Recovering a Verdant Topographic-Self: Forests, Colonialism and the Re-Construction of Developmental Modernity in North Korea (Excerpt)

“The Mountain Ranges in Korea cover more than half the total area of the country. Owing to indiscriminate felling of trees without public supervision, which was practiced for a long time past, most of the mountain slopes…have become denuded of trees…” (HIJMRG, 1907)

This the opening paragraph to the forestry section of the first “Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea”, published in 1907 by His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General (Japanese governmental authorities seemingly were not bold enough to assert their role as a Government General until the year of annexation in 1910), in Seoul is an essential summation of the Japanese few on Korean forestry management. Coupled with later statements that Korea has “no forestry law to speak of” speak of great conceptual difference between the classical, bureaucratic legalistic approach of Imperial Japan and that of the Choson dynasty.

It is of course difficult in a sense to assess the fairness or otherwise of Japanese claims so far as Korea’s ineffectual and uncoordinated approach to forest and timber resource and management, difficult as the chaos of the later Yi dynasty meant that whatever institutional systems and records that had been undertaken in the later years within Korea’s forest sector are essentially lost to us now, if they were ever accessible and obtainable to foreigners and externally interested parties. Equally as has been asserted many times and many scholars Choson Korea and the institutions of the Yi dynasty were simply not that sort of institutional or developmental state. While Yi dynasty Korea had a highly developed and deeply organised bureaucracy and civil service (which of course was intricately embedded with social stratification), in the Yangban classes and the Civil Examination process, it was not that sort of bureaucracy, focused primarily as it was on the maintenance of the Royal House, specific and general structures of social order and the difficult tenuous relationships this Korea had with its favoured partner China and the outside world.

As we have seen in the previous section, the institutional structures of Korean forestry were not the intricate works of bureaucratic organisation of Japanese history, but neither were they subject to amateurish neglect of the colonial imagination. Whatever the reality of this past however, its present manifestation did not suit the needs and requirements of the colonial administration and it was keen to make radical changes tailored to its agenda.

At the earliest moment of colonialism, even while it was still in the infancy of the Residency General, Japan sought to capitalise and reconstruct Korean forestry resource:

“There exist rich forests along the banks of the Yalu and the Tumen Rivers, but they were never properly exploited, except in a temporary manner by the Russians prior to the recent war…Proper exploitation with adequate capital should undoubtedly yield a considerable revenue to the Treasury…” (HIJMG, 1908)

Accordingly the Residency General negotiated and undertook what it describes as a ‘joint’ enterprise with the Korean Government in building a new forestry coordination and trans-shipment centre at Antung (present day Chinese Dandong), opposite the Korean town of Sinuiji (which the document describes as Wiju), on the mouth of the Yalu. This served to coordinate and develop timber shipments along the Yalu River from the deep northern interior forests of North Pyongan and Chagang provinces. The annual report notes the extent of the timbers journey: “…The distance from the place where the timber is felled to the main station at Antung is 150 ri (375 miles) and the rafts take 40 days to make the journey…” (HIJMG, 1908). This project in total extracted some 71006 cubic ‘shaku’[1] of timber from these ancient forests.

Further to this simple extractive project the Japanese Residency General sought in these early, initial days to reorganise the wider strategy and approach of Korea’s forestry institutions. In a section of the 1908 Annual Report marked as ‘Agricultural and Industrial Encouragement’ the Resident General asserts that “The Korean Government, appreciating the urgent advice of the Resident General, established, in 1906, three modal forests in the mountains near Seoul, Pingyang (sic) and Taiku…” (HIJMRG, 1908) These new forest, colonially guided projects were to be the locus and fulcrum of a new approach to timber and forest management. They were to cover 83,300 acres and include a number of new species imported directly from Japan. Along with these projects focusing on more mature forest stock, deeper research had begun to be framed and undertaken: “In 1907, three Nursery Gardens were established in the vicinity of the Model Forests near Pyingyang and Taiku, and also at Suwon. In these Gardens seeds of various trees were sowed in the spring of 1907, and promising results were obtained…” (HIJMRG, 1908)

Beyond these site and location specific developments the Residency General suggested educational improvements and changes (“In a school attached to the…model station at Suwon, a short course in forestry was added to the curriculum, and the first graduates, 12 in number, are now actively engaging in forest administration under the Government and at the Model Stations…” (HIJMRG, 1908), as well institutional changes moving forest administration responsibilities from the agricultural section of the Department of Agriculture to a new Forest Bureau – itself employing “several Japanese experts in forestry”. Finally the legal structures and frameworks were to be reworked to support the impending arrival of ‘modern’ practice, the text claiming that “…the Government is now preparing comprehensive laws which will provide, among other things, that certain mountains and forests, both public and private shall be preserved as protections against landslides, floods and drought.” (HIJMRG, 1908)

