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A Strange but Familiar Foe: North Korea's Media Image and Public Imagination.

BY MID-2017, THE RHETORIC AND SABER RATTLING SURROUNDING North Korea's attempts to develop an effective nuclear arsenal had intensified to the point where the prospect of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, and beyond, slipped back into view. As tension heightened following the apparently successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile, one UK news broadcast described the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, as "unstoppable" in his "villainous dreams" (Channel Four News 2017). Similar statements have, nevertheless, framed the numerous stories and images relating to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) that have appeared across UK media on a near daily basis for a number of years. This article explores elements of the media discourse on the DPRK from the production of texts to audience reception. Its main aim is to contribute to the understanding of the consumption of information about the country outside of representational-level narratives of spectacle, secretiveness, and choreographed allegiance to the Kim dynasty. From the circuits of production through which original authorial voice is either distorted or emptied out, the representation of North Korea emerges from what Michel Foucault (1972) referred to as a discursive formation in which narratives reflect relational contexts defined by specific sociocultural conditions.

In this article I focus on recent reporting on North Korea in the digital edition of a UK-owned mainstream news outlet Mail Online (the website of the widely read Daily Mail), which maintains a right-wing position characterized by reactive popularist journalism. The Mail plays on a broad range of prevailing public sentiments through attention-grabbing headlines accompanying sensationalist, and often alarmist, reporting. In general, its editorial stance tends toward polemics rather than sustained analysis of current affairs. Although not discussed in depth, reference is also made to The Guardian, which has risen to prominence through a strategy of specialist writing, analysis, and comment strongly aligned to left-leaning culture. Since 2014, the online edition of The Guardian has regularly hosted the North Korea Network, which reproduces news reports and commentary from journalists, regional experts, and bloggers. Both newspapers have long-established histories and are illustrative of political poles in UK media. (1)

The argument presented here is informed by Foucault's (1972) approach to discourse analysis. According to Foucault, discourse is constitutive of objects of knowledge and, ultimately, social relationships. Consequently, North Korea emerges as a knowable entity through the interactions between the media and its audience's interpretation and subsequent perspectives: in short, the latter's conceptual framework. In turn, these perspectives can be considered as further constitutive of a populist moral stance toward North Korea in general. The emphasis on the function and effects of discursive media representations is built on by reference to Stuart Hall's (1980) account of the process of "encoding" and "decoding" media texts, which makes a number of key, yet now familiar, points: (2) first, that the production of news is embedded in institutional structures (particular knowledge frameworks and production conditions) that encode meaning into a given text; second, and significantly, that although the encoded text aims to structure meaning for its intended audiences, the latter are not considered passive receptacles but rather actively engaged in decoding the text. They are therefore complicit in constructing meanings on the basis of their own cultural knowledge and political beliefs. For Hall, making visible the processes through which meaning is produced and transformed--especially in terms of denotative and connotative functions (3)--allows us to grasp how particular representations come to dominate, and recognize that representation is dependent on circuits of textual production and the exchange of meanings between members of a given culture.

The core of this article's argument hinges on this sense of constructing a meaningful representation of North Korea within a discursive formation. In applying basic elements of Foucault's, at times abstract, argument to the concrete case of the DPRK reveals that the discourse's unity is not based on the uniqueness of North Korea as a political or social phenomenon but on the actual discursive space in which "various objects emerge and are continuously transformed." Thus it is the discourse that plays with "systems of norms," "types of classification," and "modes of characterization" (Foucault 1972, 32-45) in the construction of the mediatized reality of the state and its people. However, the formation produces sets of objects that, due to their discursive nature, are highly constrained (Fairclough 1992, 43), such as stereotypical conceptions of the criminal state versus victimized population, or monochromatic depictions of everyday banality starkly juxtaposed to images of state-induced spectacle. Constrained sets of objects (in the form of certain portrayed events, abstract ideas, and prior conceptual understandings) are then placed in what appear to be arbitrary relationships with denotative (i.e., their literal) meanings beginning to "slip and slide away from us into uncertainty" (Hall 2013, 5). It is at this point, Hall argued, that distortions and misunderstandings arise as the coded nature of media text should not be considered fixed but arranged and rearranged according to cultural conventions at both ends of the process. This is the theoretical strength of Hall's (1980) analysis of the production of meanings--precisely, the absence of fixidity and the openness to audience interpretation. The argument of the present article, however, does to an extent counter Hall's sense of strong equilibrium between the encoding and decoding process by underlining the power of connotative (i.e., associative) meanings. This is why Foucault's distinctive theory of how power is both embedded in and constitutive of discourse is useful in understanding how the discursive nature of representational practices in the North Korean case constructs prejudiced and culturally biased depictions that seek to naturalize rather than analyze.

