70 Years on the Slab of Progress – Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Years Address


On the slab of progress for Kim Jong Un: Image – Rodong Sinmun

2017 will be famous for a lot of things, Robert Mugabe’s unexpectedly peaceful retreat from power in Zimbabwe, the conflagration at Grenfell Tower, Harvey Weinstein’s metamorphosis into an American Jimmy Saville, hurricanes in North and Central America, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar/Bangladesh and a whole lot of covfefe. The C word will no matter how much social media twitterers demand it, never really be a word, but if it is a bastardisation of kerfuffle then Washington’s current Commander in Chief will have gifted the planet a useful term for describing North Korea and North Korean watchers year. 2017 was certainly something of a covfefe. This author has been watching Pyongyang and its various landscapes and terrains for a few years now, but never felt the energy of commentary and geo-political potential reach quite the level of urgency of the past twelve months. As much as external hyperbole and anxiety has not helped the situation, neither has North Korea’s equally unexpected success in the development of its intercontinental ballistic missile technology and nuclear capacity. A few years ago I was guilty of prevarication on the issue of Pyongyang’s capacity so far as O-rings and metal tooling were concerned; no more. Pyongyang’s notion of Byungjin was hard to pin down at first, but no matter how obtuse or opaque, or even how neglectful of the second element in its equation (economic development and growth), North Korean parallelism has gone heavy on the side of capability.

In the days leading up to the end of the old year and the start of the new, this Pyongyang watcher, as all tasked in life with a similar or allied occupation do, pondered where Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address for 2018 would take us in the coming twelve months. Would 2018 bring us a complex weaving of charismatic energies and commemorative moments, something outlandish and unexpected or an outburst of new sloganeering generated by never heard of before conferences in Pyongyang (late Decembers’ 5th WPK Cells Chairpersons Conference was a case in point)? Might Kim Jong Un even pin the text around the celebrations and political heat of 2018’s 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Suk, his grandmother and a powerful satellite to North Korea’s tryptic of Paektusan Generals?

While I will consider the potential impact on North Korea’s developmental agenda, environmental terrain and constructed natures later in this piece, I cannot let what is essentially the news story for the wider world in the New Year Address pass entirely unremarked. No doubt commentators of the hawkish persuasion will declare Kim Jong Un’s words an attempt to create a little fracture in the Seoul-Washington DC security-military axis and that may be true. It is also true that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in did not run for office to arrive at the nuclear impasse with North Korea, dependant on the most conservative and chaotic US administration yet seen and the most nationalist Japanese government since the Showa period. The speed that the Moon government has picked up the baton from Kim Jong Un should not be surprising. The final section of the New Year Address pirouette to matters of PyeongChang is however fairly extraordinary in tone. It would have stretched the imagination a little to predict the words: “I sincerely wish that in this significant year everything would go well both in the north and in the south.” While the prospect of Kangyye born participants for the skeleton or snowboarders trained in radical halfpipe at Masik Pass may evaporate in the heat of disappointment at the impending meeting at Panmunjom, the sheer possibility that North Korea might participate at the 2018 Winter Olympics generates a gap of a couple of months in which war (either conventional or nuclear) is impractical and the world just might be able to talk about something else and tone down the histrionics.

Beyond or outside the efforts at some sort of curve ball (perhaps triple axle would be more appropriate), rapprochement the spirit of Byungjin’s nuclear ambitions is present and correct. Kim Jong Un uses the recent 8th Conference of the Munitions Industry to call for the manufacturing of “powerful strategic weapons and military hardware of our style” and the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Such ambitions and intentions are not surprising given Pyongyang’s success in 2017 and feels a little incongruous given the message of the final section of the address. This incongruity dissipates a little if the reader holds Kim’s framing of the potential use and need for these weapons as not actually focused on Seoul and the south at all, but a ‘mutual’ enemy across the Pacific, the root in Pyongyang’s institutional mind of all difficulty so far as Korean unification and cooperation is concerned (it is hard to read the Myers thesis of violent unification in this text, but I am always ready to stand corrected).

SCAP - forests

Reforesting in Korea since 1946: Image – SCAP/GHQ Natural Resources Section

Readers of other writing by this author by now will be wondering where is the topography or terrain in 2018’s New Year Address. Beyond unlikely landscapes of peace and friendship on the snowfields, or unwanted spaces of devastation following nuclear exchanges, Kim Jong Un reiterates a huge number of the agricultural and developmental projects familiar to readers of past addresses. While North Korean agricultural, aquacultural or maritime products are since UNSC 2397 entirely prohibited and sanctioned, the era of ‘great fish hauls’ does not appear to be over for Pyongyang. Neither are the efforts of shock brigades and other institutional and party units on vegetable, mushroom or livestock production forgotten. In common with innumerable statements, requests, demands, even pleas from both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, 2018’s New Years’ Address is replete with desires to “enhance our ship building and repair capacities” and “properly protect and manage the forests that have already been created.” Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung’s Works are equally replete with political efforts to both develop the building of deep sea fishing boats and manage the north’s forests, energies which in the end are never entirely fulfilled in North Korea. Since Wonsan and Chongjin’s fishing fleets have remained similar in tonnage and scale since the 1960s and its forests (apart from the far north) have remained troubled and denuded for the last decades 2018’s New Year Address heralds a landscape quite familiar to the geographer of the peninsula, one of utopian desire and practical difficulty. Kim Jong Un does not ultimately mention Kim Jong Suk’s 100th anniversary, but instead reminds the reader that 2018 is the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s declaration of independence, crystallising the division of the peninsula. In 2018 North Korea will have existed for 29 years longer than East Germany and 2 years longer than the Soviet Union, both governmental spaces similarly challenged by the vagaries of utopian ambition and energy. Perhaps those long years on the slab of progress are the unwritten message at the heart of this and every New Year Address from Pyongyang.


Rare Earth Minerals, Technology Metals and Extractive Landscapes in North Koreas’ Web of Political Life

This is a very early pre-production, pre-editing manuscript of an earlier draft and is substantially different from the published and fully edited and peer reviewed version which can be accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214790X17300679 and will form part of a special issue of the journal Extractive Industries and Society on Rare Earth Minerals and Technology Metals.

2017 has barely lasted three months at the time of writing yet North Korea has already managed to become the centre of global news stories for what it would consider entirely the wrong reasons. While this is not really unusual when it comes to the difficult politics and diplomatic interactions Pyongyang is normally faced with, recent events have a great potential impact on North Korea’s economic and institutional structures. Much in the way of analysis and reportage has been expended in recent years especially from an IR and political science perspective on the relationships and interactions between North Korea and the People’s Republic of China. Western and other analysts have explored almost to destruction the relationship between these two countries, considering their bonds to be almost indestructible. Rooted in the difficult times of both the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War of 1950-1953 when many thousands of Chinese and North Korean soldiers fought and died together in two of the very early Hot wars of the Cold War, even in spite of the difficulties of the collapse of communism across the world, the reorientation of Chinese politics and economics towards the logics and practices of Capital and competition and the irritation of Pyongyang’s efforts at obtaining nuclear capacity and capability relations between the two countries have been more or less maintained throughout.

2017 it seems however has brought this long standing geopolitical status quo nearly to an end. Beijing has provided diplomatic cover and support for Pyongyang through the most difficult of recent times (Rodong Sinmun, 2016), including through the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights (UNCOI). While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has continued increase sanctions on North Korea, Chinese policies appeared to continue to offer Pyongyang routes through the increasingly restrictive international legal and diplomatic frameworks which its institutions and trade were subject to. However UNSC resolution 2321, passed unanimously on the 30th of November 2016 for the first time restricted one of the most vital elements of North Korean export and trade, non-nuclear and non-dual use minerals (United Nations, 2016). UNSC Resolution 2321 prevents North Korea from selling iron, nickel, silver and zinc and a host of other minerals and is restricted in the amount of coal it can export to other nations to 1,000, 866 ,metric tonnes in December 2016 and 7,500,000 metric tonnes per year after that. Considering that Pyongyang’s trade in minerals and particularly coal is a vital contributor to its economy, the fact that China almost immediately banned imports until the 1st of January 2017 was an extraordinary signifier that policy in Beijing had shifted against Pyongyang (SCMP, 2016). Further to events in late 2016, while trade in minerals and coal resumed in the new year of 2017, on February 17th, 2017, the Chinese Commerce Ministry let it be known that no further imports from North Korea would be accepted until the turn of 2017/2018 (O’Carroll, 2017) and a number of North Korean shipments already in Chinese ports were impounded and rejected (O’Carroll, 2017). Analysts of North Korea are waiting to see how lengthy and serious Chinese intentions are, as well as their impact on the already stressed and restricted North Korean economy (Haggard, 2017).

Along with these dramatic events in 2017 the research focus which has driven this paper was also inspired by an earlier mineral interaction between North Korea and an Australian private company called SRE Minerals (Mining.com, 2013). In 2013 North Korea’s Ministry of Mining and SRE Minerals announced a joint partnership known as Pacific Century Minerals to exploit the Rare Earth capacity of North Korea (Pacific Century, 2013a). In particular this enterprise would focus on extraction and development of what North Korea had termed the Yongju Deposit, a geological structure similar in form to that exploited by China’s famous facility at Bayan Obo (Pacific Century, 2013b). North Korea and SRE Minerals analysis claimed that Yongju was a potentially enormous deposit of Rare Earths and Technology Metals of some 67 Trillion US Dollars in value (Engineering and Mining Journal, 2015). It does not need to be said that such a deposit and resource if it could be financialised would dramatically alter the frame of geo-politics in the region, transforming North Korea into a financially stable actor, capable of a great deal of global impact, far beyond its current position. As it is, in spite of the initial surprise little has been heard of this enterprise since its announcement (and SRE Minerals itself though listed on an Australian Stock Index was always a fairly opaque organisation), and North Korea through its difficult interaction with the Egyptian engineering firm Orascom and its local extremely profitable mobile phone company, Koryolink has further demonstrated its esoteric approach to interacting with foreign investment partners (North Korea Tech, 2015). The SRE Minerals exchange and more recent interactions following UNSC2321 and efforts by the Chinese however demonstrate the really key role which minerals, both common and rare are playing within this particular geo-political space and suggest the deep and vital place of mineral exploration and exploitation within North Korea’s history since its foundation in 1948.


Literatures and Theoretical Frames

This historical depth of connection and importance to North Korean politics and its relationship with both its regional neighbours and the wider world is of course one of the most important drivers for this paper and its author. While the details of the very recent past are of course very interesting, for the most part this paper will be exploring the historical records and narratives of a much earlier moment in the life of North Korea. In spite of the fact that it is apparently quite possible to put a very exact tonnage on North Korean mineral production in recent years, especially when required to restrict that production at the behest of the United Nations Security Council, public and popular conception is that such production along with much else of the details of governance under Pyongyang is entirely opaque. If it were true such a state of affairs would present a real challenge to the author of this paper. However it this the assertion of this paper that when it comes to the exploration and exploitation of North Korea’s mineral and geologic capacity, while documents and evidence underpinning it are hard to come by and complicated to analyse, they certainly do exist and are accessible, so can certainly be accessed. Before framing the material this paper is primarily based on in temporal or historical terms, and undoing some of the imaginary opacity surrounding North Korean mineralogy, this paper turns to the theoretical and methodological themes which underpin its analysis. Just as North Korean politics and ideology has always found its own peculiar route through both history and the wider streams of geo-politics, so this paper frames theoretically the minerals and materials with which it is concerned in particular way in order to better trace their interaction with the politics and culture of that nation.

North Korean politics and political culture is characterised by the analysis of political science scholars generally as an example of extreme autocracy, which is derived from the ideologies of Marxist-Leninism and Stalinism, but with a very large element of Korean nationalism running through it. However recent writing by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung (2012) uses a reconsideration of Clifford Geertz (1980) and Max Weber’s (1967) analysis on the place of charisma and theatre to reframe North Korean politics as a space of political charisma and theatre. Kwon and Chung declare Pyongyang to be a theatre state in which politics is both performative and performed. This performance requires development and exploitation of mineral resources to engage as both actors and stage within North Korea’s politics. Rare Earth and technology metals, as well as coal and their exploration and utilisation are very much part of this performance. This paper also frames its approach through the social and cultural geographic lens provided by Denis Cosgrove (1984 and 2008) and Noel Castree (2001) and their articulation of landscape and terrain as symbolic and socially or politically constructed. North Korean mineral landscapes are certainly part of this construction, and this paper will explore these processes at a particularly generative moment in that process. The paper also deploys important work examining the reconfiguration of nature and natures through the social processes of scale and scaling from the work of Geographers such as Erik Swyngedouw (1997 and 2015). Through the use of distributed process and scale, natures are transformed into ‘techno-natures’ and impacted by and entwined with the imperatives of politics. Methodological transformations provided by analyses of scale in these senses allow for further insight into the local use of scale and scaling in North Korea (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Scale and scale making as transformative reflexive, distributed process allows for the inclusion of other inhabitants and participants within the landscapes marked by them.

Finally this paper is particularly interested in the agency, action and politics of terrain and topography involved within exploration and encounter of and with technology metals and the rarer metals and minerals. To consider this agency the paper considers the enormously important work of Jane Bennett (2010) and Sarah Whatmore (2005) on the generation and existence of what they have termed ‘vibrant’ matter or political matter. Bennett’s work which seeks to deconstruct the boundaries of human privilege over notions of agency and action through considering animals, plants and other non-sentient actors such as bacteria, viruses, metals, and tectonic energy as actors in themselves, possessed of a form of politics. Instead however of a politics controlled or possessed at the level of the individual and the singular, these actors develop a distributed, inter and hyper personal politics which connects, contests and co-produces other forms of politics and agency (Bennett, 2010). Notions of vibrant materiality and lively non-human actors can also connect to previous conceptions of political charisma, themselves very active in North Korea. Jamie Lorimer for instance has used Bennett’s conceptions to theorise a politics of non-human charisma (2007), which he uses primarily within the field of environmental and species conservation, but which underpins this author’s examination of the role of topography within North Korea’s politics and culture. The reader can certainly consider rare metals, minerals and technology metals in North Korea in this light, as vibrant, lively participants with their own intrinsic charisma, active in the theatric politics and history of the nation.

Beyond the theoretical framework that this paper adopts, it is necessary to give a brief sense of the situation and context from which its documentary and evidential base derives. For while surely much of the research into the exploration, exploitation and importance of Rare Earths, other minerals and what are termed technology metals is based on evidence recently collected and analysed by complex webs of technology themselves, this paper travels elsewhere in both temporal and conceptual terms. In particular this paper derives much of its empirical grounding from resources collected from the United States National Archives, (RG242). Record Group 242, or the Captured North Korean Documents Collection is an extraordinary body of material which underpins much interesting analysis focused on North Korea and its history in recent years. Captured by US Army document gatherers during the occupation of Pyongyang in October and November of 1950 the collection provides a unique insight into the narrative and textual basis for North Korean governance and institutional development during its early years as a separate sovereign nation. This paper is concerned with the boxes of documents and cartographic materials contained in the collection which were sourced from Pyongyang’s Ministry of Mining and from other institutions tasked with managing North Korea’s geological development and mineral resources following Liberation from Japanese colonisation in 1945. These boxes contain the blueprints, shaft and face layouts of all the active mines in North Korea in 1950. They also contain an extensive repository of documents from mineral and mining institutions throughout the country, including daily and output logs, longer term planning documents, internal and external contracts and agreements and research papers from academic institutions focused on mining, mineralogy and geology within North Korea (and some in translation from other nations).

Unlike other collections of documents and evidence addressing North Korean or more generally Korean mining and mineral histories, such as the Gottsche collection in Hamburg, and the Government General of Chosen’s series of annual reports which are, while useful for context, partial in their collection and difficult for analysts and academics to use to focus down on specific, local places and spaces within the nation, Record Group 242 allows for a very detailed view of particular locations to be developed. It is the author of this paper’s assertion that through an examination of these materials a fascinating glimpse may be gathered of developmental interaction between Russian and Soviet technicians and North Korean institutions and workers within the mining sector. This examination does not simply cover interactions in the mining of coal and more common minerals, but also allows a view at those cultural and social spaces from which rare minerals, technology metals and the base ores and materials from which Rare Earths would in the future be derived, would be extracted. This paper does not just of course consider the human and social aspects of these spaces and terrains, but also considers the minerals and metals themselves as actors, lively participants within a developing political and social culture, which has been responsible for the production of the North Korea visible in our present. The spaces and terrains conceived of in North Korean mineralogy through collaboration with external partners, and in sense also with topography and geology are demonstrative of more than simply industrial or extractive prerogatives. In the developmental vision presented by the documents through the reader should be able to discern not just the productive spaces of mineral exploration, but the social and lived spaces of an ‘everyday’ which in North Korea’s seeks the production of what might is termed a ‘socialist modernity’. However this space of utopian social and political aspiration is constructed of a wider network or ecosystem of enmeshed actors, a web of life and of political life which can just as easily include the ores of technology metals and rare earths as it can humans.

The notion of ‘socialist modernity’ itself requires definition of course. The author of this papers takes it as read that readers will be satisfactorily familiar with both the terms, ‘socialist’ and ‘modernity.’ These are for the most part settled in their definition in academia (while what is actually socialist is certainly still a matter for debate and dispute in public discourse), but the conflation of the two into ‘socialist modernity’ is not. Rather like that other term I have used in the previous paragraph, utopia, whose original usage in 1516 was in fact a critique of some political aspirations. Thomas More playfully used the Greek roots of οὐτόπος to suggest that a place of political perfection was simply ‘no place’ or ‘not a place’ (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014, p, 17); ‘socialist modernity’ seems to many in the 21st century either an oxymoron or a non-sequitur. How is it even possible that something can be both socialist and modern at the same time, when much of political and ideological thinking in our present holds that modernity is in fact entirely a product of Capital and capitalism. This paper nor its author does not wish to contribute of course to this extremely energetic public debate, but instead derives its utilisation of the notion of ‘socialist modernity’ from elsewhere. While academics rooted in Marxist theory such as Adorno and Bauman (Adorno, 1973 and Bauman, 2000) have expended a great deal of effort in analysis of the modernity produced globally by Capitalism, such analysis was not available in any sense within the public or intellectual sphere in truly socialist or communist countries. Modernism or Modernity in these political geographies has in a sense only become known or theorised in an academic sense in retrospect, after the collapse of most of the political structures of international socialism or communism, and only in relation for the most part, to their physical products (Zarecor, 2011). Thus the architectures and build environments produced by governments and institutional frameworks self-defining as socialist or communist have been described as ‘socialist modernity’ (Zarecor, 2011), as have the artistic, literary and cultural products of such nations (Pence and Betts, 2008). In the case of North Korea there has been far less analysis of the modernity or otherwise of its infrastructure or urban architectures, as for the most part North Korean urban planning and design has produced a landscape which is an assemblage of traditional Korean building design and a Hausmannian approach to the layout of a city or town which is not really considered ‘modern’ in the 21st century, but rather derived from 19th century planning philosophy (Joinau, 2014). Such an approach to the topography of the city dovetails with the political imperatives of North Korea, which tends towards the personality cult and a monolithic or monumental representation or commemoration of its self. ‘Socialist Modernity’ in analysis of North Korean matters and in the mind of this paper’s author instead comes from work by scholars such as Suzy Kim on the social reorientation of the nation following its brief moment of liberation from Japanese Imperial rule and independence between 1945-1948 (Kim, 2014). Kim focuses less on architecture or the built environment of North Korea and much more on the impact of a political sensibility, at the time in flex and motion that promised to reconfigure and rewrite the social norms and practices which were rooted deeply in traditional Korean culture, and had it seems not been challenged by Japanese colonial domination. ‘Socialist Modernity’ for Kim and others, as well as for contemporary North Koreans was represented by the abolition of the rigid social and class structures of the past and the reconfiguring of gender roles, both huge changes which would generate dramatically different new social landscapes and topographies. It is these landscapes and terrains which at their nexus with extraction and production this paper is most concerned with.


In order to engage in an exploration of these landscapes and their place within North Korea’s ‘web of life’ the author and the reader of this paper will have to make a number of journeys, both in the temporal and geographical sense. In particular this paper journeys to the Museum of Ethnology, in Hamburg to the collection of the German Geologist Karl Gottsche (Danish Geological Society, 1909), to the University of Michigan’s Asian Studies Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. All three of these institutions possess material from different periods which reveal some of the landscapes of mineral extraction and exploration at different moments in the history of the Korean Peninsula


Korean mineralogical history in the English language is certainly not extensive before the 19th century, but it appears that extraction of precious metals such as gold has historically been a vital element in Korean, particularly in the maintenance of diplomatic relationships with nations neighbouring it. Edwin Mills’ rare account in English of Korean goldmining history emphasises the huge importance of gold in particular to the relationship with China during the Wei dynasty, King Wang-hyung for example outlawed in 1036 local usage and ownership of Gold in order to maintain supply to the Chinese (Mills, 1916). The Mongol empire and China under the Ming dynasty demanded extensive tribute from Korea and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions between 1592 and 1598 resulted in the loss of the state reserves of gold. Rather more successfully in the later 16th and 17th centuries Korean technologies of mineral extraction whose focus was silver, copper and gold were widely developed. New institutions, bureaucracies and legal structures were also developed around this time and both rights and infrastructures around mineral resource placed under the control of Korea’s Royal Household, with some outsourcing of responsibility to the provinces and regions. Individuals were within this new structure of control forbidden to own the rights to gold resource or extraction (Mills, 1916).

This ecosystem of control, organising Korea’s mineral extraction and exploration within a ‘web of life’ firmly under the control of both scholarly aristocracy and the institutions of royalty were soon subjected, as was Korea more generally to the impact of external colonial imperatives and interests. Taking advantage of the disruption and ruptures created by the nation’s experience of ‘unequal treaties’ and their politics, which began for Korea with the Treaty of Kanghwa in 1874, colonialists soon sought to extract value from Korea’s mineral resources and capacity (Kim, 2004). Ernst Oppert in 1864 made an audacious if unsuccessful attempt to pilfer the graves of the Royal Household and their extensive gold resource, but there were later more successful stories (Kim, 2004). James Morse, a Gold Miner from Nebraska who had participated in the California Gold Rushes of 1848-1855, was granted a highly successful gold concession at Unsan by the Yi dynasty (Swartout, 1996).  American Oriental Mining the company that sprang from Morse’s efforts would prove a very long lived enterprise and was in 1941 the last foreign owned mining company under Japanese rule, being evicted only after Pearl Harbour and the outbreak of the Pacific War (GGC, 1941).

