From the Sino-NK Archives (23) – 30.5.2014 -Politics and Pollack: A Piscine Story

Kim Jong-un assesses the maritime bounty | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Jong-un assesses the maritime bounty | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Politics and Pollack: A Piscine Story 

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

It surely cannot have escaped the analyst’s eye that fishing and fishery matters appear to have moved several notches up Pyongyang’s list of priorities in 2014. In fact, ever since Rodong Sinmun’s announcement “The Party Requested, They Did It!” just before Christmas, a gush of piscine reportage has emanated from North Korea. Some observers might link this to the putative reasons advanced for Jang Sung-taek’s execution, namely, that Jang had gained some sort of control over fishery rights and resources in the West Sea that had previously been within the remit of the KPA. Those somewhat less dramatically inclined might remark that this emphasis on fishing might be expected, as it had been featured as a key element of this year’s New Year’s Message, along with the heavy steer towards the Rural Theses, so it should not have been anything of a surprise.

Whatever the reason tendered, this recent outburst of state media activity on fishing matters requires our attention for various reasons—foremost because it emerges as a departure from the norm. In developmental and resource extraction terms, Pyongyang’s traditional policy has very much been focused on land.

This year’s emphasis on Sepho and the Rural Theses, reflecting the state’s guiding project and principles, respectively, focused on land use. Even Masik Pass was a land-based development. By contrast, deep water fishing for North Korea has been made difficult by both the unfavorable topography along its eastern coast and the US command of the sea, crystallized at the Korean War’s armistice into the Northern Limit Line and inducing painful issues for the DPRK on the western maritime boundary. Deep-water fishing and industrial fish production also requires extensive resource outlay and a level of institutional efficiency and organization that North Korea has often lacked in recent years. But it has been tried in the past and, examining the commitment of resources, North Korea’s current efforts to increase the capacity and extent of its fishing activity appear genuine.

This essay is in several parts in toto. While I will examine in detail in the second part how this latest outburst of focus and energy on fishing and fishery resource connect to both current and contemporary events, as well as more generally the political themes of the Kim Jong-un era in subsequent essays, I want to first take the reader elsewhere temporally as well as pelagically. While our contemporary era sees resource and developmental planning and approach in North Korea intricately connected to the sphere of the politically charismatic and theatric, when it comes to fishing was it ever thus?

Kim Il-sung and deep sea trawlermen |Image:

Kim Il-sung and deep sea trawlermen |Image:

A New Basis for Fishing | From the beginning of institutional development in Pyongyang, post-Liberation, it is possible to be narratologically thematic when it comes to fishing matters, and this in fact is partly what this essay is about. However, before I examine in a periodic fashion its overall narrative, it has to begin somewhere. The first text relating to piscine matters in North Korea (although naturally it references projects and intent from long before its own pages), is “On Developing The Fishing Industry on a New Basis.” Presented to the Central Committee of the KWP on July 8, 1948, the reader can still discern the post-Liberation and post-colonization tensions of the early years in North Korea.

Seabound on three sides, our country is very rich in marine resources. The fishing industry is a major component of our national economy and plays an important role in improving the people’s living standards.[1]

While Kim Il-sung’s assertions of the sector’s importance will become familiar to the reader, the texts’ temporal context is clear from the issues arising from the post-Liberation de-Japanizing of the nations’ economy and institutions: “[W]e set up a new fishing system by reorganizing the fishing associations formed in the years of Japanese imperialism… through nationalization of fishing grounds, fishing boats, processing factories, netting plants and other fishing equipment and facilities formerly owned by Japanese imperialists, their collaborators and traitors to the nation.” [2]

Equally it is possible to catch a glimpse of the brief post-Liberation mixed economic strategy of North Korea, a strategy most overtly evident in the case of land reforms. Just as was the case in agricultural production, Pyongyang in its denuded post-Liberation state could not, it seems, rely on the infrastructure and bureaucracy left behind by imperial Chosen. Instead, and against its ideological inclinations, it was forced to utilize whatever private enterprise was left or had been in Korean hands at the moment of Liberation. It was not a comfortable relationship apparently: “Of course, we have encouraged private fishing and will do so in the future, too. But, if we rely on private fisheries alone, we shall not be able to shake off the backwardness in our fishing industry and satisfy the people’s demands for marine products.”[3]

