Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2012

The Geopolitics of Satellite Vision and North Korea

David Shim

August 2012

German Institute of Global and Area Studies


Satellite imagery plays an important role in contemporary geopolitics. Arguably the most well‐known example is Colin Powell’s (in)famous presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003, during which he used satellite pictures to legitimate the invasion of Iraq. Satellite photographs draw on a techno‐scientific discourse that enables them to function as undistorted records impartially documenting space and place. As a result, they assume a defining authority to “speak the truth” – which is probably enhanced with regard to (allegedly) unknown and mysterious sites like North Korea. Since satellites are deployed to reveal what should be invisible, their ability to detect and expose, or “see from above,” implies a particular power. However, satellite photographs are not necessarily objective reflections of a geographical surface but, like all visual representations, underlie what will be called a logic of inclusion and exclusion that makes them deeply political. Taking North Korea as an example, the article argues for the need to develop a sensitized understanding concerning the use and function of satellite images as they often come to have international political implications. Referring to the linkages between seeing, knowing and acting, the article examines the role of remote sensing as a way of knowing and inquires as to the immediacy of images and the ensuing imperative to respond to them.