The Red Flag Relay Begins at Samjiyon : Image KCNA
In a series of pieces for Sino-NK known as “…and did those feed in ancient times…” during 2015, this author examined in detail the narratological and political content and technique generated and suggested by what North Korea had described as the “250 Mile Schoolchildren’s march”. For more than a week a group of schoolchildren re-enacted Kim Il-sung’s journey which would lead him out of colonial Chosen to the terrain in which he was later to become a General of Paektusan and Eternal President of North Korea. It was an extraordinary event rich in connection and intriguing in its presentation of its participant children as worthy inheritors of the charismatic revolutionary flame and vessels for its contemporary re-territorialisation. It was always fascinating for its skirting of the obvious and significant fact that unlike Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk or in fact any of those revolutionary progenitors of Pyongyang’s contemporary charismatic, theatric politics, none of the school children on the march nor any its’ of current inhabitants could be useful or legitimately be allowed the chance to cross the rivers of the Amnok. Instead this contemporary manifestation of political charisma were to be innately and impossibly bound by their temporality and geography, their journey and its power limited and restricted by the current remit of Pyongyang’s sovereignty.
The 250 Mile Schoolchildren’s march however was an intriguing and seemingly new tool in Pyongyang’s armoury and repertoire of theatric and commemorative practice, one replete with possibility given the extent of North Korea’s potential and predilection from and for the generation and exploitation of powerful narrative (imagined, constructed or otherwise). It would not of course have been surprising if North Korea’s propagandist or presentational authorities were to have put the practice to further, more developed use or in order better to extract further charismatic power and reflection from its utility. As 2015 is a year rich in moments of commemoration and memory those interested and focused on such matters would surely not have long to wait, and indeed so it was to be.
On August 4th, 2015, Rodong Sinmun announced the “Red Flag Relay of the Servicepersons of the Korean People’s Army (KPA)”. From the opening description it was clear that this project was a clear effort to connect the ideological and narrative dots between past, present and commemorative future. It was of course primarily to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, but the report focusing on its beginning also made sure to overtly connect the revolutionary legitimacy earned by North Korea’s past charismatic leadership to both the new leadership and to continue older preoccupations and concepts. Through a demonstrative act of will and as the report puts it “iron faith” undertaken by those undertaking the relay, appropriate commemorative connection might be made under the rule of Kim Jong-un through “fluttering the red flag of the revolution associated with the whole life of President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il.”
This initial report focusing on the setting out of those involved also cites its moment of departure, as might be expected, from one of the most charismatically important terrains in North Korea, the Samjiyon Grand Monument. The politically sacred architecture of this place and others near it geographically, commemorates the mythography of struggle undertaken by Kim Il-sung and his guerrilla band in the hills, mountains and wildernesses to the north of the lake, as well as the coyly expressed moment in which the relationship between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk that would produce Kim Jong-il as its offspring was first denoted in the historiography of North Korea. The statues and commemorative landscapes of this space are extraordinary, even in photographs and the report asserts that “the relay would offer a good occasion for arming the servicepersons with the revolutionary spirit of Paektu.” Of course it would not be the first time in 2015 that the famous mountain holy to the politics and historiography of North Korea has been mentioned by Pyongyang’s political writers and reporters. Most importantly Kim Jong-un’s New Years Message explicitly framed 2015’s North Korea’s institutional and political year within the commemorative space of Paektu, articulating a new revolutionary spirit “the spirit of the blizzards of Paektu.” Accordingly and physically manifesting this spirit, the participants in the relay would re-territioralize its imperatives elsewhere in North Korea, taking two journeys through the nation and eventually arriving at Panmunjom on the DMZ (the better to represent the notion of national reunification to actually physically appear at the division which would need to be overcome in that instance), as the report makes clear “a red flag embroidered with the letters ‘the revolutionary spirit of Paektu, the spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” in hand.
Similarly to the reportage which covered the march of the school children a year earlier, the red flag relay and its participants in its journey would reconnect distant and dislocated places within a physical narrative articulated by their urgent footprints. The western half of the relay would take its re-territiorializing imperatives firstly to the battle monuments of Musan and the port city of Chongjin on the 7th of August , Kosanjin and Kumchon revolutionary sites (commemorating the Headquarters of the KPA during the second, less dynamic half of the Korean War) and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong (to pay vital homage to Kim Jong-suk), on the 11th of August. On the same day the eastern division of the relay would also arrive at Mt Taesong having travelled through Hamhung and Wonsan and encountered not simply the “field guidance of the peerlessly great men of Mt Paektu” as one might expect, but rather extraordinarily “a meeting for learning from the spiritual world of the fighters who displayed the self-blasting spirit.”
August 13th’s visit to the hugely expanded Sinchon Museum with its detailed North Korean historiographic account of what is known to Pyongyang as the Sinchon Massacre will no doubt be incorporated by many scholars of the narrative for the report’s extensive photographic detailing of the museum’s exhibits. Whether the feelings of revenge elicited by those within the Relay group were envisaged as a key component of the “spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” earlier this year will of course never be known, but the museum’s dramatic, visceral vision of history absolutely drove the emotional pitch of the relay to new heights. Little re-temporalization of political energy nor imagination is necessary from the reported words of some of those involved, KPA members Kim Jong-su and Choe Kum-sil asserting that “they keenly felt once again [that] the US Imperialisst and class enemies were a group of cannibals regarding massacre of human beings as hobby [and] this made them whet the class sword more and more sharply.”
After finally on August 14th, visiting Jikdong Pass, Height 1211, Chol Pass and Mt Osong (reported as being “the mountain of Songun”), met with a group of war veterans and perhaps as a nod to the important activities commemorated in the first march of the schoolchildren in 2014 engaged in a “river crossing”, the relay groups arrived at their destination. Assembling in front of the monument at Panmunjom inscribed with Kim Il-sung’s signature on August 17th, those who had participated in the relay were joined by members from all three of North Korea’s military forces, members of the Workers Party and the Socialist Youth League to reiterate the narrative and philosophical messages of the event. Moments of diplomacy and international connectivity were, it has to be said put to one side in an almost orgiastic outburst of re-territorialization and connection between past and present. Dynamism, final victory, advance, reunification and revolutionary spirit were called upon to legitimize the relays path and arrival here at the physical manifestation of division, both a metaphorical gnashing of teeth and a reminder that with the “spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” in mind, for Pyongyang in 2015 wherever paths, journeys and travels may roamed or taken, whichever elements of charisma, narrative and authority may be deployed, October 10th and its crystallisation of North Korean political sovereignty may be the only destination.