Whatever the discomfort, Kim Il-sung also asserts some familiar institutional themes, such as a focus on planning: “a plan must always be concrete, scientific and dynamic…;”[4] institutional structure and connection: “each bureau of the People’s Committee of North Korea related to the fishing industry must shake off the tendency to narrow departmentalism…;”[5] and the place of politics and the Korean Worker Party within any developmental framework: “the party organizations in this field must radically improve their functions….”[6]

However institutionally-embedded or politically-structured the fishing industry and its productive capacity had become, it would have been decimated by the destructive period of the Korean War. It would be some years until fishing was again the focus of such direct consideration from Kim Il-sung, those tumultuous war years resolving through their apocalyptic process some of the issues mentioned by Kim in 1948. 1957’s “On the Development of the Fishing Industry” seems a very different beast. One steeped in the productive and technical intentions of Pyongyang’s post-War period of rehabilitation. This is a period, before Stalin’s death when Moscow and the USSR’s technical writ was most vital to North Korean policy, a point again confirmed by this text “we invited Soviet scientists who were engaged on maritime research in the Far East. They came to our country under an agreement reached when our Government delegation visited Moscow last year.” According to Kim these Soviet technicians and experts supported the first goal-setting focused approach from Pyongyang in the fishing sector as “they drew a conclusion… that we have enough fish resources to land some 500,000-600,000 tons a year in the next five years.”[7]

This goal for the extraction of 600,000 tons of fish annually was instantly adopted by Kim and itself embedded within all manner of developmental elements; from nutrition: “If we land 600,000 tons of fish, it will mean an average of 60 kilogrammes per person per year… [and] the people’s living standard will be improved considerably;”[8] to fishing methods and technical capacity: “[A]ll possible fishing methods including medium and small-scale, seasonal and deep sea fishing should be readily applied both in the East and the West Sea.”[9] While the strategy itself seemed wholly all inclusive it, just as its agricultural twin in the realm of grain productivity, was not however long lived. Stalin’s death in 1956 and its implications had already laid the ground work for its rapid diminution.

North Korea’s geo-political revanchement towards the more ideologically favourable winds of Maoism and the People’s Republic following the extraordinary events of Stalin’s death, Khrushchev’s rise to power and the accompanying softening of Soviet autocracy has been well documented by a number of commentators. The implications of this in the developmental field have been also noted by analysts from the period. However, the sectoral connections between Maoist principle and the rise and articulation of the Chollima concept for example and fishing and fisheries policy have not been subject to extensive focus.

Perhaps Maoist revolutionary urgency and influence can be best seen in this sector in the abrupt change of focus when it comes to research and technical development. North Korean commentators, even those not strongly concerned with developmental matters, will surely be aware of the acute importance of doing things and achieving goals in a technical or scientific manner. In 2014, images of scientists undertaking important work are a highly frequent trope of North Korean government imagery and narrative production. In the blast of ideological change brought on following Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Pyongyang’s articulation of the Chollima movement and its urgent harnessing of the power of mass movements and mass population, developmental texts echo this focus on the popular.

Kim Il Sung and Fishermen at Nampo

Kim Il-sung and Nampo Fishermen | Image:

Fish Culture is Not Hard to Do | “On the Tasks of the Party Organizations in South Pyongan Province,” delivered to the Provincial Party Committee of that Province on the  January 7, 1960, includes the axiomatic and extraordinary statement that: “We must intensify ideological education among the fishery officials and eradicate mysticism, empiricism and all other outdated ideas so that they will improve the fishing method zealously with the attitude of masters….”[10] When reading this for the first time I wonder whether this really did constitute a repudiation of the high position of epistemic, academic community, but assertions that “Fish culture is a not a difficult job. A little effort and everyone will be able to…” suggest it might be so.[11]