Before this new forestry legislation was brought into force, Korea’s total forestry stock under the control of the state was reviewed and assessed (“With the object of protecting as well as utilizing the States forests…” (GGC, 1909), and the outlines of extensive surveying of private forest resource were unveiled. This surveying took the form of cadastral surveying carried out during the spring and summer of 1910. By August the peninsula’s entire forest stock (other than on Jeju Island), had been surveyed and was found to stand at some 16,000,000 Cho[2]. This wider stock was found to be in similarly denuded and degraded conditions as the initial State Forest stock and thus wider strategies of afforestation were to be carried out. By this year of course the Government General had assumed political sovereignty on the Peninsula and the need for “model afforestation” centers under the control of Japanese experimental institutions was no longer necessary. Forestry management was thus devolved back to the Provincial administrations now coordinated by the Government General, and afforestation strategy undertaken by the propagation of a number of ‘seedling bed’s in different Provincial territories. The Government General also sought to encourage other, private sector based stake-holders to begin afforestation projects and asserted that “…In order to encourage afforestation on the part of the general public the Government General (selected)…April 3rd, 1911, the anniversary of the accession of the First Emperor of Japan, as a memorial day for a universal plantation…” (GGC, 1911).

Having gained institutional and sovereign control of the Korean Peninsula, its institutions and forest resources, reviewed those resources and begun a series of afforestation projects, the aforementioned legal revisions came with Serei (Imperial Decree number 10), issued through the Govenor-General in July of 1911. Its stipulations came into force at the end of the year and both asserted the Government General’s overall control of natural and forest resources at the same time as opening up State Forests to both preservation and exploitation by private or non-state actors. Ultimately the Annual Report for 1912 suggests that “…the vital object of the revised forestry law aims not only as a continuance of the government undertakings to afforestation, but also at stimulating the people in general to undertake afforestation as far as possible on their own initiative…” (GGC, 1912).

This transfer of responsibilities in a sense sought to break the bounds of reverence for local communities and their sacred or customary forests, as much as colonial Japanese administration would seek to break the bounds between the Korea and Koreans of the present and the Korean’s of the historical past and the historical Korea. Forestry management and resource was to be brought into modernity by a quasi-free market in forest management (be that for exploitative or regenerative purposes), one that could allow for deep inroads to be made by the institutions and organisations of Japanese colonial modernity. Dramatic developments were made in terms of experimental and exploitative forestry projects in this early colonial period, developments that would point ahead to later manifestations of colonial industrial denudations and exploitations…for example the Government General Annual Report for 1912 already reports some 1649 Cho of seedling beds within ten years for future exploitation.

Of course these reports from the colonial Government General are subject to some disputation on statistical grounds, as well as we will later on see on conceptual or ideological grounds. Andrew Grajdanzev for example in 1944 utilising a later set of data points provided by the Government General of Chosen asserts that comparisons and reportage made by the Annual Report of 1938 “…are of doubtful value…” (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.123), owing to their failure to correctly combine and account for different methods of forest stock assessment in the later years of the colonial government. Further to this Grajdanzev asserts that in later years the Government General undertook large scale privatisation of forest resources, utilizing the tools of modern, Liberal legal frameworks into the hands of companies such as the ‘Chosen Ringyo Kaihatsu Kabushiki Kaishi’ or ‘Corporation for the Development of Forest Exploitation in Korea’. In fact Grajdanzev notes that this particular organisation was granted for no charge some 500,000 cho of forests in Korea (equating to a quarter of the remaining ‘good’ forest) (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.126). This was not to engage in its afforestation or protection, for its whole scale deforestation. Accordingly Grajdanzev and the Government General itself (in reports not directly accessible to the author), recount the increase in cubic meterage of timber felled across the peninsula from some 700,000 in 1910 to 2.8 million in 1939 (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.124).

While the reports continue to recount in meticulous detail the modernisation of Korean forestry stock and practice, producing what …refers to as the colonial modern. In the later period of the colonisation the nature of what is meant by forestry practice following Grajdanzev’s analysis, radically alters. Perhaps this is to take into account the needs of Japanese military build-up and the eventual undertaking of the conflict in the Pacific and South East Asia. Whatever the impetus or drivers behind this process it seems from 1933 developmental paradigms and practices changed to one’s of deforestation and extraction. While this of course denuded forest stock to a much greater extent than the earlier period (in which there was an expansion in resource levels as shown by Grajdanzev), the later impact on North Korean conceptions of Japanese impact on the environment in general in North Korea was much greater.

[1] Shaku is a Japanese measurement of length formulated in its modern form in 1891. A Shaku corresponds to 10/33 of a metre

[2] Cho is a Japanese measurement of area. A Cho is equivalent to .9917 of a hectare.

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