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).

______________________________________________________

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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