There remains, then, a power relationship that works through the manipulation and "transformation of objects," thus, at least analytically, giving more weight to encoding. Nonetheless, several issues should be noted: specifically, that the function of media texts cannot be reduced to the singular. A primary function is quite simply to entertain in the generation of profit; they reflect and contribute to the landscape of cultural values and identities in the process of, ostensibly, keeping audiences socially and politically informed and function hegemonically as mechanisms of social control and social reproduction (Fairclough 1995, 47-48). As a consequence, they have a layered and normative character whereby multiple versions of a storyline become embedded in others, sustaining a sense of familiarity even in the case of unfamiliar contexts. This is the sense of the DPRK identified as a "strange but familiar foe" that gives this article its title. The argument made here is not that there is categorical ideological intent in the Mail's North Korea reports, but neither can the encoding/decoding relationship be considered purely subjective given the conservative nature of the majority audience. Furthermore, it has potentially hegemonic effects that are produced through the emptying out of reality in the course of representation: it is this emptying out of substantive content that serves as an invitation to a particular decoding. The conclusions made in this article offer some suggestions as to what such hegemonic functions and their effects might be. First, accounts of Kim Jongun are littered with what can be regarded as "biopolitical" references (Foucault 2008). Foucault used the concept of biopolitics as a means of exploring the varied mechanisms through which the state and other institutions (including the media (4)) manage populations. Such techniques of power target the health of the body and general life processes. Biopolitical references pointing to health and desire add to a narrative of a demonic, yet at times comedic, criminal (embodying the state) that is juxtaposed to suggestions of the vulnerable victim (the people). Such stereotypical narratives may function to mystify the more immediate reality of the "carceral" nature of Western neoliberal society by overtly projecting a discursive image of abnormality to an authoritarian context. This relates to the function of control and reproduction. Second, in what have become precarious times in terms of international security through an abstruse terrorist threat targeting liberal democracies (Butler 2004), a need has materialized for general "urges for certainty" (Ettlinger 2007, 320) and essentializing narratives to explain an increasingly complex material reality. A simplified narrative on North Korea can, therefore, be the means of generating a sense of "ontological security" for readers and, accordingly, suggest a level of more autonomous decoding as a response to anxiety.

Circuits of Production: The Encoding/Decoding of Representations and the Question of Newsworthiness

In the world of new media and the almost instantaneous reproduction of information across borders and between news organizations with their own distinct agendas, interpretation through cultural conventions, dominant anxieties and prejudices result in a distinct encoding of information on North Korea. Direct sources of information are rarely made explicit but certainly reports are composites of previous versions of stories published by a range of global news agencies and occasionally social media sites. This can be clarified by following the trail of reports via the "read more" Web links added to the pages or by conducting Web searches on the storyline, which often reveal very similar accounts and use of certain phrases. Within such multiple circuits of production, representation is a process that becomes increasingly selective and is unable (or unwilling) to reveal the complete picture of a situation or event. It is, in this sense, a transformative process that tends to foreground specific traits of character, particular events, and certain relationships while other contexts are allowed to either fall into the background or remain absent. Attention to this selective process allows us to see how messages are constructed and take on a discursive aspect as storylines become framed by production routines supplemented by various definitions and assumptions. This way, media discourses are never closed systems but rather draw on related topics, agendas, events, and ideas of audiences with the consequence that the resulting discursive form assumes a privileged position--it "supersedes reality" (Hall 1980, 129). Typically, Mail reports frame North Korea as a secretive (and by insinuation dangerous) yet predictable enemy with an equally predictable head of state. This image becomes fixed in the public imagination from the outset with the DPRK represented in enigmatic terms relating to "timeless mystery" (Shim 2014, 1). The knowledge void surrounding it--and, as we shall see, which the reports deepen through the emptying out of content and context--alongside the reproduction of state-released images of Kim Jong-un in typical situations and postures ensures a level of consistency. This in turn ensures that coverage is fixed within a moral framework. The contexts of this framework are open to simplifications that discourage multiple or diverse meanings and invite consensual interpretations (Jewkes 2011). News stories on North Korea may seem transparent in terms of the messages they convey to readers, yet they are supplemented by connotations that may be decoded on conscious and subconscious levels. North Korea as "dangerous" and "predictable" is undoubtedly the denotative message--it is the literal and unambiguous representation. On these grounds alone it remains within the threshold of newsworthiness. However, the question of why North Korea has appeared in UK-based media with such regularity demands attention to the connotative levels of the reports, in particular, how constant repetitions of specific tropes in expression point to the ideological nature of news production insofar that they work at a discursive level reproducing dominant meanings and values. As Hall (1980, 131) argued, discursive knowledge is not a product of transparent representation of the "real," but the "articulation of language on real relations and conditions."

