A Roundtable Review of Shine Choi’s Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics

By | July 22, 2015 | No Comments

Korean War Armistice signing: US General Harrison, left table, and North Korean General Nam II, right table, sign documents, July 1953. One party at the table has undoubtedly held more discursive influence on how the "other" is perceived. | Image: USFK

Korean War Armistice signing: US General Harrison, left table, and North Korean General Nam II, right table, sign documents, July 1953. One party at the table has undoubtedly held more discursive influence on how the “other” is perceived. | Image: USFK

Much contemporary analysis of North Korea revolves around the desire to achieve justice for persons subjected to horrors unseen, invisible, or unspeakable. The stories told in memoirs, from television studios, and in proceedings held by the UN and the United States Congress provide mental pictures of a people facing down depravation and a predatory, totalizing state against which the rest of the world ought logically to recoil. But in this process of narrative shaping, the privilege and position of the critical “see-er,” the public interpreter, or even the casual voyeur is rarely considered. North Korea exists in many forms of reality, but the way we see it is also constructed, often arbitrarily so. Even defectors are limited by the prisms into which their stories are filed away.

Shine Choi arrives at the knotted task of North Korea scholarship, seeking to encourage us down paths that question our visions, our impressions, and how we convey knowledge about the DPRK. By turns profound and disturbing, Choi’s latest work, Re-imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives, raises questions seldom seen in the study of North Korea. This challenging and considered piece of scholarship has pricked our consciences and consciousness at Sino-NK and rattled our analytic frameworks; on occasion we were forced to head for the library just to make head or tail of any of it. But most importantly, we were engaged in no uncertain terms by this extraordinary book. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

A Roundtable Review of Shine Choi’s Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics

by Sino-NK

Choi, Shine. Re-imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015. 224 pp. ISBN: 9781138791688.

Ruminations on the Epistemology of North Korea Studies: Thinking with Shine Choi

by Koen De Ceuster (Leiden University)

Don’t we all have our little rituals when it comes to handling new books? Some decorum in front of the result of years of intellectual labour just seems appropriate. Unwrapping a new book, there is always a thrill of anticipation, the expectation of being intellectually stimulated. I am old school, I like the sensuality of a printed book, the way it sits in my hand, the feel of the paper, the sight of the letter type and the page layout, the smell of the book. And then there is the routine of taking in the cover, flipping over the book and reading the back text, going through the table of contents, scanning the bibliography and the index. Only then, if time allows, will I sit back and start reading.

This turn to affect describes another form of experiential knowledge that adds to and cradles the habitual highbrow pretence of rational detachment that pervades the scholarly profession. Such an opening paragraph feels to me like an appropriate opener to this review of Shine Choi’s Re-imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives. With its efficient, masculine rationality, this title is strangely unbecoming for an audacious and sensitive book that, more than anything else, questions how we as a scholarly community engage North Korea as an object of research. Shine Choi raises some very fundamental epistemological questions that reverberate in how North Korea is set up in international politics, but in fact digs far deeper into how we come to know what we think we know about North Korea, without ever really returning to the international politics mentioned in the title, let alone coming up with any workable answers. But maybe the title is a ploy to lure those who look for quick answers into the intellectual quicksand of self-reflection, because, let’s face it, is our real problem not that we expect any book with North Korea in the title to inevitably come up with roadmap for solving the “North Korea problem?”

I do not usually fetishize opening sentences; I rather have a thing with titles. However, in this case, the opening line of Shine Choi’s book put a smile on my face. “The international problem of North Korea is that North Korea is a work of fiction.” Direct and bold, it leaves little room for ambiguity. While the timid-natured might have felt the need to argue this statement, not so Shine Choi. Her message is clear, you are either with me or against me on this one. What follows is a bold and brave intellectual exercise that fundamentally questions the modes of knowledge production on North Korea. The critique on how North Korea is framed in international politics is not new as such–there is a growing body of research that has sought to break down the prevalent securitization narrative–but the effort at problematizing the question of how we come know what we think we know about North Korea and why this matters is unrivaled in its depth and scope. The book talks about the ‘North Korea problem’ in a relational way and does this by situating international politics within a larger (fictional) body of knowledge production and cultural differentiation. In doing so, it questions the monopoly of rational knowledge production as biased and power-centered. Deeply influenced by the work of Trinh Minh-ha, Shine Choi tries to think other modes of knowledge beyond academically sanctioned methods of research and their ingrained power imbalance.

Shine Choi is an iconoclastic scholar who strains at the leash of accepted modes of knowledge production on North Korea, unwilling to accept the conditions within which authoritative knowledge is produced. What she questions is a tradition of masculine knowledge production which sets the researcher up in a position of unaffected authority from which to speak objectively about a muted, powerless North Korean object that is not allowed to speak back. She challenges this fiction of rationality that is so typical of knowledge production on North Korea. Instead, she ponders alternative ways of knowledge production that not only return agency and voice to North Korea(ns), but also reframes the observing subject as physically and emotionally implicated. In doing so, this epistemological exercise also touches upon the ethics of doing research not just in relation to North Korea as research object, but also more in general by returning the gaze to the researcher and how (s)he is implicated and present in the research process as a person (i.e., politically, emotionally, bodily).

