Charisma in a Watery Frame: Narrative Topographies, Re and De-Territorialization and North Korea’s Northern Rivers

This is a pre-publication, pre-final edit and pre-copy setting and type setting version of this paper and is substantially different from the published version. Interested readers can find the final published version as an article in the Asian Perspective journal, Volume 40 (3): 393-414
Charisma in a Watery Frame: North Korean Narrative Topographies and the Tumen River

Dr Robert Winstanley-Chesters


This paper is concerned with both a North Korea in its latent, nascent stage and in echoes and re-framings of those early political narratives to support the function and authority of its current governmental manifestation. While nations and their politics are in a sense in a constant process of becoming, North Korea in the late 1920s and 1930’s was a nation only inadvertently in that process. It is unlikely that those who made up its later institutional elite and bureaucracy would have considered that in their struggle they were not struggling for anything other than a unified Korea. Kim Il-sung and his accompanying guerrilla forces were fighting for the independence of a nation that in their perception spanned the entirety of the peninsula, from Mt Paektu and the rivers in the North to Jeju island in the south. It is an act of post-facto narratological construction that when we now examine their accounts of this time, it is generally held to be part of the pre-history of North Korea.
Later re-constructed into the thick charismatic mythos of the Pyongyang we know today, the narratives of struggle expand across geographic bounds and boundaries familiar to those with a keen ear and eye for the pre-history of Korea itself. These are stories of defiantly concrete landscapes, but diffuse forms of politics and nationhood, from Parhae and the Northern Han Commanderies to Manchuria and colonial Manchukuo. Human intervention and institutional development may have an element of liminality about its form, but the spatial topography certainly does not. This paper therefore examines these narratives of political charisma as they extend into the realm of the geographic and the natural, topography itself becoming the carrier signal for charismatic authority. Topographies of course do not simply take concrete forms, but in their riverine forms can be conceived more as spaces of liminality and diffusion. In light of these charismatics, the paper thus analyses the place of the Tumen River within North Korean narratives of struggle and overcoming during two eras. It secondarily considers such watery spaces reframing within the terrain of its current politics, and recent examples of processes of de-territorializing and re-territorializing of historical and politically important crossings of North Korea’s northern rivers. Together these analytic elements suggest the rivers’ key position in both the bounding and unbounding of North Korean politics, ideology and nationhood.

Charisma in a Watery Frame: Narrative Topographies, Re and De-Territorialization and North Korea’s Northern Rivers 