North Korea as Discursive Formation: The Function of Denotative and Connotative Statements

Foucault (1972) argued that discourse governs the ways we can meaningfully talk about an object: specifically, that it is a dual process of definition and production of a field of objects that excludes ways of thinking, discussing, and representing an issue. A discourse is constituted by a network of statements--basic units such as fragments of a sentence, concepts, certain versions of an event, a proposition, or an image or definition. As argued above, the Mail's coverage of North Korea can be understood as also working at a connotative level: that is, the denotative messages relating its enigmatic status, seemingly archaic ideology, and tendency toward choreographed spectacle are supplemented by a range of "associative meanings." The latter, as Hall (1980) might have suggested, are idiosyncratic statements, or the "bundles of meanings" of a distinctive discursive formation. Consequently, meanings are not assigned to statements in isolation; it is the relationships between statements that define meaning within the discursive space of media representation as the DPRK discourse develops through circuits and processes of production. As has been argued and will be demonstrated through examples below, any encoded messages of earlier stages of a text's production process are transplanted to new contexts with original meanings progressively emptied out. This may be a case of problems in literal translation across linguistic and cultural boundaries that provoke transformations in meaning and representation by incorporating "alien perspectives" or associated critical voices (Kang 2007, 220). As Kim (2014) demonstrates in the case of US media discourses on the DPRK, loose equivalences are often made that make associations to regimes such as those in Libya or Syria on the basis of shared histories of dictatorship, or to Iran and Pakistan on the basis of a nuclear discourse. In instances such as this it seems clear that there is ideological motivation in the act of encoding whereby the oversimplification of state strategies (echoing the rationale of G. W. Bush's "axis of evil") empties the North Korean case of substantive content: in short, the complexities of juche ideology and the historical underpinnings of the state. Equally, in order to meet the technicalities of news production, oversimplification and "emptying" are also consequences of adjusting content to fit a market audience: hence assumptions are made in relation to specific social contexts leading to the audience's becoming part of the discursive formation (McQuail 2000).

Consequently, discourses are neither fixed nor invariable but are bound by all prior statements and altered by each new statement made (Foucault 1972). This is especially the case as they become embroiled in networks of signification and acquire new contexts and meanings. Subsequently, as Choi (2015, 2) suggests, North Korea can be seen as a work of fiction, constituted through propositional statements that define it as a "security problem and a failed state" that is easily "Othered" through creative (re)imaginings, varied genres, and recurring narratives. (5) Below, I point to the statements--both denotative and connotative--that contribute to a distinct discursive formation specific to the UK context and that reproduce a familiar representation of a Cold War enemy, yet potentially employ representation as a means of reaffirming conventional identities and values.

Spectacle and the Representation of the People

A Mail report from May 2016 covering the celebration of the DPRK Workers' Party congress consists of thirty-eight color images of performances and parades accompanied by one-line captions and minimal explanatory text (Polden 2016). The text repeats a range of statements visually emphasizing patriotism, elation, and synchrony interspersed with captioned references to power, shows of force, and emotional states. This reflects the standard fare of reporting on North Korea across UK media, which revolves around the suggestion of state-managed ceremonial events and excessive spectacle typifying the hyper-regimented and politicized life of Pyongyang (French 2014). In terms of encoding, multiple-reproduction of these images is designed to evoke representations of the unity and loyalty of the people and particularly the manifestation of the population's celebration of the juche system, implicitly portrayed as infusing all visible aspects of everyday life. Such reports generally emphasize mass performance through simplistic references to national costume and what is implied as the equally staged and choreographed outpourings of public emotion.

This, then, is the encoded message working at the denotative level and as such provokes readers' online comments that respond through statements of "madness," "egotism," and "obedience": statements that are never integral to the preceding media text yet form the basis of audience decoding. Working toward the possible connotative meanings of the text, however, then the performance becomes regarded almost as a form of illusion as the discursive formation takes further shape. Collective and emotive performance is something to be denigrated (Loxley 2007) and collapsed into a dichotomy of irrational and rational behavior. If there are unspoken statements, then these take place in what could equally be seen as the choreographed invitation to decode: the images cast collective performance as a practice that is reduced to institutions belonging to the past rather than a living cultural activity. As Hall (1980) made clear, statements in a discourse never solely signify literal or ideological meanings, but rather contain aspects of both. Therefore, it can be argued that the arrangement of images and text uncritically portraying socialist allegiance and forced emotion invites comparison to the height of Cold War theatrics--constituting another connotative statement in the discursive formation. The overall statement of scripted performance eludes contextual information on the general internalized cultural rules of affect and emotion management (Hochschild 2003) beyond the suggestion of the population as unreflexive victims of the system. This act of emptying the report of contextual assessment of the sociocultural reality of the DPRK as a peculiarly "quixotic nation" (Kim 2010, 3) amounts to a representational denial of agency through which the Korean people are discursively reduced to the cultural dupes of a repressive system. This, therefore, uncritically frames ideals that are distant from normative understandings of popular democracy yet that through journalistic integrity could be traced to values that underpin social relations on both sides of the Korean border (Buzo 2007; Eckert et al. 1990).

