The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play: Children’s Spaces and Places of Refuge in North Korea (Excerpt)

Places of Refuge, Elderly Terrains

…Having considered North Korea’s leisure history in order to contextualise both the notion of non-productive or leisurely space under Pyongyang’s remit and to consider some of the political and ideological imperatives which underpin the production and development of such spaces the paper’s narrative arrived at what is essentially a space for families and children. While this paper does in fact address some elements of childhood experience in North Korea and will examine them in the light of these leisurely spaces by the Taedong, it is not the spaces of family that are of interest to this author, but to what might be regarded as the potentially more hidden spaces of the disabled and the orphaned.

North Korea has not been known for its kind treatment of those who do not fit within its social and ethical model. Hazel Smith in her recent book ‘North Korea: Markets and Military Rule” for instance expressed astonishment at North Korean census figures from 2010 which at least suggested that teenage or non-normative pregnancy might be a fact in North Korea (recording some 156 births to mothers under the age of 16 in 2010), having never done so before (Smith, 2015, p.231). London’s Paralympic Games in 2012 was the first recorded instance of a disabled athlete competing in public for North Korea and research by this author (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015a), has sought to unpick the connections between this fact and work focused on institutional capacity building between the North Korean Ministry of Health and the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Other nations (both autocratic and democratic) in history have sought to eradicate those who are differently or dis-abled, Nazi Germany of course seeking to exterminate the unfit and the unwell, and Sweden having a long standing policy of forced sterilisation of those with Learning Difficulties and Difference, only ending in the early 1980s being simply two disparate examples. Whether North Korea ever sought by policy means to do so is unknown, but there has been much speculation as to the fate of those who by their physical or mental natures could not hope to be as productive as the general citizenry under Pyongyang’s sovereignty.

Of course there is nearly always one category of disabled or differently abled citizens who are not regarded as burdensome by nations or territories, quite the opposite in fact their support and rehabilitation is often seen as a focus of national commitment and social duty, soldiers and people of uniform. There is a huge body of research focused on the functionality and suitability of veterans and service people’s support post combat in a number of sovereignties and nations, but absolutely none it seems addressing North Korean veterans and service people and the provision of services to them. While this paper cannot hope to cover their experience holistically or comprehensively it can at least, with a Geographer’s eye begin to present some of the political and physical terrain of these services and their experience.

“You disabled soldiers fought heroically against the US imperialist aggressors and shed your blood to defend the motherland during the last war. It is really admirable that, although seriously disabled, you are taking an active part in the building of socialism” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.214).

Kim Il-sung’s statement, recorded in the Works series for 1958 as “We must take good care of disabled soldiers who shed their blood in the fight for the country and the people”, and apparently given at a workshop for disabled soldiers is the foundation statement so far as North Korean ideological conceptions of disabled ex-employees and service people is concerned. While a tremendous debt is acknowledged to those who have become disabled through military combat for their nation (“We must scrupulously look after the disabled soldiers in every respect so that they will not suffer any inconveniences both in life and in work” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.214), the individuals themselves are not absolved from commitments to the national cause, nor the strictures of revolutionary fervour. Disabled soldiers should, even in this space and place of refuge, work and be as productive as possible: “…you should do some work. Yet, you should never overwork yourselves. It will be good to work as much as necessary to keep yourselves fit.” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.216). Given this apparent focus on productivity and as an example to be followed, those who were resident in this particular workshop were to be amply supplied to enable their work; “The disabled soldiers here want more fruit gardens. So it will be a good thing to give them the state orchard in the vicinity of the workshop…The disabled soldiers should be supplied with both fuel for production and firewood for home use” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.2014). As with other citizens of North Korea, the disabled should be supported further in their education and personal development, and prejudice which might be problematic to that end be resisted: “Now a comrade claimed that once he went to a school for disabled soldiers, only to be rejected and returned back because he had arms missing. The cadres at the school did the wrong thing. Could it be that one who has no arms cannot study?” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.216). Disabled ex-service people within the text are widely anticipated to engage in education at all levels and within all institutional structures provided.

However, along with work itself, disabled soldiers and service people who have essentially fought for the North Korean revolution (within this text, the fighting which disabled them would have been during the 1950-1953 war against United Nations and Republic of Korea forces), should not neglect or forget that revolution. The Disabled must be as good and as ideologically sound North Koreans as any other, as committed and as respectful of its revolutionary traditions as they were during their combat: “Disabled soldiers should always love the people and hate only the enemy. As you fought well and courageously for the motherland and the people on the battlefields in the past, you should today continue to have the same revolutionary spirit…” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.217). With this revolutionary spirit and commitment comes an ethical framework familiar surely to all North Korean political and Party appointees: “Our disabled soldiers should lead a simple life and always live in a revolutionary way. Under no circumstances should they drink alcohol and say things under its influence…” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.217).

Such spaces of refuge and support for the once militarily committed are of course therefore not to be spaces of refuge from the politics of North Korea and the demands of revolutionary ideology. In a sense past examples such as Kiluiju Disabled Soldiers Production Workshop are a reflection and a projection of this into the contemporary era and into the impetus and imperatives which underpin North Korean healthcare more generally. ‘On Making Good Preparations for Universal, Free Medical Care’ for instance a 1952 instruction from Kim Il-sung, and one of a number focused on the post Korean War rehabilitation of a devastated if optimistic North Korean bureaucracy and the form of state and infrastructure anticipated in the post War era, contains a pre-figuring of the sort of support and impetus behind such projects for the disabled. “Nothing is more precious to us than the lives of the people. At present our people are struggling both at the font and in the rear dedicating all they have to final victory in the war. What is it that we cannot spare people who fight selflessly, displaying noble patriotism and mass heroism” (Kim Il-sung, 1952, p.19).

While the terrain of Kiluiju Disabled Solders Production Unit of course is now in the distant historical past of North Korea and either photos nor contemporary reportage other than that recorded in Kim Il-sung’s Works and Selected Works are very difficult to access, North Korea’s ideological course as only consolidated institutional focus around the needs of military infrastructure and personnel in recent years. Kim Jong-il’s development of a Songun or Military First politics following the death of his father in 1994 entailed the wholescale revision of Party and governmental policy as well as institutional capacity. Food distribution, rationing and health infrastructure were heavily focused on supplying and supporting North Korea’s military. The infrastructure focused on the refuge of the elderly and the disabled has similarly developed, though with definite connections to the past calls for those resident to live productive and revolutionary lives, well emplaced within the wider superstructures of North Korean politics and ideology. Pyongyang’s newly built ‘Home for the Aged’ is just such a piece of infrastructure.

Amongst the pleasure and leisure spaces introduced earlier in the paper on the banks of the Taedong River, the Home for the Aged was completed and opened in early August 2015 (KCNA 2015a). While the images presented in the Rodong Sinmun (Rodong Sinmun 2015b) and KCNA (KCNA 2015a), undoubtedly present the home as part of Pyongyang and North Korea’s modern urban infrastructure and development and very much an element of governmental bequest in the age of Kim Jong-un, the reportage leading up to its opening makes very sure to connect to earlier eras and the revolutionary authority (Kwon and Chung, 2012), present within the historical narrative. Kim Jong-un for instance on visiting the still under construction building in March of 2015 is recounted as having; “…recalled with deep emotion that President Kim Il-sung, together with leader Kim Jong-il, visited an old service people’s home in Manal-ri, Sungho County in May 1948 when he was busy paving an untrodden path for nation-building and showed deep emotion for the inmates living conditions…saying that the state would take warm care of the aged…” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a). The home and its construction is also firmly fixed in the governmental and bureaucratic ecosystem of North Korea, reportage and documentation focused on the process paying both homage and careful articulation to/for the respective positions of both the Workers Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong-un remarked for instance during his March visit that “to build the home for the aged well is a very important work in correctly implementing the Worker’s Party of Korea’s policy for the care of the elderly and fully displaying its validity and vitality” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a) and also, in a nod to the military’s role in its construction “expressed belief that the soldier-builders would successfully complete the construction of the home by late June, true to the intention of the Party Central Committee” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a).