These landscapes of extraction encounter by capitalist adventurers such as Morse were of course in the very last decades of their existence (Bird, 1905). Korea’s web of life and the metals and minerals involved in its developmental life would soon radically change. On the Korean peninsula an entirely chaotic and unsuccessful period of confused, sometimes desperate diplomatic triangulation between Imperial China, Imperial Russia and Imperial Japan by the Yi dynasty and its newly reconfigured governmental institutions were forced to accede to Tokyo’s will (Conroy, 1960). A brief period of protectorateship under the auspices of His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General, was followed by the full and comprehensive annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. The peninsula was to be governed in future by the Government General of Chosen, through whom Japan’s colonial, modernising and exploitative, extractive imperatives could run free (Shin and Robinson, 1999).

The history of Korea’s colonial period and the policies and processes of Tokyo’s rigorous reconfiguration of the peninsula’s society, politics, culture and language are of course heavily researched and academically very well known (Henry, 2015). The Government General of Chosen first sought to suppress Korean desires for nationhood and independence, second to accommodate them, third to subsume them within an extraordinary process of creating a new Imperial subjectivity and then finally in the headlong rush to conflict in the Pacific to transform the Korean Peninsula into a military site of production and labour (Buzo, 2007). It was a tumultuous and difficult period, full of unwanted transformations and reconfigurations. In developmental terms however it has proved an extraordinarily well documented and evidenced period of domination. From 1907 the Imperial Resident General Government and later fully from 1910, the Government General of Chosen published an annual series of reports, “The Reports on Reforms and Progresses in Chosen (Korea).” The reports in both Japanese and English laid out in fairly intricate detail the path and detail the Government General’s activity (GGC, 1910), especially when it came to the reconfiguration and transformation of Korean developmental culture and institutional structures[1].




As might be expected the Reports are highly extensive on the many issues of the colonial period. They recount much in the economic and legal field, but for the purposes of this paper contain an extraordinary level of detail addressing mineral extraction and exploration and the incorporation of new metals and substances into the nation’s material and developmental web of life.  Very much a product of their time and the colonial intellectual and political milieu the reports’ contain the developmental and mineralogical narrative as seen by the Chosen Government General and its institutions in the provincial and local areas of the Korean Peninsula. These include substantial changes to the legal frameworks through which mining and mineralogical research were undertaken and the institutional structures through which this legal framework operated. The Government General sought to transform the entire institutional culture of the field. For example it appears new mining legislation was formulated by the Yi dynasty under heavy Japanese influence, just before annexation in 1906 and replaced with a revision in 1916. These new colonial revisions allowed only Japanese institutions or subjects to access and control mineral rights, replacing the Imperial Household Agency as the sole controller and arbiter of these resources (GGC, 1916).  Equally the revisions also increased the range of minerals and elements subjected to the legal framework from 17 to 29. These minerals included very interestingly rare elements such as bismuth, and even more interestingly and enormously relevant for this paper’s concern Molybdenum and Quartz Sand (GGC, 1916). Quartz Sand, is now better known as Monazite the base material from which, along with Molybdenum, Rare Earths can be extracted from. The Government General of Chosen established a Geological Investigation Office in 1918, and according to Annual Reports it was tasked with a twenty year long programme of analysis (GGC, 1918). The expansion of extraction of such rare materials and metals during the early colonial period is recorded as having increased total tonnage of all minerals from 6,067,952 to 24,204,510 between 1910 and 1920 including 2629 tonnes of wulfenite, one of the ores of Molybdenum (GGC, 1920). Development in the later periods of the colonial period meant that 1933-1934 total tonnage had increased to 48,301468 tonnes (GGC, 1934). The reports also name and describe key infrastructural elements and the key mining sites which included Unsan, still managed by James Morse’s Oriental Consolidated Mining Company, although Unsan was now jointed by others such as Syozyo and Suian both owned and managed by Nippon Kogyo, one of the colonial Government General’s affiliated development and resource management companies (GGC, 1934).

The Government General’s Annual Report series therefore gives a fascinating, if partial glimpse into the developmental culture of mineral resource infrastructure, research, availability and extraction under the period of Japanese occupation and annexation. It is clear that from the focus on Molybdenum extraction, the Chosen government’s developmental focus in this era was beginning to approach what prospectors and geologists working today might be familiar with so far as the landscape of extractive possibility is concerned. Those focused on North Korea’s current mineral Rare Earths capacity, and it and SRE Minerals’ claims focused specifically on the Yongju deposit will surely be aware of the importance of the Molybdenum extraction and extremely interested in the statistics presented in the reports regarding tonnage extracted.


Captured Documents and Unveiled Narratives


As much as history and the Colonial Government General record the deep empiricism of the colonial period’s quest for mineralogical knowledge and resource, the collapse of Japanese power in 1945 and its replacement with altogether different forms of political organisation is also well recorded. The assumption of power of Kim Il Sung and what has been called North Korea’s guerrilla dynasty (Buzo, 1999), whose authority was rooted in their semi-mythic campaigns of harassment against the forces of Imperial Japan in the wildernesses of northern Korean during the 1930s heralded the unexpected arrival of modes of governance ostensibly rooted in socialist principle and Marxist theory to the Peninsula. Building a socialist territory in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula was really one of the central tasks of Pyongyang’s new government and bureaucratic institutions and for its most important foreign partner in its early years the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung and his Soviet advisers had inherited an industrial and mineral landscape that was most determinedly colonial and unpicking that bequest, constructing a new web of life, would be a key focus for the policies of the young North Korea.

As readers of this paper might expect this transformation would need to be as dramatic as Kim Il Sung’s conception of ideology would transform the spaces of its politics. While Pyongyang’s theoretical and narrative articulation was not as coherent or comprehensive as it became in later years; there was no detailed description of the three revolutions process, Taean work system or Ch’ollima method (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014), it was both dramatic and in some senses practical. Unlike in the early Soviet Union, North Korea’s young authorities and their supporters seemingly saw that the radical collectivisation of agricultural landscapes and communities would not be achievable immediately and so while taking care to remove those who had directly supported or collaborated with the Japanese colonial government as landlords or rentiers from that land, Pyongyang supported a mixed agricultural economy and development before 1950 (Armstrong, 2004). When it came to Forestry and timber resources, Pyongyang both adopted the developmental methodologies which had been introduced by the Japanese forestry specialists (Fedman, 2015), and sought to negate their memory and influence through campaigns focused on the notional reconfiguration of the Peninsula’s forests to become somehow more authentically Korean (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014) .  Trees and plants in this effort would become real players, real participants in the construction and reconstruction of national identity. Later in North Korea’s history, cityscapes and urban landscapes, such as Hamhung would be rebuilt from the ground up by architects and planners from ideologically friendly nations such as East Germany (Armstrong, 2009), in more dramatic and determined and comprehensive attempts to literally build a new authentically Socialist Korean urban space. There are a number of other examples in North Korea’s history in which partners from communist or socialist nations collaborated to reconstruct elements of the nation’s economy and terrain for more useful or positivistic ideological purposes (Szalontai, 2008).

Such external interest and support was of course much in evidence when it came to mineral exploration and exploitation, though naturally that interest is both collaborative and destructive. The Ch’olsan Uranium mine in particular would become the most famous site in the minds of opponents of North Korea and the Soviet Union (Weathersby, 2007, p.26). Cumings recounts the interest among American security specialists and lobbyists in the early years of both Korea’s independence (Cumings, 1990, p.150). Mineralogical research done by the Colonial Government General and the geological experience of the OCMC had revealed of course not only copious amounts of Gold, but also the Molybdenum, Wulfenite, Monazite and Tungsten deposits on the Peninsula. Intelligence at the end of the Second World War had focused attention on Japanese efforts to refine Monazite into Thorium in Hungnam in order to produce a crude radioactive weapon. While the area of the mining and research would later become part of North Korea, information on Japan’s wartime activities concerned the United States, as did the Soviet Union’s engagement of the resources and facilities there. When the Korean War did break out in July 1950, reports that the Soviets were mining monazite at around six North Korean mines made the whole infrastructure so militarily significant that the Hungnam complex was destroyed on August 24th, 1950 by United States bombers (Cumings, 1990, p.151). Documents which might reveal some element of the threatening enterprise would be vitally important both to contemporary military affairs and whatever future advantage was to be gained in contest against the Soviet Union, which explains the actions and interests of the gatherers of the set of documents with which this paper is most directly concerned.


The landscapes of extraction and attendant histories of Korea and North Korean technology metals and the precursors to contemporary Rare Earth minerals seen in earlier documentary collections and the Chosen Government General’s Annual Reports as well as in the minds of those who sought to contest Soviet power and influence on the peninsula takes this paper in temporal terms up to 1945.. However it is still some distance in intellectual and practical terms from that in evidence in North Korea today. It would be helpful if material were available which would support this paper and its author in taking the narrative closer in conceptual and governmental terms to the present.

Of course as the reader will expect, this is a difficult and challenging proposition given the politics and culture of contemporary North Korea. Pyongyang’s developmental culture or those practitioners who form part of it are unavailable, generally for anthropological, ethnological or sociological study. This in part is due to the extreme reluctance of Pyongyang’s institutions to allow foreign, empirical access to them on the grounds of potential political or ideological disruption. Data and analytic material locally sourced is also either entirely unavailable, badly maintained or produced in later years with difficult or contested methodological frameworks. Accordingly in order to get closer to the developmental and political culture of North Korea’s today this paper turns to another vitally important collection of material and documentary evidence. This collection will be familiar to the readers of Suzy Kim’s (Kim, 2013) recent monograph on women in the early politics of North Korea. The Captured North Korean Documents collection of the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration (NARA), (sometimes known by its institutional catalogue number as Record Group 242), in College Park, Maryland is an extraordinary and complicated collection of material gathered in difficult circumstances.

Exploitation and analysis of mineral resource in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, as at least partially evidenced by the narratives of the colonial Government General’s annual reports of course did not come to an end with the territories’ Liberation. The infant North Korea in its efforts to reconfigure the social, economic and political cultures of the spaces now under its control, towards what might be termed a “Socialist Modern,” also sought to reconfigure its mineralogical cultures. Pyongyang, while not bequeathed by the moment and processes of de-colonialisation a particularly useful or viable agricultural inheritance, was gifted more extensive mineral resources (Kim Il Sung, 1946). Accordingly North Korea sought to build upon the Government General’s developmental achievements in the sourcing and extraction of Molybdenum and other rare and valuable minerals and technology metals, especially at sites now classified as being within the Yongju deposit (Kim Il Sung, 1948). These materials, in the absence of more familiar or common elements of development, become a real part of the web of North Korean politics and culture, actors on its theatric ideological stage and narrative players within its historical discourse.

The Captured Documents Collection allows the author and reader some access to the urgency of this early period of North Korean history. Its collection was also a moment of extreme and negative energy. At the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950, North Korea made rapid gains and drove the Republic of Korea’s army and their American supporters far to the south to a small territory known as the Pusan Perimeter. However North Korea’s KPA was soon beaten backwards following the Incheon landings by United Nations forces and the ROK army. Southern and American forces in fact captured and occupied Pyongyang from between the 19th of October 1950 and the 3rd of December 1950 (Cumings, 1990). During this period of occupation United States and United Nations forces sought to extract as much information as possible from Government ministries and sources in Pyongyang. They raided ministries, archives and as many other institutions as possible. The  information and the documents collected were shipped back to the administration of the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (the United States occupying governing power at the time) in Japan and then across the Pacific to Pacific Command in San Francisco. Eventually the extensive original materials and an annotated translation of their contents in brief and at times unhelpful outline, were de-classified and became part of the NARA collection.


Element of the Cartographic Landscape at Kaechon Graphite Mine (RG242, SA 2009 5/154)


The author of this paper discovered this collection within the boxes and shipping advice numbers of the Captured Documents. Having undertaken several archival research visits to the collection and to the boxes in question, the author now has a complete catalogue of their contents and has made a visual/photographic record of the most relevant documents and materials. The author of this paper has identified blueprints specifically covering the topographic and mining terrain of the following mines: Ullryul, Yangdok, Chodong, Chaeryong, Sinpung, Musan, Kaechon, Kumhwa, Ilgon and Tongban (RG242, SA2009, 5/146)[2] Many of these sites are described in later North Korean literature and government documents as being among the most important in the field of mineral development, a number of them are considered by external agencies to be sites of Rare Earths or Technology Metals extraction (Ferenc, S, 1979). Perhaps reiterating the fact that this collection was extracted from Pyongyang’s bureaucratic heart, the materials currently being examined outline the institutional culture to be undertaken by projects focused on mineral extraction and exploration in the North Korea of the time (RG242, SA 2009, 3/68), They also detail both general and particular targets and agendas for the sector as a whole and very specific mines (RG242, SA 2009, 3/68). Representative of the accounting and recording systems of the Mining Ministry there is a very large collection of telegrams sent from individual mine superintendents which record the output of their institution, on both weekly and monthly bases and by specific mineral types and resources (RG242, SA 2010, 11/204). This element also includes the contract with the ministry signed by each extractive or research unit, stipulating the particular materials and elements of focus and the expected output (RG242, SA2010, 11/204). More generally, and in common with material gathered by the US Army’s collection team at other ministry and infrastructural sites, there is an extensive collection of academic and pedagogical material focused on mining theory, practice and geology theory and extractive practice. These documents are perhaps suggestive of the construction of new bodies of knowledge and expertise in North Korea and new cultures of developmental practice that the nation was becoming exposed to and through which practical development was to be undertaken. This would include building upon the research undertaken during the Japanese colonial period into their Molybednum and other rare materials capacity. Finally, and reminding the reader of the very specific local temporal context of the moment of this material’s collection, there are a number of documents within the collection which focus on the bureaucratic and legal framework as well as the institutional processes involved in the nationalisation of once private mineral resources and enterprises in newly liberated terrains of southern Korea.

These blueprints featuring mine infrastructure and shaft layouts are also replete with further non-topographical or Geodesic blueprints which serve as templates for the construction, in kit form of various infrastructural elements to a mining site. However these documents do not simply address those elements which serve the sites extractive prerogatives, but also those that serve social needs. Thus alongside blueprints for the construction of particular models of mine shaft or generators, there are blueprints for the building and maintenance of accommodation blocks, schools, social and community centres and even railway stations and other public infrastructure.

Infrastructure at Musan Mine (RG242 SA 2009, 5/160)

These blueprints featuring elements of construction not focused on productive output are suggestive of an urge on North Korea’s part to transform the landscapes of mineralogical exploitation to fit the creation of a different type of revolutionary landscape. Developmental and institutional culture in these blueprints and documents is put to work in the planning is set to plan and enable what was essentially the future and the physical manifestation of a Socialist Modernity surrounding North Korea’s mines and mining infrastructure. No longer were these mines and similar spaces of extraction to be the resource frontiers of Korean history known to Mills, Oppert and Gottsche, disparate, diffuse and masculine. Neither were these spaces to be governed by the cultures of colonial extraction. Instead these spaces were to be in the future, coherently included into the working, educational and leisure infrastructures of North Korean modernity, places of childhood and family as much as they would be of working men. For example when examining documents focused on sites at Kaechon, Chaeryong, Ullyul and Musan, Item 154 is to be found, recorded as “Blue print file containing distribution diagram of residence, railway for gasoline rail car, ore bin, elementary school, dated 1950, belonging to Kaechon Graphite Mine, P’yongan Pukto, NK.” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/154). Kaechon Mine is not an isolated case when it comes to this sort of social or educational infrastructure amongst the documents. The section in the index relating to Chaeryong Mine in Hwanghae-do includes the following“…draft of residence, bathroom attached to residence, extension of elementary school building…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/154). Documents related to Ullyul Mine also in Hwangdae-do mention a “…bathroom, storehouse, dispensary, elementary school, residence…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/158), those related to Sinpung Mine contain a “…design drawing of residence and elementary school..” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/159) and Musan appears ready to receive a “..telephone plant, system and exchange…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/160).

Shaft Plans at Ullyul Mine (RG242, SA 2009, 5/158)

Through documents such as these found in the Captured Documents collection not only can these new cultures of exploration, extraction and social organisation be glimpsed, but also elements of the role minerals and metals and the landscapes of their extraction will play in future North Korean history. Mineral spaces and terrains of either common or rare elements will be become real players within a wider framework of social and political practice and praxis under the control of Pyongyang. Later in North Korea’s history as its ideology and political narrative developed its state philosophy would as Han S. Park has theorised, assume an almost transcendental form (Park, 2002). In what Park terms a national ‘fishbowl’ (Park, 2002, p.37) all North Korea’s human residents would supposedly act together as one, their collective will forming almost a ‘hivemind’ through which the nationalist and developmental energies unleashed by its early revolutionary period and the thoughts attributed to members of the family Kim (Park, 2001). Eventually a reader of North Korean literature and narrative would see even the Bears and Storks resident in the nation incorporated as participant actors in the mourning process for Kim Jong Il in 2012 (KCNA, 2012). North Korean politics at this point would not balk from claiming the non-human and the non-sentient as politically active ‘citizens’, distraught and disrupted by the death of their ‘Dear Leader’. While this perhaps appears a more recent manifestation of North Korean politics, delving further back into the mythologies produced over the years by Pyongyang might lead a reader to find moments in which the trees of the forests surrounding Mt. Paektu gave their support to Kim Il Sung and his wife Kim Jong-suk, appeared to consciously protect the communist guerrillas from pursuit and capture by Japanese forces (Winstanley-Chesters, 2016). This would be later echoed by the vital place in national construction and reconstruction following the colonial period, what would be considered authentically ‘Korean’ species of trees and plants would play (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014). The forests and timber of North Korea in these narratives and historiographies are politically ‘lively matter’, players in the development of the nation.

Rare Earths, Technology Metals and other minerals, such as those mined and extracted within the landscapes conceived of within the documents this paper encounters in the Captured Documents collection, play a similar role, not only at the historical moment recorded in them, but in our own. North Korea’s rebuilding and reorientation with Soviet partners in the documents of 1945-1950, places both ‘rare’ and common minerals centre stage in the process of national development. Some of these minerals such as uranium and plutonium had of course been vital players in the end of the war in the Pacific, and would become enormously important in the minds of most humans during the Cold War (Thompson, 1985). Both were certainly important in the minds of the Soviet technicians and engineers supporting their North Korean counterparts in the time of these captured documents, as well as for North Korea for generally. In 2017 North Korean radioactive materials continue to be elements of concern throughout the globe of course, but for Pyongyang and its politics, radio-isotopes and technology metals appear as important as those forests and trees during the moments of the nation’s construction and reconfiguration. These lively matters and vibrant elements play the roles of both North Korea’s first and last line of defence within its contemporary political framework. They allow for Pyongyang’s continued survival in what it considers an extremely hostile geo-political environment, as well as for a potential response to future aggression from external agents. In this framework such metals and minerals form part of the wider networks of North Korean political sensibility and citizenry, agents of support and energy for the survival and continuity of its ideology and government. Rare Earth deposits that may or may not be extractable from the ground at the Yongju deposit would play a similar role, generative of new possibilities and future potential, similar in fact to the social and cultural extractive landscapes found within the Captured Documents this paper has encountered.




This paper has introduced a variety of repositories of Korean mineral and developmental cultural knowledge. The social landscapes and institutional structures which have marked the terrain of both this knowledge and accompanying cultures of exploration and exploitation have transformed as the political and economic processes acting upon the Korean Peninsula have transformed. The material which Gottsche collected in his forays across the land of Korea in 1884 suggests a developmental culture rooted in the deep past; of relationships of suzerainty as much as of sovereignty, of institutions highly centralised around the structures of the ancient Yi dynasty and of social practices closely connected to geomancy and shamanistic notions of land and terrain. The collection of Government General of Chosen reports reveal the complete transformation of these institutions and processes under the remit of Japanese governmental intentions. The reports describe the whole hearted reconfiguration of Korean mineral and developmental culture around the prerogatives of capitalist extraction and accumulation within a governmental framework profoundly concerned to achieve efficiencies and scientifically rational structures of management. Both of these sets of documents in a sense provide a cultural window into the developmental past of North Korea. Of course as is most likely the case with the majority of such previous cultural manifestations within a national history, this historical culture and the landscapes produced or manifest by it will have some relevance and impact on the present. However as readers will know this present is substantially different in all manner of ways not just from Korea’s historical memory, but also from the majority of the developmental cultures and practices of the wider world.

What essentially is encountered then when the author and the reader view the documentary material from the Captured Documents collection? We do not encounter the ancient terrains of Korean mineral extraction, nor do we experience the mineralogical space of colonial exploitation and rationalisation caught up the rush for imperial subjectivity. Instead we encounter a landscape of revolutionary aspiration. North Korea, with its supporters and collaborators from the Soviet Union is in the midst of both unmaking the mineral terrains of the colonial period, just as it has set about the task of generating a new form of landscape, more suited and connected to the needs of what was to be a Socialist present. Suzy Kim’s recent work “Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution” has also sought to unpack the structures and cultural processes of these landscapes, examining the female experience during the brief interlude between Liberation and the Korean War (Kim, 2014). Here in these documents is outlined a developmental and extractive culture which aspires to involve and serve the citizen, the comrade, as much as it does the needs of accumulation and capacity. This new form of cultural landscape was to generate an assemblage of the productive and the social; of mining shafts and medical installations, of winding gear and school buildings. As we have seen elsewhere in this paper and in more recent North Korean history these new cultural and political terrains would also include non-human participants. The minerals, metals and deposits themselves – both real and imagined, for much in North Korean historiography and member is both simultaneously real and imagined – become politically active players in the construction, propagation and continuation of these landscapes. This is true of course as much in 2017 as it was within the documents from 1945-1950. In our present, the uranium, thorium or plutonium possessed by North Korea, as well as a host of other less common minerals the nation may or not possess, are actors not only on the local stages of national politics and ideology, possessed of their own non-human charisma (Lorimer, 2007), participants embedded in both social practice and imagination, but also on the global stage. Minerals and Metals framed within North Korea’s political and social web of life, beguile and terrify, global institutions seeks to prevent their extraction and distribution, Pyongyang’s enemies plan and strategise for their negation. However within the political mind of North Korea, and within the narratives generated by its ideology and philosophy, these vibrant materials bolster national pride and resilience, as much defenders of its territories and terrains as the flesh and bones of the Korean People’s Army.