       This paper is concerned with both a North Korea in its latent, nascent stage and in the echoes and re-framings of political narratives derived from those early days to support the function and authority of its current governmental manifestation. While nations and their politics are in a sense in a constant process of becoming, North Korea in the late 1920s and 1930’s was a nation only inadvertently in that process. It is unlikely that those who made up its later institutional elite and bureaucracy would have considered that in their struggle they were not struggling for anything other than a unified Korea. Kim Il-sung and his accompanying guerrilla forces were fighting for the independence of a nation that in their perception spanned the entirety of the peninsula, from Mt Paektu and the rivers in the North to Jeju island in the south. It is an act of post-facto narratological construction that when we now examine their accounts of this time, it is generally held to be part of the pre-history of North Korea.
Later re-constructed into the thick charismatic mythos of the Pyongyang we know today, the narratives of struggle expand across geographic bounds and boundaries familiar to those with a keen ear and eye for the pre-history of Korea itself. These are stories of defiantly concrete landscapes, but diffuse forms of politics and nationhood, from Parhae and the Northern Han Commanderies to Manchuria and colonial Manchukuo. Human intervention and institutional development may have an element of liminality about its form, but the spatial topography certainly does not. While North Korea’s current political form may certainly take on slippery, liminal forms, as a distinctly ‘thick’ ideological and institutional ecosystem (Geertz, 1973),it is certainly not in its charismatic form, diffuse, even as it is widely diffused throughout its body, cultural and social politic.
Charismatic Landscapes and Landschaft
Much has of course been written in recent years following the publication of Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho-Chung’s landmark work “Beyond Charismatic Politics” (2012), on the theatricality of current North Korean political forms and on the hinterland of their supportive mythology. This author has utilised Kwon and Chung’s thesis in conjunction with the socio- Geographic work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree analysing landscape and landscape development from a constructivist perspective, that landscapes and nature themselves are constructed and built by the societies and political forms that inhabit them (Cosgrove, 1984 and Castree, 2000). Using this theoretic frame I have asserted that not only in North Korea is there a charismatic politics, but that this perhaps necessarily begets a charismatic landscape. Further to this I have sought to, in North Korea’s case examine how these constructions, this theatricality and mythos might impact upon this landscape, and how they might transform it?
Landscape as a word in the English  language of course comes to us somewhat denuded of both politics and content, a denudation that makes its connection to such a rich and content filled conception as Charisma and the Charismatic difficult to say the least. Landscape is not currently therefore an ideal word or conception to twin with Charisma in any realm of “thick” politics (Geertz, 1973), let alone in North Korea. I instead intend to use (or mis-use), a more ancient piece of terminology, the German word “Landschaft”.
Denis Cosgrove himself engaged with the Landschaft conception and for him its utility lies in its original usage in defining spatial organisation in political or social terms “Custom and culture defined a Land, not physical geographical characteristics – it was a social entity that found physical expression in the area under its law…” (Cosgrove, 2004). This author would claim that North Korea can be seen as just such a social or political entity, a space in which particular customs, culture and political manifestations interact with physical or topographical features within the remit and utilisability of its sovereignty and law. Cosgrove determines that Landschaft “….points to a particular spatiality in which a geographical area and its material appearance are constituted through social practice…” (Cosgrove, 2004) In North Korea’s case I would claim that its Landschaft is instead constituted through political practice and the mode of that practice is the Charismatic as outlined by Kwon and Chung.
If of course landscape is to be conceived of as Charismatic or as a Landschaft, a key feature of both of these is the activation or undertaking of social, cultural or political construction within them (for this is what imbues them with charisma), then it is not surprising perhaps that these activations will adopt different forms and that these differing forms my reflect the topography of the landscape. I have identified three core forms which I have talked about in past work as typologies. Along with a later landscape type I categorised as “monolithic” and which is not yet possible in the pre-Kimist, pre-North Korea time frame I engage with here, the primary category I term “spaces of struggle”. I also identify a category which could well be twinned in this era which I conceive as “participant.” (Winstanley-Chesters, 2013)
In order to support this participant form of landscape and its connection with North Korea’s charismatic politics, I have also considered another methodological substructure derived from the academic terrain of political or human geography, namely its use of scale or scaling (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Originally deriving in terminological terms from Geography’s interaction with Cartography and its graphical representations of spatiality and physical relation, scholars have built on from Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that space and spatiality themselves are products, social products or political products (Lefebvre, 1991). Eric Swyngedouw’s for example suggests that places represented or experienced through scales are “the embodiment of social relations of empowerment and disempowerment and the arena through and in which they operate” (Swyngedouw, 1997, p.167.), and Marston has asserted that “…scale making is not only a rhetorical practice; its consequences are inscribed in and are the outcome of, both everyday life and macro-level social structures…” (Marston, 2000, p.221.).
Given the charismatic political construction manifest in North Korea, and this author’s research which identifies as one of the core elements of its authority and legitimacy a physical engagement in the terrains and spaces within historical memory, would it not stand to reason, that such as social and politically constructed space could be iterated and transmitted by the processes of scale and scaling? Accordingly this paper will consider the notion that terrains and spaces useful to this conjunction, might be re-scaled across wide gulfs of temporality, in a process which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri have namber in their investigation of other political fields, ‘de-territorialization’ and ‘re-territorialization.’ The reader will, it is hoped follow these re-scalings and de-territorializings as they alight elsewhere in the historical narratives of North Korea and its politics, far to the north and prior to its initial moment of sovereignty (Deleuze and Guatarri, 1988).