Far from easy, far from conclusive, this book provides good food for thought. It rattles at the cage of power induced rational knowledge production on North Korea, by now the last remaining frontier of old school Orientalism. With Gayatri Spivak, Shine Choi hovers between scholarship and activism, frustrated by the abyss that looms in scholarly writing between the instrumentalized research object and the writing subject. With Trinh Minh-ha she looks for a third, in-between space, where she seeks to overcome the ingrained subject-object dichotomy through an activist stance, no longer speaking about, but speaking with, respectful of the subjecthood and attentive to the voice of the other. In thinking this through, Shine Choi makes a very powerful and convincing statement for critical feminist international relations. As a critical exercise, this book is refreshingly honest, though simultaneously fundamentally disquieting as the in-between space of “speaking with” raises the spectre of the muted scholar, unable to speak (back). Does it all have to end in the abdication of the critical scholar? Can there be said no more?

Establishment DPRK figure Hwang Jang-yop (second left) with Kim Il-sung and a visiting delegation in Pyongyang, 1980. Seventeen years later, Hwang would depart North Korea for a different life in Seoul. | Image: KCNA

Establishment DPRK figure Hwang Jang-yop (second left) with Kim Il-sung and a visiting delegation in Pyongyang, 1980. Seventeen years later, Hwang would leave North Korea for a different life in Seoul. | Image: KCNA

Without Us, There is No Them? Shine Choi on Defector Literature

by Christopher Green

“Authenticity” is touted as a vital element of contemporaneous writings about North Korea, but it is one that Shine Choi problematizes in her chapter on the output of three prominent individuals who (physically) departed their homeland for South Korea in the early days of mass migration. In “Be(com)ing North Koreans in an affective world,” Choi exposes the way “authenticity” and its counterpart, “the real,” are conceptualized and refracted through the lens of these literary productions. For her, authenticity on these terms is a tool for disciplining how North Korean agency is possible: a way “of allowing ‘North Korea’ to exist in this world on ‘our’ terms.”

“Efforts to distinguish the authentic ‘real’ from the manipulated/ing North Korea(ns) often effectively constrains how North Koreans speak, act and become political subjects,” she declares.

The works of what Choi calls “survivor-witnesses” are “necessarily acts of translation which (re)create… stories of hardship to make demands on publics and publicity on behalf of those who suffered and continue to suffer.” The texts produced by, or in the name of, said individuals lead toward a shared path to a normative middle ground through which the translation of experiences of social harm can be transformed into “collective injustices that… assert the public-ness of [the authors’] lives as a matter of collective redress rather than just a private problem or a product of individual circumstances.” Literature as activism.

As such, Kang Cheol-hwan’s book The Aquariums of Pyongyang urges the international public to compel the South Korean citizenry to shake off its collective apathy toward North Korean human rights abuses. Meanwhile, Hwang Jang-yop’s I have seen the truth of history [나는 역사의 진실을 보았다] asserts the unavoidability and appropriateness of his departure, in order that at least one person could be outside North Korea to speak for the voiceless ordinary people.

The result is this: While Kang and Hwang began their respective journeys from very different points, one a prison camp survivor and the other an elite official, they both end up constrained (perhaps willingly, perhaps not) by the necessity of being a certain kind of North Korean. For them, this “being” opens the way to the presumptive destination; the intersection of redemption, recovery, salvation and rescue. These are the concepts that testimony mobilizes and are, inter alia, presumed to be the purpose of the exercise. Choi states compellingly that “a purer collective, one which excludes perpetrators and evil” can be and is established by this mode of storytelling. It is not made explicit, but one assumes that she thinks this would not be the case if the narratives in question were somehow unconstrained. She may be right.

The stories carry within them the idea that hope, agency, and change come from beyond North Korea’s borders (or rather, that there is only space for their formation on the outside); that the aforementioned salvation, rescue, recovery and redemption are possible only when individuals align with the “right” side. The third of the survivor-witness writings that Choi addresses, that of Choi Zini, disrupts this conceptualization through the declaration that anyone who has left should simply stay gone, but in the end even she does not hold this most difficult of lines. Rather, through the publication Rimjingang, she joins Kang and Hwang alike in the “privileged position of a now outside, free individual who has traveled that road from subservience to defiance and has reached enlightenment.”

I imagine that Choi laments the situation that she describes, though she acknowledges (rightly) that all three authors are perfectly within their right to pursue their work in this way. She also recoils from putting much flesh on the bones of an alternative formulation; as such, the book is theoretically robust, but it sheds little light. Perhaps this is because Choi is cognizant of the fact that what she critiques compellingly is also arguably reasonable, and quite possibly inevitable. There is no way to square that circle.

