From the Sino-NK Archives (11) – 21.06.2013 – Treasured Swords Redux: (Re)Construction and the “Rural Theses” of 1964

Planning the future of the Sepho area of Gangwon Province. All with one eye on Kim Il-sung's "Rural Theses," no doubt | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Planning the future of the Sepho area of Gangwon Province. All with one eye on Kim Il-sung’s “Rural Theses,” no doubt | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Treasured Swords Redux: Environment under the Byungjin Line

Part 2: (Re)Construction and the “Rural Theses” of 1964

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

A New Paradigm for Spatial Approach: Introduction | In the  first essay in the “Treasured Swords” series I analyzed the first published work from the hand of Kim Jong-un: “On Effecting a Revolutionary Turn in Land Management to Meet the Requirements for Building a Thriving Socialist Nation” from April 2012. As the first work by the “Young Generalissimo” it would have been intriguing no matter the subject, but added interest stemmed from its environmental and developmental focus. It seemed to be a merger of elements of environmental strategies put forth by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. At this moment in North Korea’s early articulation of the Byungjin line, and in light of Pyongyang’s focus on the Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project and the paradigmatic shift that it could come to represent, Kim Jong-un’s words appear vital.

The new approach will influence and frame Sepho and other environmental developments in the Byungjin era. This approach will govern institutions in the sector tasked with carrying out those projects, shifting strategy away from previous developmental and spatial paradigms; in Sepho’s case from that which imagines land and reclamation in particularly utopian tones (i.e. the forging of absolutely new geographic space) to perhaps one more grounded and coherent, focusing on less labor- and capital-intensive rehabilitation of underutilized land.

Our goal is to develop a framework not just for analyzing and critiquing environmental practice and approach under the Byungjin line, but also for assessing the effectiveness and capability of those institutions tasked with making the projects real in difficult times such as these. As in my previous post on Kim Jong-un’s first publication, I believe that this can only be achieved by understanding the historical context of institutional paradigm shifts in North Korea, something that this post (and the next) will attempt to do. In this essay we will look to North Korean approach and practice in the 1960s, tracking institutional developments at the moment of Kim Il-sung’s articulation of the “Rural Theses.”

A North Korean stamp celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Rural Theses’ in 2004 | Image: LINN Stamp News, May 10, 2004

A North Korean stamp celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Rural Theses’ in 2004 | Image: LINN Stamp News, May 10, 2004

A Weighty Tome: The Rural Theses | “The Rural Theses on the Solution to the Rural Question,” articulated by Kim Il-sung in February of 1964, are far too extensive to review in the course of one essay here (a chapter in this year’s “Korea Yearbook : Politics, Economy, Society,” gives an extensive review of their focus and direction). It is, however, necessary and possible to give a brief explication of the content. Bringing an end to the initial developmental period in North Korea, one characterized by post war reconstruction, Soviet-inspired industrial imposition and disruptive utopian application of Maoist revolutionary mass action, the “Theses” attempted the construction of a framework under which developmental projects might be undertaken. Primarily, this framework was one of coordinated political inculcation and control. Environmental management and development was to be achieved through the functioning of a new strategy for embedding ideological praxis within the rural realm:

…the backwardness of the farm villages compared with the towns finds expression primarily in the fact that agriculture has a weaker material and technical foundation than industry; that the cultural level of the rural population is lower than that of city dwellers, and the peasants lag behind the workers in their ideological consciousness…[1].

This “backwardness” and lag was to be solved via the “Three Revolutions Movement,” those revolutions being new strategic approaches to: A) technology and technical capacity; B) cultural adaptation; and C) ideological development. This aspired to enable the elimination of, “…distinctions between town and country and the class distinction between the working class and the peasantry…” as only this would allow for the building of “…socialism on a full scale…”

Such a complicated and comprehensive set of principles demanded extensive institutional reformulation, not just to allow for the level of ideological inculcation and exegesis required, but also for those technical aspects envisaged by the “Theses.” The “technical” aspect was to focus on developmental elements that would become, in later years, unfortunate factors in institutional and developmental stasis and degradation, but in 1964 might have felt akin to then-UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology,” a programme of rapid technical capacity increase and emphasis on state led research and development in response to the Japanese example. Agricultural and developmental practice was to be mechanized, “chemicalized”, and intensified, as:

…by carrying out the technical revolution in the countryside we will achieve highly developed productive forces in agriculture, convert our socialist countryside into a solid base of food and raw materials…

Institutional approach along lines that might support such a coordinated revisioning of developmental and agricultural endeavor had been attempted before within the pomicultural (apple growing) sector, with the introduction in 1961 of the Daean Work Method, an approach to workplace and work unit management that involved daily episodes of group criticism and reflection, as well as embedding research and technical staff (as well as KWP ideological operatives) within all work settings and environments (as recounted in 1961’s “On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement”).

However, the approach laid out within the “Rural Theses” required a different set of strategies, and accordingly they were described within. The infrastructure of rural counties was to be completely reconfigured so that administrative bureaucracy within dedicated geographic areas would have the “Theses” goals as their key driver. Industry and supply systems were to act in a similar fashion. Villages and agricultural enterprises within rural spaces were to be completely collectivized and subject to new oversight by local Party Committees and a Central Agricultural Commission.