Spaces of Struggle, Spaces of Participation 

With this paper’s methodological and theoretical considerations in mind we can move from the field of academic narrative, to that of politics and historical authority. Attendant within that narrative are those physical places I have termed previously spaces of struggle. These feature in core elements of North Korean political narrative and historiography, namely the import and impact of the pre-Liberation guerrilla struggle against the forces of colonial Japan and that struggles place within the long history of Korean nationalism and national development. Kim Il-sung and the other members of the guerrilla group known as the United North East Anti-Japanese army during the years of its activity in Manchuria did (Armstrong, 1995), there is little doubt, engage in combat, harassment and struggle against Japanese forces. It may also of course be that at times they had some success in that struggle, however this period has become a nationalistic prismatic through which later manifestations of politics and the political are required to look and to be examined through. This has been much analysed by scholars, has as the struggle of these forces (or otherwise) themselves (Buzo, 1999). What has been little researched and subject to little commentary however is the place of the environment and terrain itself within this struggle, and the contribution made by this landscape to this wider narrative of national rebirth and overcoming. As the site of much of this struggle was necessarily wilderness or partially wild spaces, such natural space has become endowed with the charismatic nationalist content of that struggle.
Perhaps the vast majority of examples of landscape’s co-option within political or social frames are not directly about struggle but while they may be ubiquitous or all-encompassing generally they are quiet and not overt, part of the everyday, part of the furniture. In North Korea also such moments of quiet politics are carefully utilised to construct narratives of supportive participation where citizens plant trees in their own courtyards full of apparent quiet pride (Rodong Sinmun, 2013), where scientists in the agricultural institute go about the uncelebrated business of experiment and development (Rodong Sinmun, 2014), where traffic ladies become national heroines for unspoken action involving traffic management (KCNA, 2013).
In North Korea these moments and periods of struggle also I suggest support the enacting of landscapes as Landschaft in the process of participation in commemorative process of past struggles and conflicts, such as the example of a group of silver birch trees by Lake Samji quietly representative of and participating in one of the more diffuse elements of national and commemorative narrative characterised by Rodong Sinmun as “undying revolutionary exploits of the great persons of Mt Paektu” (Rodong Sinmun, 2012) (presumably Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk) through a process of de and re-territorialization, ultimately rescaling their charisma in the current time. Such landscapes are deeply impacted by the struggles in which they participate or which occur through, around or within them. In a sense they are both built and rebuilt by it. Rebuilt and re-temporalized in the current social and political mind according to the needs and rational of current political needs and forms.
While the topography of North Korea and specifically its northern border with the People’s Republic of China is not in the least bit diffuse, and in fact both Rivers the Amnok/Yalu and the Tuman/Tumen and the Mt Paektu/Baekdu massif form a very distinct border space, the historical narratives of the political entity which they bound has been at times. Accordingly North Korea’s charismatic political narrative has sought to embed and root itself with the spaces and terrains of this landscape, to draw strength from them and to more firmly assert its legitimacy, specifically in the case of its northern rivers such as the Tumen/Tuman and Amnok/Yalu.

Contemporary Spaces of Struggle

Before focusing on those northern rivers themselves, some further explanation may well be necessary in order for the reader to best grasp the current praxis of charismatic incorporation and its rescaling and re-territorializing.  For a key example of contemporary embedding of these charismatic themes we might turn to the mourning and funereal period following the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. Such events in North Korea are renowned for their overt theatricality. While this of course true of many similar moments in other nation’s history’s (for example the outpouring of emotion in the UK following the death of Princess Diana in 1997), the response of North Korean population and institutions appear on a different category of scale and adopts a radically different tone. Huge crowds of people are seen to gather and erupt in emotional outpouring, waves of grief and tears spreading throughout the nation. External commentators have commented on the acute quality of the expressed grief which appears to illustrate a deep personal emotional connection between the general populace and its now passed leader.
It could also be, and has been asserted to be by many commentators that this all- encompassing tidal wave of sorrow, that essentially such enormous public demonstrations of sadness are simply that, demonstrations. In effect such grief is the collective expression of a private and considered bargain by its population at such times that is necessary and expected to undergo such demonstrations, in fact they are part of the supportive system of politics in the North, part of its commemorative theatre and their now accepted non-participants.
Given the all-encompassing nature of the political and emotional imperative at such a time, would it be at all surprising if a wider repertoire of grieving related behaviour and participants were deployed at such a moment? This author would suggest that, of course not. Given North Korea’s extensive, in fact all-inclusive interpretation of the realm of politics and the political itself I would suggest that just as it is necessary for the human population to participate, it would be entirely expected and even necessary for other elements of North Korea’s terrain and domain to participate as well. Accordingly during the mourning period at the death of Kim Jong-il and the subsequent accession of Kim Jong-un environmental actors were deployed within the wider theatric and charismatic process.
Key examples of environmental incorporation within the wider political body during this commemorative period include North Korea’s news agency, KCNA reportage that focused on the inscription commemorating the place of Mt Paektu, a sacred mountain for Koreans, in North Korean revolutionary history, suddenly glowing red (“Kim Jong Il’s autographic writings “Mt. Paektu, holy mountain of revolution. Kim Jong Il.” carved on the mountain, in particular, were bright with glow. This phenomenon lasted till 5:00 pm.”, (KCNA,2012a), as well as the ice on the lake at the top of the mountain, Lake Chon cracking despite freezing temperatures and from across Pyongyang there were also reports of cranes and other birds adopting distinct postures of reverence or mourning.
While the mourning cranes of course are a fine example of nature and the environmental as participant in the grieving process, participant in the narrative, participant in the theatricality, perhaps the most exemplary of all these instances were the mourning Asiatic Black Bears of Taehung:
“At around 12:00 December 23, 2011, workers of the Taehung Youth Hero Mine saw three bears on a road when they were coming back from a mourning site after expressing deep condolences over the demise of leader Kim Jong Il.  The bears, believed to be a mother and cubs, were staying on the road, crying woefully.  Bears usually have a deep sleep in cave or under fallen tree in thick forest in winter days. So it was unusual that they came out to a road in the daytime. Moreover, the road was what the leader had taken for his field guidance tour. The witnesses said it was as if the animals were wailing over his death.” (KCNA, 2012b)