The Quotidian Landscape and Discursive Subject-Positions

In August 2015, The Mail reproduced a series of images framed as "eye-opening pictures" that "show how ordinary people get by while living in the world's most secretive state" that it claims are in "stark contrast" to the spectacle of the celebration of independence from Japanese rule held days before (Malm 2015). The article leads with the heading "It's grim up north"--a statement that, although offering some form of context to the images, has more resonance with a UK audience as the phrase is habitually deployed to describe the social consequences of deindustrialization in the north of England, invoking a sense of not only regional imbalance but class division. It is at best a clumsy attempt to construct some correspondence of meaning for the audience--defined by the visual absence of luxury and the monochromatic Pyongyang landscape.

Here the encoded message appears to bind the prior statement on spectacle to one that situates the population in a specific subject-position: one of economic victim. As outlined above, news has a heavily embedded and layered character and effective consumption of an item only takes place when the intended meaning is grasped (Hall 1980, 128). Connotative representations act as signifiers that are closely connected to culture and historical knowledge and in this respect are "fragments of ideology" (Barthes 1967 in Hall 1980, 134) and flexible in the sense that they are easily transferable to other connotative configurations. This occurs here by linking social commentary on North Korea to a UK meaning, and in the process inviting decoding. Yet due to the configuration of denotative and connotative statements, decoding is already forced. The thematized "It's grim up North" jointly articulates diverse discourses (Fairclough 1995, 100) and in doing so frames the story in local historical consciousness. Although the images are retained and perhaps suggest ideas of Asian Otherness, the process of emptying content and oversimplifying context has begun as a prelude to decoding. This it achieves by attaching different ideological loadings related to social class as the discourse introduces metaphorical statements that locate the audience in a distinct subject-position. This amounts to a phenomenological lifeworld version of the discourse (Fairclough 1995) where decoding is prompted by an appeal to common sense and where everything experienced becomes unquestionable. Both space and time are to an extent collapsed in the heading that reframes the text in a commonly held reference to industrial decline--a reference that further invokes localized notions of affluence and poverty that become premises for decoding. The images do not overtly depict grimness and in fact suggest little out of the ordinary. Like many of the images, a bus stop scene could perhaps have been taken anywhere in Asia, especially to the untrained eye. In this respect, the work of connotation takes on the air of a wider unspoken division between different trajectories of modernity. Likewise, an otherwise unremarkable photo of two schoolchildren crossing a road is used not only to suggest such divisions but perhaps to imply double standards at play in the state with the closing comment that the car passing behind "appears to be Western." Such an apparently throwaway statement is ambiguous on one level, yet acts as a signifier that serves to undermine the notion of juche and "self-reliance" (6) that has become a familiar device for contrasting the oft-reported social divisions between the population of Pyongyang and the wider populace.

A number of statements are made in this respect reinforcing the perceived delineation of the North Korean populace from the state. For example, in the article discussed, statements are made both literally and connotatively concerning the "bleakness of everyday life." Elsewhere photo captions stress the "glam" lifestyle among the Pyongyang elite, which is suggested to be "miles away": true with regard to images of rural life, but arguably containing a secondary meaning referring to social distance. On the one hand, emotional and practical lives are reduced to a homogeneous cultural collectivism that either inhabits the world of spectacle at the whim of the state or is confined to a monochrome drabness. The point here is that the circuits of production (the reproduction of images and fragments of text that originate in other contexts and under different conditions of production) and the emergence of a new discursive formation (that lays emphasis only on selective "truths" and introduces statements that themselves introduce alien contexts) amount to a strategy of inclusion and exclusion. The reality of the North Korean people is therefore marginalized, removing notions of everyday consciousness and individual agency (which only ever appear in reference to the testimonials of imprisonment and escape in popular factual literature).