Even of course while focusing on bureaucratic and institutional niceties and the process of the Home for the Aged’s construction, North Korean reporting makes clear to assert the wider framework for the care of the disabled, elderly and combat injured service people as of 2015 in North Korea: “Under the paternal love of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the ‘DPRK Law on the Protection for the Aged’ was adopted in the country and the Central Committee of the Federation for the Care of the Elderly of Korea organized and the Party and the state have wholly taken charge of aged and disabled people’s health and life…” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a). The Home itself will it seems also serve to drive further and future developments in the care and service provision so far as spaces of refuge for the elderly and disabled are concerned: “The Pyongyang City Home for the Aged should be built as a prototype equipped with all conditions for its inmates to lead a happy life free from any cares and worries so that such homes can be constructed in localities with it as a model…” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a)

As a space of refuge and care for the disabled, elderly and disabled service people, Pyongyang’s new Home for the Aged is in summary presented as a space of comfort and refuge meant it seems to be in tune with some of the more comforting and less rigorous elements perhaps seen in Nursing Homes and accommodation or refuge spaces for the elderly in the United Kingdom and elsewhere (particularly the Netherlands developing network of Alzheimer’s Villages, in which the environment residents are placed is designed to reflect their own social constructs and life experience (Henley, 2012)). Kim Jong-un notes for example on its opening that “the home was successfully build to suit national character and flavour…dining rooms were constructed to create homelike atmosphere” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). However the terrain of the Home of the Aged is also presented as one of acute and definite modernity, in tune with many of the governmental priorities and agendas of the day. Kim Jong-un himself remarks that “the longer one watches, the more fashionable it looks” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b) and that in common with the infrastructure created in the 1950s to support not only the physical rehabilitation, but the political and social rehabilitation of disabled and injured service people, the home’s residents will not be allowed or afforded the opportunity to neglect their personal development. Kim Jong-un’s opening speech includes the assertion that “…service and healthcare establishments including barber’s, beauty parlor, bath and treatment rooms look impeccable and library, sporting room and amusement hall were also successfully built for the cultural and emotional life and physical training of health seekers” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). While their social and revolutionary health will be maintained, it will of course be done so in a structure that is environmentally friendly and ecologically sound in the manner that North Korea presents much of its infrastructural development in recent years; “an air conditioning system by use of geotherm is introduced into the home…and greening is it environment done very well” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b).

While the Home for the Aged is a distinct piece of architecture by itself therefore it is meant to be encountered within the wider terrain of development and infrastructure of its time. This is even more assertively established by the fact of its position, “built on the bank of the River Taedong in the wake of the Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015c). This terrain includes this connection with the afore named neighbouring facility, which allows the author and the paper to move to the opposite end of life’s spectrum, but in North Korea’s governmental mind-set adjoined in continuing efforts to demonstrate “vividly President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il’s love for the people” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b)…

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Recovering a Verdant Topographic-Self: Forests, Colonialism and the Re-Construction of Developmental Modernity in North Korea (Excerpt)

“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)

This the opening paragraph to the forestry section of the first “Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea”, published in 1907 by His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General (Japanese governmental authorities seemingly were not bold enough to assert their role as a Government General until the year of annexation in 1910), in Seoul is an essential summation of the Japanese few on Korean forestry management. Coupled with later statements that Korea has “no forestry law to speak of” speak of great conceptual difference between the classical, bureaucratic legalistic approach of Imperial Japan and that of the Choson dynasty.

It is of course difficult in a sense to assess the fairness or otherwise of Japanese claims so far as Korea’s ineffectual and uncoordinated approach to forest and timber resource and management, difficult as the chaos of the later Yi dynasty meant that whatever institutional systems and records that had been undertaken in the later years within Korea’s forest sector are essentially lost to us now, if they were ever accessible and obtainable to foreigners and externally interested parties. Equally as has been asserted many times and many scholars Choson Korea and the institutions of the Yi dynasty were simply not that sort of institutional or developmental state. While Yi dynasty Korea had a highly developed and deeply organised bureaucracy and civil service (which of course was intricately embedded with social stratification), in the Yangban classes and the Civil Examination process, it was not that sort of bureaucracy, focused primarily as it was on the maintenance of the Royal House, specific and general structures of social order and the difficult tenuous relationships this Korea had with its favoured partner China and the outside world.

As we have seen in the previous section, the institutional structures of Korean forestry were not the intricate works of bureaucratic organisation of Japanese history, but neither were they subject to amateurish neglect of the colonial imagination. Whatever the reality of this past however, its present manifestation did not suit the needs and requirements of the colonial administration and it was keen to make radical changes tailored to its agenda.

At the earliest moment of colonialism, even while it was still in the infancy of the Residency General, Japan sought to capitalise and reconstruct Korean forestry resource:

“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)

Accordingly the Residency General negotiated and undertook what it describes as a ‘joint’ enterprise with the Korean Government in building a new forestry coordination and trans-shipment centre at Antung (present day Chinese Dandong), opposite the Korean town of Sinuiji (which the document describes as Wiju), on the mouth of the Yalu. This served to coordinate and develop timber shipments along the Yalu River from the deep northern interior forests of North Pyongan and Chagang 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’[1] of timber from these ancient forests.

Further to this simple extractive project the Japanese Residency General sought in these early, initial days to reorganise the wider strategy and approach of Korea’s forestry institutions. 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…” (HIJMRG, 1908) These new forest, colonially guided projects were to be the locus and fulcrum of a new approach to timber and forest management. They were to cover 83,300 acres and include a number of new species imported directly from Japan. Along with these projects focusing on more mature forest stock, deeper research had begun to be framed and undertaken: “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 these site and location specific developments the Residency General suggested educational improvements and changes (“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), as well institutional changes moving 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[2]. This wider stock was found to be in similarly denuded and degraded conditions as the initial State Forest stock and thus wider strategies of afforestation were to be carried out. By this year of course the Government General had assumed political sovereignty on the Peninsula and the need for “model afforestation” centers under the 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, the aforementioned legal revisions came with Serei (Imperial Decree number 10), issued through the Govenor-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 for 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. Forestry management and resource was to be brought into modernity by a quasi-free market in forest management (be that for exploitative or regenerative purposes), one that could allow for deep inroads to be made by the institutions and organisations of Japanese colonial modernity. Dramatic developments were made in terms of experimental and exploitative forestry projects in this early colonial period, developments that would point ahead to later manifestations of colonial industrial denudations and exploitations…for example the Government General Annual Report for 1912 already reports some 1649 Cho of seedling beds within ten years for future exploitation.

Of course these reports from the colonial Government General are subject to some disputation on statistical grounds, as well as we will later on see 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,p.123), owing to their 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 tools of modern, Liberal legal frameworks 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 (equating to a quarter of the remaining ‘good’ forest) (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.126). This was not to engage in its afforestation or protection, for its whole scale deforestation. Accordingly Grajdanzev and the Government General itself (in reports not directly accessible to the author), recount the increase in cubic meterage of timber felled across the peninsula from some 700,000 in 1910 to 2.8 million in 1939 (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.124).

While the reports continue to recount in meticulous detail the modernisation of Korean forestry stock and practice, producing what …refers to as the colonial modern. In the later period of the colonisation the nature of what is meant by forestry practice following Grajdanzev’s analysis, radically alters. Perhaps this is to take into account the needs of Japanese military build-up and the eventual undertaking of the conflict in the Pacific and South East Asia. Whatever the impetus or drivers behind this process it seems from 1933 developmental paradigms and practices changed to one’s of deforestation and extraction. While this of course denuded forest stock to a much greater extent than the earlier period (in which there was an expansion in resource levels as shown by Grajdanzev), the later impact on North Korean conceptions of Japanese impact on the environment in general in North Korea was much greater.

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

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

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Kim Il Sung (1947) – “Let us Launch a Vigorous Tree Planting Movement Involving all the Masses”, Works 3, Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House

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Kim Il Sung. (1961) “On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement”, Works 15, Foreign Languages Publishing House

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Kwon, H and Chung, B. (2012) – North Korea : Beyond Charismatic Politics, Lanham, MY, Rowman and Littlefield

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Totman, C. (2004) – Pre-industrial Korea And Japan in Environmental Perspective, Leiden, Brill

New from RWC -Forests of Gold: Forests of Patriotic Socialism

The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should, as they carried out rehabilitation after the war, turn out in the campaign to restore the mountains of the country so as to turn them into “mountains of gold” thickly wooded with trees. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

The seemingly acute developmental concern of the Young Leader, Kim Jong-un has been fairly, if intriguingly clear since his accession to the throne of charismatic Kimism on the death of his father at Christmas 2012. While of course much theatrics have since ensued, enrapturing a great many a Pyongyangologist and sports fan, the pedagogy and education of his later youth in Switzerland surely cannot amongst the Michael Jordan DVDs have included much in the way of environmental training. But developmentally focused, Kim Jong-un has rather oddly been. In between those Dennis Rodman visits and the requisite number of appearances next to military hardware and sites of commemoration for his grandfather and father, he has found the time and inspiration to write a number of narratologically at least informative texts on such matters. From his first “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country” delivered in April 2012, to his instructive tome on institutional and bureaucratic matters to a group of Agricultural ‘subteam’ workers in 2013 to the New Years Messages of 2014 and 2015 focused respectively on recounting the anniversary of 1964’s Rural Theses and the topography of nationalist, foundational struggle at Paektusan, Kim Jong-un as ploughed a very individual and distinct developmentalist furrow.