Narratologies pre-history 

If we step back from these extraordinary instances, to the process and structures involved in the mourning period for Kim Jong-il, and I fact if we step back further along narrative chronologies of North Korea are there other examples of a conjunction of political imperative, historical narrative and institutional charisma? Beyond the Kim dynasty and the personhood of the Kims’ themselves what are the other key narrative strands from which institutional and governmental legitimacy is drawn in North Korea? This author would suggest the elements of North Korean historiography or even national hagiography that place Pyongyang with a liberationist, anti-colonial frame are key to contextualising the self- perception of its political sub-conscious as a realm of struggle and overcoming.
Just as during the Kim Jong-il commemorative period it was necessary for the emotional realm of sadness and mourning to become more than hypothetically or metaphysically extant and to crystallise and be rescaled within natural spaces and non-human participants, so it is similar with the eras of struggle at the core of North Korean historical narrative. Here to, physical topography and natural elements can stand in or serve as participant elements with more conventional narratological structures, such as the white birch grove serving as both participant and memorial for military campaigning during the Korean War. For a more fully developed and in charismatic and theatric terms, more vital example we must go further back into North Korea’s historical narrative.
Ultimately we must return to a period before North Korean existed, before the Liberation from Imperial Japan, to the pre-North Korea, the aforementioned “ur-North Korea”, the Korea of guerrilla bands, righteous armies and a restive angry diaspora beyond the Peninsula itself including Kim Il-sung’s United North East Anti-Japanese Army. Within this period, communists and leftists made common cause with the enemies of imperial Japan to harass and frustrate their forces. The mythology surrounding Kim Il-sung’s derives most extensively of course from this period. While those involved in the guerrilla struggle and much of the then diaspora were beyond the landscapes and topography of the peninsula itself, mentally and culturally their bounding to it in memory at least if not reality was key to their self and group conception as Koreans. Accordingly any articulation of Korean national mythology would have to directly refer, if not include the landscapes of the peninsula themselves.
These landscapes, as experienced by those involved in the struggle against the Japanese were not however the spaces of urban Korea, nor even suburban or agricultural Korea, but the “edgelands” of wilderness and wild country bounding not only Korea proper, but the spaces inhabited by its early diaspora. These were transient, fluid spaces, places and terrains through which a guerrilla band could easily reign, but which could also be utilised to serve a wider revolutionary purpose “…the warriors of the Korean people started to fight…under the guidance of the great Leader Kim Il Sung…they marched on and on in the biting wind, crossing over steep mountains and pushing their way through unbeaten forests…” (Kim Il- sung, 1992a, p 8). While much of the fighting is untaken through, over and between mountainous areas, equally important narratologically are the peninsula’s northern river boundaries.

Watery Charismas
“On the first of March in the 19th year
I crossed the River Amnok
The day will come round every year
I’ll return when my work is done.