Lifeworld and Recontextualization

This phenomenological appeal to a UK lifeworld as a prompt for decoding is present in a number of articles that construct wider connotative configurations. The connotative level remains bound to literal meanings through the combination of written text and image, yet shifts meanings through the interplay of easily recognizable systems of norms, classifications, and modes of characterization. These are used to place Kim Jong-un in a distinct subject-position within the discourse. In this sense, statements work together to produce a stereotypical--and therefore constrained--object of knowledge that limits ranges of possible decoding. Some articles construct biopolitical references around Kim. These range from statements defining physical appearance, with references to not only his love of cheese (in particular the variety he grew fond of while studying in Switzerland) but also that he "imports vast quantities," to commentaries on his smoking in public (Blake 2014; Boyle 2016). The implications here include moral weakness and addiction, and in the case of references to dietary habits, not only obesity but also distance from his people by mentioning his European education via an easily recognizable commodity. Following his disappearance from the public eye in September 2014, building on reports from diverse media sources the Mail suggested that he was suffering from gout, a form of inflammatory arthritis. Read at the connotative level, the message classifies a decadent lifestyle and points to its consequences, both in terms of the personal and how its practice works against the interests of the populace. This is underscored by placing morally loaded statements, "malnutrition" versus "overindulgence," within the discourse. But then something strange occurs. The webpage includes an explanatory section, this time outlining the symptoms and causes of gout and indicating a far broader historical context. The supplement is a "parasitic message" that adds further normative connotations to the main images and text (Barthes 1977, 25-26). It loads the latter further with a moral imagination and naturalizes the literal message that equates poor health with authoritarian leadership. The section relates that gout is known as the "disease of kings" and that the English monarch, Henry VIII, had been a sufferer. Connotatively, this links themes of personal and political excess: Henry was infamous for invoking the doctrine of "divine right" to the monarchy as a means of ensuring political legitimacy, his ruthless quashing of dissent, and favoring execution without trial--a number of Henry's chief ministers were executed as they fell out of favor.

The appended historical information constitutes a further statement that spreads the discursive formation by situating Kim within a comparative framework allowing the audience to read the text through a more familiar context and to draw imaginative connections. Original contexts are subsequently left behind as they are placed in the service of alternative discourses. This enables both encoders and decoders of the text to "reorder the spatial and temporal features" and to "use these reordered features as a means of pursuing their [own] objectives" (Thompson 1995, 21-31). Once the appended information and new discursive elements are introduced, references to English history effectively subjugate contextual knowledge of Korean history in the decoding process. Therefore, the discursive formation is reframed rather than seeking to develop it in a broader Asian context beyond a concluding--yet unexplored--sentence that suggests Kim Jong-un may be attempting to gain weight in order to resemble his grandfather Kim Il-sung. The discursive formation of narrative, image, and parasitic text effectively reorders space and time. This is also the case in the accompanying "parasitic" image that sits below a photograph of a smiling and casually dressed Kim, straw hat tipped back and jacket unbuttoned to reveal a protruding belly. The image in question reproduces an etching by the eighteenth-century artist Thomas Rowlandson depicting an English aristocratic gout sufferer in a satirical caricature of decadence and decrepitude. (7) The original context is therefore emptied through an arbitrary statement that reembeds the narrative within a much broader field of objects.

Along these lines, the discourse that produces a mediatized representation of the North Korean state and its populace for a UK audience comprises multiple and often alien storylines so that the discursive formation regularly incorporates statements that empty out original meanings by referencing aspects familiar to that audience. In effect, they establish links to existing, homegrown discourses and promote images that resonate within these. A further example of the manipulation of an article's content and its subtle recontextualization in a more familiar narrative of biopolitical transgression suggesting mismanagement of personal health and disregard for that of others can be seen in a report of a visit by Kim to a hospital (O'Hare 2013). The report intersperses references to Kim's public smoking, the regime's isolation, and predictability with those pointing to nuclear threat. Such images are clearly not an oversight of the DPRK's propaganda machine and are clearly staged and managed, relaying symbolic content that makes sense to North Koreans. However, the arrangement of statements and referents in the Mail's article opens a space for interpretative decoding by UK audiences as a sign of deviancy. Smoking in public has been largely criminalized in Britain.

State and "Statement"

Representationally, such stories point to the transgressions of what are perceived to be the audience's normative boundaries. Throughout the discourse as a whole (i.e., the repetition of statements across North Korea-related reports) denotative and connotative levels work to consolidate a fixed image that reemerges from article to article. The reference to Henry VIII in the previous example denotatively alludes to excess while connotatively situating the brutality of a sovereign power that not only eliminates dissent but obliterates all traces of the dissenter into the imagery--further fusing discursive space and echoing historical memories of the absolute right of the monarch to exact ritual punishment as a means of reconstituting an injured sovereignty (Foucault 1977; see also note 8). Here it is the formation the discourse produces rather than concrete facts that define the laws of possible audience interpretation; Henry and Kim are oddly merged as the combination of statements demarcate what meanings are actually possible. The "preferred" decoding (Hall 1980) seems to be precisely one of the transgression of biopolitical norms and state brutality of which both are representative. As suggested below, both belong to past times. Therefore, there is often a sense of transition through constantly renewed arrangements of statements, referentials, apparent meanings, and "truths" as old reports resurface in new contexts.

