From the Sino-NK Archives (24) – 17.06.2014 – Politics and Pollack: Fishing in the Age of the Six Goals

The Cholsanbong (named after a hill in Musan, on the Chinese border), a ship produced in Chongjin in 1985, sets sail. | Image by Graham Moore, on Shipspotting.com

The Cholsanbong, a ship produced in Chongjin in 1985 and named after a landmark in a coal town on the Chinese border, sets sail. | Image: Graham Moore/Shipspotting.com

Politics and Pollack: Fishing in the Age of the Six Goals

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In the previous essay in this series, we encountered a North Korea of construction, both in the immediate period following liberation from Japanese colonial rule and in the post-Korean War era. At that time, Pyongyang was faced with a mammoth institutional and technical task, mirroring the comprehensive nature of allied bombing campaigns and the dynamic fighting of the war’s first two years. Reconstruction was most imperative on land, especially as a remedy for the destruction of Pyongyang itself and the wider degradation of North Korea’s industrial infrastructure and capacity.

This reconstruction of urban and industrial space was matched by difficult tasks within the agricultural and food production field. Likewise, the need to augment capacity in the field of aquaculture was pressing, made all the more difficult by the post-war settlement which had essentially solidified US dominance of the naval field. The postwar years thus produced particular challenges for Pyongyang’s maritime institutions.

In spite of these challenges, North Korea’s post-war maritime development mirrors both the ideological and the practical drive and agenda of its land-based institutions. First, the DPRK engaged in rapid reconstruction at the direction of supportive Soviet technical specialists, replacing and regenerating technical capacity, fleet, and catch equipment. Secondly, in a brief period of ideological inspiration from Mao’s Great Leap Forward that birthed the still frequently utilized Chollima movement, Pyongyang’s wider agricultural and industrial agenda was reshaped. This occurred before a longer period of geopolitical triangulation (described by Charles Armstrong) in which North Korea sought to go its own careful equidistant way between the two poles of affiliated power: China and the Soviet Union.

As the rhetorical and physical battles between Moscow and Beijing intensified in the late 1960s, Pyongyang ended the decade on a rising note, as indicated by the announcement of the “Six Goals” in 1968. (Fishing capacity was a key element in the “Six Goals.”)  The 1970s were a period of international extension in other fields in North Korea, but in the fields of resource production (e.g., fisheries), policy developments became demonstrative of the beginnings of later internal stagnation.

Fishery Workers are Discouraged | Fisheries policy in this period begins with a 1968 text by Kim Il-sung, which serves to reiterate Pyongyang’s institutional developmental focus:

Our party has been paying close attention to the development of the fishing industry since immediately after liberation… within a few years after liberation the material and technical foundations of the fishing industry were laid. [1]

But this essay is but a subtext to Kim’s far more expansive “On Taking Good Care of State Property and Using It Sparingly.” This text is equally concerned with critiquing past developmental progress. As Kim noted:

[W]e cannot rest content with this. So far we have laid only the basic foundations of the fishing industry.[2]

Kim’s institutional developmental critique intriguingly addresses environmental issues and developments that, in a sense, echo later ecological concerns of a more contemporary North Korea. These concerns in our time have focused on land-based ecologies, but Kim here focuses on the maritime environment “because of change in the current” which had resulted in “only small numbers of mackerel and yellow corbina in these waters.”[3] Kim decried the “frequent floods” which fishery workers had told him they had to contend with. [4]

Primarily, however, the principle initial concern of the text is its critical framing, which is deployed against institutional structures and participants, even in their responses and solutions to these environmental changes. Kim states:

[B]ecause we are inexperienced we have only prepared many nets needed for catching mackerel… since we had expected big shoals of this fish to come… we could not catch them because they did not come…. After that fishery workers are discouraged and at a loss for what to do.[5]

Ryukdae and Chongjin Shipyards | Technical and strategic development are also critiqued. Even the fleet materiel sourced from foreign supporters, previously lauded, was now problematic:

The 450-ton trawler we are now producing has many shortcomings. [For example,] it can be used for fishing only in the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea… [and] it cannot be used in the Pacific Ocean where the waves are moderate.[6]

The plan, like its counterparts on land, revolved around a large expansion in sectorial capacity, replacing these smaller, seemingly unsatisfactory boats. But even if it needed to be done quickly, this expansion was to be carefully managed and located in a few centers of industrial excellence—for example, the Ryukdae Shipyard in the Komdok Island area. This shipyard was to serve as such a center for the industry in the West Sea.[7]