Blue waters of Amnok, my homeland
When the day I return to you.
I crossed to attain our dearest wish
I’ll return when we have won.” (Kim Il-sung, 1992a,p.100)
In a structural narrative trope that will become familiar to North Korea analysts, Kim Il- sung within this text connects multiple strands of extant and imagined myth and narrative to root these important themes within North Korean political mythos. Incorporating a diffuse folk mythology surrounding these watercourses with his own work and assertions and with the literary reflection of authors later connected to movements supportive of North Korea, the importance of this moment is amplified and reflected upon the spaces themselves, rescaled for a current reader, unable to connect physically to the temporal terrain in which these mythologies took place.
The River Amnok/Yalu of course is not the watercourse and topographic space with which this paper is most concerned. The Amnok/Yalu bounds North Korea to the north east, but coupled with the Tuman/Tumen which we are most interested in, both watercourses form the physical bounding of the Korean nation as it most coherently and extensively conceived. As with the Tuman/Tumen the crossing of the Amnok in these early days appears both traumatic and fortifying within the context of Kim Il-sung’s early narrative. Exiting familiar and local space, crossing the river breaks the connection with the local, Korean every day and announces the arrival of alien, foreign space. It also serves, Rubicon like to amplify the importance of Kim Il-sung’s mission and purpose at both this time and in the future. Those engaged in the process are themselves de-temporalized and de-territorialized from the imperial spaces of their present. While in a sense not at all uncommon as a large number of diasporic Korean’s in both China and Russia of the time would have left Korea proper this way, Kim Il-sung’s wandering semi-messianic nature is confirmed by the process of becoming unbounded and de-territorialized, by crossing the river into lands and topographies of difference and unfamiliarity.

Crossing the Amnok
“I crossed the Amnok-gang River when I was 13, firmly determined not to return until Korea became independent. Young as I was, I could not repress my sorrow as I sang the “Song of the Amnok-gang River” someone had written and I wondered when I would be able to tread this land again and when I would return to this land where I had grown up and which held our forefathers’ graves” (Kim Il Sung,1992a,p.50)
The River Amnok of course is merely the first important riverine topographic element to be crossed by Kim Il-sung and his guerrillas, and while important political and narrative themes are established in the crossing, that river will not be the location of the key narratives which is this paper is concerned by. On the opposite side of Mt Paektu massif lies the watercourse of the River Tuman/Tumen. Bounding the north western border of North Korea and separating it from now both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, at the time of our interest the Tuman/Tumen divided Colonial Chosen from newly Soviet Russia and for the most part the Imperial Japanese territory of Manchukuo/Manchuria. This newly colonised Japanese territory, once replete with diasporic Koreans was to be the site of the guerrilla and revolutionary activity from which Kim Il-sung and the political elite allied to him grew legitimacy and authority.
Whereas the Amnok was the river crossed when the young Kim Il-sung left his homeland full, apparently of revolutionary fervour it would be the crossing of the River Tuman/Tumen that signalled the emergence of his guerrilla campaign in its mature stage, and that which the narrative currently articulated by North Korea judges to be one of the key moments in the development of North Korea itself. This re-territorialization and return to the forefathers land and temporal present obviously occurs at a moment, when contrary to Kim Il-sung’s original conception and hopes, Korea is not yet independent or freed from the yolk of colonialism, but for Kim it cannot be far away in mythic if not practical terms.

Crossing the Tuman

“We quietly crossed the River Tuman by boat at night. O Jung Song rowed the boat quickly and well. As I looked at the fields and mountains veiled in darkness, I could not repress my beating heart at my deep emotions at returning to my homeland after five years” (Kim Il- sung, 1992b,p.142)
While the breaking of imperial power at the hands and bombs of the United States is some years away, Kim Il-sung and the United North East Anti-Japanese Army would from the domain beyond the Tuman/Tumen and the Amnok/Yalu harness the liminality of both wilderness and riverine spaces to harass Japanese forces. Kim recounts numerous moments of transgression against the colonial forces, made possible and effective by the diffuse terrain of sovereignty within the rivers sphere of influence (“After crossing the River Tuman by boat from the Shijianping ferry we visited the beans selection ground of the Tonggwanjin Measuring Corporation…we disguised ourselves as day labourers from Jiandao and talked to the workers there, while giving them a helping hand…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992b,p.243).