One example of this sense of transition is the reporting of the 2014 execution of Hyon Yong-chol, which hints at a string of political purges (Hall 2015). The original framing of the (reported) event is itself notable yet unsurprising in repeated references to a "bloodthirsty" regime and the imagery conjured up in its description of the execution. The general was, it suggests, not only "blasted" but "pulverised" by an antiaircraft gun, with the point reinforced through a prominent photograph of a similar weapon; an image then reproduced in subsequent, but not directly related, reports. (8) The article in question is not directly linked in clear chronological structure to the reported death of Kim Jongun's political mentor Jang Song-thaek the previous year but, in light of the above discussion, analytically understandable as it becomes situated in the developing order of discourse. An adjacent, and parasitic, information box reports in an uncritical style that the latter was "stripped naked and thrown into a cage with his five closest aides before he was eaten alive by 120 dogs that had been deliberately starved--while the president watched." The information therefore serves to supplement the story's narrative thread rather than being an integral element. Here it is the recontextualization of narratives, the graphic nature of the language used and the supplementary information that emerge as atomic statements but which when read together define the relationships that construct the discourse and invite imaginative decoding. As Foucault (1972, 106) stated, together, such statements function as a field of objects that invite a "number of possible subjective positions" in terms of interpretation, but importantly they are "in a domain of coordination and coexistence," a space in which they can be used and repeated for the desired discursive effect. Significantly, the veracity of this account has been disputed with The Guardian (but not the Mail) correcting reports by revealing that the source of the "death by dogs" story was a satirical posting on a Chinese social media site, which had then entered the chain of production and reproduction via Hong Kong tabloid to Western media (Kaiman 2014).

The discursive formation amounts to the representation of North Korea framed as an ideological throwback--an atavistic social system and therefore easily manageable image that offers some degree of historical coherency as it is delimited and constrained by a stereotypical narrative. As I have argued so far in this article, Mail reports on North Korea progressively empty accounts of substantive content reducing them to oversimplistic sets of typifications. As the parasitic recounting of the death of Jang Song-thaek suggests, even when information sources are contested the account is not "refilled." Presumably any corrective would subvert the preferred decoding of the discourse. Through the combination of image and selected written text, the narrative remains embroiled in Cold War connotation and, significantly, in its almost daily reproduction of images originating in North Korean state propaganda, points to a visual politics belonging to the past. Cold War socialism here persists in the particular representation of a more general impression of a defeated yet stubborn ghost that refuses to lie down. North Korea is subsequently represented as the strange yet familiar foe and as such appears to perform the discursive functions outlined below. As can be seen in the above discussions of spectacle and images of everyday life, through the inclusion of certain statements and the exclusion of others a more general defamatory narrative can be constructed and maintained. This sense of a particular discursive formation as reinstating sets of binary opposites such as affluence and poverty, emptying contexts, and reinforcing the latter with supplementary information appear in varied forms across articles. Read analytically, beneath the denotation suggested by the straightforward interpretation of the images and text lies a further connotative level suggestive of deviancy and defamation--again achieved through contextual displacement.

The Uses and Abuses of Discourse: Back to Decoding

As outlined above, Foucault (1972) explained how a discursive formation places statements in a domain of coordination and coexistence rather than fully determining the individual meaning of statements. It thus opens a space for repeated use and appended statements that de- and recontextualize inviting new interpretations and meanings. In terms of newsworthiness, there may of course be limits to the discourse and to representation. For example, are there limits to the "addiction" statement? How far can a news discourse go before it risks humanizing Kim Jong-un and thus places a limit on the general deviancy statements, risking a rupture in representation? To an extent the wider North Korean population falls under this thread of dehumanization as it is deprived of any accreditation of agency and consequently is represented as a cultural dupe partially responsible for its own victimization under the regime. The discourse plays with the binary images of totalitarian despotism and democratic freedom, often through reference to Western tastes from Swiss cheese to Disneyland to Eric Clapton (several reports have made much of Kim Jong-un's siblings' taste for Western culture) in an attempt to sustain the strong sense of underlying betrayal of juche philosophy (remembering that direct reference to the ideological roots of juche is never made). Nonetheless, here the discourse perhaps reaches its limit, preventing it from tipping over the boundary that would allow the audience to recognize glimpses of themselves (i.e., that even despots have conventional desires and that, perhaps reciprocally, the world that the audience inhabits has its own repressive ideological tendencies).