This author unpacked the messages focused on environmental and topographical hymnal and paean in this year’s message early in the year for Sino-NK. The reader will have traced the themes and flows of narrative, as much as the aspiration to build and better utilize, what Kim termed “mountains and seas of gold”. It will not surprise the reader of course to hear therefore of Kim Jong-un’s return to the field of developmental publication with a new text entitled “Let the Entire Party, the Whole Army and All the People Conduct a Vigorous Forest Restoration Campaign to Cover the Mountains of the Country with Green Woods”

Kim Jong-un’s latest piece of apparently long form authorship will also not surprise the reader given the political and bureaucratic commemorative calendar of North Korea and the fact that National Tree Planting Day arrives early on March 4th followed by the highly important Spring Land Management Campaigns. This author has also covered this aspect of the yearly cycle of institutional impetus and charismatic connection before, as the period is marked and remarked upon nearly every year. However while the moment is indeed frequently noted, it is still rare for such an extensive statement to be made.

This author’s overarching reading of Kim Jong-un’s text is that is no less a rebuke and critique than Kim Il-sung’s dressing down of unheeding or unresponsive provincial authorities in Chagang Province during the 1960s. Echoing language used by his grandfather in the foundational 1964 text “Let Us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers”, Kim Jong-un asserts that “Forests are precious resources of the country and a wealth to be handed down to posterity. Our country has been called a land of golden tapestry for the mountains thick with forests and the fields covered with beautiful flowers” and following “Japanese imperialist colonial rule” Kim Il-sung had “…unfolded a far-reaching plan to turn all the mountains into thickly wooded places of people’s resort by having trees planted in large numbers…”

Surely positive words to the ears of provincial administrators everywhere, these opening remarks in the text are alas, for that audience, the last of reassurance and charismatic comfort. Kim Jong-un goes on to complain that “…people have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent…” These claims, that on the face of it sound akin to critiques of Korean approach to forest and timber resource from both the days of the Government General of Chosen and a disappointed Park Chung-hee on his return from a verdant Japanese mainland come finally complete with a denunciation of bureaucratic efforts and focus on aboreal matters.

“As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountains”

Considering of course the importance of environmental and developmental elements to North Korea’s narrative of political charisma and superiority, this does not sound like the terrain and topography called for in the many drives for the embedding and rebroadcast of Pyongyang’s patriotic sense in its landscapes and spaces. Kim Jong-un even presents for the reader, Kim Jong-il’s own pain and annoyance at the situation during his time, remembering that he “…grieved for the decreasing forests of the country…” that the deforestation was also an aftermath of the Arduous March” and it was institutional necessity “…to turn the misfortune into a blessing and hand down to the coming generations beautiful mountains thick with forests…”

But those thick forests and beautiful timber covered mountains would never come in Kim Jong-il’s time it seems, and now the Young Generalissimo feels a sense of acute urgency towards the matter. “The forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads–whether to perish for ever or to be restored”, he asserts “We can no longer back off from the issue related with the forests. As long as the forests are left as they are, no one can claim that he is a master of the country nor can he speak about patriotism”

The achievement of this patriotic developmental outcome, of course given all of that apparent stasis and stagnation will be no mean feat. One would imagine it would require complete institutional revision and dramatic reconfiguration of the approach and structures of its forestry sector….Imagination of course predicated on the social and cultural context of the imaginer, and North Korea’s particular weltanschaung is, if not unique, certainly distinct. This Kim Jong-un’s outlined solutions and framework appear a smorgasbord of derivations and tendencies sourced from throughout its political, sovereign and developmental history.

Naturally it will be an all-encompassing effort, involving the effort of the entire North Korean national body: “The entire Party, the whole army and all the people should conduct a vigorous forest restoration campaign to make the mountains of the country thick with forests” It will be revolutionary and combative in tone “…Forest restoration is a challenging and complex undertaking of raising young trees, transplanting them and then cultivating them year in, year out in the face of harsh challenges of nature…The forest restoration campaign is a war to ameliorate nature…” Equally it will be urgent and necessary in a form only held in common with previous modes and examples of revolutionary speed, such as those from Maoist China “What is important in conducting this campaign is to push ahead with forest planting and conservation simultaneously. We should bring about a sweeping revolution in forest planting…”

Held in common with a great many other elements of North Korean politics and ideology however, and which is now commonly understood by analysts and scholars focusing on such matters it will essentially also be whatever and what if what is required, not just in developmental or functional terms, but will also need to address narrative and commemorative purposes.

Forestry development in Kim Jong-un’s eyes therefore will need to be grounded in science and the institutions of science. Kim suggests that for example, “…success of the forest restoration campaign depends on how nurseries provide young trees…”, that there should continue to be a central nursery which, importantly in commemorative and legitimacy terms, having been founded by Kim Il-sung (“with a far sighted plan…bequeathed to us as part of his legacy…”) should “raise the level of scientification, industrialization and intensification in growing young trees”. While these nursery institutions are vital to the conceived process of afforestation and scientific endeavour, research should be led at an elite level by an Academy of Forest Science, which according to Kim Jong-un should be refurbished “into a world-class academy”

This mention of the rest of the world, surprisingly perhaps for a text so defiantly local and North Korean, leads Kim Jong-un to again echo the past, but this time it is an echo with its origins in the colonial period’s efforts to transplant a forestry of modernity into the post-annexation Peninsula. “We should take measures to introduce and widely disseminate the global achievements of the advanced science and technology related to forest planting and conservation….we should bring in…trees from foreign countries and widely proliferate them” Further to this call to global connection and to this author even more surprising is Kim Jong-un’s demand for the embedding of these externally sourced conceptions within local institutions and frameworks: “…a brisk drive for disseminating forest science and technology should be waged to keep people abreast of the world trend of development of forest science and technology.”

In a sense if it were to be followed, Kim Jong-un’s suggestions of increased developmental knowledge exchange with the wider world, more focus on empirical rigour within the sector, and better organised, nationally aware but locally focused institutions and bureaucracies might make a real difference to the functionality and viability of forest resource in North Korea, as such an approach would in any nation. However of course within Pyongyang’s sovereign realm there are other forces and agendas at play, so these fairly rational scientific platitudes must be matched to commemorative and legitimatory narratives and practices.

Just as urgency is deployed in the scientific realm, so it will be utilised within the charismatic. Kim Jong-un within later sections of the document reverts to what we might term the revolutionary mean. Here politics and functional development are undertaken by ‘the mass’ as Chairman Mao would have understood it, one homogenous, energetic, powerful yet not necessarily functional assemblage of co-opted, coerced and perhaps the enthusiastic publics. Kim Jong-un suggests for instance that “It is our Party’s traditional method of work to propel the revolution and construction by means of mass-based movements”, before comparing whatever projects must be undertaken to redevelop and regenerate North Korea’s forestry stock to projects and campaigns such as the Ch’ollima movement, projects whose difficulties this author has considered at some length.

Perhaps ultimately the charismatic and commemorative inclination of the mass is what prevents Kim Jong-un from moving on to pastures or timbers new within this key text. As much as it would make sense to leave forest development up to the nurseries, to the Forest Academy to the local bureaucracies tasked with increasing stock in their domain, North Korean politics is nothing without its key institutional base of Party, Army and a perceptual (if not perhaps real) popular mass. When Kim Jong-un begins to make assertions that “Only when the whole country and all the people are involved, can the forest restoration campaign bear fruit…” It cannot be surprising that the phrase “…as they conducted reconstruction after the war” should follow.

Ultimately and in conclusion it seems that however far Kim Jong-un might want to reach in systematic arboreal terms, in this text he proves himself trapped by the weight of history and its necessary recantations and representations. Developmentally trapped by the weight of fighting eternal theoretical and metaphorical war as the Young Leader can only conclude that “…nurseries are to a forest restoration campaign what munitions factories are to a war…” we must conclude that in this instance of forestry and timber resource, developmentally Pyongyang finds itself trapped by a Patriotism of its own perception.

New from RWC – From East, From West, The Red Flag Relay Comes

Red Flag Relay Starts at Samjiyon

The Red Flag Relay Begins at Samjiyon : Image KCNA

In a series of pieces for Sino-NK known as “…and did those feed in ancient times…” during 2015, this author examined in detail the narratological and political content and technique generated and suggested by what North Korea had described as the “250 Mile Schoolchildren’s march”. For more than a week a group of schoolchildren re-enacted Kim Il-sung’s journey which would lead him out of colonial Chosen to the terrain in which he was later to become a General of Paektusan and Eternal President of North Korea. It was an extraordinary event rich in connection and intriguing in its presentation of its participant children as worthy inheritors of the charismatic revolutionary flame and vessels for its contemporary re-territorialisation. It was always fascinating for its skirting of the obvious and significant fact that unlike Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk or in fact any of those revolutionary progenitors of Pyongyang’s contemporary charismatic, theatric politics, none of the school children on the march nor any its’ of current inhabitants could be useful or legitimately be allowed the chance to cross the rivers of the Amnok. Instead this contemporary manifestation of political charisma were to be innately and impossibly bound by their temporality and geography, their journey and its power limited and restricted by the current remit of Pyongyang’s sovereignty.