Theatric Narratives
As time moved on in the guerrilla struggle however, the landscapes of the Amnok/Yalu and Tuman/Tumen basins are presented as more than simply a diffusive or disruptive element in Japanese colonial governmentality in the region, but instead becomes a key vector in Kim Il-sung’s defensive and offensive military strategy: “The form of the liberated area, the area where the enemy’s rule cannot reach, had to be the main form of the base and we had to establish that base without fail in the mountainous areas along the River Tuman which were convenient for us both in conducting our operations into the homeland and in getting support from the people there…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992b, 254). Charismatic elements begin to enter the developmental narratives, even theatric literary forms, and the topography supporting active and activating mythological content. In one key example historical narratives of previous eras are combined and connected with other elements of sacred Korean mythos in a poetic outburst:
“Grinding my sword wears down Mt Paektu’s rock:
My horse gulps and dries the Tuman River:
Should a man at twenty fail to subdue the land,
Who will in later years call him a man of calibre?” (Kim Il-sung, 1992b,p. 44
The geography and topography of the area in which Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla’s fought and harassed the Japanese is also reviewed in song, for example “Comrade Kang’s” articulation of revolutionary fervour and purpose through a reworking of the “Ten Point Song”:
“What is first?
Realizing the allied front
Even though the heavens collapse
This is the first.

What is the second?
Expanding our unique guerrilla zone, the citadel,
To the Soviet-Manchurian border,
This is the second,
What is third?
Clearing the passage to the Soviet Union
Which is welcoming even in chilly weather,
This is third.
(Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p.189)

In a similar theatric moment, and one which also involving the singing of songs, the narrative deploys developing geographic knowledge and particularly of rivers and topographic features of the real, authentic Korea of the guerrilla zone as a symbol of an individuals’ developing sense of their Korean nationality and of their commitment to the cause:
“…don’t ask me where I come from. Don’t think I’m putting on airs. I don’t know where I was born. I only know that I was born in a coastal village in Korea. I arrived in Jindao, crossing the river on my parent’s back. I don’t know whether it was the Tuman River or the Amnok River. I am such a dunce.” (Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p.383)

Environmental Theaters of War

While all of these theatric elements of course are not conventional elements of historical narrative or historiography, they are deployed to support the wider narratives of struggle, overcoming and the development of Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary legitimacy. The Tuman/Tumen river is recounted much as the wider landscape of the space within this narrative as a supportive or helpful element within it, contributory to the frustration and harassment of the Japanese. Ultimately this supports the building or reconfiguration of the river and its surrounding landscape into what I earlier termed a Landschaft, both of struggle and participation.
Kim Il-sung’s conception of a guerrilla base, “the citadel” is apparently more than simply the physical infrastructure of asymmetric war fighting and the locale for the storage, mustering or repair of its materiel and material, but a space of such of supportive topography, an environmental “theatre” of war, a Landschaft of both struggle and overcoming. Within such a space, not only can the theatric elements be later deployed in its memorialization, but the physical actions of campaigning and war fighting can take place.
The Tuman/Tumen and its surrounding mountainous and wild topographies are for example the perfect place for reconnaissance of the enemy and for conference with fellow guerrillas: “We crossed the Tuman River, and then guided by the advance party, climbed Mt Wangjae at about four or five o’clock one afternoon. The heads of the revolutionary organizations in the region of the six towns and political workers, who had been in hiding among the larches on the ridge, came out to meet us…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p. 43). Equally though the topography is also good for the combat and defeat of the enemy: “The Fiercest of the battles was fought on Mt Ppyojok and the outpost in the Ssukpatgol on Mt Mopan…The third company and the Anti-Japanese Self-Defence Corps manning these mountains mowed down the attackers with a surprise barrage of gunfire, grenades and rocks…The defenders on Mt Mopan destroyed the enemy’s highly mobile cavalry that was outflanking the defence at a bend of the River Tuman…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p.243).

