Arts and Culture
In the information war surrounding North Korea, imagery of various provenance and nature plays an unexpectedly prominent role. From the choreographed footage of mass parades on Kim Il Sung Square that international news agencies eagerly air, to the ‘unauthorized’ photos surreptitiously smuggled out of the country by journalists fronting as tourists, or the grainy satellite imagery used to document the darkest sides of the North Korea regime, visual data are a prominent source of information. Critical International Relations theory has been looking into the complex epistemological challenges posed by such documentary imagery.
Rather than the international consumption of documentary footage from North Korea, this panel applies the same critical approach to North Korea’s rich visual culture, from posters, over fine arts and portrait painting, to monumental art. Inspired by Petre Petrov’s “The Industry of Truing” (2011), this panel documents the hegemonic performativity of visual culture through the spectre of regimes of visuality. With regimes of visuality, we refer to the politics of both picturing and seeing. In the case of North Korea, theoretical insights determine the broad contours of style and subject matter with(in) which professional practitioners operate. Creativity is further structured through an elaborate (post-) production screening system. Art criticism in turn directs the gaze of the viewer into politically appropriate ways of reading visual art.
Noting the disciplining structures that shape North Korean visual literacy does not absolve us from equally critically observing and deconstructing the largely text-based scholarly gaze. A critical engagement with North Korean visual culture as sui generis, requiring a proper theoretical and methodological approach is still largely lacking. This panel seeks to remedy this oversight. Benoit Berthelier shows the potential of a quantitative visual discourse analysis on the annotated database of North Korean posters hosted by the Asian Library at Leiden University. Koen De Ceuster’s contextualized reading of narrative art provides insights in the management of North Korea’s historical memory. In a close reading of the subtle changes in the portraits of Kim Il Sung since his grandson Kim Jong Un came to power, Carey Park sees clear strategic motivations. Finally, Shine Choi zooms in on the international impact of North Korea’s visual regime by reading the appearance of North Korean monuments in southern Africa and Southeast Asia as an example of a lateral re-articulation of third world power relations in the age of globalization.