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Open Access Publication in the Spotlight (September) - 'Monitoring North Korea: a visual autoethnography of humanitarian-aid practices'

Date:21 September 2023
Author:Open Access Team
Open access publication in the spotlight: September 2023
Open access publication in the spotlight: September 2023

Each month, the open access team of the University of Groningen Library (UB) puts a recent open access article by UG authors in the spotlight. This publication is highlighted via social media and the library’s newsletter and website.

The article in the spotlight for the month of September 2023 is titled Monitoring North Korea: a visual autoethnography of humanitarian-aid practices, written by David Shim (senior lecturer at the Faculty of Arts).


In this visual essay, I draw on my own photographs taken as a so-called food-aid monitor working in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea for the United Nations World Food Programme. I provide an autoethnographic account to allow consideration of the visual dimension of humanitarian aid: everyday observations, field visits and snapshots inform humanitarian action. I intend to shed a different light on the inherent visual politics of this aid practice and, hence, build a different kind of knowledge concerning (aid assistance in) the country.

We asked author David Shim a few questions about the article:

Your article is a visual essay that draws on photographs you took as a food-aid monitor in North-Korea. Why is this visual dimension of humanitarian aid important?

Exploring the visual dimension of humanitarian aid is crucial because images play an important role in how we understand and respond to humanitarian, but also to any other political, events. Some even say that images help construct humanitarian disasters in the first place; that they are needed in order to muster international support as can be seen (or not) in the aftermaths of the recent catastrophes in Libya and Morocco. Perhaps we could think here of humanitarian crises, which tend to be more visible (e.g. Ukraine) to audiences than others (e.g. Haiti, Yemen). The way how such emergencies are presented to us in images can affect how we react towards such events.

What was it like to visit North Korea? What impressions did your time there leave with you? 

Back then, I was very excited about my travel to North Korea and curious what I will experience. Even though I was following developments related to the country due to my PhD (whose topic also changed as a result of my experiences), it was difficult for me to imagine how my stay will play out; also because of the work I was asked to do as a food aid monitor.

I just would like to tell one episode that had a lasting impact on me: 

In order to reach aid recipient institutions like kindergartens, orphanages and hospitals, we would sit in the car for hours, sometimes for up to eight-hour stretches. So we tried to kill time by listening to music. We – that is, the driver, the national officer and myself – would listen to North Korean songs when driving back and forth to the receiving communities. However, to my surprise, the driver played more often tunes from the German pop duo Modern Talking

I remember that during one of our many field trips I lent my MP3 player to my North Korean colleague as he wished to download some South Korean pop music to his laptop. Listening to South Korean music is illegal in North Korea and can bring harsh punishment, particularly for North Koreans. As he focussed on transferring the audio files, he did not realise that we were approaching a border crossing – one of North Korea’s many notorious checkpoints which help monitor and restrict domestic travel. He became very agitated and animated when he noticed the checkpoint, shutting his laptop in a panic and unplugging my MP3 player. Luckily for him, the border guard did not notice what happened.

This episode says something about individual desires in North Korea, like in any other country of the world. But it also tells a larger story about the hierarchies of North Korea’s political institutions: though my colleague belonged to the nation’s elite – he was of the affluent and well-educated class and worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which recruits, among other places, from ambassadorial, diplomatic and party-official families – he was afraid of a common soldier. Obviously, the military is in charge.

Autoethnography is not the most common methodology one would associate with the field of International Relations (IR). How established is the use of autoethnography in IR? Why did you choose this method?

Yes, that is true. I would say that the method of autoethnography is not that widespread in the field of IR. There are a few IR scholars in some corners of the field, who have pioneered the use of autoethnography. 

Autoethnographic studies assume that subjective accounts and reflections of the ‘self’ are legitimate sources of scientific knowledge. Visual autoethnography can be seen as part of growing efforts in qualitative research in general and in (some parts of) IR in particular to explore new forms of academic-knowledge production. These references to the ‘self’ comprise, for instance, fictional and non-fictional forms of storytelling in the study of particular political phenomena. Some of these methods also rely on the analysis of images such as ‘autophotography’ or ‘participatory photography’. While these methods rather engage with photographs taken by participants, visual autoethnography foregrounds images created by the researcher herself/himself. In other words, the researcher becomes the participant, which, among others, also implies a different research ethics. I found this twist interesting and pertinent.

You maintain a blog on Visual Global Politics together with your students. Why did you choose to start this blog? Do you see this blog as a form of public outreach and/or open education?

The blog is part of my third year BA course "Visual Global Politics". I created it to provide my students with a platform for their practical assignments, which is a mandatory part of the course. I ask them to use a visual medium like cartoons, maps, infographics or video games in order to reflect on the subject of the course. The basic question that they need to address is what story they would like to tell through visual media and what this says, or prompt us to think, about global politics; or simply put: how did they image and imagine global politics? 

Among others, I see this blog also as a way to inform an interested public about my teaching. Other students and lecturers, who have an interest in similar topics and assignments can have a look at the blog and of course reach out.

Could you reflect on your experiences with open access and open science in general?

I am currently exploring some facets of open science. In an ongoing research project, Security Imaginaries of Climate Movements (SECIMA), a colleague and I collaborate with climate activists from movements such as Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and the Last Generation. The project's participatory visual research methods engage activists as citizen scientists, allowing them to contribute to the collection and interpretation of visual data. The commitment to public engagement extends to a planned photo exhibition in Groningen next year, showcasing images taken by the climate activists. A subsequent exhibition in Hamburg will further address an interested public.

Useful links:

An overview of the support available at the UG for staff members who want to engage in open science practices. These practices (and the support) include open access, FAIR data, open education, public engagement and more.

Wikipedia provides an extensive introduction to citizen science.


Shim, D. (2023). Monitoring North Korea: a visual autoethnography of humanitarian-aid practices. Visual Studies, 1–6. 

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About the author

Open Access Team
The Open Access team of the University of Groningen Library

Link: /openaccess


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