Her closing declaration would certainly seem to suggest this: “Rather than offer a critical reading of these activities,” she states with reference to Rimjingang and Kang’s prominent NGO vehicle, the North Korea Strategy Center, “I instead believe that this new site of intercultural encounter… is an exciting area of further research and reflection on what third scenarios demand of academic engagements.” It is a reversal: a moment of denial and avoidance.

Kim Jong Il and his shadow in 1971, while directing musical accompaniment for the opera Sea of Blood

Kim Jong Il plots out harmonies for an operatic spectacle in 1971. | Image: Chosun Central TV

Reading Shine Choi through Guy Debord’s ‘”Society of the Spectacle”

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

“Separation is the Alpha and the Omega of the Spectacle” (Guy Debord)

“The International problem of North Korea is that North Korea is a work of fiction” (Shine Choi)

Having attended many a conference session subtitled, “How do you solve a problem like North Korea,” this author has encountered many a time that very fiction with which Shine Choi so provocatively begins “Re-imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives.” This author has also walked within that fiction, talked to people from that fiction, even approached that fiction from the other side; the side in which the fiction crystallizes and manifests itself into a most concrete, physical and distinct terrain. Choi here has written a dense, neutron star of a book. Little conventional light can escape its 224 pages, her argument pulsing vigorously and metronomic against the dull edifice of North Korea studies. Perhaps it would be most productive, then, to read Choi through the lens of a similarly atomic philosophic burst, Guy Debord’s 1967 landmark of Situationism, “The Society of the Spectacle” (“La Societé du Spectacle” in its original French).

Every reader of Sino-NK and other academic fora with a North Korea focus will know the dead hand of the securitization agenda, the infantile “comedy-fication” of Pyongyang, the siren call of human rights universalism, even the labyrinthine, rabbit-hole myopia of division system theory. None of these ultimately does justice to the study of North Korea, to North Koreans or even to North Korea itself. Choi essentially calls out the entire edifice of academic and intellectual procrastination, demanding an “interruption” to the entire enterprise, or, if not a clattering down of the house of cards, then at least a brief hiatus in its chitter and chatter. Choi asserts that perhaps rather than politics and security, it should be a real product of Debord’s “spectacle” that we might see, hear and think North Korea as a culturally produced space.

Choi fascinatingly alights on the necessity of seeing and encountering North Korea differently through the moment of this interruption, using the work of Trinh Minh-ha, James Church, and Guy Delisle as exemplary eyes through which alternatives to imagining North Korea might be achieved. In particular, there is a focus on acts of conventional displacement (or digression) on the part of Trinh and detection (or uncovering as opposed to “encountering”) on the part of Church.

This would all sound rather diffuse and potentially artistic were it not for Choi’s demand that, rather than engaging and encountering this new un-securitized spectacle as an element of entertainment praxis, as viewers or ‘see-ers’ we not be released from the demands of morality or conscience, but instead fall head long into them. Similar to Sandra Fahy’s magnificent co-option of the field of emotion as a tool for empirical analysis, Choi reframes our viewing and seeing as an encounter with pure, unadulterated suffering. This is a torment which demands of us, claws at us, wretches in front of us, demanding an answer… which of course certainly cannot be a continuation of separated present.

Intriguingly, Choi’s suggestion is to remove the field of play and experience entirely from “tempo-reality” and to delve into the realm of the spectacle and of cultural production in order to relocate an empathetic reality; empathy being a lifeboat of real experience upon to which we can grab in these ephemeral waters.

Utilizing a very careful and considered set of literary and filmic readings, Choi encounters new possibilities for empathic, real, undivided love for North Korea. This love will ultimately break and fracture division as seen in filmic disruption present in productions such as “Over the Border,” “Typhoon,” and “Our Homeland.” This is the radical love of Sonia Ryang’s conception, with conceptual and emotional space for the viewer and participant to love North Korea now that he or she has been embraced, changed, and re-defined by new subjectivities. As Choi puts it when referring to Yang in on “Our Homeland:” “This intimate relationship with her subject gains articulation in all her productions, which crucially mediates how North Korea as an object of love is encountered and imagined.” (p. 160)

Finally, in this “love-space” of empathic “spectacular” production, Choi engages Spivak’s conceptions of re-centered, de-centered selves, understanding them to open up “the possibility for exploring a greater diversity of in-between spaces and translative transactions” (p. 219). We arrive with Choi at this space of acute hyphenation, barriers broken, defences down, at the Omega of the Spectacle. In Spivak’s “simultaenity” a world with “both ends,” subordination and disruption, it is as if our heterogeneous production and encounter themselves become pure mobilization as much as they become actualization. In this spectacular re-production, the division of North and South Korea is remobilized by its reproduction into and beyond spectacle, a critical, vital act of detournément.

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