From the Sino-NK Archive (14) – 22.08.2013 – Political and Environmental Organization in North Korea: From Charismatic Politics to Landscapes of Charisma

“Dawn is breaking over Mt. [D]aehwa in Ski Resort on Masik Pass." | Image: Rodong Sinmun

“Dawn is breaking over Mt. [D]aehwa in Ski Resort on Masik Pass.” | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Political and Environmental Organization in North Korea: From Charismatic Politics to Landscapes of Charisma

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Treasured Swords and Charismatic Politics: Broadening the Discourse | The common and hegemonic narratives of analysis and reportage focused upon the manifestations of politics and the political in North Korea are rarely located outside of the personhoods and filial connectivities of the Kim family and their nearest confidants and associates. What political power and authority emanates beyond that relatively tight circle is bestowed generally upon three loci: the Korean Workers Party and affiliated institutions, the Korean People’s Army and its many modes, and the memorialized and diffuse presence of the pre-Liberation generation of guerrillas fighters from the United Northeast Anti-Japanese Army. Analysis and theorization that sees politics reside askance or external to this tightly banded cohort of persons and institutions in North Korea is a rarity. Benjamin Joinau’s work on urban geographies of glorification in his seminal text “Le Fleche et le Soleil” (forthcoming in the English Language as “The Sun and the Arrow”), is an almost unique outlier. Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung’s landmark book “North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics,” however, presents the interested and the analytical with a lens through which the process of political transfer might be glimpsed. This essay serves to support the tracking and transfer of such political charisma from one realm to another: from the realm of the purely political to realm of the geographic and the spatial.

For those who have been reading this author’s essays over the last few months, especially the “Treasured Swords” series, which focuses on environmental action and approach under the Byungjin line, you may feel that you have been moving towards the possibility outlined in the introduction during the entirety of that series. Byungjin as a political theme is nothing if not potentially all encapsulating, and while not particularly charismatic, it can be imbued and connected with charismatic elements (such as Masikryeong speed), and can involve environmental developments which impact the landscape (such as the Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project). The purpose of this piece, however, is not to debate the connectivity or veracity of a claim focused on Byungjin as charismatic, but rather to explore how we might interpret landscapes in an environment of charismatic politics.


Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project, August 8, 2013. | Image: Rodong Sinmum

Charism vs Chrism: The Roots of Political Authority| The first stage of this analysis is to return to the urtext to Kwon and Chung’s analysis, Max Weber’s Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Weber grasps the connection between political authority, institutional organizations, and charismatic authority in a definitive and authoritative way. One element that Weber does not engage with, and which will later prove vital to our analysis, is the original root of the word charisma. Χαρίσμα, the Biblical Greek for “charism” and the root of our word “charisma” in the English Language, derives from the method by which gifts are bestowed from the Divine and the space and realm of the infinite to the realm of the earthly and finite. While the word charism is one peculiar to Christian theology, it is a concept common to other theologies and is expressed in Islamic texts as “barakah” (برك).The gifts of charism therefore are esoteric and fluid, such as “grace,” “wisdom,” “faith,” or “healing.” However, these are distinct from the more political and conventionally Weberian gifts and processes bestowed by ”chrism” (χρῖμα in Biblical Greek), from which the distinctly European “Divine Right of Kings” develops and is marked in coronation and assumption ceremonies by the anointing with holy oil, mimicking the anointing of Jesus in the Gospel of Mathew (26:7) (as seen in the coronation service for the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth the second in 1953, a moment so apparently holy it was not filmed for television broadcast). Chrism is a much more concrete and material process than represented by the gifts of charism, yet it is the latter we should have in mind in the following discussion of the transference of political authority.

Charisma’s Routinization and Theatric Politics | Weber’s use of the word ausseralltäglichkeit to designate the position of a figure or institution of bestowed political authority hints at the root and meaning of the original meaning of charisma, asserting its positionality as existing slightly askance to the everyday and external to conventional linear historicity or narrative. Weber also notes that those in position of charismatic authority must assert its validity through the holding of a “sign or proof.” However, Weber’s assertion that “the term ‘charisma’ will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities…” does not lead to a discussion of its more diffuse or fluidic elements. Weber does, however, recognize the flexibility of political or authoritative charisma once gained through the process of heredity or conquest in terms of its externalization and bestowability. Weber refers to the “the routinization of charisma,” essentially connecting it with issues of succession: “Concomitant with the routinization of charisma with a view to insuring adequate succession, go the interests in its routinization on the part of the administrative staff….”  But allowing, through this process, charismatic authority to escape the simple bonds of personhood and place into the economic and institutional realm “with the process of routinization the charismatic… tends to develop into one of the forms of everyday authority….”