In conclusion much of North Korea’s political and social landscape could well have remained uncompleted or been swept away in the destructive moments of the Korean War. It of course was not and North Korea continues to exist in our present. The spaces of Rare Earth, Technology Metal and other mineral extraction that were of intense interest to the United States, its intelligence agencies and military during the Cold War have not diminished in the eye and mind of these institutions since. If anything they have increased in important and energy since, becoming yet more vibrant and lively in recent years, to the point in 2017 that North Korean minerals and mineral capacity is one of the key points of geo-political concern.  The author hopes that the reader through this reading of Korean and North Korean mineral histories, as well as some interaction with the documentary resources available which recount them, might have a deeper understanding of the place of the landscapes of these histories within North Korea’s present and history, within the nation’s web of life. Just as the Captured Documents record a political terrain deeply concerned to overturn Thomas More’s supposition that utopia is in fact nowhere, the landscapes of North Korea’s mineral and metal extraction are rooted in a concern to generate a present and continuing territory of utopian possibility. Within this terrain and political frame both human and non-human act and participate together, mineral, metal, flesh and bone active as vibrant, energetic material and materiel.

Acknowledgements, Romanization and Funding

Romanization strategies are considerably different between the two Korean nations. For ease of use and objectivity, the author uses the current North Korean Romanization style when referring to quotations and places sourced from within North Korea. However this paper both makes quotations from documents generated in North Korea between 1945 and 1950, before the current North Korean style was formulated and from documents translated by US Army document gatherers in 1950 and later which may not conform to either North Korean style or contemporary/historical style. For the purposes of authenticity and objectivity the author retains these variations when used in direct quotation

The research for this paper has received generous support from the Australian Research Council project FL120100155 “Informal Life Politics in the Remaking of Northeast Asia: From Cold War to Post-Cold War” and the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2010-DZZ-3104) during the author’s Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the Beyond the Korean War Project (University of Cambridge). Elements of this paper and future elements of the project which underpins it have been supported by translation and inspiration from Dr Adam Cathcart, School of History, University of Leeds and the author wishes to acknowledge Dr Cathcart’s expertise, support and influence in the translation and formulation of this material.

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Winstanley-Chesters, R. (2014). Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project, Lexington Press, Lanham, MD.

Weber, M. (1967). The Theory of Economic and Social Organisation. The Free Press, New York City, NY.

Whatmore, S. (2005). Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures, Spaces. (London: Sage).

Winstanley-Chesters, R. (2015). “‘Patriotism Begins with a Love of Courtyard’: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea.” Tiempo Devorado (Consumed Time), 2, (2): 116-138.

Zarecor, K. (2011). Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1960. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA.

* This article is no longer online due to North Korea’s habit of removing old content from Rodong Sinmun and the KCNA’s online archive. However the author of this piece retains a copy of every Rodong Sinmun and KCNA article he uses for reference purposes and will gladly share specific articles with interested parties.



[1] Copies and collections of the reports in English are not common, many collections having been lost and abandoned over the years, however the author of this paper engaged in archival visits to the sets at the British Library in London (a collection that was sent as a gift from one colonial power to another, to the director of the British Museum), and the University of Michigan’s Asian Studies Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States. These sets include a full run of the reports in their entirety in both English and Japanese from 1907 until 1941.

[2] There is no agreed system for notation so far as Record Group 242’s catalogue and shipping advice numbers is concerned. However for this paper the author adopts Professor Charles Armstrong’s very rational model.

Forests in P’yŏngyang’s Web of Life: Arboreal Culture, Practice and Lively Matter in North Korea

This is a pre-edit, pre peer review version of this paper. It is substantially different from the to be published version.

“Covering the mountains with thick forests is also greatly important to protect the land and make the landscape beautiful. Dense forests…make our country a people’s paradise with beautiful environment and good conditions to live in…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1946, 172)

Whether North Korea has at any point become anything of the ‘people’s paradise’ envisaged by its future first leader in 1946 is not something this paper aims to debate or explore. North Korea’s forests are known in world discourse to be anything but dense. Instead North Korea’s forests are renowned for being barren, denuded and destroyed. Images of tree-less hills and degraded landscapes in North Korea are as much cyphers and avatars for its land in the eyes of external viewers as the frequently used satellite image of the nation at night which portrays it as dark, opaque void in between the energy of both China and South Korea (Shim 2013). While far less of a composite construction than that single image, the the huge genre of photographs and images presenting North Korea as entirely destitute in terms of timber and forest resource are no less political (Smith 2015). It matters in the weaponised practices of North Korea’s de-legitimation that it as a nation has no trees, that it has debased its environment to the extent that not even the barest stands of timber survive. For North Korea, however it is of extreme concern that its national landscape and terrain has abundant numbers of trees, that it is somewhere and somehow verdant. Kim Il-sŏng’s assertion in 1946 of the importance of forests to state building in what was to be the new North Korea that begins this paper is in this sense perhaps even more vital to the maintenance and sustainability of the nation than at its foundation.

Given their importance and vitality this paper will explore the historical arboreal landscapes of North Korea, terrains that in 2015 were termed ‘Forests of Gold’ by Kim Chŏng’ŭn’s New Years’ Address (Rodong Sinmun 2015). While it cannot hope to be exhaustive in scale the paper will outline the developmental imperatives and context which drove P’yŏngyang’s initial focus on forestry matters, including both the generation of new socialist landscapes and the repudiation or reconfiguration of the timbered spaces of Japanese colonialism. It will then suggest a periodization of North Korean forest history which maps both onto and around the periodic nature of P’yŏngyang’s developmental strategy and past adherence to the classical modes of central planning familiar to analysis of other Socialist or Communist states. Finally it will encounter North Korean forestry policy as it exists in the present, in opposition to narratives of de-legitimisation and negation from external agencies, and deeply embedded in the claims of authenticity and functionality of its current regime.

This paper is primarily a work of Historical Geography, however its theoretical and conceptual frame incorporates much active and energetic recent work in the fields of Political and Critical Geography as well as more thoughtful philosophical analysis of North Korean politics and ideology. While a review of this framework follows this introduction it is most important for the reader to understand that this will not be a history of passive resource or Nature in North Korea, material which is done to, Nature which is simply out there. Instead the author of this paper holds North Korea’s forests as active participants and agents in that history, a Nature which, as the case in all political and ideological configurations with us and in us, or in this case, within its politics, culture and ideology, a key part of the nations’ ‘web of life’.


Literatures and Theoretical Frames


The literature and theoretical underpinning of this paper derives generally from two directions. Firstly there is that which directly addresses and contends with North Korea, its politics and ideology and the impact of the present status quo on the Korean Peninsula and secondly there is that which derives from the field of Geography, which is itself split into theory and literature addressing the politics of nature, or the nature of politics and that which explores the physical historical geographies of timber and forest in East Asia.

North Korean politics, political culture, ideology and state formative process is characterised by scholarly analysis as an example of extreme autocracy, derived originally from ideological content within Marxist-Leninism and Stalinism, but with a very large element of Korean nationalism running through it. The work of Cumings (1981), Scalapino and Lee (1972), Armstrong (2002), Park (2002) and Myers (2010) perhaps are the best known examples of such literature. However for the purposes of this paper recent writing by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung (2012), is perhaps more useful for what it offers in conceptual terms for political terrain. Kwon and Chung use a reconsideration of Clifford Geertz (1980) and Max Weber’s (1967) analysis respectively on the role of political theatric performativity and charisma to reframe North Korea’s own politics as a theatric, charismatic space. Kwon and Chung declare P’yŏngyang to be a theatre state in which politics is both performative and performed. This performance requires development and exploitation of the landscape of the nation to serve as stage within North Korea’s politics. Timber, Forests and other arboreal resources are very much part of this performance, very much actors on the stage. The work of Sonia Ryang (2012) and Suk-young Kim (2014) on the cultures and performances of North Korean politics, social organisation and space also inform this author’s conception of the stage on which both human and non-human actors interact under P’yŏngyang’s rule.

Moving beyond the literatures of specifically North Korean politics and culture this paper frames its conception of landscapes more generally through the social and cultural geographic lens provided by Denis Cosgrove (1984 and 2008) and Noel Castree (2001) and their articulation of landscape and terrain as symbolic and socially or politically constructed. North Korean forests are certainly part of this construction, and this paper will explore these processes at particularly generative moment through the history of the nation. The paper also deploys important work examining the reconfiguration of nature and natures through the social processes of scale and scaling from Erik Swyngedouw’s work (1997 and 2015). Through the use of distributed process and scale, natures are transformed into ‘techno-natures’ and impacted by and entwined with the imperatives of politics. Methodological transformations provided by analyses of scale in these senses allow for further insight into the local use of scale and scaling in North Korea (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Scale and scale making as transformative reflexive, distributed process allows for the inclusion of other inhabitants and participants within the landscapes marked by them.

In tandem with this political conception of scale and scaling, this paper is also particularly interested in the agency, action and politics of forested terrain and topography itself. To consider this agency the paper utilises the enormously important work of Jane Bennett (2010) and Sarah Whatmore (2005) on the generation and existence of what they have termed ‘vibrant’ matter or political matter. However Bennett and Whatmore’s work on the specifics of non-human or non-sentient vibrancy is read in tandem with that of Jason Moore (2015). Moore’s interpretation of the ‘web of life’ holds that there can be no externalised Capitalism (or any other ism), acting upon Nature or natures for both are intrinsically within and around politics and political forms. Nature and natures run through economic, political, cultural and social imperatives, entwining, enmeshing, influencing and reordering them, and are inseparable from the many functions of human life. This must therefore be true of non-Capitalist polities and non-Capitalist Nature or nature. North Korea’s politics, institutions, cultures, social frameworks and topography must necessarily as much an assemblage of Nature, natures and human endeavours and practice as any other manifestation of sovereignty. Capitalism is in Nature as much as Nature is Capitalism in Moore’s reading, could be reconfigured for the North Korean case to read that Juché or Sŏn’gun is in Nature and vice versa.

Moving from Moore’s overarching reading of the wider ‘web of life’ to that of Bennett’s addressing the function of specific elements of Nature or natures, allows a reading of North Korean terrain which is active and energetic. Bennett’s work which seeks to deconstruct the boundaries of human privilege over notions of agency and action through considering animals, plants and other non-sentient actors such as bacteria, viruses, metals, and tectonic energy as actors in themselves, possessed of a form of politics. Instead however of a politics controlled or possessed at the level of the individual and the singular, these actors develop a distributed, inter and hyper personal politics which connects, contests and co-produces other forms of politics and agency (Bennett 2010). Notions of vibrant materiality and lively non-human actors can also connect to previous conceptions of political charisma, which are themselves very active in North Korea. Jamie Lorimer for instance has used Bennett’s conceptions to develop a politics of non-human charisma (2007), which he uses primarily within the field of environmental and species conservation, but which underpins this author’s examination of the role of topography within North Korea’s politics and culture. The reader should perhaps also consider the work of Thongchai Winichikaul, especially addressing Thai state development on notions of the eco-body, in which topographic features, and a sense of local natural sensibilities become entwined and enveloped by the processes of nation building and state formation (1994). Notions of a North Korean ‘eco-body’ were particularly important following the end of the Japanese colonial period, and as will be seen later in this paper, vital in early conceptions of the nation’s forestry, such as that outlined at the beginning of this paper in 1946 by Kim Il-sŏng. The reader can certainly consider the forests, trees and timber products of North Korea in this light, as vibrant, lively participants with their own intrinsic charisma, active in the theatric politics and history of the nation.

Finally the author of this paper holds in mind scholarship derived from the field of Historical Geography which specifically addresses the forested landscapes of the region. In particular there is the landmark work of Conrad Totman, particularly the Green Archipelago, his detailed examination of the place of the tree and the forest in the history of Japan and Japanese state and institutional development (Totman, 1989). Towards the end of his career Totman addressed the Korean peninsula and the interplay between Japanese political prerogatives and energies and Korean national sensibilities (Totman 2004). While this would never be fully explored or developed, David Fedman’s recent doctoral dissertation ‘The Saw and the Seed’ continues the spirit of Totman’s analysis into the colonial period, bringing Korean forest history and its place within national and political development almost to the North Korean present (Fedman 2015).


Colonial Pre-Histories of North Korea’s Forests


“The Mountain Ranges in Korea cover more than half the total area of the country. Owing to indiscriminate felling of trees without public supervision, which was practiced for a long time past, most of the mountain slopes…have become denuded of trees…” (HIJMRG 1907)

Before this paper moves to the forest history and arboreal web of life of North Korea, a little historical context for forestry on the peninsula is required. The quote beginning this section of the paper is the opening statement of the forestry section in the first “Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea”, published in 1907 by His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General in Seoul.  This is a fine summary of Japanese views of the forestry management practices of the peninsula, prior to its co-option by the institutions of colonialism. Coupled with later statements that Korea has “no forestry law to speak of” (GCC 1910), the conceptual difference between the bureaucratic legalism of Imperial Japan and the perception of forestry practices under the Chosŏn dynasty is fairly clear.  At the earliest moment of the colonial project, even while it was still in the infancy of the Residency General, Japan sought to extract value from Korean forestry resources and terrains, capitalising this element from the peninsula’s web of life.

“There exist rich forests along the banks of the Yalu and the Tumen Rivers, but they were never properly exploited, except in a temporary manner by the Russians prior to the recent war…Proper exploitation with adequate capital should undoubtedly yield a considerable revenue to the Treasury…” (HIJMG 1908)

Given this developmental sensibility, the Resident General records that a ‘joint’ enterprise was ‘negotiated’ and undertaken with the Korean Government in the building of a new forestry coordination and trans-shipment centre at Antung (present day Dandong in China), opposite the Korean town of Sinŭiju (which the document names, Wiju), on the mouth of the Yalu. This centre served to coordinate and develop timber shipments along the Yalu River from the deep northern interior forests of P’yŏng’anbuk-to and Chagang-do provinces. The annual report notes the extent of the timbers journey: “…The distance from the place where the timber is felled to the main station at Antung is 150 ri (375 miles) and the rafts take 40 days to make the journey…” (HIJMG 1908). This project in total extracted some 71006 cubic ‘shaku’[i] of timber from these ancient forests.

Further to these efforts to extract the value from the untouched arboreal landscapes of Korea’s northern interior, the Resident General sought in these early days to reorganise Korea’s forestry institutions wider strategy and approach. In a section of the 1908 Annual Report marked as ‘Agricultural and Industrial Encouragement’ the Resident General asserts that “The Korean Government, appreciating the urgent advice of the Resident General, established, in 1906, three modal forests in the mountains near Seoul, Pingyang (sic) and Taiku (sic)…” (HIJMRG 1908) These new forest projects guided by the logics of Capital and colonialism were to be the core institutions for the new approach to timber and forest management. They were to cover 83,300 acres and include the planting of a number of new species imported directly from Japan. Along with these projects whose focus was more mature forest stock, the landscape of research had also to be remodelled and reframed: “In 1907, three Nursery Gardens were established in the vicinity of the Model Forests near Pyingyang and Taiku, and also at Suwon. In these Gardens seeds of various trees were sowed in the spring of 1907, and promising results were obtained…” (HIJMRG 1908)

Beyond developments at specific vanguard sites and within the structures of research and experiment, the Resident General also suggested changes to the landscapes of forestry education (“In a school attached to the…model station at Suwon, a short course in forestry was added to the curriculum, and the first graduates, 12 in number, are now actively engaging in forest administration under the Government and at the Model Stations…” (HIJMRG 1908), and institutional changes which moved forest administration responsibilities from the agricultural section of the Department of Agriculture to a new Forest Bureau – itself employing “several Japanese experts in forestry”. Finally the legal structures and frameworks were to be reworked to support the impending arrival of ‘modern’ practice, the text claiming that “…the Government is now preparing comprehensive laws which will provide, among other things, that certain mountains and forests, both public and private shall be preserved as protections against landslides, floods and drought.” (HIJMRG 1908)

Before this new forestry legislation was brought into force, Korea’s total forestry stock under the control of the state was reviewed and assessed (“With the object of protecting as well as utilizing the States forests…” (GGC 1909), and the outlines of extensive surveying of private forest resource were unveiled. This surveying took the form of cadastral surveying carried out during the spring and summer of 1910. By August the peninsula’s entire forest stock (other than on Jeju Island), had been surveyed and was found to stand at some 16,000,000 Cho[ii]. This wider national forest landscape was found to be in similarly denuded and degraded conditions as the initial State Forest stock had been found and more extensive afforestation strategies were to be undertaken. By 1910 the Government General had assumed political sovereignty on the Peninsula and the need for “model afforestation” centres under the careful control of Japanese experimental institutions was no longer necessary. Forestry management was thus devolved back to the Provincial administrations now coordinated by the Government General, and afforestation strategy undertaken by the propagation of a number of ‘seedling bed’s in different Provincial territories.  The Government General also sought to encourage other, private sector based stake-holders to begin afforestation projects and asserted that “…In order to encourage afforestation on the part of the general public the Government General (selected)…April 3rd, 1911, the anniversary of the accession of the First Emperor of Japan, as a memorial day for a universal plantation…” (GGC 1911).

Having gained institutional and sovereign control of the Korean Peninsula, its institutions and forest resources, reviewed those resources and begun a series of afforestation projects, wide-scale legal reconfiguration was enacted with Serei (Imperial Decree number 10), issued through the Governor-General in July of 1911. Its stipulations came into force at the end of the year and both asserted the Government General’s overall control of natural and forest resources at the same time as opening up State Forests to both preservation and exploitation by private or non-state actors. Ultimately the Annual Report for 1912 suggests that “…the vital object of the revised forestry law aims not only as a continuance of the government undertakings to afforestation, but also at stimulating the people in general to undertake afforestation as far as possible on their own initiative…” (GGC 1912).

This transfer of responsibilities in a sense sought to break the bounds of reverence between local communities and their sacred or customary forests, as much as colonial Japanese administration would seek to break the bounds between the Korea and Koreans of the present and the Korean’s of the historical past and the historical Korea. The forest web of life of historical Korea was to completely reconfigured by new logics and processes, Chosŏn’s eco-body reimagined (Winichikaul 1994). Korean Forestry management and resource was to be catapulted into colonial modernity by a quasi-free market in forest management (be that for exploitative or regenerative purposes), one which would allow deep inroads to be made by the institutions and organisations of Japanese power.

Government General reports are subject to statistical dispute and contest, as well as any later dispute and rejection by North Korea on conceptual or ideological grounds. Andrew Grajdanzev for example in 1944 utilising a later set of data points provided by the Government General of Chosen asserts that comparisons and reportage made by the Annual Report of 1938 “…are of doubtful value…” (Grajdanzev 1944, 123), owing to the failure to correctly combine and account for different methods of forest stock assessment in the later years of the colonial government. Further to this Grajdanzev asserts that in later years the Government General undertook large scale privatisation of forest resources, utilizing the revised legal frameworks to deliver Korean arboreal landscape into the hands of companies such as the ‘Chosen Ringyo Kaihatsu Kabushiki Kaishi’ or ‘Corporation for the Development of Forest Exploitation in Korea’. In fact Grajdanzev notes that this particular organisation was granted for no charge some 500,000 cho of forests in Korea (a quarter of the remaining ‘good’ forest) (Grajdanzev 1944, 126). This ownership transfer was not to allow the Corporation to engage in afforestation or forest protection on this land, but for its whole scale deforestation. Accordingly Grajdanzev and the Government General recount an increase in cubic meterage of timber felled across the peninsula from some 700,000 in 1910 to 2.8 million in 1939 (Grajdanzev 1944, 124). This wholescale denudation of Korean landscape during the final decade of Japanese rule would be the contribution of its forests to colonial lively matters, timber burnt in enormous quantities to support industrial and military production and prospective victories across the Pacific. Just as countless Japanese Imperial subjects would sacrifice their physical bodies for the good and will of the Emperor, so innumerable Korean trees would be fragmented and immolated for the same imperatives. The desecration of Korea’s ancient forest landscapes naturally would prove an extreme provocation for Korean nationalists, in particular it seems for that future polity whose later historiography sited its foundational generation and moments deep within the forests of its north. For North Korea these arboreal terrains could be characterised as ‘tainted topographies’.


Encountering the Tainted Topography of Colonial Forests


“The Korean nations is facing a question of life or death today – it either perishes for ever under the colonial yoke of the Japanese imperialists or rises up in a fight to survive. If it merely laments over its ruined land…our nation will fall never to rise again…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1930, 2)

Kim Il-sŏng here on the second page of the first volume of his(now) forty seven volume set of collected ‘Works’ writing as a young man, many years before the Liberation of Korea and ascent to power as the leader of the new state of North Korea stresses the Japanese impact on the topography of the peninsula. It is clear that the impact of colonisation on the physical material of the land and its resources was felt as keenly by those resisting it through alliance to the small group of nationalist guerrillas under Kim’s control as was Japanese bureaucratic or institutional control. During the pre-Liberation period this may have been down to the actual topographical locale of nationalist and communist resistance to the Japanese, as it is remembered by North Korean historiography as generally having been focused on the wild and mountainous spaces towards and beyond the Chinese/Manchurian border. Regardless of the veracity or reliability of these complicated and contested historical and geographical claims, upon attaining power in the North late in 1945, Kim Il-sŏng would find himself primarily responsible for the rehabilitation of Japan’s apparently nefarious developmental approach on the peninsula’s landscape.