The 250 Mile Schoolchildren’s march however was an intriguing and seemingly new tool in Pyongyang’s armoury and repertoire of theatric and commemorative practice, one replete with possibility given the extent of North Korea’s potential and predilection from and for the generation and exploitation of powerful narrative (imagined, constructed or otherwise). It would not of course have been surprising if North Korea’s propagandist or presentational authorities were to have put the practice to further, more developed use or in order better to extract further charismatic power and reflection from its utility. As 2015 is a year rich in moments of commemoration and memory those interested and focused on such matters would surely not have long to wait, and indeed so it was to be.

On August 4th, 2015, Rodong Sinmun announced the “Red Flag Relay of the Servicepersons of the Korean People’s Army (KPA)”. From the opening description it was clear that this project was a clear effort to connect the ideological and narrative dots between past, present and commemorative future. It was of course primarily to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, but the report focusing on its beginning also made sure to overtly connect the revolutionary legitimacy earned by North Korea’s past charismatic leadership to both the new leadership and to continue older preoccupations and concepts. Through a demonstrative act of will and as the report puts it “iron faith” undertaken by those undertaking the relay, appropriate commemorative connection might be made under the rule of Kim Jong-un through “fluttering the red flag of the revolution associated with the whole life of President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il.”

This initial report focusing on the setting out of those involved also cites its moment of departure, as might be expected, from one of the most charismatically important terrains in North Korea, the Samjiyon Grand Monument. The politically sacred architecture of this place and others near it geographically, commemorates the mythography of struggle undertaken by Kim Il-sung and his guerrilla band in the hills, mountains and wildernesses to the north of the lake, as well as the coyly expressed moment in which the relationship between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk that would produce Kim Jong-il as its offspring was first denoted in the historiography of North Korea. The statues and commemorative landscapes of this space are extraordinary, even in photographs and the report asserts that “the relay would offer a good occasion for arming the servicepersons with the revolutionary spirit of Paektu.” Of course it would not be the first time in 2015 that the famous mountain holy to the politics and historiography of North Korea has been mentioned by Pyongyang’s political writers and reporters. Most importantly Kim Jong-un’s New Years Message explicitly framed 2015’s North Korea’s institutional and political year within the commemorative space of Paektu, articulating a new revolutionary spirit “the spirit of the blizzards of Paektu.” Accordingly and physically manifesting this spirit, the participants in the relay would re-territioralize its imperatives elsewhere in North Korea, taking two journeys through the nation and eventually arriving at Panmunjom on the DMZ (the better to represent the notion of national reunification to actually physically appear at the division which would need to be overcome in that instance), as the report makes clear “a red flag embroidered with the letters ‘the revolutionary spirit of Paektu, the spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” in hand.

Red Flag Relay visits Musan

Red Flag Relay Visits Musan : Image Rodong Sinmun

Similarly to the reportage which covered the march of the school children a year earlier, the red flag relay and its participants in its journey would reconnect distant and dislocated places within a physical narrative articulated by their urgent footprints. The western half of the relay would take its re-territiorializing imperatives firstly to the battle monuments of Musan and the port city of Chongjin on the 7th of August , Kosanjin and Kumchon revolutionary sites (commemorating the Headquarters of the KPA during the second, less dynamic half of the Korean War) and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong (to pay vital homage to Kim Jong-suk), on the 11th of August. On the same day the eastern division of the relay would also arrive at Mt Taesong having travelled through Hamhung and Wonsan and encountered not simply the “field guidance of the peerlessly great men of Mt Paektu” as one might expect, but rather extraordinarily “a meeting for learning from the spiritual world of the fighters who displayed the self-blasting spirit.”

August 13th’s visit to the hugely expanded Sinchon Museum with its detailed North Korean historiographic account of what is known to Pyongyang as the Sinchon Massacre will no doubt be incorporated by many scholars of the narrative for the report’s extensive photographic detailing of the museum’s exhibits. Whether the feelings of revenge elicited by those within the Relay group were envisaged as a key component of the “spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” earlier this year will of course never be known, but the museum’s dramatic, visceral vision of history absolutely drove the emotional pitch of the relay to new heights. Little re-temporalization of political energy nor imagination is necessary from the reported words of some of those involved, KPA members Kim Jong-su and Choe Kum-sil asserting that “they keenly felt once again [that] the US Imperialisst and class enemies were a group of cannibals regarding massacre of human beings as hobby [and] this made them whet the class sword more and more sharply.”


Red Flag Relay Visits the Sinchon Museum Image: KCNA

Red Flag Relay Visits the Sinchon Museum Image: KCNA

After finally on August 14th, visiting Jikdong Pass, Height 1211, Chol Pass and Mt Osong (reported as being “the mountain of Songun”), met with a group of war veterans and perhaps as a nod to the important activities commemorated in the first march of the schoolchildren in 2014 engaged in a “river crossing”, the relay groups arrived at their destination. Assembling in front of the monument at Panmunjom inscribed with Kim Il-sung’s signature on August 17th, those who had participated in the relay were joined by members from all three of North Korea’s military forces, members of the Workers Party and the Socialist Youth League to reiterate the narrative and philosophical messages of the event. Moments of diplomacy and international connectivity were, it has to be said put to one side in an almost orgiastic outburst of re-territorialization and connection between past and present. Dynamism, final victory, advance, reunification and revolutionary spirit were called upon to legitimize the relays path and arrival here at the physical manifestation of division, both a metaphorical gnashing of teeth and a reminder that with the “spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” in mind, for Pyongyang in 2015 wherever paths, journeys and travels may roamed or taken, whichever elements of charisma, narrative and authority may be deployed, October 10th and its crystallisation of North Korean political sovereignty may be the only destination.

The Red Flag Relay Reaches Panmunjom Image: KCNA

The Red Flag Relay Reaches Panmunjom Image: KCNA

From the Sino-NK Archives (35) – 25.08.2015 – Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

Kim Jong-suk and the azaleas

Kim Jong-suk: Indomitable Revolutionary | Image: Women of Korea

Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

“Wreaths were laid before the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery on Mt. Taesong on Saturday, the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation…The participants paid silent tribute to the revolutionary martyrs who laid down their lives for the liberation, reunification and independence of the country and accomplishment of the revolutionary cause of Juche…They laid bouquets before the bust of anti-Japanese war hero Kim Jong Suk and observed a moment’s silence.”((“Wreaths Laid before Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong,” Rodong Sinmun, August 17, 2015))

The overt singling out of Kim Jong-suk amongst all the other revered residents of the cemetery on Mount Taesong at this utterly vital moment in North Korea’s political calendar suggests that the once humble share-cropper from Hoeryong certainly has assumed a uniquely important place in the narrative pantheon of Pyongyang’s political legends. Kim Jong-suk appears in 2015 alongside North Korea’s Great, Dear and Young leaders in a way unlike any other of its citizens. Within the narratology and historiography of North Korea, Kim Jong-suk now, alongside Kim Il-sung, overwhelms all other participants in these struggles and amongst this topography.

Pyongyang’s institutions urge North Korean citizens to re-temporalize and re-territorialize events from the period in contemporary time. This is done for the purposes of ideological reiteration or the transmission of political charisma — as we saw last year with the march of the school children and recently in the Red Flag Relay. ((“Red Flag Relay Groups of Service Personnel Arrive in Panmunjon,” Rodong Sinmun, August, 17, 2015.)) At the center of such drives are the experiences and encounters of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk and Kim Jong-il — but rarely are any other revolutionary Koreans singled out as exemplary.

It was, as one might suspect, not ever thus; there is a substantial fluidity and transmutability of North Korea historiography and narrative. Kim Jong-suk’s own biography makes repeated reference to other participants in the revolutionary struggles, describing her companions and fellow travellers as “other female guerrillas.” These women play a role at the moment of conceptual consummation of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk’s relationship: (“Leaning on a birch tree on which spring tints were emerging, he [Kim Il-sung] posed with the commanding officers…One of them suggested to him that he should have his photo taken with Kim Jong-suk. Hearing this, Kim Jong-suk grew shy and hid behind the backs of the women guerrillas. They pushed her forward to his side. In order not to miss the moment, the “cameraman” clicked the shutter. For Kim Jong-suk, it was as good as a wedding photo.”((Biography of Kim Jong-suk (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 132.)) However, they are rarely, if ever, mentioned by name and their stories are not described in any useful level of detail in the texts of Biographies or core publications directly focused on Kim Jong-suk.

