natureoftheparticularactivitydoesnotmatterintermsofthethreatrepresentationitfuels
inthiscasewhethertheprojectilewasamissileorasatellite.Thislaunchsparkedadebate
aboutwhetherthisobjectwasreallyamissileorindeedasatellite.AlthoughtheSouth
KoreandefenceministerandtheUSnationalintelligencedirectorindicatedthatNorthKorea
wasmorelikelytohavelaunchedasatellite(KoreaHerald2009a;Yonhap2009),thisdidnot
appeartohaveabearingoninternationalconstructions.Thelaunchdidnotmatterinterms
ofhegemonicthreatrepresentations,becauseeventhestartofaNorthKoreansatellitepro
gramwasrepresentedasamenacetoregionalpeaceandstability.Anexampleisprovided
bythestatementofUNSecretaryGeneralBanKimoon,formerSouthKoreanforeignminis
ter,whoportrayedthelaunchasbeinginoppositiontopeacefulpurposes,regardlessofits
nature:ImconcernedabouttheDPRKsrecentmovetolaunchasatelliteorlongrangemis
sile.Thiswillthreatenpeaceandstabilityintheregion(KoreaHerald2009b).
Thestandardverbalconstructionofthiseventalsoservesasanexampleofhegemonicrep
resentation.Inaccordancewiththetheoreticalargumentofthispaper,onemightcontendthat
a successful hegemonic project requires that a particular identity is temporarily constructed
through naming. Interestingly, the name Taepodong (large cannon) is used for instance
predominantlybyUS,SouthKorean,andJapanesepolicymakers,analystsandmediatorefer
to a North Korean rocket type, although Pyongyang named it Kwangmyongsong (bright
star). The predominant use of the former term indicates exclusionary practices, linking our
argumentwiththemaintheoreticalclaimputforwardinthefirstpartofthepaper:Thecon
tingency of a hegemonic discourse relies on the construction of a threatening, excluded out
side.Thesimplicityofthisconjectureisexemplifiedbythestatementthattobesomethingis
alwaysnottobesomethingelse.Asthepaperhasattemptedtomakeclearinthecourseofthe
argumentation,theprocessofexclusionisfundamentaltoanykindofidentityconstruction.

5 Conclusion
Thisarticlearguedfortheimportanceinaccountingforthesignificanceofvisualrepresenta
tions in approaching and apprehending matters related to North Korea. Due to the often

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

23

claimedlackofknowledgeaboutthecountry,NorthKoreaappearstobebeyondtherealmof
comprehension making images an important means for its understanding. The paper at
temptedtoillustratehowNorthKoreaissimultaneouslyandsometimescontradictorily
represented as a weak and fragile country, and as a danger to, and outcast of, the interna
tionalcommunity.Theoretically,itwasdemonstratedthatthelimitofanysocialsystemand
any collective identity is one of exclusion: the inside is constituted by an antagonistic rela
tionshiptotheoutside.Theeventualityofahegemonicdiscoursethusdependsonthecon
structionofathreatening,excludedoutside.InthecaseofNorthKorea,avarietyofimages
andrepresentationsgenerateaparticularkindofsubjectivityfortheNortheastAsianout
cast.ThepaperdiscussedanumberofWesternrepresentationsandshowedthatsynecdo
chicdepictionsarepervasiveinmediaaccountsandphotoessayswhichaimtocapturethe
essentialcharacterofpeople,placesandcircumstances.Theattempttorecordtheverybeing
of people and places is a definingmoment of identities and meanings, since images tell us
whotheyare,whattheydo,andwhatitlookslikeoverthere.
Important to note are the consequences of such representations, that is, what kind of
policiesorresponsesappearsuitable.Imagesofmassmobilisationlikeparades,exercises,or
sports events in North Korea are often read as erasing the individuality of the people de
picted on the photographs, turning them into a faceless, willless and homogenous horde.
Individuality,however,isconstitutiveofhumanness.Ifwerefusetoacknowledgetheindi
vidualityofNorthKoreanswedonotgrantthemtheequalstatusofhumanness,whichin
turnaffectsthewaysweconceiveorreacttospecificdevelopmentsinNorthKorea.14Dehu
manisationservespoliticalpurposesandrevealsspecificeffects,suchastheformulationand
implementationofpolicypracticesthatwouldotherwiseraisequalms.
Thecrucialproblemremainsthatidentityisstatusquooriented,inthesensethatassert
ing ones own identity means asserting the identity of a particular Other at the same time.
Obviously, identity is in danger of taking a stable antagonistic frontier within the interna
tionalsocietyofstatesforgranted.Insuchasituation,thereisnoroomforchange,butcoun
tries like North Korea are continuously represented in a similar way. We can start to think
aboutalternativerealitiesonlyifweacknowledgetheheterogeneityofanycollectiveiden
tity and the inherent risk of hegemonic representations. In pointing to contradictions and
perhapsmisunderstandingsinthewayNorthKoreaisseenintheworld,thispapercanalso
beseenasanefforttothinkanewaboutenemies,outsidersandcountriesthatareprobably
tooeasilyconstructedaswimpandmenaceatthesametime.

Forinstance,insteadofviewingtheperformanceoftheNorthKoreanArirangmassgamesasthestrangest

14

show on earth as the Guardian did, this festival could also be made meaningful in an aesthetic or art dis
course,whichwouldenablethechoreographytoberecognizedasaskilfulandhighlyelaborateartisticper
formance(Guardian2005;Butler2004,2009).

24

DavidShimandDirkNabers:NorthKoreaandthePoliticsofVisualRepresentation

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