Kwon and Chung’s corralling of Weberian “charismatic authority” into the Korean or North Korean realm finds this authority ostensibly removed from the miraculous and the unearthly, yet still with its flexibility and externality intact. This is not only necessary for such authority to have escaped the European context, but in a North Korean context to have escaped the diminution and collapse of the Yi status quo, the annexation and colonization by Imperial Japan, and the chaotic liberation and the destructive conflagration of the Korean War. For Kwon and Chung, charisma has alighted upon the Kim family and the institutions of North Korea through the co-option of opportunity and ”revolution” and perhaps through the “grace and favor” of external authorities such as the Soviet Union. However, this charisma is underpinned and sustained by the politics of North Korea’s “theatre state:” a politics based on an all encompassing sense of presentation and theatrics that relies on the externality and flexibility of charisma and on the charismatic politics it creates and allows. Theatric politics, in a sense, encounters Weber’s “routinization of charisma” and transforms the routine and the everyday into both the ephemeral and the extraordinary for political and authoritative usage. 


The routinization of charisma at Masik Pass? | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Landscapes of Charisma: The Larger Stage in a Theater State | It will not surprise the reader to learn that this author is not so much interested in the “routinization of charisma” through the process and manifestation of “charismatic politics” as demonstrated by Kwon and Chung’s theatric politics of the individuals and personhoods engaged, such as Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-suk. As a geographer, this author is interested in the set itself, the theatre upon which performance occurs, and in the space beyond. As hinted at in previous essays, this author believes that charismatic politics in North Korea can escape the bounds of the stage itself and be bestowed upon the external and the ephemeral: charismatic politics can beget a “landscapes of charisma.” ”Kwong and Chung themselves outline occasions when landscapes can be harnessed to the needs of political charisma, such as at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang: “The concentration of the graves of the Manchurian partisans was an important episode in the consolidation of Kim’s institutional power base and in the construction of his charismatic authority….” This author has also seen and heard examples in which landscapes and the environmental function within the political paradigm and structure are harnessed to amplify or manifest its charisma, themselves becoming charismatic in the process. These examples and the method of this manifestation will be discussed in the next essay in this series, but readers will find particular and peculiar examples during the funereal and mourning period for Kim Jong Il. What Kwon and Chung and this author have not as of yet asserted and theorized is the route by which charisma might transfer from the realm of concrete human politics to the environmental, from the actors and the stage to the set and theatre space.


Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The Cosgrove Thesis: Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape | This author will follow a conventional paradigm of academic approach and locate the methodology for such transference in the discipline, which grapples with the impact of the human and the political on non-human and environmental space. We will turn to Denis Cosgrove’s analysis of political and social impact on landscapes for this methodology. Cosgrove’s landmark work in 1984, “Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape,” introduced the analytical concept of socially constructed landscapes, using the frontier spaces of 17th and 18th century America as examples. As society rushed in behind the frontiersmen and explorers, so too did politics and the infant/formative institutional state, adopting and co-opting many of the pioneer’s priorities, and incorporating whatever charisma the developing politics of that frontier space held. Cosgrove separates land from landscape in a way echoing Platonism’s dualistic disconnection between nature itself and social or political conceptions of the natural. Having placed the concept of landscape itself well within the field of social/political construction, he can easily assert, “the landscape idea represents a way of seeing.” Cosgrove allows a route through which political and charismatic authority might escape the human realm.

But how might this methodological and analytical approach function in the non-frontier space of North Korea? While writing and research on this possibility is virtually non-existent when it comes to rural and un-mediated environmental spaces, Benjamin Joinau of EHESS has written on politics and its impact on urban space, particularly on Pyongyang.  Joinau’s 2012 paper “The Sun and the Arrow: A Topo Myth Analysis of Pyongyang” envisages the urban landscape of Pyongyang under political construction, the cities axis re-orientated by political charisma “in order to correspond to the new ideological agenda. This axis rotates slowly during the 1970s and 1980’s… becoming eventually a new ‘destiny axis’… to the glory of Kim Il Sung’s personal myth….”

Other authors in their analysis of monumentality and the tendency towards the monolithic in North Korea political commemorative sculpture and design have also sailed close to Joinau’s hints at the urbanity of charismatic landscape in North Korea, but none so far have moved the analysis to the realm of wilderness or less dramatic rural landscapes.

Conclusion | We have come some distance in this essay: from Biblical uses of charism and charisma, to Weberian analysis of charismatic authority and Kwon and Chung’s vision of a theatric politics in North Korea, and finally to landscapes of urban glorification as identified by Benjamin Joinau. Denis Cosgrove has offered the analyst and the observer a route through which political charisma and authority might be bestowed and manifested upon nature and the environmental. But all this only gives us the conceptual, theoretic, and methodological route by which such landscapes might be glimpsed and some insightful understanding gained. We have yet to examine the nature, prevalence, and presentation of such environments, nor have we looked into the possibility that there might be a concrete and analyzable typology so far as their appearance and utilization is concerned. We will in my next essay not only examine the nature of the interplay between the political and the environmental in the rural landscapes of North Korea, but also investigate this potential typology, its functionality and utilization, and attempt for the first time a useful categorization of these landscapes of charisma.


This post was originally published at – 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

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