Aside from Kim Il-sŏng’s many assertions of his capabilities so far as righting the many ‘plunderings’ and ‘robbings’ of Korean resources by the Japanese, the first important statement of future arboreal strategy and culture that would encounter, correct and reconfigure this colonialized topography came in April 1947. The publication of “Let us Launch a Vigorous Tree Planting Movement Involving All the Masses” would serve in the distant institutional future, of North Korea (our present), as the foundational moment in the forestry and afforestation sector. At the time however the document seemed more focused on both generating a level of political legitimacy and charismatic authority for the relatively new government, and serving as a statement of intent so far as its intended reversal of the impact of Japanese power on its territory was concerned.

“From ancient times our country has been widely known as a land of embroidered in silk, a land with beautiful mountains and sparkling rivers. Its beauty, however, was long clouded over by Japanese imperialist colonial rule…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171)

The document gives a more generalised sense of the tainting of Korea’s natural landscapes describing it as a ‘plundering’ and a ‘devastation’, however it is also becomes more specific on arboreal and forestry matters, declaring that: “…they robbed our country of forests…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171). This denudation would have to be restored, the pre-colonial web of life restored, the vibrancy of the peninsula’s forest matter regained, and this restoration and reconfiguration would require a model example. North Korean political process and articulation has been configured it seems to always require a model, not just during the period post the Chinese Great Leap Forward when residual Maoist influence mean that ‘revolutionary modelling’ and ‘revolutionary speeds’ became de-rigeur, but throughout the entirety of its institutional history. Topographic tainting when it came to North Korea’s forests therefore would have its model, its exemplar at Munsu Hill in P’yŏngyang itself. The hill according to Kim “…as the name signifies, the hill used to be as beautiful as a piece of embroidered silk…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171). However during the colonial period “It lost this beauty and became ugly, denuded by the Japanese imperialists…there is not a decent tree on this hill and there is nothing there except the old barracks used by the Japanese imperialists aggressor troops…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171)

Munsu’s destroyed and denuded landscape given the political frame dependant on revolutionary modelling could certainly serve for the generalities of wider forest stock on the Peninsula: “The Japanese aggressors stripped not only Munsu Hill but almost every one of our mountains and hills. The sight of these naked mountains rends my heart.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947. 171). Naturally therefore, according to Kim Il-sŏng it follows that North Korea’s more general forestry strategy should correct this denudation: “…We must plant trees well and remove quickly the aftereffects of Japanese imperialist colonial rule…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171).

While in other sectors of the North Korean economy removing the impacts and aftereffects of Japanese colonialism would take many forms – from reordering land ownership and the legal frameworks surrounding land and land management, to education, culture, linguistic structure and even architecture – so far as North Korea’s Nature was concerned it would forestry policy and afforestation that would remove the taint and distress of colonial modernity. Forests and timber would contribute extensively to the construction of a new North Korean nation, their lively energies and vibrant materiality becoming enmeshed and entwined with the future ambitions of the nation: “Forests are the wealth of the nation….Creating good forest resources through energetic tree planting therefore, is of great importance in developing the national economy, improving he people’s standard of living and making our country rich and strong…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 172). More than simple developmental capacity or resource availability, forest management and development would contribute to the more metaphysical elements of national construction and North Korea’s web of life, from simple economics to the charismatic and quasi-mythic realms.


Forests of the North Korean Socialist Modern


“Covering the mountains with thick forests is also greatly important to protect the land and make the landscape beautiful. Dense forests…make our country a people’s paradise with beautiful environment and good conditions to live in…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1946, 172)

These initial efforts within North Korean political and institutional imperatives to reconfigure the impact made by the period of Japanese colonialization and its attendant imperial and Capitalist logics, on the nation’s forests are remembered as an element of its foundational history. The theatric politics of contemporary North Korea (Kwon and Chung 2012), sources its energies and authorities from both the struggles of national pre-history and the moments of national foundation, both of which as we have seen include forest and timber actors. This necessity for ridding national forest topographies of Japanese influence however was soon overcome by both a greater challenge from history, and the diplomatic and political triangulations presented by geo-politics that North Korea has always been subject to. While Japanese colonial influence was certainly dramatic in and on both the urban and rural terrains of the Peninsula, these landscapes were generally greatly degraded, even annihilated by the Korean War of 1950-1953 (Cumings 1981). Enormous levels of environmental rehabilitation, including to national forestry stock would be required, an effort that could not be achieved by P’yŏngyang on its own. External support would be required and it would from this, rooted in the politics of the early Cold War that North Korea’s particular vision of both modernity and environmental management would derive.

The classical mode of Socialist central planning was initially fundamental to these strategies, even when it came to forestry matters. The Soviet Union under Lenin had sought to reconfigure its industrial and agricultural sectors through a rigorous and ambitious policy of central planning (Davies 1988). While such planning may ultimately have been more about narrative than reality and the application of core theory would lose some legitimacy and coherence during periods of revolutionary urgency such as China’s Great Leap Forward, later Stalinism and developmental policy under Khrushchev (Davies 1988), North Korea would at least until 1980 continue to organise its wider national strategy according to these lines. North Korea’s announcement in September 1953 of a “Three Year Plan” for the reconstruction of the country was however seemingly concerned with forestry rehabilitation or timber matters. The 1953-1956 plan undertaken with credit lines from the Soviet Union was primarily concerned with the rehabilitation of core transport and industrial infrastructure (Kim Il-sŏng 1953). It would not be until after 1956 with the plan’s completion, Stalin’s death and the destalinization period under Nikita Khrushchev that North Korea’s lively forest matters could again come to the forefront of the national political mind.

This would be a North Korea changed by new geo-political realities. Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech” and his critique of North Korean politics and the strategies of Kim Il-sŏng of April 1956, “On the Personality Cult in North Korea” required a shift in North Korea’s position (Szalontai 2005). Following the Sino-Soviet split, P’yŏngyang would seek the support of Beijing and Maoist influence can be felt on North Korea’s developmental approach. China’s Great Leap Forward and its harnessing of the energy and power of Mass politics would have a great impact generally on the next period of North Korean planning, but more specifically on its forestry policy and arboreal landscapes. North Korea’s First Five-Year Plan (1957-1961), for example, envisaged an approach based on the utilisation of the energies of the mass. Thus the text entitled “Tasks of the Party Organisation in Ryanggang Province” (Kim Il-sŏng 1958, 222) declared that tree planting “should be carried out through a mass movement”. This application of the ideologies of mass politics and revolutionary energy to forestry policy and practice clearly reflects the ideological influence of the Great Leap Forward. While perhaps connection could be made with collective bouts of “energetic tree planting” on Munsu Hill remembered by Kim Il-sŏng (1947), unlike China’s radical adoption of landscape focused Yundong[iii] (which would utterly transform landscapes and the social relations of those connected to them), whilst it would adopt the rhetoric of the mass movement, North Korea sought a different path. Forest planning outlines by Kim Il-sŏng and institutions in P’yŏngyang laid much greater focus on the detail, technical aspects and execution of forest strategy and less emphasis was placed on its more utopian possibilities. “Tasks of the Party Organisation in Ryanggang Province” from 1958, for example, sets out a highly organised pyramidal approach to forestry policy within the province and demands that organisational responsibility rest primarily with official afforestation stations rather than the energetic desires of a mass movement (Kim Il-sŏng 1958).

The early phase of North Korean forestry policy however would not really survive the first planning period. By the end of the decade North Korean sovereignty had a sense of permanence and solidity and its institutions and developmental focus would echo this. North Korea would also begin the process of political and institutional triangulation with its allies and friendly neighbours, and new strategies would derive from this. North Korean political and historiographical narratives record the early 1960s as a new era in central planning, one more focused on new realities of production and capacity increase, as opposed to previous efforts at post war and post-colonial rehabilitation. Forestry development continued to play an important role within the planning period, but the sector was to be primarily concerned with the development of orchards and other fruit production. Much less consideration was to be given during these years to the reconfiguration of forest land in order to eradicate the last vestiges of colonial taint. Instead forestry culture and arboreal landscapes under the First Seven Year Plan were to focus on the construction of an authentically North Korean socialist modernity.

First and foremost during this period in North Korea modern landscapes were productive spaces. Forestry strategy prioritised orchard development, and stressed their role in both increased production and the generation through the entwining of their lively matters and political imperatives of utopian terrain. Kim Il-sŏng’s statement of 1960 for example is particularly concerned with the generative energy of such enterprises: “We are struggling for the future. We must build a communist society and hand it down to the coming generations…. We are creating everything from scratch in our time…. This is the only way we can be as well off as other peoples, and hand over a rich and powerful country to the new generation. If we plant many orchards, our people will become happier in seven or eight years” (Kim Il-sŏng 1960, 21).

Forestry policy during the First Seven-Year Plan with its focus on politically charismatic, ideologically utopian and developmentally productive processes such as fruit growing would soon have it foundational text. “On Planting Orchards through an All-People Movement”, of spring 1961 ostensibly to consolidate existing strands of forestry policy reconfigures the goals of the sectors, asserting the need for forest culture and arboreal institutions to focus on the production of economic exploitable output. Forest landscapes would certainly have to be reimagined and transformed to fit this focus. The sectors goals were thus aligned with the wider planning goals and policy in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Forested areas therefore rather than peripheral were deemed central to food production. They were also later envisaged as a key area in which utopian “mass line” principles appropriated by North Korea from Maoist China, could be healthily reconfigured to suit the local political terrain.

Even with its focus on productivity and economic utility, the First Seven-Year Plan did not apply all of the tenets of classic central planning policy to North Korean forestscapes and cultures. Initially there were no specific goals set for either the level of production or the development of capacity as had been common in planning policies and strategies of the Soviet Union. However towards the end of the planning period this lack of specificity began to change; statements of productive intent within forestry planning and production acquired new quantitative indicators of intended outcomes. Kim Il-sŏng states for instance in “On Developing the Successes Achieved in the Rural Economy” from 1963, that: “we have planted 120,000 chongbo[iv] of orchards in different parts of the country”. Kim’s focus on quantitative achievement is then also coupled with demands for infrastructural and technical improvement within these productive forests: “We must establish an effective system of orchard management so as to improve fertilization and cultivation” (Kim Il-sŏng 1963, p.402).

Both the incorporation of forested landscapes and arboreal culture within the frame of developmental planning and the planning process itself appear to have become disrupted in First Seven-Year Plan’s final years. The plan was scheduled to last until 1967, but was extended by several years to 1970 and in a similar fashion to the previous First Five-Year Plan, appears not to have achieved its outlined goals (Chung 1972). This failure of planning perhaps reflects the disruption caused by the incorporation of both Maoist “revolutionary models” and “revolutionary speeds” into North Korean policy. This drove a more overtly utopian approach into an economy whose structure and practice was organised on institutionally technocratic and productivity-driven lines. In spite of considerable contrary evidence and the reorganisation of the planning frameworks in 1967 and 1971, Kim Il-sŏng and official political narrative maintained that the Plan was ultimately successful. This success is considered to have moved North Korea closer to a utopian reality, to the socialist modern which was entirely distinct from its colonial past. As Kim asserted: “During the Seven-Year Plan we have founded a modern industry, self-supporting in structure, and have, in the main, put all the branches of the national economy on a modern technical footing, by vigorously accelerating the socialist industrialization of the country and the all-around technological reconstruction of the national economy”(Kim Il-sŏng 1971, 277).

The final period of the First Seven-Year Plan saw forestry policy come to be directed more closely by P’yŏngyang’s central institutions in order to achieve as much growth in output and productivity as possible, which in itself was a disruptive process. Given the disruption and counterproductive or irrational imperatives driven through the previous planning period, during the next, the First Six-Year Plan institutions sought to rework productive forestry development to generate more cohesion. Forest landscapes and productive cultures during this period would exist under the second of “three major objectives for the technical revolution”. This second objective directed institutions to “continue to accelerate the technical revolution in the rural areas, to reduce the difference between agricultural and industrial labour” (Kim Il-sŏng 1972, 30). Although the core directional text for forestry during this planning period did not appear for further year with the publication of “Let us expedite the Introduction of a Supply of Running Water in the Rural Communities and Press Ahead with Afforestation” (1973), institutions of local and provincial government level were already exposed to new developments in forestry strategy.

Absent both from the First Six-Year Plan as a whole and forestry strategy in particular, was a focus on grand utopian national targets, or quotas and targets for forestry and afforestation. A profusion of specific targets continued to be set for particular localities and institutions, but national targets, such as the 400,000 chongbo of afforestation demanded under the First Seven- Year Plan, were not outlined. In the place of any aggregate national target for forest reconfiguration, the new Plan set a series of smaller goals for particular agencies and institutions; the People’s Army, for example, “must plant 15,000 hectares of forests every year, of which 5000 hectares should be planted with oil-bearing trees … the Ministry of Public Security should plant 5000 hectares every year.”(Kim Il-sŏng 1973, 275). Cooperative farms were also given detailed instructions: “it is desirable in future for cooperative farms with 300 to 500 hectares of cultivated land to devote one hectare to the cultivation of young trees, for those with 501 to 1000 hectares of cultivated land to devote two, and for those with more than 1000 hectares of cultivated land to devote three hectares, for the purpose.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1973, 276).

North Korea again appears to have found the implementation of the goals of the First Six-Year Plan difficult and disruptive. In 1976 it was announced by Kim Il-sŏng that “The Party Central Committee has defined the new year 1977, as a year of readjustment for easing the strain created in certain branches of the economy in the course of carrying out the Six-Year Plan, and for preparing to embark on a new long-term plan.”(Kim Il-sŏng 1977, 5). Chung (1972). However, efforts made to fulfil the goals of the First Six-Year Plan in the developmental sector were not wasted. This planning period contains perhaps the most overtly utopian or charismatic environmental strategy advanced during North Korea’s history, the “Five Great Nature-Remaking Tasks”. The dramatic strategies of the “The Tasks” with their desire to reconfigure wholescale topographies and to harness the energies and liveliness of their materialties for political and ideological gain influenced a great deal of North Korea’s later development policy. “The Tasks” would go on to influence North Korea’s political and ideological agenda, even when its own realities and possibilities have seemed far from utopian. “The Tasks” in a sense are a key moment in the construction of a North Korea identifiable to our present, replete with theatric political energies, grand narratives and a tendency to include all life within its ideological and social matrix. “The Tasks”, more prosaically would also contribute to the formulation of specific targets for forestry sectors during the next planning period, the Second Seven-Year Plan which was to run from1978 to 1984.

The Second Seven-Year Plan was introduced in December 1977, its goals appearing similar to those defined by previous planning documents. The first paragraph of the text even bears some similarity to that of the First Six-Year Plan: “The principal task of the Seven-Year Plan is to further strengthen the economic foundations of socialism and to raise the standard of living of the people still higher by introducing Juché, modern techniques and science into the national economy at a rapid pace.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1977, 519). In practice, however, policy during this period proved to be less overtly utopian than during earlier phases of North Korea’s development. Previous plans and planning period had emphasised the requirement for: reconstruction (the Three-Year Plan); capacity building (the First Seven-Year Plan); diversification and consolidation (the First Six-Year Plan). The Second Seven-Year Plan in contrast was to focus primarily on modernisation, mechanisation and research capacity building.

In words very familiar to contemporary analysts of North Korea a “scientific” approach to the economic development would became a key goal of the Second Seven-Year Plan: “Scientific research should be given priority and the development of science must be strongly encouraged, so as to place all production-technical processes, production methods and management in all fields of the national economy, particularly industry and agriculture, onto a more scientific basis” (Kim Il-sŏng 1977, 519). For the forest landscapes and institutions, located within the industrial sector by the plan, this would mean for the first time since the 1950s and the era of revolutionary fruit growing, national targets for production-focused afforestation. These targets divided the forestry estate and landscape into productive categories, demanding that some 170,000 hectares of “fibre and pulp-wood forests” and 340,000 hectares of “oil-bearing forests” be created. The forestry industry would also be subject to goals surrounding the diversification of its productive output; “the output of chipboards and wood-fibre boards will be increased; and the wood chemical industry will be developed so that comprehensive and effective use is made of timber” (Kim Il-sŏng 197, 532).

Ryanggang-do was suggested as a priority area for the realisation of the goals of the Second Seven-Year Plan. In particular this the province would be required to diversify its production of timber and forest products. In spite of these suggestions and requirements, subsequent critical comments from Kim Il-sŏng indicates the failure of local engagement with the policy: “Forestry officials are not implementing to the full the Party’s policy on producing a variety of goods from treetops and branches”, but proper utilisation of research inspired forestry management could “produce wood-shaving and wood-fibre boards, ethyl and methyl alcohol, tannin, tar, acetic acid, paints and many other goods.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1979, 290). The Plan was, however, clear that none of the strategies for productive development within the forest sector should exist in isolation. In an echo of the mores of other ideological elements within North Korean politics instead it called for the dissolution of differences between industrial and agricultural sectors, which would have had important implications for forestry policy and culture. The Plan not only urged greater connection between forestry and other sectors of industrial production, but also that afforestation should become a goal shared by all members of the wider socio-economic community and the population at large: “When planting trees, you should mobilize factory and office workers, pupils and students, housewives and all the other people living in the province…. The afforestation office and work-teams should be developed well so that they plant large numbers of trees in a mass movement” (Kim Il-sŏng 1979, 287).


Contemporary North Korean Forests


This paper truncates its conventional historical view of North Korean forestry policy and culture here, in 1979, which is at the time of writing some 38 years from the present. The author of the paper does so not because this where the historical narrative ends, but as far as North Korean forest matters are concerned this where the concrete lines of ambition and developmental connection which lead from the peninsula’s colonial past and its reconfiguration of its forest landscapes and arboreal matter. This in a sense to its where ambitious plans to create a beacon of socialist modernity under the domain and control of North Korean institutions end. The Fifth Party Congress of the Korean Workers Party was held in 1980, an event at which North Korea’s more charismatic and theatric aspirations as well as practical policy goals were finally checked. Environmental development and specifically so far as this paper is concerned, the forestry sector had the concrete, structured goals and framed priorities abandoned and national targets for the reconfiguration of forestry landscapes have been neglected since. History recounts that from 1980 onwards North Korea was beset  by challenges and troubles, along with the wider world of its supporters and allies which would lead to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the famine period of the mid 1990s, the conflicted muddling through of its later years, and its extraordinarily difficult present.

This is not to say that forest cultures, arboreal landscapes and the vibrant and lively matters within them are not still of huge importance to North Korea, its political narratives and developmental cultures and institutions. Nor does it mean that North Korea’s acute rejection of the impact of Japanese colonial development on the forest landscapes of its territory is any less definite. P’yŏngyang and its charismatic politics still utilise real and imagined victories over colonial forces during the guerrilla period of the 1930s in the deep forests of the north to bolster both its authority and legitimacy. These forests of history as well as the forest stock of contemporary North Korea still play their part in these narratives and in whatever authority its government still claims. This is true even in spite of the abrupt reversal of many decades worth of afforestation policy during the famine period: “the Ministry of Land Management and Environmental Protection … sanctioned deforestation, in order to produce crops on the marginal land, especially on sloping land” (Bobilier 2002, 5). Later Bobilier (2002, 5), among many analysts records the results of an UNDP/FAO investigation, which concluded “that more than 500,000 hectares of marginal lands were deforested and cultivated”. Recent FAO (2005) reporting has asserted, utilising statistics sourced through the “FAO STAT” system, that forestry cover in North Korea declined in total from some 8.2 million hectares in 1990 to 6.8 million hectares by 2000,  or nearly one-fifth of total forest cover was removed in a decade. In this light far from respecting its forests and arboreal landscapes, including them within its national web of life, its ecobody, P’yŏngyang appears to have been similarly destructive to these forest spaces as the imperatives of Japanese colonialisation. At a time of acute emergency the enmeshing of forest and Capital was re-enacted as enmeshing of forest and North Korea’s own peculiar political and economic sensibility.

These later difficulties it seems for North Korea do not diminish the institutional impetus or imperatives for developmental strategy when it comes to the realm of forestry. This period and this deforestation were issues, like the Japanese colonial period and its environment and topographical impact for North Korea to be overcome and which in a manner have been overcome. North Korean institutions and narratives now deploy environmental themes to support its legitimacy, not simply from the guerrilla period, but from its later history, even from its recovery from environmental crisis in the early 1990s. One important example of this incorporation of forest matters within North Korea’s contemporary politics is the role accorded to National Tree Planting Day. For many years North Korea had celebrated National Tree Planting Day (its own inheritance of the colonial era’s Arbor Day), on 6th April which marked Kim Il-sŏng’s visit in 1947 to Munsu Hill.  In 1999, however, National Tree Planting Day became 2nd March. This new date was presented as commemorating an earlier event on 2nd March 1946 when Kim Il-sŏng climbed Mount Moran on the outskirts of P’yŏngyang, with both Kim Chŏng’il and Kim uk. Kim Chŏng’il would have been 4 or 5 years old at this time. The KCNA described the background to the event in the following terms:  “On March 2nd, 53 years ago, the President Kim Il-sŏng climbed up Moran Hill together with the revolutionary fighter Kim Chŏng-suk and General Secretary Kim Chŏng’il and said that many trees should be planted there to turn it into a recreation place for the people”. Accordingly, “the working people across the country are now all out in the drive to plant more trees in mountains and fields of the country on the occasion of the tree planting day” (KCNA 1999).

In the very recent present North Korea’s current leader Kim Chŏng’ŭn has not only been seen to take part in the commemorative practices of National Tree Planting Day on March 2nd, but has incorporated extensive focus on forest and arboreal culture within his New Year’s Address in 2015 and 2016. In 2015 Kim, as recounted at the beginning of this paper, asserted a key developmental priority for the year to be the generation of “forests of gold” in North Korea (Rodong Sinmun 2015). In 2016 forests and the lively matters of arboreal culture were framed in the New Year’s Address within the wider ecosystem of state responsibilities and aspirations as a “forest of arms” (Rodong Sinmun 2016a). In common with a number of figures of political authority throughout Korean history, including most Governor Generals of the colonial period (Winstanley-Chesters 2016), Kim Chŏng’ŭn has even been seen planting trees (sometimes in the company of his wife Ri Sŏl-ju), on March 2nd (Rodong Sinmun 2016b) The “thing power” of North Korea’s forest past and present is projected through the authoritative power of Kim Chŏng’ŭn, bestowed, embedded and enmeshed in the wider network of national politics and institutions. While North Korea’s timber and forest products are a rare exception to the wide scale sanctioning of the nation’s economic production under recent United Nations Security Council resolutions, UNSC 2371 and 2375 (United Nations, 2017), make the export of North Korean timber workers and knowledge problematic materials in the geopolitical present.