Watery re-territorializings and re-scalings in the contemporary era

For this theatric space or Landschaft to function elsewhere than simply on the charismatic page of North Korea’s political narrative but to coherently and realistically connect with its citizen’s contemporary everyday other methodologies and strategies must be deployed to support charismatic and narrative coherence in the present. This final section considers the utilisation of those practices I have described as scalings and re-scalings, or in Guatarri and Deleuze’s conception de and re-territorializtion (Deleuze and Guatarri, 1988).
Kim Il-sung’s crossing according to current North Korea narrative and historiography, in the January 1925 of the frozen waters of the Amnok/Yalu River and thus beginning the period of guerrilla exile and struggle we have encountered extensively elsewhere in this paper as it encounter the nations watery north edge, is already subject to much memorialization. Its ninetieth anniversary in light of the important role anniversaries and commemorative moments play in North Korea was an important moment for political and ideological reiteration. The national newspaper of North Korea, Rodong Sinmun reported on the 23rd of January, 2015 that “A national meeting took place at the People’s Palace of Culture Wednesday to mark the 90th anniversary of the 250-mile journey for national liberation made by President Kim Il Sung” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a) and asserted that:
“On January 22, Juche 14 (1925) Kim Il Sung started the 250-mile journey for national liberation from his native village Mangyongdae to the Northeastern area of China. During the journey he made up the firm will to save the country and the nation deprived by Japanese imperialism. New history of modern Korea began to advance along the unchangeable orbit of independence, Songun and socialism…” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a)
Even Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father’s efforts to utilise this key source of nationalist power in 1975, through a commemorative march on its fiftieth anniversary is addressed in the text and space is made for Kim Jong-un’s current Mt Paektu focused themes found within 2015’s New Year’s Message:    “Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un is wisely leading the work to ensure that the sacred tradition of the Korean revolution started and victoriously advanced by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is given steady continuity…calling on the school youth and children to hold them in high esteem as the eternal sun of Juche and carry forward the march” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a)
But how would these school youth and children hold this “sacred tradition” in esteem? Through the singing of songs and poems dedicated to the nationalist moment of urgency? By appearing supportive if concerned, next to Kim Jong-un during a moment of on-the spot guidance? It would be none of these, Instead of abstraction and narrative opacity, North Korea’s state media would engage in a period of acute reterritorialization focused for a time at least on the streets and paths of South Pyongan Province, undertaken by a group of school children who would essentially follow in Kim Il-sung’s footsteps renacting his journey up to the point of his river crossing and de-territorialization into rebellious, anti-Imperial space.
While the process for the schoolchildren’s selection, the nature of the institutions from which they came, or their ages, elements which might support a really coherent, cogent and convincing re-enactment process are never stated within the Rodong Sinmun or any other text recounting their journey, its physicality and currently temporality is clear and important to the narrative. This physicality, common to pilgrimages elsewhere, in which breaks, pauses and stops must be taken, presumably to rest the tired legs of the children after having ‘crossed one steep pass after another’, is obvious to the reader (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). These are presented as real children of North Korea in 2015, not cyphers or semiotic symbols for the pre-Liberation, nationalist past.
Conceiving of this journey or pilgrimage as yet another theatric moment in North Korea’s narratological flow however perhaps, in spite of the schoolchildren’s journey’s invariable charismatic content, does not do justice its deeper levels of meaning and utility for this paper. The commemorative journey of the children’s theatric potential is clear; the children pass through a well prepared and well-trodden list of places and spaces of charisma, a list that is no doubt ideologically and narratologically sound.  Having left Mangyongdae, Kim Il-sung’s home village according to North Korea’s conventional narrative, they passed Kaechon, Kujang, Hyangsan, Huichon and Kangyye, ‘along the historic road covered by the President with the lofty aim to save the destiny of the country and nation in the dark days when Korea was under the Japanese imperialists’ colonial rule’ (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b)
Returning to the utility of scaling within this context (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015) as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s own notion of deterritorialization earlier in this piece (Deleuze and Guatarri, 1988), the spaces of relation and the practices of relation within the frame of this journey are equally as important as its starting point. Though these children walk the route of the commemoration of North Korean revolution and Liberation in 2015, the relational praxis encountered upon it is that of 1925. Whatever these children think in the quieter moments of their own particular everyday (perhaps watching South Korean TV dramas on smuggled in USB sticks, helping their parents engage in furtive transactions at semi-legal markets or coping with the mixed ennui of resignation, exasperation and desperation surely produced by daily interaction with Pyongyang’s institutions), the social and personal context of those ‘dark days’ in the late 1920s is activated and actualised by their every footstep. The charismatic political theatre of the time is re-territorialized by the process, all the way from their departing from Pyongyang on the 22nd of January to their arrival at Phophyong in Ryanggang Province around the 4th of February (Rodong Sinmun, 2015c). Phophyong according to current North Korean historiography is the site of Kim Il-sung’s crossing of the Amnok River and his de-territorializing from Chosen and its relational and political frame of colonisation, to the spaces of resistance in the wild edges of Manchukuo and a new personal and political frame of personal liberation and struggle. The river crossing ultimately stands for the political journeys of subjectivity of these North Koreans to be, from imperial subject to revolutionary. North Korea’s charismatic ideological framework making it possible to rescale and re-temporalize these historical watery topographies into the contemporary theatre of its politics.