So where might we travel as readers and scholars to encounter or uncover the stories of other woman, a supporting cast if you like, who supported and fought with Kim Jong-suk and Kim Il-sung during the period from which North Korea derives so much of its charismatic political authority?

Women of Korea: North Korean “Herstory” | Archival research by this author in the libraries and institutions of South Korea and the Captured Documents collection of the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration in College Park, Maryland has uncovered a fascinating publication, Women of Korea. One of North Korea’s extraordinary collection of semi-academic, semi-populist English language publications produced for an audience in the wider world between the 1970s and 1980s, Women of Korea seeks to address in detail the experiences of women in many different fields of business and life in the North Korea of this time. Women of Korea also sought to be educative so far as North Korea’s political and historical narratives were concerned at their intersections with women’s lives and what has been called by critical feminist historians “herstory.”((Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful (New York City, NY, Random House), 1970))

While such an approach to historiography perhaps unsurprisingly revolves around those most important to North Korean politics, such as Kim Il-sung and his “love and care” for women, the magazine includes narratives which are occasionally contradictory to its current political mainstream. A key example is the intriguing interplay of importance and centrality focused on Kang Ban-sok, Kim Il-sung’s mother, on the pages of Women of Korea throughout the 1980s. Kim Jong-suk does not appear in the magazine prior to 1981. Between then and 1984, Kim Jong-suk and Kang Ban-sok have an uneasy coexistence on its pages, and then Kang Ban-sok disappears from the narrative, seemingly not to appear again. It seems rather clear that the emergence and emphasis of Kim Jong-suk within North Korean history and myth is was connected to the succession campaign of her son, Kim Jong-il in the early 1980s, but this is not our focus here.

Between 1981 and 1992, Women of Korea featured an extraordinary monthly series focusing on a woman who accompanied or who was known by Kim Jong-suk during her guerrilla period. The series contains biographical details expounded about the women and their place within the wider charismatic political narratives. These articles form an important and extension corpus through which both the individual lives of these women can be glimpsed and in which perhaps familiar generic narratological tropes of the North Korean historical canon can be seen.

There is extensive focus, for example, on the similar backgrounds these women shared with Kim Jong-suk, whose childhood as an impoverished share cropper harassed by landlords and Japanese colonialists at the margins of Korean and diaspora life and the impact this had on her rapidly developing sense of nationalism is intricately detailed as a vector of her transformation in her many biographies. Choe Hui-suk, for instance, is described as having been “bereaved of her mother at the age of three. She and her father, a farmhand, barely got along under all kinds of exploitation, contempt and poverty.”(( Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) Pak Rok-gum was born into a ‘poor peasant family in Kyongsong County, North Hamgyong Province,((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) similar to Li Gye-sun.((“The Brilliant Last: Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter Li Gye Sun, Women of Korea 1 (1987): 27.)) Pak Su-hwan was even born in the same county, Hoeryong as Kim Jong-suk and grew up “undergoing all sufferings and sadness of a ruined nation.”((“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.))

Pak Rok-gum

Pak Rok-gum “brave as a lion in battles” | Image: Women of Korea

These women, similar to Kim Jong-suk utilize education as a transformational vector in their transformation from obscurity in the mass of Korean peasantry into politically inspired, committed revolutionaries. Choe Hui-suk, for example, “trained herself to be a woman revolutionary under the guidance of the great leader,”((“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) and Li Sun-hui was one of a “large number of women who were educated in the revolutionary idea” ((“Liberty, then Life Counts,” Women of Korea, 3, 1991, 29.)). Similar to Kim Jong-suk’s own experience, these women, having been bestowed with and transfigured by charismatic revolutionary consciousness, project this charisma through educative and agitative activities. Pak Rok-gun for instance apparently “concentrated her strength on bringing many women to class awakening and rallying them around the revolutionary organizations,”((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) and Chon Hui is recounted as “having exerted herself to train the children to become fighters possessed of iron will, perseverance, courage and boldness.”((“Chon Hui, Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Martyr,” Women of Korea 4 (1988): 20.))

Crackshots and Angry Tigresses | Perhaps unsurprisingly this group of attendant female guerrilla fighters beyond their perhaps more positive educational contributions are equally adept at acts of combat and violence. Kim Hwak-sil, apparently called “woman commander” by her colleagues and comrades was a “crackshot” who “could hold a rifle by the barrel in each hand and lift them overhead.”((“A Guerrilla Amazon: on Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.)) Kim Il-sung himself presented her with a golden ring for “mowing down the enemy with a sharp-edged bayonet like an angry tigress, shouting out ‘Enemies, Come on! I’m avenging my comrades with this bayonet.’”((“A Guerrilla Amazon,” 25.)) Pak Rok-gun was “as brave as a lion in battles…. She walked more than 15km a day with a machine gun on her shoulders,”((“Eternity,” Women of Korea 2 (1990): 25.)) and Pak Su-hwan “fought bravely in many battles including those at Chechangzi and Naitoushan.”((“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.))

Unlike Kim Jong-suk, however, these women are not always successful in battle nor in evading arrest and capture by the forces of Imperial Japan. Whereas Kim Jong-suk appears capable of resistingany threat to Kim Il-sung’s life and avoiding any threat to her own mortality in battle, Kim Jong-suk’s supporting female guerrillas are regularly dismembered, annihilated and eviscerated. Sometimes their deaths are portrayed and memorialized as acts of military significance. Such was the case for Kim Hwak-sil, who in March, 1938 encountered an attacking Japanese force having walked through “a field of shoulder-high purple eulalia.” Hiding behind a rock, she was wounded in the chest and then ran out of ammunition. Women of Korea describes her next move in some detail: “She disassembled the lock of her rifle and buried it under the snow so that the enemy could not deprive her of the rifle permeated with the blood and soul of her comrades in arms. Then she dashed into the enemy with hand grenades in her arms. An explosion shook the forest and the enemy was wiped out.”((“A Guerrilla Amazon: On Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.))

Women’s bodies as topographies of violence | Kim Hwak-sil’s self immolation in resistance is by no means an isolated occurrence. The violence enacted by Hwak-sil on her own body and the bodies of her enemies (who no doubt died both agonizing and instant deaths), in fact becomes a key narrative and political device. The disfigurement and destruction of these women’s bodies at the hands of their Japanese enemies perhaps serves to illustrate for North Korean readers the potential violence to be enacted on themselves in the event of a future enemy victory. In some sense, it also echoes both the real and imagined violences of instances such as the Sinchon massacre during the later Korean War (an event very much in the mind of the commemorative authorities of North Korea at the moment).The brutality enacted upon fighters such as Pak Rok-gum whose “torture was extremely cruel,”((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) and who was apparently thrown in a room where “those with epidemic diseases were kept” and thus “died of illness on October 16, 1940 at the age of 25″((Ibid., 25.)) is extraordinary and savage.

Yet the acts and actions of these women’s deaths and tortures are presented in such a way that serves to transform them from simply gory testimonies which deny the victims of any agency. Instead they are rendered quite powerful moments of witness in which the dying women themselves testify to future revolutionary generations as to the charismatic nature and political, nationalist legitimacy of their cause. Pak Rok-gum while dying in prison coined a song with the verse “the red flag of the masses/covers the corpse of the fighter/the blood dyes the flag/before the corpse cools,”((Ibid.)) suggesting the transfer and rescaling of charismatic and nationalist power through violent death and narrative transfiguration.

This essay ends with the most extraordinary and violent narrative of them all, which really illustrates the intertwining of these women’s lives and deaths with North Korea’s political charisma and the potentially vital message for its future citizens. Through the story, the state argues the immolation and immersion of the needs and lives of the individual is sometimes an important and necessary process for the eventual success or utility of the collective.

Choe Hui-suk

“I have no eyes now, yet I can still see the revolution.” | Image: Women of Korea

Choe Hui-suk died on March 12, 1941. As rendered in Women of Korea, her death serves as the ultimate testifier at the altar of North Korea’s revolutionary period and its nascent political charisma, one whose political presence colours much of the later narrative focused on Kim Jong-suk. It is a telling absence in today’s North Korea that Hui-suk and these other women, having died horrendous deaths for the North Korean revolution, have been left behind by its narratives. Kim Jong-suk, as positioned by those who control her position in the histories, has subsumed the tropes of their narratives, effectively absorbing and embodying the political power generated by their deaths. Perhaps the urgency and pain of their annihilations perhaps is no longer necessary in the age of the Young Generallismo. Yet an encounter with the texts of Women of Korea and this charismatic supporting cast can revivify their presence in the mind of any reader.