In constructing a relatively static representation of the DPRK as an atavistic society struggling within the restrictions of its own ideological beliefs, the media discourse plays out a more connotative function. The North Korean regime might be represented at the denotative level as a threat to world security and indeed to its own people, but it is on these terms a containable threat with regard to its relation to the public imagination. Even as tensions grow on the Korean peninsula and beyond, it remains as predictable as it is geographically distant to a UK audience. Furthermore, through representation it becomes a one-dimensional entity--a hegemonic media representation produced through an objectifying discourse (Shohat and Stam 2014). In short, even if the DPRK evolves to present a very real threat to global security as seems likely, Juche remains a defeated ideology in the public imagination. North Korea is also containable in the sense that the discourse continues to speak in the language of nationhood and 2discernible ideological borders and identities. Therefore, the media is deeply involved in the construction of moral boundaries as a means of consolidating stable identities, clear sets of values, and moral positions. Nonetheless, beyond these clear-cut discursive boundaries sits a world of increasing unpredictability and insecurity wherein, as Silverstone (2007, 18) neatly summarizes, "the Cold War has merely been replaced by a liquid one" in which "terror is the ultimate destroyer and defender of boundaries." The relatively stable representation of North Korea as enemy built around the binary oppositions and supplementary statements of the discursive formation serves to mark out a symbolic boundary in the public imagination--something that is perhaps increasingly difficult to achieve in the face of the threat of radical Islamic terror, which confounds the sense of concrete boundary due to the absence of a clear national referent and transparent identities. North Korea is a nation-state that is geographically identifiable and comes with a lengthy history attached. "Decoders" of the reports discussed here are presented with delimited discourses that while emptying out reality, make it clear how the DPRK differs socially and politically. In other words, it presents a bounded threat easily conceptualized in terms of concrete artifacts such as "tanks, missiles and massed armies"; terrorists are "amorphous, fluid and hidden" (Evans 2013, 34) and therefore problematic when it comes to the question of ontological security. If North Korea at least suggests a sense of stability to media audiences, then terrorism is suggestive of chaos and "uncontainability." Here a process of Othering (see especially Said 1991) also takes place as the DPRK is deprived of its essential nature and its position outside the Western moral community is assured as it is reduced to a representation. North Korea is far easier to Other due to its discursive proximity (i.e., despite the overall sense of unknowability and mystery it can be situated within a familiar binary context ideologically). Subsequently, as Orgad (2012, 31) implies (although not in direct reference to the DPRK), it is subject to a hegemonic discourse that can be carried over and opportunely reproduced within established boundaries of already-familiar media representations.

One could also suggest that one of the aims of encoding, when viewed through a deeper analytical lens, is to ensure that North Korea as symbolic Other serves to mystify the reality of neoliberal governance by discursively demonizing the ideology of collective self-reliance. Arguably, the biopolitical project embedded in neoliberalism hollows out democracy and establishes regimes of discipline that aim to normalize bodies and subject all aspects of life to a regulatory gaze (Foucault 2008). In the media representation of North Korea and its focus on the practice of a brutal sovereign power manifest in public executions, it could be that the textual imagery neutralizes the excesses of such a disciplinary regime. Representations of the overtly regimented life of North Korea, the uncomplicated portrayal of political violence, and a more or less incarcerated society offer coherence and therefore may function at the connotative level as a means of legitimating the carceral nature of Western society (Foucault 1977)--a condition of exclusion vividly portrayed on an equally daily basis across media in the visual representation of detention centers for migrants, the incarceration of suspected terrorists, and the criminalization of the impoverished (Brown 2014). Add to this the demonization of long-term welfare recipients and the implied deviancy of those who do not conform to the biopolitical discourses of health and well-being and it could be argued that even statements that depict Kim Jong-un as the overweight, smoking deviant neatly project more localized anxieties onto a convenient and manageable representation.

Along these lines, there may be discernible uses that are derived by audiences in their consumption of news reports on North Korea in terms of reestablishing a sense of ontological security in an increasingly precarious environment. Therefore, despite this article's emphasis on the hegemonic aspect of encoding, some weight must be returned to Hall's claims for equilibrium between the latter and the audience's autonomy in decoding. The concept of ontological security first forwarded by R. D. Liang to explain the individual's need for a grasp of their "own and other people's reality and identity" (1965, 39; see also Giddens 1991) is dependent on a sense of the "permanency of things" and "unquestionable self-valid certainties": media representations of North Korea subsequently meet the conditions of a relatively "stable and consistent structure of demand" on these grounds (McQuail 2000, 373) whereby a sense of security is gained from media content. This suggests that however much a level of rational and directed choice of content is underpinned by the selective and socially conditioned nature (Fairclough 1995) of the discursive formation that constructs the DPRK, an audience that decodes the ambiguous message is potentially present and is active in its construction of meaning.

However, such representations do not only have an effect on the audience at the level of reception. What does the media discourse of North Korea actually produce? The answer seems to point to a fictional entity that corresponds to audience expectations. These expectations are, arguably, primed by the existing cinematic representations of the Kim dynasty, and therefore North Korea in general, via satirical depictions of North Korea in films such as World Police and The Interview, Die Another Day, and the 2012 remake of Red Dawn. These fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Europe and therefore controversially capitalize on the Asian remnants of Cold War division (see Chung 2007 on how cinematic representation of the DPRK often consists of juxtaposed images of Western technology and anachronistic images of a backward agricultural life). The conflation of historical anxieties of communism and the generalized Asian specter of the "yellow peril" result in the instrumental and one-dimensional interchangeability of both socialist and Asian identities.