In this enmeshing there is also a mirroring both Kwon and Chung conception of North Korea’s politics as charismatic and theatric (Kwon and Chung 2012) and Cosgrove’s socially or politically constructed landscapes (Cosgrove 1994). Forests and forested landscapes thus become an activated, lively, energetic, charismatic and politicised terrain. They were in the history presented within this paper and continue to be in the contemporary North Korea, though perhaps marked by changed or diminished geopolitical circumstance and developmental possibility. Whatever changes and challenges have been troubled or challenged North Korea and its politics or development in more recent history, what has not diminished or been negated is the energy of both its politics and the relational exchange and interaction with its terrains and territory. This energy is not unique to Nature or natures in North Korea, but dominates socipolitical interaction, flowing into a wide variety of temporal and material contexts. Forests and arboreal terrains are thus combined with the human realm under P’yŏngyang’s sovereignty, a key component of both its history and wider web of life.


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* These articles are no longer online due to North Korea’s habit of removing old content from Rodong Sinmun and the KCNA’s online archive. However the author of this piece retains a copy of every Rodong Sinmun and KCNA article he uses for reference purposes and will gladly share specific articles with interested parties.


[i] Shaku is a Japanese measurement of length formulated in its modern form in 1891. A Shaku corresponds to 10/33 of a metre

[ii] Cho is a Japanese measurement of area. A Cho is equivalent to .9917 of a hectare.

[iii] Transformative mass campaigns during the Great Leap Forward were known as Yundong. For more information see Mao’s War on Nature, Shapiro 2001.

[iv] A ‘Chongbo’ is a traditional Korean measurement of area equivalent to 9.2 hectares


Reading with RWC – Recent Book Reviews

Published in S/N Korean Humanities 3 (1): 125-133. http://www.snkoreanhumanities.org/journal/article.php?code=50713

Go East Young Woman…A Review of “Red Love in Korea: Rethinking Communism, Feminism, Sexuality” in “Red Love Across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century” eds: Ruth Barraclough, Heather Bowen-Struyk and Paula Rabinowitz (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and “Red Love and Betrayal in the Making of North Korea: Comrade Hŏ Jŏng-suk,” Ruth Barraclough, History Workshop Journal Issue (Spring 2014), 77 (1): 86-102

“I have no eyes now, yet I can still see the revolution” (Ch’oi Hŭi-suk, quoted in Chosōn Yŏsŏng 1986, 25)

Ch’oi Hŭi-suk’s plaintive and impassioned final words recounted by North Korea’s journal Chosōn Yŏsŏng (“Women of Korea”), before she was killed by Japanese Army doctors is perhaps a perfect distillation of contemporary or recent North Korean notions of how a perfect female revolutionary should behave. Ch’oi Hŭi-suk, along with her fellow female companions and fighters in the 1920s and 1930s such as Pak Rok’ Gum and Kim Hwak-shil and their leader and mentor (at least in North Korea’s historiography), and eventual wife of Kim Il-sŏng were ‘crackshots’, experts in the brutal killing of those that they sought to contest, as well as generally experts in the act of dying. These women’s passions and energies are for the most part in their sparse biographies and the fragments of their lives recorded within articles in Chosōn Yŏsŏng and elsewhere, directed in moments of conflict and at the moment of their death. A number of their bodies are used as weapons or explosive objects, their own violent annihilation serving to negate in some small way elements of Japanese colonial power. These narratives of self-immolation and destruction make it difficult to think beyond the cultural frame they provide, make it difficult to think of these women at other moments of their lives, perhaps even make it difficult for us to think of North Korean women or women connected to North Korean history in other terms. Even that most central of North Korean historical female figures, Kim Chŏng-suk in the historiography of Pyongyang is predominantly a figure of intense self-sacrifice who determinedly suppressed her emotions in favour of revolutionary politics, who sought to ignore both her desires and pain to support her General (Biography of Kim Chŏng-suk, 2002). Even though Kim Chŏng-suk would ultimately be something of a revolutionary immortal (in a grand and historic Korean cultural tradition), she was never beyond completing the repairs of her male counterparts uniforms, cooking food for an entire camp (having spent the entire day marching and fighting Japanese forces), or enduring brutal and intimate tortures. Even Kim Chŏng-suk’s most important role to North Korean history, as partner to Kim Il-sŏng and mother of Kim Chŏng-il is extracted of any passion and carnal energy, to the point that her biography deliberately and artfully skips over the consummation of her most important relationship.

These are the women who interestingly through their pains and tendencies to not physically survive the processes which would produce the politics and nationalism of North Korea, actually conceptually survive not only their moments of combat and the difficulties of the nation’s Liberation, early development and the tumult of the Korean War (and its political aftermaths), but, even if some are obscure, still live in Pyongyang’s political mind today. Ruth Barraclough in the fascinating book chapter and journal article reviewed here recounts the story of a group of women who unlike these vital, energetic characters of North Korean mythology and mythography are very much deceased, remembered only briefly and partially occasionally by countervailing histories, whose narratives are reconstructable in our present at best in fragments and echoes. Perhaps the best way of introducing the possibility of the fascinating female lives Barraclough uncovers is to remember another recent work in which seemingly equally impossible journeys are recounted. Sho Konishi In ‘Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan’ (Konishi 2013), explodes a myth of pre-post-modern hypermobility. Within the pages of Konishi’s work, Mikhail Bakunin (legendary Russian theoriser and practitioner of militant anarchism), escapes his incarceration in Siberia to discover the tumultuous and chaotic possibilities offered by the Meiji revolution and friends in Yokohama, before setting sail for mid-19th century San Francisco and another anarchist safe house before finally travelling across a United States still in formation and across the Atlantic to Europe. Inspired by Bakunin’s revelation of an Asian nation (Japan) in energetic reconfiguration, Lev Mechnikov (younger brother of Ilya Mechnikov father of modern gut biology and pro-biotics), travelled to and lived in Yokohama to it seems consider the nature of Japan’s revolutionary political moment, and to set up (as a sociologist and linguist), the precursor to the current Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (itself eventually partly responsible for producing a burst of Tolstoyan religious commitment in Japan) (Konishi, 2013). At an impossibly difficult moment in political history, and well before technologies such as air travel or intercontinental train travel (the Trans-Siberian only reached Vladivostok in 1916) compressed time and space these unconventional political activists and theorised traversed the globe, human transformative vectors for both their own politics and the political cultures which encountered them. Barraclough’s women make similarly extraordinary journeys, bridge previously insurmountable bounds, develop new cultural and social forms of relation, the type of which would not be seen before.

Just as Mechnikov in the terrain revealed by Konishi would make transformative connections with Japanese activists through the explosive and iconoclastic work of Leo Tolstoy, so those enmeshed within Barraclough’s would find direction and inspiration from that of Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai, at one point the only woman in Lenin’s first cabinet in 1923 produced a novel called ‘Vasilia Malygina.’ According to the introduction to the monograph in which Barraclough’s ‘Red Love in Korea…’ sits, within five years the newly retitled ‘Red Love’ had been translated from Russian into Japanese, then Korean, then Chinese and then in 1932 into English (using the more heated title ‘Free Love’). Kollontai’s story of the impact principles of Bolshevik common holding and cooperation would have on personal, sexual, familial and social relationships and the exploding of both monogamy, patriarchy and the notion of the nuclear family had a seemingly dramatic impact on political subcultures across both North America and the Asia-Pacific region. Barraclough and her fellow editors Heather Bowen-Struyk and Paula Rabinovitz trace the waves of sexual and social energy and reconfiguration throughout the political movements of the period, though mostly as I have already said from the faintest echoes of this buried, repressed and forgotten politics.

Red Love’s translation in 1928 into Korean generated a wave of ‘Pulkŭn Yŏnae’ which was essentially extraordinary to Korean colonial society of the time. Those familiar with social and cultural norms of the later Yi dynasty and its intersection with Japanese colonial times would of course be aware that what might be now termed sexually liberation relationships and social organisation and an overturning of gender hierarchy would have been utterly shocking to both ancient Korean culture and new forms of Imperial Japanese or colonial subjectivity. However this in a sense was a time for shocking and to be shocked. Korean’s had been enormously challenged by cultural elements brought by those who sought to dominate its politics and reconfigure its culture, the famous Queen Min for example is recounted as having been so thoroughly disturbed by the prospect of women engaging in physical activity (namely a game of Tennis), that she refused to continue watching or to return to the part of town in which it had taken place ever again (Gwang Ok, 2007). While many were disgusted, depressed or severely disorientated, others were of course enormously excited. Just as the new is shocking (in the way cultural commentator Robert Hughes would have it), it is also extremely attractive and enticing. While some of course would find new linguistic forms and the domination of Japanese over the Korean language during the colonial period, some politically minded writers found the abandonment of Korean as liberating and the vector through which their writings would find new audiences, freed from the historical shackles of Chosŏn. Equally at the edges of the Japanese Empire, Koreans and those close to them would find cultural liberation in the Japanese vassal state of Manchukuo, rumours abounding of Jazz clubs in Hsinking (Changchung) and Harbin and mythic visits by Josephine Baker (who did it seems actually visit Japan in 1954 (Ara, 2012)). The collapse and eradication of historical forms of Korean social and cultural organisation of course left a great deal of space for those who were not disturbed in a negative way by dramatic changes in social relation, but in fact those for whom such change was imperative and necessary.

Barraclough’s opening sentence “In the 1920s and 1930s, some of Korea’s most famous Communists were young women” (Barraclough, 2015, 23), seems of course impossible and incongruous in the South Korea of today. Being a famous Communist in Seoul, Daegu or Busan is certainly not an ideal occupation for anyone. However in the 1920s and 1930s across the globe being a Communist, a Socialist or a follower of Trotsky was of course in some sense to be modern. Music, film, culture and social organisation were all being deeply impacted and creatively empowered by the politics of the left, unhooked and unleashed by the victory of Russia’s 1917 Revolution, the end of the First World War, the collapse of old certainties and the forging of new possibilities. With the benefit of long hindsight of course we in 2016 or 2017 might see this as a brief moment of flux before another brutal global conflagration, the rise of Japanese Militarism and the disappointments of Stalinism and the later Soviet Union. It did not look or feel like this obviously in 1928, Marxist principles and materialistic dialectics breaking so many bounds and restrictions as to make anything seemingly possible, even female ‘Pulkŭn Yŏnae.’

These fascinating women such as Hŏ Jŏng-suk, Vera Kang, Kang Kyong-ae and Chong Ch’il-song that Barraclough describes would dramatically break the moulds which once bound Korean culture. Some of course would themselves be broken by those new moulds which grew around them and imposed new social boundings under Communism both in the Soviet Union and in an early North Korea. In a sense these stories may be familiar to readers of Janet Poole’s recent work on the first generation of North Korean literary figures, ‘When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea.’ Poole outlines the similarly ground breaking lives of characters such as Im Hwa, Pak T’aweon, So Insik and Choe Myongik, writers who found the allure of the bright possibilities of a field of cultural and political production freed of the strictures of Capital, Empire and the past incredibly tempting (Poole, 2014). However none of these writers appear to survive the disruptive period of the Korean War and the political period following it during which Kim Il-sŏng and his followers purge North Korean politics of factional difference. As excited as these writers might have been by a future of internationalist, futurist Communist utopia, they would never really see it and their writings would scarcely/barely escape the vortex of political correction and cleansing to become known in our present. As bright as these figures of early North Korean literary production might have sought to shine, their histories are dark, shadowy and traceable only by their ruins…a characterisation we might bequeath Barraclough’s most famous Communist young women.

Once part of a powerful network of activist and theorist interaction and exchange, the women Barraclough encounters make extraordinary connections and then are separated equally dramatically by politics, time and fate. Vera Khan and Hŏ Jŏng-suk for instance met in Shanghai, Jŏng-suk recruiting Khan into the Communist movement and forming the Society of Comrades in 1925 (Barraclough, 2015, 26). This first socialist feminist organisation engaged in activating the political minds of working women, just as Vera Khan had done in the early 1920s in the giant industrial enterprises of Chem’ulpo (Inch’ŏn). Novels, newspapers, interviews both Hŏ Jŏng-suk and Vera Khan would become what Barraclough recounts were considered ‘beautiful socialists’ (Barraclough, 2015, 29), both would become equally famous for their relationships which exploded convention, as much as they were ultimately tragic (Hŏ Jŏng-suk engaging in a new love affair, while her current partner was in prison for political insurrection, Vera Khan finding a new husband when Pak Hon-yong, who she had married in Seoul in 1924 before moving to the Soviet Union was arrested and presumed killed by the Japanese (Barraclough, 2015, 28). This new husband, Kim Danya was executed in the Soviet Union in 1938). Vera Khan’s period as one of these ‘beautiful socialists’ would not last until Korea’s Liberation, and she found herself in 1938 expelled like so much of the Korean population of the Soviet Union and eventually sentenced to five years in a prison camp in what is now Kazakhstan. Hŏ Jŏng-suk survived to become the first and founding head of the Democratic Women’s League (as which she secured the passage of Gender Equality legislation into North Korea’s constitution), North Korea’s Minister of Culture and finally between 1957 and 1959 its Minister of Justice (Barraclough, 2015, 28). Barraclough delves even further into the complicated processes through which Hŏ Jŏng-suk’s rose to prominence and temporarily maintained her position in the complimentary article for the History Workshop (Barraclough, 2014).   Eventually the post Korean War purges and cleansing of North Korean politics caught up with her and she was forced to implicate her own former husband in counter-revolutionary plotting.

Barraclough along with more esoteric and liminal characters such as the former kisaeng (royal courtesan), Chong Ch’il-song and still reknowed writer and once member of the Kununhoe feminist movement, Kang Kyong-ae, presents Hŏ Jŏng-suk and Vera Khan within a rich web of actors in a burst of enthusiasm, commitment and experimentation for the practices and principles of Red Love. Barraclough also grounds these stories, experiences and life fragments within the inevitable and inescapable context of what she terms ‘Cold War Gender Politics’ (Barraclough, 2015, 33). While many of the most beautiful and most committed amongst these women would not even survive to see something being called the Cold War being born, nor certainly to see either its death of continuation on the Korean Peninsula their energy and love (and lovers) were almost invariably caught up in the practices, processes and structures of the Cold War. The potential these women saw for personal and gender liberation and transformation through the lens and power of Communism and Materialist dialectics for the most part would be dashed by the reality of autocratic state formation, the misery of Stalinism and the rise to power of a disinterested Kim Il-sŏng clique. Just as North Korea’s literary leading lights encountered by Janet Poole, Barraclough’s ‘beautiful socialists’ would never see their dreams and desires fully realised, the bounds of gender and patriarchy fully broken. Their personal futures were often to be messy, painful, disappointing and desperate of course, however perhaps the most astute an interesting elements of Barraclough’s powerful work has been the citing of some of that messiness and disappointment in the reflexivity of memory. Through the fractures and shards of these women’s lives that she is able to recover and reconstruct, Barraclough also uncovers streams of memory focused on them which are interesting in their distinction and differences between each other. Hŏ Jŏng-suk is apparently seen as an object lesson in the dangers of Communist enthusiasm, while Kang Kyong-ae, like some of Janet Poole’s writers, is still remembered and revered in South Korea, a talented, insightful yet difficult voice from the past. Vera Khan’s memory, it seems following her rehabilitation in 1989 by a dying Soviet Union was even accorded the honour of a posthumous Medal of Patriotic Honour in 2007 for her work with Koreans in the Russian Far East (Barraclough, 2015, 29). In these differences are of course the cracks of memory, opened up by the political processes of both remembering and forgetting, processes common to many of those who were touched by the reality of North Korea’s revolution and the powerful politics of Liberation (in all its forms), during the first half of the 20th century. Ruth Barraclough in this fine work of literary and biographic archaeology allows us a real glimpse into these cracks, the energy of Red Love and its adherents still visible in between.

Works Cited:

Anonymous. 1986. “Daughter of Korea,” Chosōn Yŏsŏng (Women of Korea) 4 (1986): 25

Anonymous. 2012. Kim Chŏng-suk: A Biography.  Pyongyang: Foreign

Languages Publishing House.

Ara, Konomi. 2010. Josephine Baker: A Chanteuse and a Fighter.” The Journal of Transnational American Studies 2 (1): 1-17.

Barraclough, Ruth. 2014. “Red Love and Betrayal in the Making of North Korea: Comrade Hŏ Jŏng-suk.” History Workshop Journal 77 (1): 86-102

Barraclough, Ruth. 2015. “Red Love in Korea: Rethinking Communism, Feminism, Sexuality in Red Love Across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century eds: Ruth Barraclough, Heather Bowen-Struyk and Paula Rabinowitz. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gwang Ok. 2007. The Transformation of Modern Korean Sport: Imperialism, Nationalism, Globalization. Seoul: Hollym.

Konishi, Sho. 2013. Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Poole, Janet. 2014. When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press.

Published in S/N Korean Humanities 1 (2): 121-128. http://www.snkoreanhumanities.org/journal/article.php?code=32980

Review of Shine Choi’s “Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives”

‘Under the Demilitarized Zone…the Beach’: Or reading Choi through Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’

“Separation is the Alpha and the Omega of the Spectacle…” (Guy Debord)

“The International problem of North Korea is that North Korea is a work of fiction…” (Shine Choi)

The Demilitarised Zone in which, within which and across which the contemporary separation and rupture of the Korean Peninsula is most distinctly, concretely and completely manifested is surely the source of much of the eloquent research focused on that painful division. Yet it cannot also be ignored that the Demilitarized Zone as the ultimate physical embodiment of the post Korean War status quo is the division system at its least eloquent. It is a space of bluntness and a space of assertive punctuation, a full stop to the political articulations of either side. In a sense it is a space of acute political theatre as the recent theorists of political ideological forms in the North, Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung would have it, a space of political charisma. Similar this author supposes to the conception of the vast majority of readers of this review of those North Korean political forms, the theatre and charismatic output of the Zone, however is one of only tragedy, deeply unfulfilling and unrequited. It is a tragic theatric space, on and in which neither side really wishes to either perform or spectate, but which both are bound by the vagaries of historical incident and accident to participate.

But is this really the case? Shine Choi in this essentially provocative work “Re-imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives”, suggests perhaps it is not, perhaps we can all permanently exit stage right (or left), perhaps we can all retire or retreat at the interval, perhaps we can all demand the end to the performance. If North Korea and therefore the separation between the two Koreas is a work of theatric fiction, the whole process no matter how physical or concrete in some form is a cultural production. Similarly as provocative as this work is, Choi’s reviewer here, in order to appropriately connect and engage with the terrain conceived of within it wishes to view the text through the lens provided by another provocateur. Guy Debord, a French post-structuralist philosopher, in 1967 wrote a text of complicated, obtuse verse, “The Society of the Spectacle” (“La Societé du Spectacle” in its original French). Debord and his conception of the ‘Spectacle’ paved the intellectual way for the birth of Situationism, the radical cultural movement which underpinned the ruptures and displacements and almost revolution of Paris in 1968. With the assertion “Under the paving stones: the beach”, Debord and others fuelled youthful and academic assertions and conceptions that ultimately all expressions of culture, power, politics, social function etc were ultimately theatric ‘spectacle’ and all could be undone with a turning away, playful reconfiguration, ‘detournément’ and ‘derivation.’ Reading Choi in this dense, neutron star of a book through Debord’s more playful lens, this reviewer suggests might help the reader to better grasp the assertive and acerbic pulsing vigour of her words.

Readers of S/N Humanities, or in fact any reader with an academic or empirical focus upon the issues of either North Korea or the current and historical separation of the Korean Peninsula will be in some way aware of the tropes of the output and production of that focus. North Korean studies in particular revolves primarily paradigms of what Hazel Smith has called “mad, bad or sad”. Such discursive paradigms are temporally bounded by conceptions of Pyongyang’s future longevity, conceptions which Marcus Noland and others have termed paradigms of “collapsism” or “muddle through.” Such a field of analysis has resulted in North Korea and the division system’s capture by agendas of securitisation, threat and risk, the universalist, (Neo)Liberalism of human rights and regime change advocates, and what the reviewer terms the ‘comedy-fication’ of Pyongyang. It cannot be understated that in comparison with other academic fields and subjects/terrains of study, North Korean studies has not benefited empirically or empistemically from these approaches, and the trope of cultural and media production, that matters north of the demilitarized zone are ‘unknowable’ or opaque is partly a production of this unsatisfying combination of strategies. Ultimately and in ways which Debord might well recognise, our analytic vision of North Korea, its politics, people and spaces has become a production, a construction of our own making. Essentially, as academics, analysts and interested parties we achieve through this theatre of confusion, the North Korea that we are comfortable with, an unknowable space or constructed darkness. In this way the North Korea that we encounter and understand becomes more about us, the viewer, the reader the activist, the watcher and our preconceptions, fears, desires and fantasies than it does about the grounded subject that it’s the space of sovereignty governed by Pyongyang and its people.

For a number of considered and careful analysts, more used to the empirical rigour and methodological development of other more distant fields, the myopic, facile tendencies of self-reflection and externalisation generated by much of the output of North Korean studies is truly a disappointment. Choi is undoubtedly one of these number and essentially calls the entire edifice and industry of academic and intellectual procrastination surrounding North Korea, out demanding which she terms an ‘interruption’ to the entire enterprise. Choi’s interruption is in terms which Debord would recognise from his own agitated time, if not a radical, total and in some ways violent, collapse of the empirical and epistemic status quo then at least a pause in self-reverential, circular speculations and assertions from which something else, perhaps something more authentic, grounded and embodied in a reality of sorts might emerge. Choi’s interruption demands that the ‘discipline’ of North Korean studies and its attendant sub-narratives perhaps rather seeing its subject through the distorting lenses of politics, security and desire or wish fulfilment, should do so through the production generated by Debord’s ‘spectacle.’ In this way as viewers, engagers and interactors we might see, hear and think North Korea, as a culturally produced lived space of temporal reality, rather than something from an imagined a-historical zone of de-temporalization.

