Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 03/2010

How Signifying Practices Constitute Food (In)security – The Case of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

David Shim

February 2010

German Institute of Global and Area Studies


This paper argues that the question of food (in)security in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not necessarily indicative of the country’s actual nutritional conditions but is rather constituted through meaning‐making behavior—signifying practices—predominantly on the part of humanitarian aid institutions working there. The argument is not intended to gloss over the food and nutritional situation in North Korea or to suggest that famine, starvation, or malnutrition do not exist. The paper nevertheless argues that humanitarian institutions are not external to or separate from the reality they observe, monitor, and measure, but are rather constitutive of the categories which produce that reality— in this case food (in)security in North Korea. The undertaking of nutrition surveys, food security assessments, and food‐aid monitoring as well as the issuing of consensus statements are examples of aid practices that signify North Korea in terms of vulnerability, emergency, and food insecurity. The paper’s central argument is that it is through precisely these observations, assessments, and representations that food (in)security in North Korea comes into being.