From the Sino-NK Archives (13) – 06.08.2013 – “Patriotism Begins from Love of Courtyard:” Sepho and the Scaling of the Environmental

“Patriotism Begins from Love of Courtyard:” Sepho and the Scaling of the Environmental

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Despite the difficulty in finding quieter narrative elements during the last few months, the Sepho Project and even the Byungjin line itself has felt almost overwhelmed in the DPRK reportage focused on the distinctly urgent and assertive Masik Pass Ski Resort project and its accompanying “Masikryeong Speed” campaign. However, if one is to listen or read carefully, less bombastic strands can be perceived amidst the sound and fury; such narratives and techniques are a noteworthy modulation of the tenor of the DPRK’s more typically conceived nationalism and reveal the persistence of landscape narratives in North Korean daily bureaucratic practice today. This author’s interest was piqued on March 26, almost at the height of the recent diplomatic and military crisis, by Rodong Shinmun’s publication of a photo story entitled “Patriotism begins from love of courtyard.”


Members of the Ri Song-ryong family manifest love for family and Party by participating in the Spring Tree Planting campaign. | Image: Rodong Shinmun

Sowing Patriotism in the Home Landscape: The Spring Tree Planting Campaign at Work | This familial scene, apparently taken at Ri Song-ryong’s house at Sowon-ri in Byeokseong, South Hwanghae Province, surprised me with its happy and almost sentimental banality at a time of potential nuclear conflagration (March 26 being the same day the KPA’s Supreme Command announced the “nullification” of the Korean War Armistice Agreement). Ri Song-ryong’s family must be fairly affluent for the DPRK, or are at least presented as such, as they wear what seem like new shoes and Wellington boots, possess shiny new plastic buckets and accoutrements, a relatively spacious outdoor area and even what looks like a pet dog (though it has some vulpine characteristics). Their ideological/political commitment to the status quo and the Korean Workers Party is demonstrated by one of their children’s membership in the Young Pioneers, signified by the red neckerchief tie.

What is key for this author is the nature of their manifestation of “love for courtyard,” or perhaps the object of that “love.” This family is participating in the DPRK’s Spring Tree Planting campaign, although this is not said in the article. Spring Tree Planting is itself a developmental subset of a wider annual national campaign for Spring Land Management,” and for which their own province South Hwanghae was the designated local authority lead during 2013. Their small contribution to the wider theme of development is the planting of this little tree (at one point I wondered whether this specimen was a Populus Ussuriensis or Ussuri Poplar and thus a highly obtuse reference to the 1972 Poplar Tree Incident at the Joint Security Area, but was never able to tell), which itself stands both as signifier of the Party or institutional policy and manifestation of both their love for each other as a filial, familial unit as well as their incorporated love and patriotism for the Korean nation and space.


Residents in Phyongchon District, Pyongyang keep their residential quarters tidy with patriotism. | Image: Rodong Shinmun

From Development to Conservation: Ideological Shifts in Social Treatments of Local Landscapes | Such combinations and conflagrations of localized paradigms of love, affection, and passion coupled with their conceptions of such an incorporated and manifested patriotism has its root, at least for the theoreticians of 2013, in a text authored by Kim Jong-il in 1972, “Let Us Improve and Intensify the Work of Dong and Neighborhood Units!” In DPRK terms, this text is to local and neighborhood governance what the “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question” in 1964 were to agricultural and developmental policy, an ideologic prism through which national themes in party policy and theory could be reflected and perhaps refracted down upon more local issues. Kim Jong-il’s assertion in this text that “patriotism stems from one’s courtyard” is rooted in the developmental themes of its time, namely improvements in sanitation and building and housing design. The texts from 2013, which focus on the patriotism embedded within local or courtyard motifs, engage in similar developmental framing; however, by our age the policy has developed a conservational or environmental sheen.

What such texts, projects, and seemingly obtuse and obscurantist themes as “patriotism begins with a love of courtyard” permit is a scalar shift in ideological and narratological manifestation from the grand, national and institutional level to a more approachable, local, and familial level. At this scale nature and the environment within the DPRK are brought down to a more social level and embedded within the political and Party thematic, intended to govern and enable all relations and behaviors. Thus when we examine the Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project a similar scalar shift can be asserted as reclamation or rehabilitative activity is extracted from the realm of the monumental and put to work at a more local or regional scale. Just as patriotism can begin with a love of courtyard, it can equally be manifest in the effort of the shock brigade toiling on Sepho’s fields.

Scaling Landscapes: From the Local to the Charismatic | Intriguingly the recent shift in the developmental approach that produced the Sepho Project was undertaken at a moment when the levels of political and military rhetoric had reached new heights of urgency and threat. The DPRK chose this rhetorical peak to assert the Byungjin line as a new framework for political and military strategy. Heonik Kwon has framed and interpreted Byungjin’s approach as a “parallelism” which holds political approach and possibility within a format of scaled tension; combining defense and negativistic military capability and nuclear deterrence with positivistic developmental and scientific progression. Could the Byungjin within this framework therefore also be understood as a project or approach of scaling, allowing revolutionary urgency and patriotic demands to move from one category of institutional action to another, from military deterrence to scientific production and praxis?


“Ardent Love” on display as Wonsan undergoes refurbishment. | Image: Rodong Shinmun

If Dr. Kwon and Byung-ho Chun’s recent theorization of a politics of charisma peculiar and local to North Korea can include Byungjin as a route through which such charisma is bestowed and manifested within institutional action and approach (no matter what the institution or approach), the pathways of ideologic and theoretic scalar shift I have outlined in this piece allow for a glimpse of a similarly intriguing possibility. If the parallelism of Byungjin allows for a scalar transfer of activated and incorporated authority and legitimacy from the personhood of the DPRK’s Young Generalissmo to the field of institution and politics, thus creating a field of Charismatic Politics (Max Weber by way of Kwon and Chun), similarly this scalar shift in bestowed patriotism from the national level to the local through the medium of the environmental (“Patriotic Courtyards”) might allow elements of this charisma to alight elsewhere. Such ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Ardent Love’ representing the moment when Charismatic Politics beget “Charismatic Landscapes.”


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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