top of page

Testimony and its Epistemological (Im)possibility

Picture Credit: Yonhap News,

Resistance is a fact of history, and only in accepting this fact does history reveal itself to the partial openings through which it is seen. While resistance has been theorized and reinterpreted endlessly, it remains as the fundamental fact in learning to understand how the world functions. North Korea, or the ‘North Korea problem,’ stands at the center of politics not as a nation-state, but as an object of research. In order to problematize and theorize what resistance is and how it can transform, one must address the relations of knowledge production and how knowledge production itself shapes the knowledge that is exported out of North Korea.

The flow of information that is exported out of North Korea is often questioned for its unreliability. As such, much of the scholarly work that discusses North Korea is portrayed as constrained and unreliable. However, rather than problematizing the knowledge that is produced out of North Korea, we must destabilize North Korea itself as always-already part of a network of knowledge production relations. In her work Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives, Shine Choi opens by stating: “The international problem of North Korea is that North Korea is a work of fiction.” Reminiscent of Edward Said’s notion that Orientalism was a construction of reality embedded in the mechanisms of reality, Shine Choi explains that the production, establishment, and the subsequent dissemination of fictive works on North Korea has become a discourse itself. As such, North Korea is no longer a mere bordered nation-state; it has been displaced into a project, a project that (re)produces the spectacle.[i]

The production of the spectacle as constitutive of knowledge can be seen in the production of defector testimonies. With limited information, the testimonies of defectors remain as a source of sensationalization in mass media; defectors often give descriptive and emotional accounts of their experiences. The central question surrounding these testimonies has become one regarding authenticity. The defectors are often expected to talk on large and public platforms, which in themselves carry complex political intentions and significance. As such, the defector does not speak, but is ‘spoken for;’[ii] while the defector is actively speaking, in being given a platform to speak, they are always-already spoken for. The defector is posited in a platform that ostensibly provides a space for their voice to be heard; however, according to Gayatri Spivak, the defector is in fact spoken for in being able to speak.[iii] As such, testimonies, as one of the few concrete sources of information on North Korea, become unstable, unreliable. However, I would like to argue that the question of authenticity in defector testimonies remains and has always remained a moot point (originally: mute).

In questioning the authenticity of testimonies, one presumes and necessitates the possibility of a purely authentic testimony. However, there is no self-evident, pure, or absolutely truthful knowledge that speaks for itself. All knowledge must be contextualized historically; as such, knowledge itself can only be as being among a network of knowledge relations within a capitalist society. Consequently, the focus must de-center from the pursuit of truthful, authentic information – knowledge is not power; power is knowledge.[iv] In adopting this mode of thinking, the question of defector testimonies then becomes: what position or function do defector testimonies hold, and how should we deterritorialize it for an alternative method of conceptualizing North Korea?

North Korean defector testimonies are then not mediums of knowledge production, but origins of capital production. In language and the language of capitalism, the defector is 'darstellen', a representation, an immaterial medium open for intervention. The defector is an image, or the image as imago. Consequently, the defector functions as a substitute for experience, and this substitute is that which produces abstract value for the commodification of testimony. The testimony is commodified, and this process of commodification is essential in the spectacle-ing of the subject at hand. There is nothing that isn’t an image, and the existing system “reduce[s] all reality to the existence of that system.”[v] In being-the-spectacle, the defector is not-being, but having. Such ‘degradation,’ according to Guy Debord, is necessary for commodification.[vi]

Knowledge is not self-evident; knowledge is produced. Naturally, the ‘North Korea problem,’ which is a project, is sustained among relations which experience epistemic shifts that are in constant flux. As such, I believe the discourse that is produced by and around North Korea must be recognized as being produced in and among forces with specific interests, histories, and political positions. Through this very recognition emerges not a coherent achievement, but the possibility of addressing North Korea as beyond a mere object of research. If the portrayal of North Korean defector testimonies is always-already an instrumentalized object of research, the task then becomes one of mobilizing and putting into motion the possibility of uncovering North Korea’s epistemological positionality. Reality is always in transformation; therefore, the North Korean reality is to undergo a transformation once again. This reality demands a constant challenging of the given-ness of knowledge; it is this very process that the critical “see-er”[vii] must engage in. To resist is to speak with testimony, to speak among testimonies.

Defector testimonies remain as valuable sources of information in researching North Korea. While questioning source validity is necessary, it is this very process of questioning that must be re-evaluated. Knowledge is not linear but exponential. As such, a research process cannot aim at containing this exponential event – a spread of knowledge in all directions. Instead of interrogating the knowledge that is exported out of North Korea, the researcher as such must question themselves as always-already complicit in a system of ideological relations. If research attempts to consider “‘North Korean-ness’ in the absence of the ‘real’ North Korea,”[viii] then the researcher, to some degree, assumes a position of filling in for that absence. Knowledge is produced from and towards all directions, and the research process must include the researcher as re-presenting (darstellen) information that has already been re-presented. There is no singular and homogenous ‘North Korean defector’ that can be defined or politicized. Research must problematize the multiple layers within – gender, class, etc. Political research emphasizes material productions such as concrete events, results, and progress. Yet the materiality in the act of writing is not considered enough.

The researched position of the defector as a spectacle may be difficult to overcome; however, rather than attempting to eliminate this bias wholly, the researcher should recognize their own limitations or complicity in knowledge production. The validity of the testimonies remains in the observer. There is no subject-object relation. The “critical see-er” is already the Other and so must engage in a constant process of self-reflection. (CITATION?) Through unending and critical self-reflection, bias itself can be instrumentalized as a productive force.

***The views herein do not necessarily represent those of NKR or YINKS.


Cho, Eun Ah. “Becoming North Koreans: Negotiating Gender and Class in Representations of North Korean Migrants on South Korean Television.” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, No. 27 (June 2018).

Choi, Shine. Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and alternatives. London: Routledge Press, 2014.

Debord, Guy. The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Spivak, Gayatri C. “Can the Subaltern Speak.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: a reader (1994).

[i] Debord Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994).

[ii] Gayatri C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern speak,” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: a reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).

[v] Debord Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Shine Choi, Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and alternatives (London: Routledgen Press, 2014).

[viii] Eun Ah Cho, “Becoming North Koreans: Negotiating Gender and Class in Representations of North Korean Migrants on South Korean Television,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review No. 27 (June 2018).

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Instagram
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page