North Korea: Seeing and Believing

How the problematic mode of perceiving and understanding the North Korean problem has inhibited any meaningful engagement process

By Benjamin Griffin

In recent months, with on-going missile and nuclear tests, the DPRK has sustained its prevalence in the media spotlight. China is often looked to as the key mediator in the DPRK problem; indeed in February this year the United States President-elect Donald Trump said in a television interview that “China has control — absolute control — over North Korea”.

In reality, however, China’s role is limited. In fact, addressing the DPRK problem is part of a much wider phenomenon of how the world views and understands this far away country. Rather than existing solely within China’s remit, therefore, fostering peace and prosperity in the north-east Asian region is a matter of changing perceptions.

In the summer of 2016, our Twitter feeds were once again consumed by a fresh stream of controversy surrounding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea, a country which at first glance seems to be the state-level embodiment of absurdity, unpredictability and the extremes. In August 2016, YouTuber Louis Cole aka FunForLouis published a video series following his evidently enjoyable surfing trip to North Korea, concluding with his music video “Surfin’ in the DPRK”. The videos were met with stark criticism by conventional media outlets, leading to accusations that his trip had been paid for by the North Korean authorities in order to portray the country in a positive light.


Meanwhile, that same month at the Rio Olympic Games, athlete Ri Se-Gwang’s gold winning medal ceremony expression was criticised by the media for being too solemn, supposedly hinting at his sadness for the hardship and torment he was forced to return to in Pyongyang.

What such instances highlight is the telling paradigm in which all information and knowledge about North Korea is circulated. Namely, this paradigm or image of North Korea resigns it to a land of misery and despair. As a consequence, the vast majority of media reportage tends to conform to an established stereotype which reflects a mad and unpredictable understanding of all North Korea issues, ranging from reports about barbaric deaths by ravenous dogs to enforced Kim Jong-un style haircuts, for example. As a further result, any reportage which does not conform to this paradigm quickly becomes isolated and susceptible to criticisms of being unrealistic, faked or otherwise ignorant.


Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new. Rallying behind a hegemonic worldview was central to the bipartisan superpower competition between the United States and Soviet Union in the Cold War. In 1983, then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan, speaking on the Soviet Union, described the “Evil Empires” which existed in the world and the United States’ inherent role in fighting such “evil” regimes. This conformed to the U.S. narrative of the Cold War: good against evil and right against wrong.

But although the Cold War officially ended with the downfall of the Soviet Union, it continues in a very real way on the Korean peninsula. Indeed, the two Koreas have only ever signed an armistice, not a full peace agreement, rendering them still technically at war today. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that U.S. President George W. Bush echoed his predecessor’s remarks in 2002 when he described North Korea as belonging to an “Axis of Evil” consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

But how useful are labels, such as “evil”, for formulating understanding about the “others” of the world; those states which defy the international norms of a post-Cold War unipolar world, and who so often represent flagrant rejections of its liberal democratic values?

In reality, such terms do more to harm the spread of liberal democratic norms than encourage its profusion; they are intentionally crude and reductionist, satisfying the world’s moral yearnings to identify the global “bad guy” and creating an exclusive in vs. out juxtaposition in international society. Indeed when it comes to matters of human rights abuses as well as on-going missile and nuclear tests, it can seem hard to criticise such “evil” labels – but is it really as simple as that?


Entertaining such crude labels poses two significant threats to future policy makers on the Korean problem: Firstly, it clouds the ability to understand the realities of North Korea, that is, the people, society and landscape which exists in the North-eastern corner of Asia. And secondly, it makes meaningful political engagement with this distant country considerably less viable. Indeed, if a state is truly evil then is it even moral to seek engagement or rapprochement? After Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, in 2003, the then U.S. vice president, Dick Cheney, rejected a Chinese proposal to bring both the DPRK and U.S. to the negotiating table by saying: “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”

However, this stance can be seen as flawed in two major ways: Firstly, the United States has been unsuccessful in “defeating” the DPRK. Despite going to war in 1950 as well as a slew of international sanctions over recent decades, culminating in December 2016 with some of the toughest sanctions affecting almost every aspect of the North Korean government, North Korea continues to exist and, dare it be said, even begin to grow and develop. As Andrei Lankov has pointed out, the harvest of 2013 was the first time since the late 1980s that the North Korean state was able to feed its own population without reliance on international aid. Increasing food security has been accompanied by a rapid growth in construction projects around the country, such as the Masikryong Ski Resort, Mirae Science Street, Science-Technology Complex, and various other public rest and leisure facilities, most predominantly located in the capital, Pyongyang.

While the ability to feed one’s own population is hardly a monumental accomplishment by anyone’s standards, this nonetheless demonstrates the North Korean government’s resilience and the inability of sanctions to bring about effective change. Indeed, whilst the wider Korean population may suffer from the economic and trade embargos on the country, which often makes the procurement of basic life necessities an ever greater challenge, it is the well-moneyed and connected elite who notice such sanctions the least. Pyongyang has recently witnessed the opening of various upmarket bars and restaurants including an Italian Pizzeria, fresh Sushi restaurant and a Viennese-trained and operated café, perched on the famous and sacred Kim Il-sung square.