Institutions and their bureaucracies and participants were to operate under a new planning framework in which goal setting for capacity increase was the key focus. This was combined with what may be the key surviving element from the disruptive influence of China’s Great Leap Forward; between 1958 and 1960 (ending with 1960’s “Year of Adjustment”), North Korea experimented with “revolutionary speed.” The “Chollima Method” and “Chollima Speed” must be familiar to most observers of North Korea, but in 1964 the concept of “revolutionary urgency” was still relatively new. It had been uncontrolled before 1964, and thus institutionally difficult to manage, but the “Theses” established a place for “Chollima Riders” and “Three Revolutions Work Teams” within institutional practice, serving in theory as a sort of “turbo” button within the bureaucratic and narrative framework.

A second North Korean stamp celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Rural Theses’ in 2004 | Image: LINN Stamp News, May 10, 2004

A second North Korean stamp celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Rural Theses’ in 2004 | Image: LINN Stamp News, May 10, 2004

Doing What We Always Did: Institutions Challenged by the Theses | As the reader might imagine, the direction of the “Theses” proved a distinct challenge to institutions not used to such a framework. Kim Il-sung soon found himself addressing the building trade, concluding:

…there was no uniform system to direct and control capital construction, and building operations were completely uncoordinated…[3]

In May, 1964 Kim Il-sung was chastising party operatives in Chagang on issues with their management of forests:

…Party organizations…did not accept it ideologically and they showed no inclination to carry out the task of planting trees of economic value…[4]

A year later the Central Agricultural Commission itself fell subject to intense criticism over its mismanagement of forestry affairs:

 The Agricultural Commission is also to blame for the continued practice of tilling fire-fields. It does not exercise control over this on the grounds that it increases the area under cultivation. This is really irresponsible and absurd.[5]

However, in time it seems these institutions and approaches developed a level of functionality and approach ultimately capable of meeting some of the “Theses” goals, meaning that between 1954 and 1978, under the auspices of the “technical revolution,” irrigated areas supposedly increased from some 227,000 hectares to 1.2 million hectares [6], the number of cooperatives fell from 16,000 to fewer than 4,000 (while their average size increased to some 500 hectares). The production of fertilizer also ballooned eighteen times, from a total of 259,800 tonnes in 1954 to some 4.7 million tonnes by the 1980’s [7].

Looking Forward by Looking Back: Conclusion | Most importantly for readers rooted in the era of Byungjin and the Sepho project, there is a lot in today’s approach that is recognizable from the period of the “Rural Theses.” If we are seeking to construct a framework through which to understand the development and importance of Sepho or other developmental projects in this era, it is critical to be cognizant of what predates the “Shock Brigades” currently “registering signal successes in the reclamation of Sepho tableland day by day” [8], those from the Korean People’s Army who are making “new innovations there…” and have “… secured nearly 100 000 tons of soil ameliorators including scores of thousand tons of peat and compost and several thousand tons of slaked lime and carbide slag…”[9]. Readers might also benefit from being aware of what came before the “Party Committees…who are consistently pushing forward this work…”[10], not to mention Kim Jong-un’s “…desire [to]…set forth the tasks of finding out all lands suitable to creating green fields in Sepho…to create man-made and natural pastures and build a large-scale stockbreeding base”[11].

Although this review of the “Theses” of 1964 ultimately allows for too simple a connection to be made, it is still true that there is nothing new under the “revolutionary” sun/Sun/son. The announcement and promulgation of foundational texts, ideological inculcations, institutional realignments, and commitment and construction undertaken at a revolutionary pace is as much the pattern and framework for institutional approach at Sepho as it was in 1964.

But there is more to this story, and before declaring the existence of such a framework, we must also consider the developmental circumstances that pertained during a considerably different, less optimistic and positivistic era: the aftermath of the Sixth Party Congress of 1980.

Next Post:

Treasured Swords: Environment under the Byungjin Line: Abandoning a Developmental Paradigm at the Sixth Party Congress

Further Readings

Robert Winstanley-Chesters, “Treasured Swords: Environment Under the Byungjin Line,” Sino-NK, June 3, 2013.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country,” Works 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964).

[3] Kim Il-sung, “On Some Measures to Develop the Building-Materials Industry,” Works 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964).

[4] Kim Il-sung, “On Enhancing the Party Spirit, Class Spirit and Popular Spirit of the Leading Functionaries and Improving the Management of the National Economy,” Works 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964).

[5] Kim Il-sung, “On Improving the Method of Guidance and Management of Factories and Enterprises,” Works 19 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1965).

[6] Chong-ae Yu , The Rise and Demise of Industrial Agriculture in North Korea, Paper No. 08-05, The Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Cornell University, 2005.

[7] Kim, Woon-Keun, “Food Situation and Agricultural Reform in North Korea” in: Journal of Rural Development 21, no. 1 (2008): 73–88.

[8]  Rodong Sinmun, “News from Sepho Tableland Reclamation,” May 20, 2013.

[9]  Rodong Sinmun, “Sepho Tableland Under Reclamation,” January 19, 2013.

[10] Rodong Sinmun, “Brisk Assistance to Sepho Tableland Reclamation,” May 20, 2013.

[11] Rodong Sinmun, “Sepho Tableland to Turn into Comprehensive Stockbreeding Base,” December 6, 2012.

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