New from RWC -Forests of Gold: Forests of Patriotic Socialism

The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should, as they carried out rehabilitation after the war, turn out in the campaign to restore the mountains of the country so as to turn them into “mountains of gold” thickly wooded with trees. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

The seemingly acute developmental concern of the Young Leader, Kim Jong-un has been fairly, if intriguingly clear since his accession to the throne of charismatic Kimism on the death of his father at Christmas 2012. While of course much theatrics have since ensued, enrapturing a great many a Pyongyangologist and sports fan, the pedagogy and education of his later youth in Switzerland surely cannot amongst the Michael Jordan DVDs have included much in the way of environmental training. But developmentally focused, Kim Jong-un has rather oddly been. In between those Dennis Rodman visits and the requisite number of appearances next to military hardware and sites of commemoration for his grandfather and father, he has found the time and inspiration to write a number of narratologically at least informative texts on such matters. From his first “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country” delivered in April 2012, to his instructive tome on institutional and bureaucratic matters to a group of Agricultural ‘subteam’ workers in 2013 to the New Years Messages of 2014 and 2015 focused respectively on recounting the anniversary of 1964’s Rural Theses and the topography of nationalist, foundational struggle at Paektusan, Kim Jong-un as ploughed a very individual and distinct developmentalist furrow.

This author unpacked the messages focused on environmental and topographical hymnal and paean in this year’s message early in the year for Sino-NK. The reader will have traced the themes and flows of narrative, as much as the aspiration to build and better utilize, what Kim termed “mountains and seas of gold”. It will not surprise the reader of course to hear therefore of Kim Jong-un’s return to the field of developmental publication with a new text entitled “Let the Entire Party, the Whole Army and All the People Conduct a Vigorous Forest Restoration Campaign to Cover the Mountains of the Country with Green Woods”

Kim Jong-un’s latest piece of apparently long form authorship will also not surprise the reader given the political and bureaucratic commemorative calendar of North Korea and the fact that National Tree Planting Day arrives early on March 4th followed by the highly important Spring Land Management Campaigns. This author has also covered this aspect of the yearly cycle of institutional impetus and charismatic connection before, as the period is marked and remarked upon nearly every year. However while the moment is indeed frequently noted, it is still rare for such an extensive statement to be made.

This author’s overarching reading of Kim Jong-un’s text is that is no less a rebuke and critique than Kim Il-sung’s dressing down of unheeding or unresponsive provincial authorities in Chagang Province during the 1960s. Echoing language used by his grandfather in the foundational 1964 text “Let Us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers”, Kim Jong-un asserts that “Forests are precious resources of the country and a wealth to be handed down to posterity. Our country has been called a land of golden tapestry for the mountains thick with forests and the fields covered with beautiful flowers” and following “Japanese imperialist colonial rule” Kim Il-sung had “…unfolded a far-reaching plan to turn all the mountains into thickly wooded places of people’s resort by having trees planted in large numbers…”

Surely positive words to the ears of provincial administrators everywhere, these opening remarks in the text are alas, for that audience, the last of reassurance and charismatic comfort. Kim Jong-un goes on to complain that “…people have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent…” These claims, that on the face of it sound akin to critiques of Korean approach to forest and timber resource from both the days of the Government General of Chosen and a disappointed Park Chung-hee on his return from a verdant Japanese mainland come finally complete with a denunciation of bureaucratic efforts and focus on aboreal matters.

“As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountains”

Considering of course the importance of environmental and developmental elements to North Korea’s narrative of political charisma and superiority, this does not sound like the terrain and topography called for in the many drives for the embedding and rebroadcast of Pyongyang’s patriotic sense in its landscapes and spaces. Kim Jong-un even presents for the reader, Kim Jong-il’s own pain and annoyance at the situation during his time, remembering that he “…grieved for the decreasing forests of the country…” that the deforestation was also an aftermath of the Arduous March” and it was institutional necessity “…to turn the misfortune into a blessing and hand down to the coming generations beautiful mountains thick with forests…”

But those thick forests and beautiful timber covered mountains would never come in Kim Jong-il’s time it seems, and now the Young Generalissimo feels a sense of acute urgency towards the matter. “The forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads–whether to perish for ever or to be restored”, he asserts “We can no longer back off from the issue related with the forests. As long as the forests are left as they are, no one can claim that he is a master of the country nor can he speak about patriotism”

The achievement of this patriotic developmental outcome, of course given all of that apparent stasis and stagnation will be no mean feat. One would imagine it would require complete institutional revision and dramatic reconfiguration of the approach and structures of its forestry sector….Imagination of course predicated on the social and cultural context of the imaginer, and North Korea’s particular weltanschaung is, if not unique, certainly distinct. This Kim Jong-un’s outlined solutions and framework appear a smorgasbord of derivations and tendencies sourced from throughout its political, sovereign and developmental history.