Secondly, foregoing any opportunity to understand North Korea in a legitimate way only seeks to further isolate and strengthen the resolve of the North Korean government to follow its own path, particularly in regards to developing its nuclear programme. Like forcing a scared animal into a corner, it only becomes more desperate and violent as a result. Furthermore, North Korea has witnessed the dire fate of countries who have succumbed to U.S. demands of compliance; countries such as Iraq and Libya which experienced complete collapses in their systems of governance, leading to turmoil and the suffering of the people. This can hardly serve as a convincing model for the Koreans to follow and further highlights the incompatibility of such crude and reductive images with normative engagement strategies.


What we are left with, therefore, is the need to both separate North Korean realities from the images projected in media, academia and policy making and, instead, begin the tough processes of negotiation and engagement.

North Korea does indeed conduct nuclear and ballistic missile tests. This has significantly impacted the regional peace and comes at a huge cost, not just to international society but also the North Korean people themselves. But by limiting our understanding of North Korea to an image of total misery and hatred we forgo the opportunity to engage with the reality of North Korea – the people and places which can be found there.

Amidst accusations of government sponsorship, what Louie Cole’s trip showed was how North Korea can be as multifarious, lively and engaging as any other country. Who knew North Koreans could smile after all? And this has become one of the central issues of seeing the realities of North Korea – we cannot. Instead, our vision of North Korea is clouded by imagined and often exaggerated representations, such as those presented in the 2014 Film, “The Interview”. Whilst the movie was designed as anything but a political commentary, it carried very real implications. Indeed the film has even led to unverified accusations that North Korea masterminded a hacking of Sony Entertainment as revenge for the film’s release. Such instances further highlight the facile way in which we readily accept parodies of North Korea yet the simultaneous inability to conceive it as anything other than “a joke gone too far”.

As David Shim highlights in his book Visual Politics and North Korea, visual representation plays a huge role in our times because images (both physically and as a byword for an information paradigm) mediate how we convey and understand distant events and phenomena. By inherently limiting our understandings in this way, we forgo and hamper the ability to engage North Korea in a meaningful way to resolve the precise issues for which North Korea is simultaneously condemned by international society.


Ultimately, future policy makers must distance themselves from the dominant paradigm of seeing North Korea in order to legitimately address the issues at hand. There are numerous ways in which this can be achieved. Firstly, is greater emphasis on the human-to-human interactions, which help to break down barriers and dispel stereotypes. Educational exchange, tourism and sporting cooperation can go great lengths to building long lasting ties across borders. Remembering the case of China during the beginning of Sino-US rapprochement in 1971, for example, shows us how the simple exchanges, “ping-pong diplomacy”, perhaps achieved more in advancing mutual trust and understanding than any diplomat could have ever done.

But secondly, future leaders must also learn to swallow their [Western] pride and begin talking to North Korea at a formalised, institutional level. Showing respect, referred to in many Asian cultures as “face”, can go an extremely long way in helping to mend bridges and, at the very least, begin to provide the physical spaces for dialogue in which areas of critical importance, such as issues of human rights and the nuclear issue, can be discussed.

Such ideas, moreover, focus not on the treatment of North Korea as a passive receiver or subject of Western foreign policy, something which has largely been the case in terms of food aid contributions, for example, but rather as a meaningful actor in its own right. Bleiker’s book, ‘Divided Korea’, highlights this as being part of an ‘ethic of difference’: Mental differences, even when one’s own moral position is thought to be superior, must be legitimately accepted. This will allow for engagement strategies in which North Korea can be recognised as being as equal and valued as any other actor on the world stage, rather than simply being subsumed within the identity politics of the self.

For now, the future is unwritten. Far from being a lost cause, North Korea has a lot to gain from negotiations, not least the release of the sanctions put into effect this year. But in order to bring North Korea to the negotiation table, and to secure their side of the bargain, then media, policymakers and academics must seek to understand and engage with the North Korean realities over the “evil” myths so often used in popular discourse. Rather than simply accepting or approving the status quo, this statement instead points to a need to acknowledge and accept the many (equally justified) differences which exist, precisely in order that meaningful negotiation and engagement regarding those issues of difference can find the space needed to take place. Whether this can happen or not does not necessarily depend on North Korea, but rather on us.


Bleiker, Roland. Divided Korea: Toward a Culture of Reconciliation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2005. Print.

Shim, David. Visual Politics and North Korea: Seeing Is Believing. Oxon: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Benjamin Griffin is a scholar and researcher at the Yenching Academy of Peking University specialised in China and north-east Asia politics and security.

Photo Credit: DPRK 360

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