Furthermore, the simplistic representation of the North Korean populace as victims of both the regime and the underpinning political philosophy seems to suggest that they are somehow complicit in their victimization. They are in this sense representations of the "ideal victim" (Christie 1986, 17) whose status is assessed via production values in terms of the extent to which they can be considered to actively resist the crimes committed against them. This is perhaps a provocative suggestion to include in this discussion; however, it cannot be separated from the overall question of cultural representation. As Elias (1986, 16) claims, some cannot escape the application of cultural attitudes toward the victim that emerges from a "strong attachment to the tenets of [a subtle] social Darwinism." If people are victims then they are so on the basis of their "unfitness." This is not a universally held perspective, but it is certainly one that chimes with the conservative agendas of media sources such as the Mail. Overall, this perspective denies any recognition of the agency of the North Korean people, which becomes submerged under the sensationalist reporting of crimes against humanity that obscures concrete issues such as the unintentional harm enacted on the populace as the state struggles to cope with economic stagnation and the deteriorating health of a large segment of its population. Or indeed the increasing marketization of the economy through the agency of the people themselves as a response to worsening external and domestic conditions (Smith 2014, 2015).


Perhaps to fully understand the media representation of North Korea, it is necessary to untangle the networks of denotation and connotation, of partial knowledges and the underlying strategies of news production and audience interpretation (something that can only be empirically substantiated fully through audience research). The connection between public anxieties and social contexts that influences the readings of North Korean reports cannot be disconnected from the discursive formation. One of the main points I have sketched out is the need to understand the complexity of representation, its interpretation and uses. Adopting such a theoretical framework may contribute to furthering the denaturalization and decentering of mainstream representations of North Korea by foregrounding relational approaches (see, for example, Choi 2015, 33-40). This is particularly the case for those representations that seek to uncomplicatedly naturalize images and texts depicting state criminality and victimhood emptied of cultural and wider political context. This is clearly not an attempt to offer appeasement for state crimes against the people, but rather to invite deeper understanding of their dynamics--and perhaps particularly the dynamics of Asian culture and politics. The central argument foregrounded here is that despite the encoded rhetoric of a "secretive and dangerous state," North Korea in representation is in fact "understandable" to media audiences according to however their decoding criteria are conditioned. I have suggested that in one sense this may be related to the search for ontological security facilitated representationally by the emptying out of substantive content and recontextualization in familiar discursive formations. As such the idea of North Korea is containable in the imagination even if the political and military reality is far more problematic on the international stage. This is because media coverage tends toward a simplified--and therefore easily decipherable--narrative: one that evokes a form of nostalgia for the "strange" yet "familiar" enemy in the form of state socialism and Cold War divisions.


Robin West is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Essex, UK, where he teaches sociological theory and criminology. He is currently working on the idea of "dark tourism" in relation to representations of punishment and cultural memory on the Korean peninsula. He can be contacted at

(1.) A 2017 market research survey conducted by YouGov suggested that UK citizens regarded the Daily Mail as Britain's "most right-wing" newspaper and The Guardian as the "most left-wing." Of the eight national newspapers included in the survey, five were considered predominantly right-wing, two predominantly left-wing, and one broadly centrist (Smith 2017). In January 2016, Mail Online attracted an average unique daily readership of 14.8 million and The Guardian website approximately 8.8 million. Print and online versions of the Daily Mail remain the most read national newspaper in the UK with the latter attracting a large international audience (Ponsford 2016).

(2.) Although formulated some thirty-five years ago, Hall's (1980) work on representation and the production and interpretation of media messages remains influential in providing an entry point to this discussion. Hall primarily addressed the production and reception of television discourses as a critique of the dominance of linear explanations of the effect of the latter on the so-called passive audience. However, his argument is a development of earlier work that generally addresses the text in any form.

(3.) Roland Barthes (1977) argued that there were two interrelated orders of meaning that operated simultaneously in a single text. He referred to the first order as denotation, which functioned to proclaim what something literally is. This works alongside the second order, connotation, which functions at conceptual and ideological levels.

(4.) See also Bordo (2004) on the use of Foucault's concepts in relation to perceptions of the body and media representation.

(5.) As Edward Said (1991, 62, 119), incorporating Foucault's notion of discourse, emphasizes in his account of the "Orient" made known through the European imagination, the East was represented historically in terms of a closed theatrical field characterized by "repetitious pseudo-incarnations" and "physiological-moral classifications." These were central to the discursive construction of the Orient as Other formed through "narcissistic Western ideas."

(6.) Juche commonly translates as self-reliance and is the official state ideology of the DPRK. It was initiated by Kim Il-sung and later developed under Kim Jong-il.

(7.) See Porter and Rousseau (2000) on the relationship between gout and ruling elites.

(8.) Notably, Foucault's Discipline and Punish opens with an account of the eighteenth-century ritual execution of a regicide who, although not "blasted" or "pulverised" in the contemporary sense was subject to the systematic destruction of his body--a scene that is supplanted on later pages by contrasting it to the emergence of a more subtle form of disciplinary power.


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