Hui-suk, like many of her kind was captured by a Japanese “punitive force” while taking a message to Kim Il-sung and was badly wounded in the initial raid. After asserting to her captors that “A communist is also a human being. There is nothing to look down on!” she was spared nothing in her torture, the text recounting that “The enemy desperately inflicted atrocious tortures on her every day. They cried, “Reveal the secret of the partisan!” searing her body with a red-hot spit.”((“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) Eventually after entirely failing to break her will, Japanese army doctors “gouged out her eyes” and “scooped out her heart,” Hui-suk’s final words of testimony bequeathed to North Korea’s historiography and politics, and whose intent and power are surely transmitted to support its charismatic form, even at the most unlikely and desperate moments being, “I have no eyes now. But I can see the victory of the revolution.”((Ibid., 26.))

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (34) – 27.07.2015 – Returning to the Courtyard: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea

Ri Song-ryong and patriotic family in 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Ri Song-ryong and patriotic family in 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Returning to the Courtyard: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Following on from my 2013 article “Patriotism begins with a love of courtyard,” which focused on a particular extraordinary campaign of political narrative from North Korea revolving around the patriotism of one family unit in Pyongyang and their embedding of current charismatic political forms within the space of their own house, the author now further considers the utility of that campaign and the political methodologies and strategies which it might represent. Deploying in particular a conceptual framework derived originally from Cartography and recently reconfigured to support the empirical goals of human or political Geography, namely Scales and Scaling, this piece moves beyond and around the initial campaign, considering other campaigns and narrative projections. Ultimately it conceives of the process, in the context of North Korea’s political articulation as a carrier signal for its charisma. This article is a shortened version of a full length academic article published in Tiempo Devorado, the Journal of Consumed Time, published by the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

So before we turn to Ri Song-ryong and his family around their courtyard perhaps addressing the more general nature of patriotism might be helpful. When we do so in the more conventional social and political productions of the contemporary wider world there appears a particular texture and tone to the conception. Having been rehabilitated from enlightenment critiques, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s co-option of nationalistic fervor to underpin the modern nation-state and its democratic ideals (so under threat according to Rousseau as to require constant patriotic buffering), patriotism now serves generally the nation-state and its governmental-political-industrial complexes. Citizens are patriotic when they celebrate their nation’s success in war, defend it from defeat and subjection, resist the oppressor, commemorate the hero, and successfully marry their own personal commitments to wider repertoires of social and politically acceptable practice and praxis.

North Koreans, therefore, in an age of what has been termed Songun (military first politics)[1], can easily be imagined would be considered appropriately patriotic if they celebrated their nation’s military altercations with its enemies, they would be patriotic if they expressed loyalty to their political and scientific leadership when they developed new technologies of resistance or defense and they would patriotic when they commemorated the historical narratives of struggle against past colonizers and subjugators, in particular the Japanese. Of course, in a sense, this is very much so, especially in the presentation given by North Korean media output and official publications and as readers will know Pyongyang has an elaborate and extensive socio-cultural system of commemoration of national heroes and liberators. The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Sinchon Massacre Museum, and innumerable memorials, statues, and pilgrimage sites scattered around the country make sure that the citizenry of North Korea do not lose focus on the nature and importance of their nation’s military and liberation struggles[2]. An equally extensive temporal repertoire of commemorative events, days, programs, and festivals embeds these spaces of commemoration within a calendar of patriotism, which impacts deeply on North Korean’s social and political lives.

Kim Jong-un and Sinchon3

Kim Jong-un’s rescaling is underway at the Sinchon Museum. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Utilizing an intriguing deployment of the tools of revolutionary modeling originally masterfully used by the institutions of the People’s Republic of China under Mao’s Great Leap Forward[3], North Korea has focused the revolutionary energy of the mass upon its leadership characters. Thus Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un are transformed within this framework of commemoration and veneration into revolutionary models, in spite perhaps of their distance (in the case of the two later Kim’s), from the actual topography and temporality of that revolution. What then is done, enacted, and iterated by the Kim’s is almost intrinsically patriotic. The quotation that begins this section attests to the necessity of embodying that patriotism within institutional practice, in particular in its case, the service personnel of the Korean People’s Army. The text goes on to suggest connections between the defense of the territorial boundaries of the nation itself, Kim Jong-il’s patriotism, and its internalization or embodiment: “The history of his ceaseless inspections of outposts standing guard over the country in the death-defying spirit was cherished deep in the mind of the service personnel.”[4] And finally the connection of this patriotism, commemorative will, and science and technical capability is apparently manifest in North Korea’s space program: “The intense loyalty of the scientists to implement without fail the patriotic behest of him to glorify the country as a space power brought about such a miracle as the successful launch of Kwangmyongsong 3-2….”[5]

Unha 3-2 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Rescaling beyond the stratosphere: Image Rodong Sinmun

Unha 3-2 and Kwangmyongsong-3 Rescaling beyond the stratosphere. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Such cases and their articulation of a patriotic sensibility are, of course, singularly aggressive and combative. They are also in a sense exclusionary and cannot hope to include the entirety of North Korea’s population within their repertoire of practice and action, as not everyone can currently be a member of the service personnel (even in such a highly militarized state as North Korea during the reign of Kim Jong-il). But North Korean political narratives demand universality of applicability and connection, and ultimately patriotism must have a mode in which it can be diffused beyond the scope and spaces of military and service personnel. This paper wishes to assert that just such a diffusion was undertaken within Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard.

What the campaign within this familial space permits is a scalar shift in ideological and narrative manifestation from the grand, national, and institutional level to more approachable, local, and familial levels, through the construction of social-political relations at that level. At this scale patriotism and their enactment and construction into nature and the environment are translated to a more social level, the political and Party thematic, embedded within personal interactions and relationships. As Swyngedouw[6] and other social or critical geographers[7] might see it, here the state is empowering itself through enacting and re-embodying social processes within the landscapes of personal and familial life.

Revolutionary Modeling and Rescaling | It must be apparent that in some senses Ri Song-ryong and his family are classical and typical revolutionary models, in the Maoist or Stakhanovite sense.[8] Embodying correct socio-political practice through a rescaling of political narratives and processes from the grander scope of national and historical scale (in which legendary or slightly abstracted individuals or communities accomplish something apparently unlikely or near impossible), to the local, contemporary scale (in which you, the reader, the participant, must interact and accomplish those practices within your own life), revolutionary modeling in North Korea in general has manifested around the personages of the Kim family, or those groups of politically committed revolutionary pioneers that forged either the initial institutions and structures of North Korea or fought for the eventual liberation of Korea during the pre-colonial times.[9] Ri and his patriotic family however represent the re-scaling of the notion of the revolutionary model into a different landscape.

Leaving behind Ri, his family and their courtyard for socio-cultural spaces elsewhere in North Korea, but spaces nonetheless that are re-scaled through the process of revolutionary modeling to become socially and ideologically exemplary in such a way as to privilege processes over rather more dramatic outcomes. It is something of a cliché to declare that Pyongyang’s roads have rather less traffic than is usual for an East Asian city. In recent years North Korea’s Party and institutional elite appear to have bought many more vehicles and its roads have much more traffic.[10] This has not so far encouraged Pyongyang’s city authorities to invest in more traffic lights and other organizational infrastructure, accordingly drivers at its intersections and junctions are still directed by a group of fashionably uniformed police women known as the Traffic Command Corps. These woman have been the subject of the academic and touristic gaze in the past,[11] and the focus of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s interests[12], but 2014 saw an extraordinary moment of focus in which a member of their team gained international prominence.[13]

Ri Kyong Sim

Ri Kyong-sim: Rescaling personified. | Image: KCTV

Ri Kyong-sim, district traffic controller within Pyongyang City People’s Security Bureau’s Traffic Command Corps, one of those responsible for organizing and directing the city’s traffic, suddenly became a feature on North Korea’s main news channels. On May 5, Ri was granted a number of the most prestigious awards in North Korea’s gift. She was made a “DPRK Hero,” granted a “Gold Star Medal,” and made a member of the “Order of National Flag First Class,” all granted by one of the most senior institutions in the government The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Why should such a person, in a fairly low position, undertaking a job which, in the North Korean institutional hierarchical pyramid in Pyongyang is fairly close to the bottom be according such extraordinary treatment? The original KCNA coverage reported that “Ri dedicated herself to ensuring the traffic order in the capital city and displaying the heroic self-sacrificing spirit of safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance….”[14]

Rodong Sinmun and KCTV were, even given their initial reporting of such an apparently important moment, not entirely clear as to what had actually occurred. But it became apparent that Ri Kyong Sim had in the midst of a traffic accident rescued or protected a pair of images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Images of the leaders (and of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s first wife, and Kim Jong-il’s mother) are protected by law in North Korea, revered objects which serve to remind citizens of their position at the base of the revolutionary pyramid, to assert and reinforce the regimes assertion of “fatherly love” and to transmit its perceived charisma and authority. There are a number of examples during the guerrilla period in which Kim Il-sung and his fellow supporters fought and harassed Japanese forces on the borders of Korean and Manchuria and from during the Korean War, when representations of important figures and physical relics of moments in those key struggles in the construction of North Korean national identity and mythology become vital to current political commemoration.[15]

Ri Kyong-sim, it seems, was to be a new defender of such revolutionary narrative and imagery, her act of defense a rescaling of more urgent narratives of both national construction and defense, in line with Swyngedouw and others[16] conception of this process’ production of embodied social and political relations. Ultimately this was made even more explicit by the KCNA’s assertion later in the month that Ri “devotedly defended the security of the headquarters of the revolution in the unexpected situation and rescued portraits of the great men of Mt Paektu.”[17] The process of social and political production rescaled in the contemporary North Korean present right back to the semi-mythic period of the resistance to colonial power and subjectivity.