Naturally it will be an all-encompassing effort, involving the effort of the entire North Korean national body: “The entire Party, the whole army and all the people should conduct a vigorous forest restoration campaign to make the mountains of the country thick with forests” It will be revolutionary and combative in tone “…Forest restoration is a challenging and complex undertaking of raising young trees, transplanting them and then cultivating them year in, year out in the face of harsh challenges of nature…The forest restoration campaign is a war to ameliorate nature…” Equally it will be urgent and necessary in a form only held in common with previous modes and examples of revolutionary speed, such as those from Maoist China “What is important in conducting this campaign is to push ahead with forest planting and conservation simultaneously. We should bring about a sweeping revolution in forest planting…”

Held in common with a great many other elements of North Korean politics and ideology however, and which is now commonly understood by analysts and scholars focusing on such matters it will essentially also be whatever and what if what is required, not just in developmental or functional terms, but will also need to address narrative and commemorative purposes.

Forestry development in Kim Jong-un’s eyes therefore will need to be grounded in science and the institutions of science. Kim suggests that for example, “…success of the forest restoration campaign depends on how nurseries provide young trees…”, that there should continue to be a central nursery which, importantly in commemorative and legitimacy terms, having been founded by Kim Il-sung (“with a far sighted plan…bequeathed to us as part of his legacy…”) should “raise the level of scientification, industrialization and intensification in growing young trees”. While these nursery institutions are vital to the conceived process of afforestation and scientific endeavour, research should be led at an elite level by an Academy of Forest Science, which according to Kim Jong-un should be refurbished “into a world-class academy”

This mention of the rest of the world, surprisingly perhaps for a text so defiantly local and North Korean, leads Kim Jong-un to again echo the past, but this time it is an echo with its origins in the colonial period’s efforts to transplant a forestry of modernity into the post-annexation Peninsula. “We should take measures to introduce and widely disseminate the global achievements of the advanced science and technology related to forest planting and conservation….we should bring in…trees from foreign countries and widely proliferate them” Further to this call to global connection and to this author even more surprising is Kim Jong-un’s demand for the embedding of these externally sourced conceptions within local institutions and frameworks: “…a brisk drive for disseminating forest science and technology should be waged to keep people abreast of the world trend of development of forest science and technology.”

In a sense if it were to be followed, Kim Jong-un’s suggestions of increased developmental knowledge exchange with the wider world, more focus on empirical rigour within the sector, and better organised, nationally aware but locally focused institutions and bureaucracies might make a real difference to the functionality and viability of forest resource in North Korea, as such an approach would in any nation. However of course within Pyongyang’s sovereign realm there are other forces and agendas at play, so these fairly rational scientific platitudes must be matched to commemorative and legitimatory narratives and practices.

Just as urgency is deployed in the scientific realm, so it will be utilised within the charismatic. Kim Jong-un within later sections of the document reverts to what we might term the revolutionary mean. Here politics and functional development are undertaken by ‘the mass’ as Chairman Mao would have understood it, one homogenous, energetic, powerful yet not necessarily functional assemblage of co-opted, coerced and perhaps the enthusiastic publics. Kim Jong-un suggests for instance that “It is our Party’s traditional method of work to propel the revolution and construction by means of mass-based movements”, before comparing whatever projects must be undertaken to redevelop and regenerate North Korea’s forestry stock to projects and campaigns such as the Ch’ollima movement, projects whose difficulties this author has considered at some length.

Perhaps ultimately the charismatic and commemorative inclination of the mass is what prevents Kim Jong-un from moving on to pastures or timbers new within this key text. As much as it would make sense to leave forest development up to the nurseries, to the Forest Academy to the local bureaucracies tasked with increasing stock in their domain, North Korean politics is nothing without its key institutional base of Party, Army and a perceptual (if not perhaps real) popular mass. When Kim Jong-un begins to make assertions that “Only when the whole country and all the people are involved, can the forest restoration campaign bear fruit…” It cannot be surprising that the phrase “…as they conducted reconstruction after the war” should follow.

Ultimately and in conclusion it seems that however far Kim Jong-un might want to reach in systematic arboreal terms, in this text he proves himself trapped by the weight of history and its necessary recantations and representations. Developmentally trapped by the weight of fighting eternal theoretical and metaphorical war as the Young Leader can only conclude that “…nurseries are to a forest restoration campaign what munitions factories are to a war…” we must conclude that in this instance of forestry and timber resource, developmentally Pyongyang finds itself trapped by a Patriotism of its own perception.

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