The primary locus of this fleet and sectoral renewal was to be at Chongjin, where apart from Ryukdae’s efforts to build mid-range ships of some 600–1,000 tons, North Korea was to construct much larger vessels of between 3,000 and 10,000 tons.[8] While institutionally this production was to be supported by the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Machine Industry Number 1, and Provincial Party Committees, other sub-sectorial elements close to Kim’s heart would need to be involved. He writes:

[A]t the moment people at the ship repair yards busy themselves getting engines, spare parts and paint, only after the ships return from the deep seas. They say therefore that it takes a few months to repair a ship, and sometime it even requires 150 days. Consequently they miss the fishing season.[9]

Such a structural failure of supply and organization would, of course, not be welcome in any nation’s industrial sectors, even less so in one for whom capacity and output is absolutely vital. Just as a reorganization was pending within those institutions undertaking the fishing fleet’s construction, so too was there to be new connections made between those departments and projects responsible for that fleet’s maintenance and support. As Kim put it:

[I]f we are to succeed in this work, we must have a large quantity of engines and other spare parts in stock… a ship spare parts factory should be built in Kimchaek City… then it will be easy to obtain supplies of steel from Songjin Steel Plant.[10]

North Korean aquaculture in the present era | Image from Rodong Sinmun, via NK Food Blog

North Korean aquaculture in the present era | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Fishing on a Smaller Scale | Apart from the more dramatic and grand scales of development and construction focused on the deep sea, “On Developing the Fishing Industry Further” also sees connectivities and possibilities on a smaller scale:

At the moment there are many good comrades in big cities… who live on pensions because of illness… it will not be bad to engage them in fishing… they will be very pleased if they are told to catch fish with nets and rods in boats while they continue to receive the benefits from pensions. [11]

Kim Il-sung envisages here the revival of a model of semi-informal fishing co-operatives using these marginalized or peripheral workers. The word “semi” is of course highly important as these are still to be well integrated into institutional and political planning and serve as much as part of sectorial planning as those facilities and sets of workers undertaking activity in the deep sea.

Beyond developmental capacity and institutional structuring, the final key point of this text is one equally familiar to analysts of North Korea and scholars focused on agricultural development and capacity elsewhere in the world in the coming decade. Pyongyang’s developmental focus begins to assert the categorical importance of scientific research and the place of the scientist within institutional structures, and Kim is no less assertive within this text: “It is not an exaggeration to say that the modern world is one of science and that science and technology decide everything.”[12] This scientific focus is important in the protection of stocks, the development of fishing areas in freshwater environments. Science is to become vitally important in North Korea, not only to fishing and fisheries,but to the wider frameworks of politics and ideology. For example, one of this text’s final concerns is to embed this scientific commitment within this political imperative:

[T]he fishery sector must carry out a forceful ideological struggle against the conservatives who are trying to check our advance and thus develop the science of fisheries as soon as possible….”[13]

Blue Crabs, Gizzard Shad, and Anchovy | This scientific gloss on fishing development in North Korea becomes more politically acute as the decade develops it seems, becoming located in the contemporaneously familiar and still troublesome West Sea area. Countering what is perceived as a world food crisis, Kim writes: “the world is currently experiencing an acute food shortage… according to information from abroad, as much as a quarter of the world’s population is now suffering from malnutrition.”[14]

In his “On the Further Development of the Fishing Industry in the West Sea,” Kim cites much of future development within that most disputed of North Korea’s maritime areas. Here Kim Il-sung carries over much of the focus on small scale fishing from earlier texts, creating a potentially enormously crowded developmental space within a complicated locale:

[I]t would be reasonable to establish fishing bases around Ongjin, Monggumpo, Sukchon and Mundok in South Pyongan and in Cholsan, Chongu, at the mouth of Chongchon River and on Sinmi Island in North Pyongan Province….[15]

While Kim’s concern to harvest the “well known fish in this sea”[16] is clear and the focus on the West Sea areas developmental possibilities acute, its generative capacity means that Pyongyang will see the expansive deeper spaces of the East Sea as its institutional priority. Kim Il-sung’s “Let Us Develop the Fishing Industry and Increase the Catch” draws out the importance of the East Sea as a zone of pelagic exploitation as well as reconfirming the themes of science, development, political connection, and capacity increase which have marked the 1970s as a decade in policy terms:

The fastest and most rational way of solving this problem is to catch large quantities of fish. Our country is bounded by the sea on three sides, so it is much faster and more economical to solve the protein problem by developing the fishing industry….[17]

While this text begins with an extremely positive note,[18] it is clear from even a brief reading that in spite of the importance of the East Sea fishery and the extent of institutional concern shown to it, there are factors at play to thwart this ambition. Some of the hesitancy and “conservatism” Kim wished to banish through the incorporation of scientific modernity and technical development appears still extant at the close of the decade:

I have emphasized on more than one occasion that the officials in charge of fishing should study deep-sea fishing. But they have claimed there are no fish in the deep sea, and have not looked into methods of detecting shoals and catching the fish. They even altered the contents of the textbooks to concur with their opinion.[19]

Kim Il-sung giving guidance to party members in 1961 | scan courtesy library of Queen's University, Belfast

Kim Il-sung giving guidance to party members in 1961 | Image: Library of Queen’s University, Belfast

Pollack the Fish of Choice in a Disappointing Decade | Despite some two decades of development, political impetus, and imperative it is in a sense a little astonishing that Kim Il-sung in 1978 could determine that “since summer fishing has never been organized on the East Sea, we have no clear idea of what kinds of fish are living in the East Sea and what kinds of migratory fish visit it.”[20] It appears that it is not only the research and knowledge basis that is weak, but even infrastructural development, and the ambition behind it has been neglected. Far in fact from the aspirations to 10,000 ton ships, Kim Il-sung almost balefully recalls that “some years ago a 1,000 ton fishing vessel was built, but some officials of the fishing industry said that it was unserviceable even before it was used.”[21]

Ultimately, while political drive and ideological embedding served to push along North Korea’s developmental narratives within the fishing sector, the 1970s, according even to Kim Il-sung’s own assertions, ended on a downbeat tone. Whatever has happened in the previous decade, scientific development and research had not occurred, institutional connections remained counterproductive and diffuse, and both capacity and actual productivity and catch appeared substantially disappointing. It is apparent that many of the same drag factors and inefficiencies that beset the agricultural sector on land and crippled North Korea’s industrial and economic productivity had been present in the fishing sector as well. Kim writes:

Pollack is a very good fish. Because it contains less fat and more protein than other fish, it is not only palatable but also good for the health.… From olden times, therefore Koreans have offered it at the altar. It seems that our ancestors also like Pollack.…[22]

While pollack may well have been Kim Il-sung’s fish of choice and deep and frequent catches an aspiration of Pyongyang’s fishing fleet in the 1970s, the era of the “Six Goals” and “Great Tasks” (though primarily on land), would soon fall given these diminishing and seemingly unrealizable tasks.

The Party Congress of 1980 would abandon wider strategy and goal setting for the next decade, determining that perhaps it was better to focus on simply achieving what was possible despite inefficiency and incapability. Maritime production and the fishery sector were as subject to this abandonment as were the national framework of forestry goals and tidal reclamation. However following this later period of stagnation and near collapse, fisheries policy would again post-1997 connect with institutional priorities and a new developmental agenda. This era, our current, which features the January 8 Fisheries Project and Kim Jong-un’s new apparent interest in matters pelagic will be the subject of the third and final part of this series, in which connections and inheritances from this foundational, yet somehow fitful and unfulfilled, period will be analyzed and uncovered.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “On Developing the Fishing Industry Further,” Works 24 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1969), 52.

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] Ibid., 57.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 58

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 61.

[12] Ibid., 66.

[13] Ibid., 66.

[14] Kim Il-sung, “On the Further Development of the Fishing Industry in the West Sea,” Works 32 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1977), 65.

[15] Ibid., 70.

[16] These are listed as “planktonic shrimps, prawns, Acetes chimensis, Blue Crabs, Gizzard Shad, Yello Corbina, Setipinna Gilberti, Anchovy, Sand Ell and Grey Mullet.” Ibid., 67.

[17] Kim Il-sung, “Let us Develop the Fishing Industry and Increase the Catch”, Works 33 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1978), 86.

[18] It reads: “A large amount of Pollack was caught by our fishermen last winter. The catch is large every year, but last winter was an all-time high….” Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 88.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 93.

[22] Ibid., 98

______________________________________________________

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

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