Charisma in the Biotechnology Branch Laboratory: Image KCNA

Charisma in the Biotechnology Branch Laboratory | Image: KCNA

While Ri is by no means the only individual or group of individuals whose contemporary experience or interaction with a landscape impacted or embedded within North Korea’s charismatic political narrative is rescaled through this process of revolutionary modelling so as to support the transfer of that narrative and its charismatic content from one scale of socio-political relations to another. In 2014 and 2015 for instance, scientific endeavour and academic research has been a key element of North Korea’s developmental agenda. Rodong Sinmun in particular has carried a number of picture articles focused on institutions such as the Academy of Koryo Medicine,[18] the State Academy of Sciences,[19] and Biotechnology Branch Academy.[20] In all of these articles groups of scientists are shown engaging in their particular specialism surrounded by the landscape determined by their empirical methodologies, such as research greenhouses, clinics with medical facilities and laboratories replete with autoclaves and other technical paraphernalia. These are scientists and researchers from our contemporary time, entwined with the landscapes of North Korea and the context of its socio-political relations: as they currently manifest. However Rodong Sinmun also editorialises their activity in language such as “our scientists and technicians serve in advance units in the decisive battle for the defense, system and life…. For them there is no fortress invulnerable. They are revolutionaries….”[21] Just as Ri Kyong Sim’s contemporary encounter with the landscape of charisma is rescaled, these anonymous scientists and academics find their everyday research terrain transmogrified into a revolutionary space, a landscape akin to the de-temporalized and de-territorialized truly charismatic landscapes of North Korea’s nationalist mythologies.

Sui generis descriptions of North Korean politics are, as we have made clear many times on Sino-NK, neither analytically useful nor empirically valid. North Korea’s politics is not unique and plenty of other nations have sought to maintain political and social infrastructures and approaches similar to it. Other nations have also acted diplomatically or militarily in ways the roots, ambitions, interests, and outcomes of which were hard to discern. Other nations have even sought to utilize extensive cults of personality. That is not, however, to say that politics and the articulation and manifestation of political narratives in North Korea does not do interesting, sometimes extraordinary things that are worthy of study.

This piece’s framing of the impact and outcomes of North Korean political campaigns, their embeddings, enactments and articulations through the lenses of Kwon and Chung’s charismatic and theatrical politics,[22] Castree,[23] and Cosgrove’s symbolic, socially, and politically constructed landscapes,[24] and Smith and Swyngedouw’s reconfiguration of the nature of scaling, from one of pure cartography to one of social and political analysis and comment, has, it is hoped, allowed the reader to encounter such political interactions in a new light–in a sense for them to have been rescaled themselves.

As Kwon and Chung make clear in their analysis of North Korean political interactions, it is not enough for a political figure, element, narrative or instance to simply be charismatic, its charisma cannot simply be innate, it is must be actioned and actualized through an enacting and performance in theatrics. Thus these campaigns as they are experienced on paper or as they are interacted with on the ground by North Korean citizens are not simply static moments of assertion, but through the act of rescaling become re-territorialized and re-temporalized in the experiential present. Rescaling allows the witness or viewer to experience something of the content of their charisma. Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard would simply be a picture of Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard on the page or on the screen, were its articulation not ultimately an act of rescaling.

The transfer of one thematic or element of political charismatics from one scale to another, whether temporal or topographic (national to local, historical to contemporary for example), transmits and transforms the social-political process and its interaction with those landscapes and terrains involved, one to another, the act of transmission itself serving as a carrier-signal for the transformation. In this way rescaling itself becomes an actor in the social-political process of North Korea’s charismatic politics, as much as those landscapes or participants who are themselves rescaled. Through such carrier signals, the spatial reality of Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard in Sowon-ri can be transformed into any courtyard and Ri Song-ryong’s expression of patriotism through enactment on his own landscape can become any citizen’s patriotic expression.


[1] Alexey Vorontsov, “North Korea’s Military First Politics: A Curse or a Blessing,” Brookings Institute, May 26, 2006 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[2] Suzy Kim, “Specters of War in Pyongyang: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in North Korea,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 14 (2015): 124-151 and Adam Cathcart, “Museum Pieces: Kim Jong-un, the Korean War and the shadow of Maoism,” Sino-NK, August 5, 2014 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[3] Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[4] “Thoroughly Embody Kim Jong-il’s Patriotism,” Rodong Sinmun, December 11, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[5]Ibid.

[6] Erik Swyngedouw, “Excluding the other: the production of scale and scaled politics,” in Geographies of economies, Roger Lee and Jane Wills (eds.) (London: Arnold, 1997), 167-176.

[7] Neil Smith, “Geography, difference and the politics of scale,” in Postmodernism and the social sciences, Joe Doherty, Elspeth Graham, and Mo Malek (eds.) (London: Macmillan, 1994), 57-79.

[8] Mitch Meisner, “Dazhai, The Mass Line in Practice,” Modern China 1 no. 4 (1978): 27–62 and Xin An Lu, Dazhai: Imagistic Rhetoric as a Cultural Instrument,” American Communication Journal 5 no. 1 (2001): 1–26.

[9] Robert Winstanley-Chesters,  Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Press, 2015).

[10] Charles Armstrong, “The view from Pyongyang,” The New York Times, August 15, 2012 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[11] Gareth Mizrahi, “The North Korea Traffic Girls,” The North Korea Blog, May 22, 2013, (accessed July 24, 2015).

[12] Tania Branigan, “What we know about North Korea,” The Guardian, August 6, 2009 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[13] “North Korean traffic cop may have saved Kim Jong-un’s life,” The Daily Telegraph, May 9, 2013 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[14] “DPRK Hero title awarded to traffic controller,” KCNA, May 5, 2013 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[15] “At Academy of Koryo Medicine,” Rodong Sinmun, May 5, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[16] Swyngedouw, “Excluding the other” and Neil Smith, Uneven development: nature, capital and the production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).

[17] “Many models in new era produced in DPRK,” KCNA, May 31, 2014 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[18] “At Academy of Koryo Medicine,” Rodong Sinmun, May 5, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[19] “At State Academy of Sciences,” Rodong Sinmun, February 10, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[20] “At Biotechnology Branch Academy of the State Academy of Science,” Rodong Sinmun, March 15, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[21] “Scientists must discharge their mission with honour,” Rodong Sinmun, April 8, 2014 (accessed March 25, 2015).

[22] Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[23] Noel Castree, Social Nature (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2001)

[24] Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (33) – 08.06.2015 – Cultures of Critique: Kim Jong-un on North Korean Deforestation

Kim Jong Un and the Tree Nursery

Kim Jong-un visits the General Tree Nursery in May 2015. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Cultures of Critique: Kim Jong-un on North Korean Deforestation

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should, as they carried out rehabilitation after the war, turn out in the campaign to restore the mountains of the country so as to turn them into mountains of gold” thickly wooded with trees. — Rodong Sinmun

The seemingly acute developmental concern of the “Respected Marshall” Kim Jong-un has been fairly, if intriguingly, clear since his accession to the throne of charismatic Kimism on the death of his father in December 2011. Amid the ensuing theatrics, speculation over the pedagogy Kim Jong-un received during his later youth in Switzerland has not been terribly serious, focusing more on the influence of Michael Jordan rather than lingering on any possibility of environmental training. But, rather oddly and nevertheless, Kim Jong-un has been developmentally focused.

In between his now-standard appearances next to military hardware, sites of family commemoration, and the odd visit from Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong-un is now presented as having found the time and inspiration to write a number of texts on developmental matters. While these texts do not betray an in-depth, empirically grounded knowledge of science or environmental process, they are surely informative from a narratological perspective.