Choi’s analysis of this produced reality fascinatingly alights on the necessity of seeing and encountering North Korea differently through the moment of this interruption. She identifies the utility and validity of using the work of seemingly disparate authors as Trinh Minh-ha, Rey Chow,  James Church and Guy Delisle (among many), as exemplary eyes through which alternatives to seeing, imagining and considering North Korea might be achieved. Through the act of seeing and through the translation and mediation of that seeing and its production of alternatives to contemporary analytical status quo, Choi asserts that power is bestowed upon the process, not just to the methodological element to physical beings within it, claiming that “Drawing specifically on Rey Chow’s work, I argue that all intercultural contacts require explicit negotiations with this process of mediation and with the questions of how alterations of the process and the bodies involved can occur…” (Choi 2014, 38 – Referencing Chow 1995, 177-179).

Choi’s further seeks to interrogate and disrupt the methodologies and epistemic presumptions of the previously “seeing” community of North Korean scholars utilising the work of Trinh Minh-ha (described as a feminist film maker and political theorist). Trinh it seems seeks to break what sounds like a tyranny of objectivity, taking issue “with science as culture that encompasses all of the practices and processes that use, keep alive and fortify prevailing ideas of facticity and realism.” (Choi 2014, 47) Indeed Choi insists that a reading of Trinh suggests that rather than bringing the scholar closer to the process and temporal realities of a subject’s lives “Facticity and realism are predicated on a desire to bypass inter-subjectivities or relational encounters…” (Choi 2014, 47),

Perhaps similar to Debord’s conception that the key process of breaking or disempowering the spectacle is to both actually see it at all and having done so to see it differently, Choi brings Trinh’s conceptions to bear on the landscapes and visible terrains of science and scientific output (which includes that addressing North Korea). Given that Trinh in language any ‘derevisté’ would be familiar with, claims that the impact of new comprehensions brought on by this would be “…Re-assemblage. From silences to silences, the fragile essence of each fragment speaks…” (Choi 2015, 48 quoting Trinh 1989, 118), Choi through her work is calling for a new framework of enquiry with regards to North Korea, truths and seeing’s surrounding it, one which disrupts the subject-object binary and instead of speaking for or about something, focus on what Trinh calls speaking “nearby or together with” (Choi 2015, 47 quoting Trinh 1986, 33). Essentially Choi is, in the style of Paul Klee ‘taking our subjectivity/objectivity relations and truth for a walk’, a journey to new places and spaces, new vistas and observational positions from which perhaps other things can be seen.

The reader of course by now might be willing to suggest that Choi is suggesting or demanding a collapse into diffusion and the relativist, an artistic escapade in the face of utter tyranny and human degradation. Given Choi’s expert encounters with the productive eyes of James Church and Guy Delisle, authors of a unique series of fiction and a graphic novel (respectively), focused on North Korea, whose work she suggests is representative of just new or different ways of seeing, manifestations of ‘taking the object-subject for a walk’ such criticism itself could be grounded in its own objective truth. However this would be to entirely discount and neglect Choi’s assertive demand that rather than developing these new creative, juxtaposed, to one side (just round the corner), ways of seeing or engaging with this new un-securitised, de-objectified,‘re-subjectified’ reality as entertainment or pure spectacular, the audience is in no way released from the rigours of moral demand or conscience, but instead must encounter them even more greatly, run and fall head long towards them. Similar it seems, though radically different in notions (or otherwise) of the spectacular to Sandra Fahy’s magnificent co-option of the field of the desperate, dark emotional world of North Korean’s who have left its territory and sovereignty (and who are most commonly referred to as ‘North Korean defectors’ or ‘North Korean escapees’) as a functional, if complicated  tool for empirical analysis in her recent book ‘Marching Through Suffering’, Choi utilises this reframing and reconfiguration of the potential and process of our seeing and our viewing to move the spectacular and its production elsewhere.

Instead of the rather quizzical, abstruse, obtuse methodological and theoretical myopia of the academically captured seeing and considering of before, what Choi invites the reader having broken the boundaries and territories of the object/subject, to encounter instead is pure, unadulterated suffering and torment which in a most direct and certainly not diffuse manner, makes definite and determined demands of us and certainly requires an answer. It would be unlikely if the answer after all this was a continuation of separated, objectified present. Intriguingly Choi’s suggestion as to the formation of any answers or assertions is to remove the field of play, seeing and experience entirely from ‘tempo-reality’ and to delve deeper into this realm of the spectacle, following our breaking of boundaries and new ways of seeing and relating. Again Choi connects to the terrains of the spectacle the realm of overt cultural production in order to relocate an empathetic grounded reality, perceivable and encounterable in our new framework of open eyed existence. This necessary grounding, is real experience thrust upon us in our seeing and our encounters, but upon which we can grab in what might be potentially ephemeral waters.

Of course Choi means for these encounters and this seeing to be central, core, rather than ephemeral or peripheral, the heart of the spectacle and the journey rather than the edge or corona. Utilising a further and final very careful and considered set of literary and filmic readings, Choi in the later chapters of the work encounters new possibilities for empathic, real, undivided love for North Korea, love which will ultimately break and fracture division in filmic disruption present in recent Korean productions such as ‘Over the Border’, ‘Typhoon’ and ‘Our Homeland’. This is the radical love of Sonia Ryang’s conception, space for the conceptual threesome between an uncomfortably imagined couple and an attendant member of the Kim dynasty, space for us to love North Korea now that we have embraced and been re-defined the breaking, collapse or disintegration  of the object/subject binary and our rebirth of subjectivity as Choi puts it when referring to Yang, a key character in on ‘Our Homeland’; “…This intimate relationship with her subject gains articulation in all her productions, which crucially mediates how North Korea as an object of love is encountered and imagined” (Choi 2015, 160).

Of course both objectivity and subjectivity in this place of encounter, seeing and engagement through spectacle are themselves reconfigured and productive in their regeneration. In this new world of seeing, empathising and encountering a ‘love-space’ of empathic ‘spectacular’ production, Choi engages Gayatri Spivak’s rather radical writing on re-centered or de-centered selves, understanding them to open up “…the possibility for exploring a greater diversity of in-between spaces and translative transactions…” (Choi 2015, 219). We arrive with Choi at this space of acute hyphenation, barriers broken, defences down, at the Omega of the Spectacle. In Spivak’s ‘simultaenity’ a world with ‘both ends’, subordination and disruption, it is as if our heterogeneous production and encounter themselves become pure mobilization as much as they become actualization. In this spectacular, yet empathetic, grounded re-production, the division of North and South Korea is mobilised by its reproduction into and beyond spectacle, becoming rather than object of stasis, division or rupture, instead part, object and subject of a critical, vital act of detournément.


Choi, Shine. 2015. Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives. London, Routledge.

Chow, Rey. 1995. Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. New York, Columbia University Press.

Debord, Guy.1983. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, Michigan. Black and Red.

Fahy, Sandra. 2015. Marching Through Suffering. New York, Columbia University Press.

Ryang, Sonia. 1997. North Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology and Identity. Oxford, Westview Press

Spivak. Gayatri. 200. “Translation as Culture.” Parallax, 6 (1):13-24

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. 1986. “Difference: A Special Third World Women Issue.” Discourse, 8:10-35

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. 1989. Women, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press.



White Light, Residual Heat: Kim Jong Un’s 2017 New Years Address


Kim Jong Un at Fishery Station 15 – Image: Rodong Sinmun

North Korea’s New Years Address in a sense is an object lesson in connecting the dots of the nation’s political and ideological messaging, though which dots we are supposed to connect, and the pattern formed by them is not always abundantly or obviously clear. More often than not the shape of the next years priorities are marked out in advance in the previous months of the preceding year by a collection of speeches or moments of on the spot guidance building on the thematics of that year, but with a different direction or sensibility in mind. Often these seemingly carefully constructed sets of narrative connections can be thrown out of kilter by opportunity and surprise, one example of course being January 6th, 2016’s test of an ‘H-Bomb’ by Pyongyang which appeared to overshadow much of last year’s address. So as I write this reflection on Kim Jong Un’s latest statement on the morning of the 3rd of January (AEST), I am acutely aware that whatever direction and balance may appear present within the text may be blasted or reconfigured beyond recognition by the white light and white heat of unexpectedly explosive event in the coming days.

A white heat though, in the sense that Britain’s Labour politician Harold Wilson (and soon to be Prime Minister at the time), meant it in 1963 is a useful metaphor through which to which encounter Kim Jong Un’s desires for 2017. Heat and energy are a vital component of North Korean politics of course, and always have been. The hot energy of military encounter has always been the fuel for Pyongyang’s particular form of charismatic politics, its power diffused since 1945 (and in another manner since the armistice at the end of the Korean War in 1953), into the various materialities and temporalities of the contemporary, and sometimes not so contemporary DPRK. The leaders of North Korea have been attempting to harness the white heat of technological innovation for decades, though often not entirely with productive ends in mind. The Three Revolutions Movement for instance sought to utilise mechanisation and productivity gains in rural areas as the vector to implant new political and social structures outside of Pyongyang. Recent work by ‘Shock Brigades’ and ‘Soldier Builders’ as well as dramatically speeding up work on development projects such as the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station and its dams, surely also provides a transformative heat to those involved own personal political regeneration or development (or at least it aspires to do so). So while I personally had envisaged the coming New Year Address and the agenda for 2017 as one of looking backwards to the energy of the past (Rodong Sinmun’s repeated introduction of preparations for 2017 as the ‘year for praising the peerlessly, great persons of Mt Paektu’ seemed too coherent a theme to ignore), Kim Jong Un and North Korea as always had other ideas.

2017’s New Year Address of course, even if some of its contents are unexpected in tone or character, like all texts of North Korean political narrative sits within a complex web of both aspiration and historical content. 2017 must pay homage to 2016 as much as it must remember 2006 or for that matter 1956. The key political event in North Korea of 2016 (aside from the various nuclear tests and rocket/satellite launches of that year), was the 7th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea, an event which served to reiterate past practice as much as it outlined future intent. 2017’s New Year Address of course remembers the 7th Congress and the five year strategy for national economic development articulated in its reports and documentation. However it also asserts the importance of later events in 2016 such as the Conference of Chairpersons of Primary Committees within the Workers Party of Korea, an important event held in mid-December, whose task appears to have been embedding the priorities of the 7th Congress within the wider ecosystem of Workers Party institutions and sub-bureaucracies. Of course to do so new slogans and new energies must be harnessed.

“Let us accelerate the victorious advance of socialism with the great spirit of self-reliance and self-development as the dynamic force” is certainly not the most succinct slogan the institutions of Pyongyang have ever come up with – and this is from a bureaucracy whose narrative or propaganda sub-structures are renowned for long-windedness. However this is it appears to be the slogan through which the energies of 2017’s New Year Address are to be dissipated and diffused, the slogan through which Kim Jong Un’s new white heat of technological endeavour is to embedded throughout North Korea’s year. The dynamic force of technological capacity perhaps harnessed to the needs of self-reliance, is perhaps suggestive of some of the dynamics Pyongyang now faces, following the passing of UNSC 2321. While the energy needs and resources of North Korea and the strictures placed upon them by this most recent round of UN sanctioning and especially by the apparent cooperation of the People’s Republic of China are not really the direct interest of this author, Kim Jong Un’s assertion in the Address that “The sector of science and technology should concentrate efforts on…ensuring the domestic production of raw materials, fuel and equipment…” really speaks to the fact that without an unfettered access to coked and useful coal as well as other minerals (and market access through which to sell North Korea’s production), Pyongyang will face developmental trouble in the years to come rather than any coherent or cogent ability or capacity to maintain technological development at any temperature.


Kim Jong Un at Kosan Fruit Farm – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Of course the real interest of this geographically and environmentally minded author is focused on North Korea’s topography, its rivers, forests, soils and coasts. These natures and techno-natures in Pyongyang’s ‘web of life’ have been subjected to the heat of both political and developmental energy (as well as to the rather less controlled desperate energies of human’s beset by lack and deprivation on occasion), innumerable times in the historical narrative of North Korea, and have certainly featured in the New Year Address in recent years. 2017’s in this sense is no disappointment for the agronomist, the soil scientist or the fisheries specialist. The heat of both technological innovation and generation and political or developmental self-reliance touches all of these fields within Kim Jong Un’s text. The fishing sector of North Korea’s economy has been subject to a huge level of focus in the last year, much in the way that fungal science and the growing of edible mushrooms was in 2014. The year of great fish hauls and ‘spectacular fish-scenery’ is to be extended into 2017. Kim Jong Un suggests in the address that: “The fishing sector should conduct a dynamic drive for catching fishes and push perseveringly ahead with aquatic farming…It should build modern fishing vessels in a greater number…” North Korea is of course challenged greatly by its maritime borders (especially the Northern Limit Line) and its geo-political position, and these issues when it comes to industrial fishing have of course only become more difficult in recent years. Therefore the development of fish farming and aquaculture that does not rely on the resources and diplomatic or geo-political environment required for deep-sea fishing is certainly an advantage. The availability of fishing vessels of a useful tonnage and capacity has long been an issue for North Korea, Kim Il Sung was certainly concerned with these matters throughout his reign, and any developments in this regard would certainly of enormous benefit to Pyongyang.

When it comes to agricultural production, North Korea has long been challenged by the restrictions of land availability (given its mountainous topography), and more recently by the issues of soil deprivation and degradation. Kim Il Sung’s solution of radical chemicalisation left a post-1992 North Korea with soil that was virtually dead (Pyongyang’s management of its humus is surely an object lesson in what Salvatore Engel Di-Mauro would hold is the politicisation of soil itself), and a fertiliser habit that was simply unsustainable. More recent efforts by North Korea to find new methods of fertilising its soil, organic agriculture and agricultural methods which allow production in new terrains have to a degree been a little successful in mitigating the sense of acute crisis that beset this field for much of the 1990s. Perhaps the heat of 2017’s technological drive will impact positively on this and Kim Jong Un has certainly included the sector within this Address: “The agricultural front, the major thrust in building an economic giant, should raise a strong wind of scientific farming and push forward the movement for increasing crop yield.” This ‘strong wind’ will no doubt be felt at research stations such as Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project (a key site of North Korea’s developmental impetus since late 2013), and other experimental sites, but it will require a huge energy to turn this element of North Korean development in a positive direction – and some degree of luck.


Kim Jong at KPA Tree Nursery – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Luck and fortune are of course key to much of North Korea’s positionality in the early 21st century. It is luck, from a North Korean sense, that the United States in its post-Cold War unipolarity was quickly troubled by the fruits of past interventions and following 2001 was pre-occupied with asymmetric ideological enemies who played by no rules whatsoever, so troubled that much of its military capacity and diplomatic energy was expended in global struggles to counteract unseen or unseeable enemies, rather than in overwhelming North Korea. Luck that Pyongyang was able to navigate its mid-1990s struggles in such a way as to incorporate extensive new practical knowledge and practice from those NGOs and agencies which sought to help it. North Korea has not been in any way lucky however with its climate and weather in recent years, troubles which were seen last year in North Hamgyong Province and which were seen in the mid-1990s to amplify the degradation of soil capacity and the impacts of deforestation. From the early 2000s onwards, forest rehabilitation has been a key vector of North Korean development, or at least aspirations towards afforestation. Just like that composite satellite image of North Korea as the dark ghostly patch between the bright lights of South Korea and the increasingly bright lights of the People’s Republic of China, Pyongyang is well aware of the delegitimising capabilities of visualisations of its terrain. Barren, brown, dusty hills are as much as signifier for the wider world of North Korea’s incapacity and ineptitude as its seeming incapability to keep the lights on anywhere outside of central Pyongyang. Huge efforts have therefore been directed at afforestation in recent years, but these efforts really in a sense merely build upon a longer time frame of interest in North Korean politics that reaches back to the northern forests of the 1930s, the Japanese forestry stations of the colonial period (which sought to implant foreign, Imperial species of tree on the peninsula), and the need to rehabilitate a blasted landscape following the Korean War. Kim Il Sung’s Rural Theses from 1964 and subsequent texts from 1968 and later are deeply committed to harnessing the energy of technology and politics to produce an authentically socialist terrain. Kim Jong Un’s assertion in 2017’s New Year Address that “We should further transform the appearance of the land of our country by building modern tree nurseries in provinces…” is a continuation of that impetus, a continuation of the desire to transform physical materialities under his control as much as political conceptions and commemorative temporalities.

There surely is an enormous amount more I am missing from this review of 2017’s New Year Address on the grounds of personal interest (or disinterest) and expertise (or otherwise). A little should be made by others of the failure by Kim Jong Un to mention the various leadership birthdays and anniversaries of this year, instead recalling the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army. Of course much can be made of, hopefully by other writers, the role of that institution within Kim Jong Un’s many desires and assertions. No doubt many of the blanks, most of the dots will be filled in by future connections made within North Korea’s narrative and through its actions, some of which in this most unstable of years will be confusing and counter-intuitive. As the days and weeks go by Pyongyang’s intent and intentions will become clearer, its thematics for the year less opaque. However at this years very outset, Kim Jong Un has provided a reassertion of the energies which drive North Korean development, past, present and future. Whatever white heat exists in the words of this New Year Address has been present for much of North Korea’s existence, its temperature rising and falling at moments of crisis, moments of comparative success throughout its history. Ultimately it will be the present and residual heat of this powerful political energy that will prove the success or failure (in North Korea’s terms) of 2017.

Fungus and Fisheries amidst the Forest of Arms: 2016 New Years’ Address

Pyongyang marks 2016's New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Pyongyang marks 2016’s New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

January 1st, 2016’s New Year’s Address from Kim Jong Un given a couple of weeks perspective has of course been supplanted somewhat by the phenomenal challenge and narrative bluster of the 6th’s nuclear test. Whether the core material of the device tested by Pyongyang at Punggye-ri was made of Uranium or Lithium, its success or failure and the geopolitical impact of it all will no doubt be discussed and dissected for some time. It is doubtful that the same fate will befall Kim Jong Un’s longer statement of North Korea’s intentions for the coming year.

While North Korea’s New Year’s Addresses under Kim Jong Un have generally followed a familiar pattern and are full of the linguistic repetition and bluster familiar to any who follow its media or published output, occasionally an interesting developmental phrase can be turned. The demand of 2015’s New Years’ Address to generate mountains and “seas of gold” so far as its fisheries and forestry sectors were concerned was a particular favourite of this author. Equally 2015’s favoured revolutionary speed “the blizzards of Paektu” speed, brought to mind the charismatic and theatric struggles of Pyongyang’s guerrilla nationalism in an easier, more piquant and less clumsy linguistic form. The extraordinary focus on fishing institutions and infrastructures in the second half of 2014 of course will remind any reader of the real connections between North Korea’s set pieces of narrative and message production and its institutional and developmental agendas. Kim Jong Un in fact made five visits to offshore and onshore facilities devoted to aquaculture in the months of October and November, 2015 combined, a schedule of institutional activity surely not that far removed from visits to military installations. 2016’s Address from a week or so ago however is not blessed with quite the same level of articulacy so far as development is concerned.

 Encountering 'blizzards of paektu', August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Encountering ‘blizzards of paektu’, August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

For the reader it may in fact be that the non-military, developmental aspect to 2016’s New Years Address is very hard to discern at all. Kim Jong Un this year and presumably North Korea’s institutions appear very concerned to memorialise the events of the 70th anniversary of Liberation on August 15th and the institutional and governmental achievements that were underwritten by the events memorial themes of acute nationalism and imagined victory. The Address in a sense then undertakes an exercise in charismatic projection, using the carrier signal of Liberation’s authority and legitimacy to underpin the importance and potential of May’s coming Seventh Workers Party of Korea Congress. In this way the Address allows the charisma of the revolutionary and pre-institutional past to potentially be revivified in the institutional present of the Workers Party of Korea.


Obviously the reader will discern no developmental or environmental impact within this political sleight of hand, a form of which will be familiar to any considered analyst of North Korean ideological or presentational practice. We all would do well however to consider for a moment the past history of Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea, especially the last such event, which concluded its Plenary sessions on the 14th of October, 1980, some 36 years and a political epoch ago. Bearing in mind the fact that North Korean Party Congresses are more than the public set piece event we might be familiar with from meetings of the People’s Republic of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference, or in fact from modern Party Congresses or Conferences in democratic nations such as the United States or United Kingdom. Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea are in fact multi stranded, yearlong events, which yes, emerge above the political surface for a week of plenary and public sessions, but which then submerge again into the political and institutional substrata. Deeper down in the lower levels of committee and subcommittee the articulations and aspirations expressed at large and out loud in the public events are reconfigured and reframed for institutional and developmental function and incorporation. North Korea’s political and elite and no doubt in May, Kim Jong Un’s grand and dramatic words will be incorporated into institutional and infrastructural agendas that could well drive its frameworks for years or decades to come.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

How do we know this? Because that was precisely, when it came to development the role played by the Sixth Party Congress of 1980. While previous events in the 1960s and 1970s had sought to maintain the notion of Socialist progression and development, the connection between central planning and goal setting and economic and social success, 1980s Congress sought to abandon much of that very deterministic developmental framework. Whereas forestry, agriculture, mining or coastal reclamation had previously been set enormously ambitious, dramatic, charismatic production and development goals (the 1970s were the era of the 300,000 hectares of reclamation for example), the Sixth Party Congress dispensed with specific goals, which had both never been reached by North Korea’s institutions and in attempting and failing to do so had seriously disrupted economic and infrastructural production, for looser, more aspirational targets. Five Great Nature Remaking Tasks and their attendant complicated goals, became the Four Tasks for Remaking Nature. The output of the era of the Sixth Congress of course was not entirely without success, the Nampo Lockgate and some of the sporting and stadium infrastructure of Pyongyang exist to attest to that, but it was the end of North Korea’s most aspirational period so far as its developmental potential was concerned, and in a sense veiled acknowledgement of the impossibility of a number of its past ambitions.