As with many of the developmental strategies however there is an element of what might be termed “popular schizophrenia” about them. In an effort, again familiar to North Korean analysts everywhere and in most temporal contexts, Pyongyang’s focus attempts to be all things to all sectors at many different times and situation. Thus while empiricism is rejected during this period, it is not clear how categoric this rejection is, as reference is made to learning from scientists, although framed within a project to embed their knowledge within the institutional framework tasked with harnessing the masses. “[C]hairmen of agricultural management boards and Party committees should read a lot and learn… [about] the know-how of fish breeding and sea culture.”[12]

As the collapse of the Great Leap Forward became clear to Pyongyang, its geopolitical adherence again shifted, and the dramatic, insistent, and urgent elements within developmental praxis began to wane. Although the mid 1960s saw fishing goals reimagined upwards along with the rest of the “Six Goals” (“we should raise the production of seafood to 800,000 tons…”[13]), the sector would be quickly connected to what might be termed a more “rational” set of developmental strategies.

Akin to the fields of grain production, forestry, and many others, fishing and fisheries would be embedded in the late 1960s and 1970s in a thick set of connecting institutional repertoires. Developmental projects and strategies would have to connect with bureaucratic and institutional structures (at all levels of governance) and ideological and theoretical progress and pay homage to both the Korean Workers Party and the Korean People’s Army. “For Bringing About Rapid Progress in the Fishing Industry,” apparently articulated by Kim Il-sung in early June, 1968, is a prime and useful example.

“Developing the fishing industry is of great importance in improving the diet of the working people, particularly in providing them with protein….”[14]

Although the need for developing and primarily increasing the level of protein in North Korean’s diet has been a key narrative and impetus since virtually the moment of Liberation (indeed the current project to develop cattle breeding on Sepho’s grasslands is part of this long term developmental theme), it was particularly key in the late 1960s in many fields (and was a main theme within New Years Messages of the time). Accordingly fishing and fisheries are included within the frame of wider development.

In institutional terms, this text demands a panoply of institutions at all levels connect with each other, from the Ministry of Railways, to local party committees to the Party Central Committee. Ideological infusion is also a key element of this text: “We must launch a powerful ideological campaign amongst the fishery officials… and firmly establish the Party’s monolithic ideological system among them….”[15]

This text of course was articulated and published at what would turn out to be something of a high-water mark for North Korean internal developmental approach. While the 1970s would see Pyongyang’s conception of Juche agriculture and developmental approach spread through its external organizations throughout the non-aligned movement, structurally disruptive features of its economic approach would begin to build up to some of the stasis and strategic abandonment at the 1980 Party Congress. Fisheries policy would of course be subject to these issues and disruptions, so that in spite of the not insignificant infrastructural developments especially when it comes to fleet size and development, at sea North Korea development would suffer a similar fate.

In the next part of this series I will examine ideological, technical, and institutional approaches to piscine matters in the heady days of international connectivity in the 1970s, as well as tracking its developmental fall into the difficult 1980s and eventually the tumultuous 1990s. While the January 8 Fishery Station appears blessed with a fishy charismatic theatricality in our own day, such thematic narratological power was in definite and seemingly terminal short supply within the developmental frame of the coming era.

[1] Kim Il-sung, “On Developing The Fishing Industry on a New Basis,” Works 4 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1948), 304.

[2] Ibid., 304.

[3] Ibid.,306.

[4] Ibid.,307.

[5] Ibid.,307.

[6] Ibid.,308

[7] Kim Il-sung, “On the Development of the Fishing Industry,” Works 11 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1957), 96.

[8] Ibid.,97.

[9] Ibid.,97.

[10] Kim Il-sung, “On the Tasks of the Party Organizations in South Pyongan Province,” Works 14 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960), 38.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid.,40.

[13] Kim Il Sung, “All Efforts to Attain the Six Goals,” Works 15 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House), 332.

[14] Kim Il Sung, “For Bringing About Rapid Progress in the Fishing Industry,” Works 22 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House), 261.

[15] Ibid., 274.


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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