Kim Jong-un has ploughed a very individual and distinct developmentalist furrow, starting with his first work delivered in April 2012. Entitled “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country,” the essay sparked speculation outside of North Korea that the young leader had a kind of possibly reformist zeal, while internally, the essay became a touchstone for North Korean officials concerned with land management.  Kim Jong-un then moved on instructively into institutional and bureaucratic matters for a group of agricultural “subteam” workers in 2013. His New Year Messages of 2014 and 2015 then focused, respectively, on celebrating the anniversary of 1964’s Rural Theses and climbing the topography of nationalist, foundational struggle on the volcanic heights of Baekdusan.

Covering the Mountains with Green Woods | The environmental aspects of Kim Jong-un’s messages and their embedded collective hymnal to national topographies will be well known to regular readers , who will have traced the themes and flows of narrative, primarily the North Korean aspiration to build and better utilize what Kim termed “mountains and seas of gold.” Readers thus should not at all be surprised to see Kim Jong-un returning to the field of developmental publication this spring with a new text entitled “Let the Entire Party, the Whole Army and All the People Conduct a Vigorous Forest Restoration Campaign to Cover the Mountains of the Country with Green Woods.”

This latest piece of long-form apparent authorship comes at a fitting moment during the political and bureaucratic commemorative calendar of North Korea. National Tree Planting Day arrived early on March 4, and has been followed by the highly important Spring Land Management Campaigns. I have in the past considered these aspects of the yearly cycle of institutional impetus and charismatic connection, as the period is marked and remarked upon nearly every year. Yet, although the moment is indeed frequently noted, it is still rare for such an extensive statement to be made.

Apples planted at the Palace of the Sun

Apple planting at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Does the extensiveness or tone of the statement invite us to read it as a rebuke or critique of the status quo? No more so, perhaps, than Kim Il-sung’s dressing down of unresponsive provincial authorities in Chagang Province during the 1960s. And certainly Kim Jong-un is intentionally echoing language used by his grandfather in no less foundational text than the 1964 “Let Us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers.”

Kim Jong-un asserts that:

Forests are precious resources of the country and a wealth to be handed down to posterity. Our country has been called a land of golden tapestry for the mountains thick with forests and the fields covered with beautiful flowers. [Under] Japanese imperialist colonial rule, [Kim Il-sung had] unfolded a far-reaching plan to turn all the mountains into thickly wooded places of people’s resort by having trees planted in large numbers.

Surely positive words to the ears of provincial administrators everywhere, these opening remarks in the text are, alas, for that audience, the last of reassurance and charismatic comfort.

Complaints follow:

People have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent.

On the face of it, such statements sound akin to critiques of Korean approaches to forest and timber resource from the days of the Government General of Chosen. Not only that, but they very much echo the tone set by a disappointed Park Chung-hee on his return from a verdant Japanese mainland, as much as they mirror critical commentary from Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. This denunciation of bureaucratic efforts and focus on arboreal matters clearly has multiple precedents.

Kim continues:

As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountain.

Considering the importance of developmental narrative elements in North Korea, this statement sounds a discordant note. Propaganda from Pyongyang seeks to embed a patriotic sense in its landscapes, which are associated with the desires of the leadership itself. Kim Jong-un thus presents Kim Jong-il’s own pain at the situation of the 1990s, remembering that the now-departed leader had “grieved for the decreasing forests of the country.” In Kim Jong-un’s reading of his father’s intention, deforestation was also an aftermath of the “Arduous March,” heightening the institutional necessity “to turn the misfortune into a blessing and hand down to the coming generations beautiful mountains thick with forests.”

Planting trees at Central district

Planting trees in Pyongyang Central district. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Forests under the Young Generalissimo | But those thick forests and beautiful timber covered mountains would never come in Kim Jong-il’s time. Accordingly, his successor clearly feels a sense of acute urgency on the matter. “The forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads—whether to perish for ever or to be restored,” he states rather dramatically. Going further, Kim Jong-un asserts that North Korea “can no longer back off from the issue related with the forests. As long as the forests are left as they are, no one can claim that he is a master of the country nor can he speak about patriotism.”

The achievement of this patriotic developmental outcome, given all of the apparent stasis and stagnation that surrounds it, will be no mean feat. One would imagine it would require nothing less than a complete institutional revision and dramatic reconfiguration of the approach and structures of its forestry sector.

Yet imagination is predicated on the social and cultural context of the imaginer, and North Korea’s particular Weltanschauung is, if not unique, certainly distinct. Kim Jong-un’s outlined solutions and framework thus appear as having derived from a smorgasbord of tendencies sourced from throughout North Korea’s political, sovereign, and developmental history. Turning to a favorite military metaphor, Kim notes that the struggle for afforestation will be an all-encompassing effort, requiring nothing short of combat:

The entire Party, the whole army and all the people should conduct a vigorous forest restoration campaign to make the mountains of the country thick with forests…. Forest restoration is a challenging and complex undertaking of raising young trees, transplanting them and then cultivating them year in, year out in the face of harsh challenges of nature…. The forest restoration campaign is a war to ameliorate nature.

Kim Jong-un thus places himself in a common frame of reference with previous modes of revolutionary speed, such as those from Maoist China. However, it is not simply mass fervor that is needed, but institutional development and a renewed focus on science. Kim calls for the establishment of new central nursery institutions, which will be vital to the conceived process of afforestation and scientific endeavor. This research is to be led at an elite level by an Academy of Forest Science, which, according to Kim Jong-un, should be refurbished “into a world-class academy.”

This mention of the rest of the world, surprisingly perhaps for a text so defiantly local and North Korean, leads Kim Jong-un to again echo the past. But this time it is an echo with its origins in the colonial period’s efforts to transplant a forestry of modernity into the post-annexation peninsula:

We should take measures to introduce and widely disseminate the global achievements of the advanced science and technology related to forest planting and conservation…we should bring in… trees from foreign countries and widely proliferate them.

The reality and rationality of charismatic empiricism | Further to this call to global connection, and to this author even more surprising, is Kim Jong-un’s demand for the embedding of these externally sourced conceptions within local institutions and frameworks. As he puts it, “a brisk drive for disseminating forest science and technology should be waged to keep people abreast of the world trend of development of forest science and technology.” In other words, Kim is seeking increased developmental knowledge and exchange with the wider world, more focus on empirical rigor within the sector, and better organized, nationally aware but locally focused institutions and bureaucracies.

If they were to be followed, Kim Jong-un’s suggestions might make a real difference to the functionality and viability of forest resource in North Korea, as such an approach would in any nation. However within Pyongyang’s sovereign realm there are other forces and agendas at play, so these fairly rational scientific platitudes must be matched to commemorative and legitimating narratives and practices.

Kim Jong un and the pilots - empiricism

Kim Jong-un and charismatic empiricism | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Just as urgency is deployed in the scientific realm, so it will be utilized within the charismatic. Within later sections of the document, Kim Jong-un reverts to what we might term the revolutionary mean. Here politics and functional development are undertaken by “the mass” as Chairman Mao would have understood it: One homogenous, energetic, powerful yet not necessarily functional assemblage of co-opted, coerced and perhaps enthusiastic publics. Kim Jong-un suggests, for instance, that “it is our Party’s traditional method of work to propel the revolution and construction by means of mass-based movements;” he then goes on to compare whatever projects must be undertaken to redevelop and regenerate North Korea’s forestry stock to projects and campaigns such as the Chollima Movement.

Perhaps ultimately the charismatic and commemorative inclination of the mass is what prevents Kim Jong-un from moving on to new pastures (or new timbers, as it were) within this key text. As much as it would make sense to leave forest development up to the nurseries, from the Forest Academy to the local bureaucracies tasked with increasing stock in their domain, North Korean politics is nothing without its key institutional base of Party, army, and a perceptual (if perhaps not real) popular mass. When Kim Jong-un begins to make assertions that “only when the whole country and all the people are involved, can the forest restoration campaign bear fruit” it cannot be surprising that the phrase “as they conducted reconstruction after the war” should follow. The purpose of the exercise is not merely to reforest the landscape, but to activate and reiterate the mobilizing center, with connections to both Party and Army, centered upon Kimist authority and the embodied narrative of resistive national struggle.

Ultimately it seems that however far Kim Jong-un might want to reach in systematic arboreal terms, in this text he proves himself trapped by the weight of history and its necessary recantations and representations. Developmentally trapped by the weight of history in engaging in North Korea’s recurrent theoretical, narratological and metaphorical hostilities, the Young Leader can only conclude that “nurseries are to a forest restoration campaign what munitions factories are to a war.” We must conclude that in this instance of forestry and timber resources, developmentally Pyongyang finds itself incarcerated by a patriotism of its own perception.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com