2016’s New Years’ Address which heralds most of all, all that is to be achieved and desired by the Seventh Party Congress in a few months’ time, similarly aims in developmental terms for the abstract and the undefined. In-spite of both Kim Jong Un’s many and varied appearances at fish farms, or even his occasional visit to tree nurseries and forestry projects, no specific goals are set for these sectors. The very best the Address can muster is that the “fishing sectors…should ramp up production as soon as possible and see to it that the fish farms…built across the country pay off…”

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

2016 it seems is to have no mountains or “seas of gold” and the only forest mentioned by North Korean institutions since the turn of the year, is its now Hydrogen fuelled  “forest of arms.” However perhaps we should all stop to ponder the potential viability or veracity of a more generalised, ad-hoc approach by Pyongyang to nutritional or other development. 2016’s Address, along with the fishing industries and infrastructures, also at that moment of focus references “vegetable greenhouses” and “mushroom production bases,” both developmental sectors to which Pyongyang has turned in the past and both of which both focused on last year within its political narratives and with which it has had some level of success in the past. Incorporating fungus production rooms into school and training infrastructure as well as generating the research institutions and communities to do so, and the combination of the human capital and resources provided by the Korean People’s Army and the fishing and aquaculture industries are key vectors to support more easily accessibly nutritional resources. While no doubt the elites of Pyongyang eat well amongst the newly lit tower blocks, 2016 New Year’s Address almost steels itself to admit the utility of such generalised sources of food resource when it ends its brief moment of developmental connection with the acceptance that these “contribute to enriching the people’s diet.”

Less ambitious, dramatic or charismatic in developmental terms, perhaps by necessity as much as design, 2016’s New Years’ Address appears for agriculture, environment and non-industrial or military infrastructure a call to carry on with the general, the non-specific, with what works. Perhaps the impending Seventh Party Congress and its reconsideration and reconfiguration of political, economic, social and ideological agendas demands a moment of pause, a breath in North Korea’s developmental echo chamber. Perhaps history and the Sixth Party Congress will be our guide. Perhaps, as on the 6th of January, Pyongyang will surprise or wrong foot as all again, but in developmental terms, so far as the New Years’ Address is concerned, developmental agendas will be more about past practice and carrying on, than the shock of the new.

Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft

This paper is currently in draft format. It has as yet not been published in any form by a peer reviewed journal, but the author hopes it to become part of a future publication project.

Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft


National mythologies, connected topographies and commemorations are often inseparably connected to political narrative. North Koreas’ historical narrative for instance, contains frequent resistive encounters with the imposed legacies of Japanese colonial development, including an extensive programme of dam building and hydrological engineering. In-spite of this difficult developmental inheritance, post 1945, North Korea’s government has frequently asserted political authority derived in part from that legacy, even while formulating its own vision of ‘revolutionary’ statecraft.

This paper, therefore with Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s reconfiguration of Weberian analysis addressing North Korea’s ‘Theatric/Charismatic’ politics Cosgrove and Castree’s articulations of constructed, extrinsic notions of Nature(s), Karl Wittfogel’s assertions of water’s place in ‘Oriental’ state formation and Erik Swyngedouw’s conception of Hydrosocial Landscape and technonature in mind examines the role of hydrological engineering and coastal reclamation in North Korea’s development. The paper reviews foundational moments in this historical and developmental narrative such as 1946’s Potong River Improvement project, recent mega-projects such as the Taegyedo Reclamation Area and the contemporary importance of water resources to Pyongyang’s institutions and politics. With theoretical frame and historical narrative in mind the paper considers the possibility that both control of hydrological resources and the ability of the state to recover new and useful land from bodies of water are framed within North Korea’s politics as fundamental to its local notion of national construction, Hydraulic and Theatric political sensibilities therefore rescale amidst Charismatic or Hydrosocial Landscapes.


North Korean Politics, Hydrology and the Korean Peninsula, North Korean Hydrology, Wittfogel, Swyngedouw

 Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft

“The Potong River shoring-up work is the first project the Pyongyang citizens contribute to the building of a new, democratic Korea with their patriotic labour, and it is a great nature-remaking work our liberated people undertake for the first time. By finishing this project successfully we should make it the first beacon to the transformation of nature for the construction of an independent, sovereign democratic state, rich and strong.” (Kim Il-sung, 1946: 203)

North Korean historical narrative holds that Kim Il-sung’s words marked the end of the first day, May 21 1946 of the construction of the Potong River Improvement Project on the banks of the River Taedong, which flows through its capital Pyongyang. Contemporary historiography of course also holds that by this point the division of the peninsula between north and south was not even yet a year old and the official declaration of North Korean statehood and Kim Il-sung’s assumption of its leadership was still some two years away. This is North Korea in an infant state, emerging from the aftermath of unexpected liberation, Japanese colonial imperatives and the partition of the peninsula between forces loyal to the Soviet Union and to the United States of America. Yet event at this moment of infancy, the Potong project is today a vital moment in North Korea’s own historiography and developmental narratives and used frequently as a benchmark for local institutions under Pyongyang’s authority in their communication of new developments.

The Potong River Improvement project and other early developmental undertakings by North Korea are representative of an approach to the creation and re-creation of landscape and space that has shifted in approach over time, spurred on by and reflective of external influences upon North Korea. The central focus of this paper is the apparent importance of hydrology and hydrological engineering to the construction and maintenance of statehood in North Korea, as manifest at its outset by the Potong River Project in 1946. It considers the function of such engineering and construction practices throughout the historical narrative of North Korea, right to the present day, questioning to what degree this aspect of development contributes to Pyongyang’s current political form. The paper considers North Korean politics through the conceptual framework provided by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s notion of Charismatic Politics, which itself builds upon the work of Clifford Geertz on theatre states and Max Weber on political charisma. Given this local political frame it moves to consider the historical academic analysis of water control and management in Asia provided by the controversial theorist Karl Wittfogel and his notion of ‘Oriental Despotism’ underpinned by ‘Hydraulic Economy.’ While Wittfogel’s notion that power over hydraulic aspects of production and development was harnessed and deployed within historic Asian statecraft as some sort of charismatic power is certainly potentially attractive in such an apparently mystical and opaque autocracy as North Korea. However given the Korean Peninsula’s hydrological history and topography it is apparent to the paper that Wittfogel’s analysis is not satisfactory in explanatory terms, even considering his ‘hydro-agricultural distinction’ (used by Wittfogel to consider Japanese hydrology), in the case of North Korea. Methodologically therefore the paper seeks to connect Kwon and Chung’s notion of Charismatic Politics with more contemporary analysis sourced from Human Geography which considers generally constructed, political and social natures in the work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree (as well as their deployment and diffusion in North Korea in a political sense through the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri on de and re-territorialisations), and specifically the importance of scale and politics when it comes to water management and hydrological control in the work of Eric Swyngedouw and…

The paper finds that water management, as might be suggested by the apparent importance of the Potong River Improvement Project in 1946 is a key element to North Korea’s historical development and infrastructural agenda prior to 1992. While specific projects, as opposed to general aspiration are at first uncommon given the difficulty of post liberation national construction and the Korean War, hydrological engineering later becomes part of the wider of the framework of central planning in North Korea and specific goals for water management and control are set. These manifest in the 1970s and 1980s at sites such as Taegyedo, the narrative of which this paper explores at length. In more recent history of course North Korea has been beset by geo-political, economic, social and environmental crises and its development and potential has been significantly curtailed. Even in the difficult times however, North Korea has continued to use hydrological and water management themes and projects to underpin its political authority and legitimacy and the paper considers the completion of the Taegyedo project and other recent developments within this context.

The paper first introduces its theoretical framework and conceptual approach by considering the work of Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung on Charismatic Politics in North Korea, outlining the conceptual inheritance from Clifford Geertz, Max Weber and others on which and through which their analysis of North Korea functions. This theoretical review then encounters Karl Wittfogel and his conception of ‘Oriental Despotism’ and ‘Hydraulic Economy.’ The paper at this point considers not only the structure and content of Wittfogel’s analysis but also its deployment in the context of East Asia and its utility in the specific case of the Korean Peninsula. The review then concludes with a consideration of more contemporary theoretical approaches and methodologies from the academic world of Human Geography and elsewhere. This includes the work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree, but also that of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (which is helpful given the politics of historiography and memory in North Korea) and specifically in the case of water management and its connection with political power and governance, that of Erik Swyngedouw.

  1. Charismatic Politics, Oriental Despotism or Hydrosocial Landscapes: Theoretical and Analytic Frameworks

Given popular and academic conceptions of North Korea as curious, unique and confusing it is important for this paper to underpin its consideration of the importance of hydrological engineering within that nation, with a theoretical framing which serves to deconstruct and explain Pyongyang’s politics to the external or unfamiliar analyst. While there have been a number of conceptual analyses of North Korea’s politics in that past this section will consider and discuss how the notion of ‘theatre politics’ or charismatic politics is deployed within North Korean ideology and political forms to underpin not only its legitimacy and authority, but also practical forms of governance and development. This charisma and theatre can them become associated, as I will assert in a later section with what the paper will term ‘charismatic landscape’, specifically in this case of this paper the landscape of water management and hydrology.

This conception of theatric or charismatic politics, terms which the paper uses interchangeably, is source from the work Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung. Kwon and Chung’s landmark work Beyond Charismatic Politics (2012), brought an analysis of the theatricality of current North Korean political forms to the foreground, identifying what they termed North Korea’s “theatric politics. When Kwon and Chung utilise the notion of charisma or charismatic politics they do so in the wake of Max Weber’s articulation of the routinisation of political action and intent and its utility within the articulation and structures of politics, both historical and contemporary (Weber, 1967). Aside from Weber’s conception of charisma, Kwon and Chung triangulate their analysis with that of anthropologist Clifford Geertz on the place of theatre and performance within the process of sovereign and political activity in 19th Century Negara-era Bali (Geertz, 1990)..” Kwon and Chung hold that the theatre of politics in North Korea is driven by contemporary and current connections to a mythologised set of actions and charismatic moments in its past, especially those of its early leadership during the Guerrilla campaigns against the Japanese in the 1930s. These events including Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk (his first wife), become mythologised both in general and at moments of specificity. These specific moments then become moments of commemoration and performance, their performativity establishing connection with the charismatic past from which authority and political power can flow into the present.

The Potong River Improvement Project in 1946 is just one such moment in North Korean politics. Kwon and Chung would conceive of it as a moment in which the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung performs his aspirational authority in act of development. The memorialisation and later re-performance of that act through events and practices which commemorate it serve to connect the charisma of the past with the development projects of the present, especially those within the hydrological sector. Given the importance of politics and the performance of governance and authority to water management projects in North Korea’s developmental past, might there be other conceptual frameworks through which this paper could consider North Korean hydrology and its historical narrative?

Control over water resources in the historiographies of state development have of course been the focus of much analysis and intellectual consideration in recent history, offering the opportunity to consider the differences between developmental approach around the globe. Karl Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism – a Comparative Study of Total Power (1957) was an academic benchmark in developmental studies. Bailey and Llobera describe it as the “Wittfogel Watershed” in their 1981 book The Asiatic Mode of Production. Within Oriental Despotism. Wittfogel suggests that the nature of government and society develop, not as a by-product of a dialectical relationship between differing classes as Marx and Marxists would have it, but as result of the historical development of property holding and ownership within a nation or region. The development of property is, for Wittfogel, dependent on the local population and its environmental situation, the key factor in this development being the relationship between human politics and the supply and utilisation of water resources.

For this paper, it is Wittfogel’s controversial identification of what he terms a Hydraulic Society within an Asian context that is the most relevant. It was the cultural space with which he was most familiar, and in which his analysis was the most radical. Wittfogel identifies the existence in Asia of a hydraulic mode he names ‘Oriental’, within which institutions of the state assert a level of leadership and organisational capacity which cannot be countered by the actions or wishes of the population. Power in the Oriental realm was held and exercised by institutions that also held property and made laws, as well as the responsibility of technological and agricultural development: “As a rule, the operations of time keeping and scientific measuring and counting were performed by official dignitaries or by priestly …specialists attached to the hydraulic regime.” (Wittfogel, 1957:30) Earlier in Wittfogel’s career in 1929’s Geopolitics, Geographic Materialism and Marxism he had identified three distinct types of relation between state formation and hydrological capability and control: the Egyptian, in which the state was capable of exercising total power, the Japanese in which power was manifest locally and the Indian in which control was fragmented and impermanent (Wittfogel, 1929: 36).

By 1957, in Oriental Despotism, Wittfogel had developed these three types into two distinctions: the “hydraulic” and the “hydro-agricultural.” Wittfogel suggests Japan as the prime example of the “hydro-agricultural” model (Wittfogel, 1957: 197). Institutional hydrological control in classical Japan could only be exercised on a local level, and therefore institutional control over the development of property, and bureaucratic control over the wider nation could not be fully exercised. Therefore, a true “oriental despotism” could not be achieved. Wittfogel does say that authorities in Japan attempted periodically to achieve reorganisation of bureaucratic and institutional frameworks in order to institute a centralised “Oriental” state, giving as examples the Taikwa reform of 646 CE and episodes during the Tokugawa period, 1603 to 1867. However, Wittfogel does not regard either of these examples as has having been a complete success: “The hydraulic innovations suggested in the Reform lacked the dynamism that characterized similar attempts in early hydraulic societies” (Wittfogel, 1957: 198).

While Wittfogel was certainly concerned with considering the development of state and hydrological sensibilities in Japan he never sought to apply his analysis of either Hydraulic Economy nor his hydrological distinction to the Korean Peninsula. This paper does not mean to conflate the historical narrative and development of Japan with the Korean Peninsula of course. Simply being in the geographic region of East Asia is certainly not enough to assert any such similarity, even discounting the complicated and difficult relationship between Japan and Korea. What is clear from the history of the different manifestations of Korean history in the field of hydrology or engineering is that little of what was built functions or was conceived of as being, on a monumental scale. There was no Grand Canal in any of the dynasties or kingdoms that have existed on the Korean Peninsula, and no radical reconfigurations of water courses. What was achieved, and exists in the sparse historical record of the Peninsula’s development, is the coordination through corvée labour of the constructive capacity of the peasantry. This was in order to harness the hydrological possibility of their local area, to achieve local agricultural production. For example Kang asserts that one of the most famous examples of hydrological engineering in Korea, the ancient reservoir at Yeongcheon, now in North Gyeongsang Province, “is independent and is not connected to any other irrigation system (Kang, 2006). This appears to sum up in the main the hydrological development of the Korean peninsula. Essentially, it focused on local needs, was sourced locally and constructed locally. The topography of the Korean Peninsula, it seems, has made grand hydraulic schemes unachievable and the localised and regional sources of political authority that exercised authority and control in the context of Japan were for the most part much weaker in the Korean instance.

Given the weakness of historical hydrological sensibility and practice in the case of the Korean Peninsula, yet the apparent utility in the North Korean present of projects focused on water management such as the Potong River project this paper will need to explore a different set of analytical literatures. It is clear from the work of Kwon and Chung on North Korean political form and process that the narratives derived or generated from or within North Korean historical narrative that elements of the charismatic or theatric politics spill out beyond the realm of conventional political interaction, marking the topography of both everyday life and the historical narrative. Given this interaction between politics and landscape, both it seems generally in North Korean history and specifically in the case of its hydrological development this paper will consider the theoretical frameworks provided firstly by Geographers such as Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree who analyse landscape and landscape development from a constructivist perspective, asserting that landscapes and nature themselves are constructed and built by the societies and political forms that inhabit them (Cosgrove, 1984 and Castree, 2000). Given Cosgrove and Castree’s analysis and the possibility of such construction we might assert that not only in North Korea is there constructed a charismatic politics, but that this construction perhaps necessarily begets a charismatic landscape.

But how might this charisma embed itself within the constructed or reconstructed landscape of North Korea? To explore and consider this embedding this paper holds in mind another theoretical contribution from political or human geography, namely scale or scaling (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Originally deriving from Geography’s interaction with Cartography and its graphical representations of spatiality and physical relation, scholars have built on Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that space and spatiality themselves are products, social products or political products (Lefebvre, 1991). Places represented or experienced through scales are “the embodiment of social relations of empowerment and disempowerment and the arena through and in which they operate” (Swyngedouw, 1997: 167). Marston has asserted that “…scale making is not only a rhetorical practice; its consequences are inscribed in and are the outcome of, both everyday life and macro-level social structures…” (Marston, 2000: 221).   As well as however, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri conceptions of ‘de-territorialisation’ and ‘re-territorialisation’(Deleuze and Guatarri, 1984) also suggest vectors which might allow the rescaling of political experiences and aspirations in connected physical terrains.

Finally in this paper’s theoretical outline, it returns to Swyngedouw to consider development of his theoretical conception of scale within the framework of a another form and moment of utopian and charismatic politics harnessing of water management and development for the purposes of both ideological development and national construction. Swyngedouw, both in his own work and in collaboration explores the history of Spanish national modernisation and development through a reconfiguration and harnessing of its water sources. While this process has a long historical narrative, it is the later encounter between Spanish hydrological development under Franco and Spanish fascism and his analysis of the scalar processes and productions behind it that is most relevant to this paper and which might generate connective or extrapolatory possibilities for the space and charismatic politics of North Korea. Swyngedouw writes under Franco, the reconfiguration of what he calls Spains’ “hydrosocial landscape”, “was part of an effort to create a socio- culturally, politically and physically integrated national territorial scale and to obliterate earlier regionalist desire…” (Swngedouw, 2007: 11). Given what we will encounter in the historical narrative of North Korea, these concerns to generate a unified political, physical and social space around a singular notion of national identity which buries or replaces past historical alternatives appear certainly theoretically useful. Further to this however, and in some way echoing Wittfogel’s terminology, Swyngedouw terms this hydrological production a ‘Hydraulic Politics’. A combination of this Hydraulic Politics, autocratic charisma from Franco and his government, a complicated harnessing of resident and regenerated ‘networks of interest’ would enable the rescaling of political will and desire out into both pre-existing and newly created waterscapes in Spain. This process of production and political scaling ultimately generating what Swyngedouw refers to as a ‘technonature’ in which the political and social relations of power within the Francoist state become embedded within the physicality of the water and landscape themselves.

Swyngedouw and his analysis of the example of Francoist Spain conclude this review of this paper’s theoretical approach. From this point the paper engages the hydrological narrative of North Korea holding in mind all of these conceptual frames as it does so and exploring the processes by which political charisma and ideological structures are embedded, re-territorialised or re-scaled within the land and waterscapes of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

  1. Hydrological Narratives of North Korea

2.1 Configuring the developmental nation: The early years of North Korean hydrology

The second half of this paper reviews the historical narratives of North Korean hydrology, beginning with a review of the early development approach in Pyongyang following its liberation from the Japanese colonial period and the disastrous and destructive Korean War. It considers the interplay with geo-politics faced by North Korea, similar to that recounted by Swyngedouw in Spain’s relationship with external partners such as the United States (Swyngedouw, 2007), in its relationship with the necessary technical partners for hydrological development, such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The paper then reviews the development of one particular hydrological project, at Taegyedo on Korea’s West Sea coast and the journey to its completion through the differing phases of North Korean politics and ideology. Finally the paper addresses before its conclusion, more recent projects in North Korean hydrological development in the era of Kim Jong-un.

The development of political and bureaucratic policy directed at the engineering of water courses and resources appears very early in North Korea’s history. Indeed, the regime was in its infancy when the Potong River Improvement Project, the foundation event for the hydrological sector, was initiated in May 1946. This was primarily a project to rebuild and support the banks of the river within Pyongyang and to create a series of weirs and discharge pools better to control its stream-flow. It is apparent, however, that Kim Il-sung envisaged the project in developmental terms which have been regularly applied to subsequent hydrological schemes and which might familiar to Swyngedouw and other theoreticians of ‘technonature’ (Swyngedouw, 2007) or landscapes marked by politics (Shapiro, 2001). The “worthwhile nature-remaking project” was declared by Kim to form part of North Korea’s struggle both in its liberation from the forces of “Japanese imperialism” and in building “a new, democratic Korea”. The project would help those taking part to form a “firm unity around the democratic national united front”, so that it would become “the first beacon to the transformation of nature for the construction of an independent, sovereign democratic state, rich and strong” (Kim Il-sung, 1946: 202). These themes of a multi-focused struggle, binding together those involved in a self-actualising process of 0national creation will be encountered many times in the history of environmental policy and practice of North Korea.

In the immediate aftermath of the war of 1949 to 1953, agricultural policy in North Korea focused primarily upon the return of farmland to productivity. As in the south conflict had damaged enormous areas of land, covering them in rubble and chemical by-products of war, such as napalm and white phosphorus (Cumings, 1997). Pyongyang had also inherited the least agriculturally productive half of the Korean peninsula, thanks mainly to its natural topography, and there was an acute need to increase food production. Much of North Korea’s initial post-war policy focus reflected the urgent need to increase output, with hopes being pinned on the productive potential of hydrological and irrigation, greater production and use of agro-chemicals and agricultural mechanisation. The theme of capacity increase also resulted in attention being paid to the scope for increasing the area of the nation’s cultivable land.

During the period of the first Three-Year Plan (1953-56) efforts to bring previously unproductive areas and wilderness into agricultural production were particularly concentrated on increasing the altitude at which agricultural production could be achieved in mountainous areas (Prybyla, 1964). But the post-war availability of credit and other forms of support provided by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (Prybyla, 1964), for infrastructure development allowed the initiation of a range of projects designed to transform areas not previously subject to agricultural development. Many such projects were exercises in hydrological reclamation, demonstrating the initial prevalence of an impositional, hydraulic approach to environmental matters, perhaps familiar to readers of Swyngedouw and other spaces of national reconstruction (Swyngedouw, 2007). Kuark (1963), recording that from total state investment of some 120 million dollars between 1954 and 1956, nearly 80 million dollars (4,200 million “old” won) “went on irrigation and river dyke projects”. Such investment was “a decisive factor in increasing grain production”. This reclamation and irrigation capacity building led to a rapid increase in agricultural capacity; and by 1957, some 301,350 extra acres of arable land and 940,800 extra acres of irrigated land had been put into a serviceable condition. Ultimately, such projects contributed to the generation of an acutely goal-oriented, impositional agricultural strategy, perhaps best described by Kim Il-sung’s statement of 1956: “Rice is immediately socialism.”

The early period during which North Korea’s hydrological strategy was simply impositional in character did not, however, last long. This reflected the influence of the more radical transformative environmental strategies undertaken in Maoist China during the “Great Leap Forward” (Atkins, 1985). In consequence North Korea’s own environmental and agricultural approaches became determinedly transformational. This, too, proved to be a relatively short period of ideological interjection, and a fairly rapid retreat was made by North Korea towards a arguably more practical approach, as the failures of the Great Leap Forward became apparent, and Chinese influence waned.

During this era of transition, the first small shifts in developmental strategy within the hydrological sector in favour of tideland reclamation, away from what Wittfogel might have understood as conventionally despotic control over the nations’ water resources, towards the generation of a constructed or ‘technonature’, became evident. Kim Il-sung’s On Some Problems for Future Development of Agriculture in 1957, contained the first commitment to the practical implementation of tideland reclamation projects, with its declaration that “tideland, wasteland or rain-dependant farmland should be reclaimed” (Kim Il-sung, 1957: 7). Yet during the early 1960s, few such reclamation projects materialised or were developed and, as evidenced by reports from the central committee during the Fourth Korean Workers Party Congress in September 1961 (Kim Il-sung, 1961), the political commitment to their execution remained weak.

Ultimately it was not to be until 1968 that North Korean policy shifted decisively in favour of the reclamation of tideland, with the publication of the key text For the Large-Scale Reclamation of Tidelands. This ideological endorsement of tideland reclamation must, however, be seen within the wider framework of political and institutional action set out in Kim Il-sung’s Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country of 1964. This vital developmental text asserted that the framing of agricultural and development policy must be undertaken within the wider ideological context of the “three revolutions movement”: in which agricultural and environmental policy should be determined by “socialist” revolutions of an ideological, cultural and technical nature. The “Theses” in a sense marked the beginning of what might be termed North Korea’s institutional maturity, a maturity which was to include hydrological development as part of the praxis of its socialist statecraft, and which marked the landscape itself with a rescaled charismatic politics.

As is still common for North Korea, quick or efficient production and bureaucratic structures took some time to develop, in spite of Pyongyang’s efforts at generating focus. Although there is a level of implied urgency in the text of For the Large-Scale Reclamation of Tidelands, institutions found it difficult to reflect this ideological approach in their practice. At the fifth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in November 1970, even Kim Il-sung noted this in his concluding speech: “it is true that we should be able to obtain more land by reclaiming many tidelands. But that is something to be done in the future” (Kim Il-sung, 1970: 319).

It follows that the development of a distinct or cohesive policy framework on the reclamation of coastal land in North Korea would only become apparent with the publication of the Second Seven-Year Plan (covering 1978 to 1984). As had been identified as far back as 1961 (Kim Il-sung, 1961), reclamation activity would necessarily focus on coastal regions bordering the West Sea; in contrast the topography of the east coast of the Korean Peninsula was unsuitable given the lack of shallow coastal waters and large bays or estuaries (RAN, 2010). However, no particular goals or policy framework had been outlined until this new planning period beginning in the mid-1970s. The subsequent change in approach was a product of a wider approach – based on the setting of goals for production and the ideologically-based inclination not only to meet them, but to break them – which formed part of the general culture of revolutionary thinking and planning policy in the communist-influenced world of the time. In North Korea, the Maoist ideological concept of “revolutionary models” and “revolutionary speeds” had been translated into an institutional approach and policy framework invoking concepts such as “Ch’ollima Speed” and the “Taean Work System”. During the development of the Second Seven-Year Plan, general goals for productive capacity development and expansion, as well as those specifically relating to the reclamation of tideland, become part of this paradigm of “revolutionarily urgent” development.

A specific goal for the reclamation of 100,000 hectares of tideland thus became part of the planning process (Kim Il-sung, 1974), and was incorporated in the core plan document and accompanying legal framework for the Seven-Year Plan of 1978 to 1984. Hence, in its final version the Plan declared that “when solid material and technical foundations are laid for the large-scale tideland reclamation, 100,000 hectares of tidal marshes will be reclaimed”(Kim Il-sung,1977: 527). Article 50 of the accompanying “Land Law of the DPRK” stated that “the State shall direct a major effort towards tideland reclamation which will increase the area of arable land and a make a great change to the appearance of the land” (DPRK,1977: 215), embedding the necessity of reconfiguring hydrological landscapes at the behest of politics within the core functions of the state.

2.2 Taegyedo: Hydraulic Development as Political Theatre

This setting of specific goals and the incorporation into the legal and ideological structure of North Korea of such a “revolutionarily urgent” developmental approach focused on the generation of a political nature as much as a technonature, soon created an opportunity for a particular project within the hydrological field. Moreover, the initial aim of reclaiming 100,000 hectares quickly gave way to a declared target of 300,000 hectares for tideland reclamation. At the sixth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in 1980, not only was this up scaling of the aim made public, but the site at which the largest percentage of this land would be reclaimed was also identified. As Kim Il-sung announced to the congress that “if agricultural production is to be increased, the area under cultivation should be expanded steadily by reclaiming tideland and launching a dynamic movement to obtain new land.” (Kim Il-sung, 1980)

This need to manifest Kim Il-sung’s desire for a “dynamic movement” thus created the impetus for the birth and development of the Taegyedo Tideland Reclamation Project. This project is by far the largest reclamation project undertaken in the history of North Korea; and it is possible to track the emergence, development and occasional reimagining of Taegyedo over time, as a reflection of ideological developments within the nation.

Taegyedo is situated in the coastal province of North Pyongyan. It is a combination of four smaller sites, in an area of shallow bays and estuaries. The sites surround Taegye islet, Tasada islet, and Kwaksan islet. The project sited at Taegye islet is particularly large, connecting five islands within an estuary by a network of very large sea dams and breakwaters, which collectively comprise some twenty one miles of coastal damming. The various stages of project’s construction reflect the development and progression of policy and ideology focused on the reclamation of coastal land. It is also possible to identify moments of institutional or governmental action which demonstrate both pragmatism and reflexivity. Lastly, the project’s development also demonstrates a degree of institutional functionality within the hydrological or reclamation sector.

Taegyedo was initially designated as a vital project by Kim Il-sung, during an instance of “on the spot guidance”, a familiar moment of political charisma as part of the wider framework of action in the reclamation sector of its time. Its subsequent development has followed a course that is much less urgent or “revolutionary” than projects within the hydrological field from the 1960s. Developments and projects including Taegyedo were stipulated in the concluding document and report of the 1980 Workers’ Party Congress, and also by texts such as Kim Il-sung’s Four Great Nature Remaking Tasks of 1981 (Kim Il-sung, 1981), and the New Year’s Message of 1982 in which Kim Il-sung declares: “The most important task facing us in the socialist economic construction of the coming year is that of vigorously pushing forward nature remaking projects” (Kim Il-sung, 1982).

The construction of the Taegyedo project continued to be recorded in the literature and publications of North Korea throughout the 1980s and was often used as a specific example of an ideologically-inspired policy approach and developmental progression. For example, North Korea’s Minju Choson newspaper and its ‘tideland reclamation special correspondent’, Sung-Won Kim, recorded the first damming of breakwater three at Taegye islet in 1983. Kim recounted the event as: “fanning the flames of the creation of the “Speed of the Eighties”” and that “the doorway to gaining new land equal in area to one county has been opened” (Kim, 1983). The Minju Choson further reported in 1985 that: “the North Pyongan Province Tideland Development General Workshop…have completed, with a burning enthusiasm for creation under the ‘Speed of the Eighties”’ the construction of seven dikes in less than a few months and are now launching an all-out drive to link the remaining stretch”(Chung, 1985).

The final damming of the outer ring of Taegye was recounted in March 1985 as having extended the reclaimed area by some 8,800 hectares. (KCNA, 1985). In total, Rodong Sinmun recorded that, by October 1985, reclamation throughout the West Sea area, including that at Taegye, had reached some 50,000 hectares. According to the timetable for the development of the Taegyedo area, within the 1981 text Four Great Nature Remaking Projects (Kim Il-sung, 1981), completion of the project was envisaged within five years. Even if motivated by the revolutionary concept of “the speed of the eighties” this would have been a challenging target for any political polity or institution.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that by 1987 work at Taegye had only progressed to the point of building the defensive coastal levees. Nationally, progress towards the projected reclamation of 300,000 hectares had advanced little beyond the 50,000 hectares claimed two years earlier. It was thus increasingly apparent to key state actors that the reality of construction was not fulfilling the principle of revolutionary models and speeds. A reinvigoration and reiteration of the theoretical imperative for such construction was therefore necessary if national hydraulic goals were to be achieved.

The necessary reassertion of the goals, both ideological and developmental, the declaration on “Four Great Nature Remaking Projects” came in the guise of the Rodong Sinmun’s response to the New Year editorial of 1987 entitled Let us Actively Accelerate the Major Construction Projects (Rodong Sinmun, 1987). What was needed according to the editorial bore some similarity to the “Year of Adjustment” in 1977 which had paved the way for the Second Seven-Year Plan (1978 to 1984). At this point institutional improvements and bureaucratic developments to correct the difficulties and disruption caused by the previous planning period were followed by The Four Great Nature Remaking Projects and a new long-term plan. Hence, writing at the time, Koh (1988: 62) regarded the impending “Third Seven-Year plan as key to the future survival of North Korea; noting that, “unless the DPRK can reinvigorate its sagging economy, it will face a legitimacy crisis of monumental proportions at home, as well as a formidable challenge from the South”. Of course Koh perhaps couldn’t have been aware that such a crisis was only a matter of a couple of years away for North Korea and that the Third Seven Year plan would never really be articulated, let alone completed in the chaos of economic and political retrenchment. This work at Taegyedo in the mid-1980s and the Four Great Nature Remaking projects would serve as the final act of North Korea’s previous mode of statecraft. Pyongyang’s claims to hydrological and developmental possibility would never really again be made on the grounds on the functionality or feasibility of its particular approach to development or statecraft. Future projects instead would have to make deeper connection with the core of North Korea’s ideological superstructure and charismatic politics

2.3 Tidal Reclamation in the Arduous March and Hydrological Charisma

As hinted in the previous section of the paper, in practice, the new period of planned industrialisation of agricultural production, hydrological development and tideland reclamation under the “Third Seven- Year Plan” considered by Koh was relatively short lived. Policy was rapidly overtaken by the consequences for North Korea of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. The loss of most of Pyongyang’s trading partners, and financial and technical supporters severely affected North Korean hydrological efforts. More generally, North Korea’s developmental approach was forced to take a new direction, disregarding any previous ideological agendas or progression. Academic and media narratives surrounding this period, including the work of Noland and Eberstadt, regard North Korea as having institutionally and developmentally virtually ceased to function during this period. The regime’s own propaganda also painted a picture of severe struggle, referring to the period as the second “arduous march”.

Progress on hydrological projects during such a period of disruption might be expected to have been limited. However, documentation from the KCNA and the US DTIC sources suggests that work on key tideland reclamation projects, including Taegyedo, was sustained to a surprising extent, providing evidence both of necessary pragmatic shifts in developmental strategy and the use of political charisma at such a time of capacity restrictions. During August 1992, for example, it was reported from the Kumsong tideland reclamation area in Hamgyong province that “soldier builders have laid a dam extending more than 1,400 metres in the last two months to complete the first damming project by introducing advanced construction methods”(KCNA ,1992). This project was soon finished with the KCNA reporting a year later that “3,300 hectares [had been] reclaimed , as part of the wider project for the reclamation of 300,000 hectares, including 110,000 in North Pyongan,110,000 in South Pyongan and 80,000 hectares in South Hwangae” (KCNA, 1993). Further work was also undertaken in 1995 within North Pyongan province, in areas surrounding the Taegyedo project, and there were reports of a new barrage at Cholsan being constructed. Rodong Sinmun (1995) reported that this barrage “makes it possible to water 6,000 ha of reclaimed tideland”.

In the wider field of hydrological engineering, 1992 also saw the completion of a number of large projects connected to the West Sea Barrage. As the KCNA reported: “the excavation of the West Sea Barrage – Unryul – Kwail county waterway extending to 70 km, the Pakchon waterway and the Tongha two-stage pumping station waterway have been completed…. The construction of six reservoir dams and 700 pumping station was brought to completion and a waterway extending 385 km was excavated in North Hwanghae province”(KCNA, 1992).

The continuation of such projects within this difficult period surprisingly is matched by something of a shift within institutional governance and functionality which is seen further developed during recent years. This shift chimes with the Swyngedouw’s identification of Franco’s harnessing of ‘networks of interest’ in order to drive forward political or nationalistic reconfigurations of nature (Swyngedouw, 2007). Previously, the construction and planning of projects that encompassed both general hydrological engineering as well as tideland reclamation had fallen within the remit of local and regional government institutions, and had been carried out by local organisations, as evidenced by the plethora of provincial committees involved in decision making. However the period of geo-political change and instability which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the associated experience of environmental disaster in North Korea itself, saw responsibility for major reclamation projects shift from local and the provincial institutions to the military, which during the most difficult of times both maintained functionality and accumulated a certain level of institutional charisma. The KPA is thus described in contemporary reports as the initiator and planner of such projects reflecting this change in policy. Whilst the KPA had undoubtedly provided support for local projects, Pyongyang’s military forces had not previously assumed direct responsibility for projects which developed industrial, technological, agricultural or hydrological capacity. The shift identified here may thus be seen as a pioneering instance of “Songun Politics”, through which the “military first” concept was subsequently incorporated into most elements of practical policy and institutional structures within North Korea, the military acting as a key actor in North Korean ‘networks of interest,’ through which the political legitimacy and charisma of the Kim family is now projected and through which North Korean political nature is constructed.

Taegyedo and hydrological engineering’s place within this new political and ideological era starts with a disaster for on August 21 1997, a storm-system driven tidal wave apparently destroyed four sections of the breakwater to a total extent of 5,800 metres. KCNA reports suggest that the third section of the dam at Soyondong Islet was the worst damaged, leaving a 57-metre-wide hole in the breakwater, and allowing 250 million tonnes of tidal water to flow through into the draining area behind it (KCNA, 2009). This is presented by the KCNA and the Tideland Reclamation Bureau as “a titanic struggle against the elements”. It took eight years, until 2005, to repair and this reconstruction process gave something of a spur to a project which had previously seemed increasingly moribund. Accordingly development at Taegyedo moved on quickly following the reconstruction and breakwaters two and four were completed in July 2006 (KCNA, 2010).

As it neared completion, Kim Jong-il appeared to have focused upon Taegyedo and the hydrological engineering sector and the final stages of the project’s construction and completion were utilised institutionally to connect with newly developing ideological themes and the notion of a Kim centred charismatic political approach. On June 13 2009, Kim Jong-il visited the Taegyedo project for the second time. In the course of the visit and while praising Kim Il-sung’s “on the spot guidance” there, Kim Jong-il sought to reconfigure the project’s purpose: “it is the fighting trait of our working class to take the lead in pushing forward the cause of our socialism in the spirit of the “arduous march” while firmly adhering to the socialist principle, the principle of the revolution” (KCNA, 2009). In a further visit, we can see the theatric and charismatic elements coming to the fore, as well as possible echoes of BR Myers’ recent assertion of the use of imagery of storms and waves as representative of North Korea’s perceived resistance to modern capitalist, imperialism and the notional threats posed by the United States (Myers, 2010). Kim Jong-il is reported to have remarked on July 5 2009 that the “builders in the tideland reclamation site, fully determined to successfully carry out the behest of President Kim Il-sung, are the brave conquerors of the sea and indomitable fighters expanding the land of the country braving rough waves” (KCNA, 2009). During this visit, moreover, the project was connected with the charismatic ideological manifestation of Songun Politics. According to the KCNA, Kim Jong-il “highly estimated the feats performed by the builders intensely loyal to the party for having built one of the great structures to shine forever with the Songun era, by courageously overcoming difficulties and ordeals, and displaying popular heroism and unparalleled devotion”(KCNA, 2009).

By 24July 2010, the Taegyedo project was finished, having reclaimed in total some 17,000 hectares of tideland. However, its completion demonstrated further elements of the connection between North Korea’s approach to practical environmental policy and its contemporary theatric political nature. Perhaps the older concepts of “revolutionary modelling” are brought to mind when we consider Kim Jong-il’s conferment on the “North Pyongan Provincial Tideland Reclamation Complex”, the local government agency responsible for its completion, of the “Order of Kim Il-sung”, as well as the “Kim Il-sung” prize for the design of the project. It is again potentially revealing to examine Kim Jong-il’s statement at a further and final visit on the 15of July 2010 marking the project’s completion, through the frame of “reclamation of the tideland is an important work for the prosperity of the country” he further declared that “there are highly important tasks to be fulfilled to undertake the project for tideland reclamation in a bigger way in the future” and so “there should be no slackening of the high spirit displayed by the complex to complete the Taegyedo tideland”(KCNA, 2010).

Taegyedo has been an important project, central to the development of practical policy and institutional development within the field of tideland reclamation in North Korea. Taegyedo has also embodied much of the ideological development and institutional progression which occurred during its period of construction. It would of course be quite unnatural if Taegyedo was the end point of tideland reclamation or hydrological development in North Korea. Future projects might be expected to incorporate new approaches to developmental strategy, as well as to maintain the embedding and scaling of political charisma within the physical landscape of the Peninsula. Indeed, since the completion of the Taegyedo project, the intriguing Punijman Tideland in South Hwanghae Province has been completed, the first reclamation project documented explicitly intended to serve multiple functions, rather than simply delivering an extension of agricultural capacity. According to the KCNA, the area of reclamation will provide areas for aquaculture as well as arable land, and also the extraction of sea salt. It is possible that this model of reclaimed tideland serving multiple functions will develop into a wider theme in the field, and will prompt revision of the purpose of older schemes. For example, the Ryongmae project in South Hwanghae province (initiated in 1998, but since neglected) held a ground breaking ceremony on December 28 2010. This project is now envisaged as a multi-purpose reclamation area, including provision for aquaculture and hydro-electric power. It is potentially the largest of the newly developing projects, at some 12 miles long (KCNA, 2010).

  1. Conclusion

This paper has traced North Korea’s rapidly developing sense of political charisma and theatre, deployed within its development strategy. In particular this paper has examined Pyongyang’s policies towards hydrology and hydrological development. It has recounted the development not only of the wider planning framework which supported the sector from very early projects such as the Potong River project in 1946, and subject to the vagaries of geopolitics projects undertaken in later political and ideological frames. Finally the paper has analysed the historical and political narrative focusing on one particular hydrological project, Taegyedo, North Korea’s largest ever tidal reclamation project. Taegyedo spans the geo-political eras in North Korean history, founded in the early 1980s in the last decade of the Warsaw Pact and completed following the famine and crisis period of the 1990s.

Tidal reclamation it seems has been particularly important to North Korean hydrological development. The reconfiguration of coastal and tidal landscapes demanded by these policies allows for the enactment and projection of what, for North Korea must surely be the most radical form of political utopianism, the physical generation of new revolutionary space. Not only does this literally new landscape add to the capacity of Pyongyang’s agricultural or aquacultural sectors, it provides connections between the generations of the Kim family, allowing legitimative charisma to flow between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (and perhaps even Kim Jong-un), through vectors and channels that need not be based back in the guerrilla period of the 1930s and the struggle against Japanese imperialism. We might perceive this as fundamental to North Korean claims to be the governors and progenitors of a new form of sovereign body, a socialist body politic which extends and includes more than simply its political aware and active human population, but the topographic spaces which bound and make up its terrain.

This charismatic re-projection of course is conceptualised by this paper through the theoretical frame so far as North Korea is concerned of Kwon and Chung’s conceptualisation of charismatic or theatric politics. This political theatre of course spreads out into the physical landscape of the nation, in particular in this instance the coastal landscapes of the nation. Such political landscapes are conceptualised by the paper as constructed political, social or cultural spaces and places through the analysis of scholars such as Cosgrove and Castree. Hydrology and hydrological engineering is of course for this paper considered in the light of Karl Wittfogel’s extraordinary notion of both Oriental Despotism and Hydraulic Economy, concepts which specifically address the politics and state development of Asia landscapes. Given the autarkic political form of North Korea, this paper has considered Erik Swyngedouw’s analysis of a hydrological aspiration in a similarly difficult or autocratic political form, namely Francoist Spain.

It is, as may be glimpsed in this paper’s analysis impossible to hold to Wittfogels’ conception of the Hydraulic Economy in the case of the Korean Peninsula (or for that matter, much of the Orient as perceived by that author), owing to local hydrological and topographic conditions and the course of Korea’s historical development. However it is the case that hydrological engineering and more specifically the control of the tidal and coastal edges of North Korea through the processes and efforts of a radical form of politics and governance has been key to North Korean state formation and to its developmental processes. Projects such as Taegyedo can be placed within a coherent historical structure of development, demonstrative of the successes and failures of North Korea’s approach to state craft. The landscape of that state certainly echoes Swyngedouw and others conception of both technonature and perhaps political natures. A brief glimpse at news reports from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper in recent months reveals concrete examples of the physicality of such a technonature in the Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station (Rodong Sinmun, 2016). In conclusion therefore hydrology, hydrological engineering and coastal reclamation projects can be said to have been key to previous modes of Pyongyang’s institutional functionality, real projections of past political authority, they are also as much manifestations of a technonature harnessed for national construction and reconstruction. Given the shift in political forms in North Korea from the simple autocracy of the Kim Il-sung era to theatric present under Kim Jong-un, this paper anticipates North Korea’s hydraulic future as a composite mix of these constructed, rescaled, charismatic processes of continuing construction and reconfiguration.

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