There are of course innumerable other moments of re-scaling, re-territorialization and other intriguing methodological devices within the topographic narrative framework recounted by the North Korea’s historiography and its current political narratives, but this watery crossing and re-crossing of the Amnok/Yalu is where this paper intends to end. North Korea’s historical narrative is of course subject to intense debate and contestation, and the empirical reality of any elements of this period is at best diffuse (as much as its landscape is not). The physical location of Kim Il-sung at various times is hard to establish beyond doubt and many of the later stories, especially those focusing on his and those surrounding his arrival into Pyongyang following Liberation to take up power are curiously difficult to determine the reality of. However what is not disputed is the fact of Kim Il-sung’s participation within the guerrilla campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s.
It may be also that the outlines of the guerrilla campaigning are also diffuse, but in a sense the exact historiography of these campaigns and generality of their struggles are not important. What is important is the particularity of individual events and the representation of the terrain in which these events occurred. Within this paper I have sought to examine the outworking and impact of both the narrative historiography and its accompanying political framing on the landscape of the Tuman/Tumen river basin, for that is where much of the military campaigning took place, and on the representation of that basin and its river in particular, as well as the current place of these rivers within current North Korean political articulation and narrative/
In North Korean historiography and political narrative, Mt Paektu reigns supreme as the fulcrum and locus of political authority and legitimacy, it is where the Kim dynasty and its political form derives large elements of its power for instance. Paektu also serves as the mythic genesis of the Korean nation as a whole and its slopes were also participant in the era this paper describes. However, while mountainous topographies are highly important within these charismatic narratives of struggle, they are not only the only geographic spaces in which such narratives can occur.
The Amnok/Yalu and Tuman/Tumen basins and the river within them serve key roles within these narratives of pre-Liberation, pre-revolutionary charisma. In part as we have seen the rivers serve as a mythic and metaphysical crossing point for individual narratives, such as Kim Il-sungs departure across the Amnok/Yalu and revolutionary return across the Tuman/Tumen. Just as they serve as the spaces of national bounding, they serve on the individual level as the place and moment of individual re-bounding or un-bounding., through the processes of de and re-territorializing and re-scalings. Equally crossing the rivers has signalled the beginning of a charismatic period in an individual or group’s life, a time of “kairos” when significant activity will take place, bestowing charismatic authority upon them as much as upon the landscape and topography.
We have seen the Tuman/Tumen deployed in theatric and creative terms within the narrative, a narrative recounted in many linguistic and literary forms, from poetry to song. This theatric approach serves as described by Kwon and Chung as the vector by which politics is transferred and translated across thematic categories, from the literary to the political from the political to the environmental. This is the process by which charisma itself is embedded within landscapes and topographies, its re-territorialization the process by which it is incorporated functionally into the present.
Just as charisma and theatricality are in a sense, diffuse, liminal forms, riverine topographic systems are equally diffuse and liminal. Tenuous and temporary and in form, they nevertheless serve to geographically bound areas and to serve as boundaries for crystallised and distinct political forms. Their inclusion and utility within the North Korean narratives of charismatic struggle here serves a dual purpose. In their liminality they create a space of combat in which the asymmetrically organised and equipped guerrilla force can overcome a more conventionally powerful foe, namely the Japanese. Equally though their inclusion as charismatic participants in the charismatic struggle and elements within this combat diminishes to a degree their division, crystallising their form into something more distinct. Intriguingly therefore perhaps it is at narrative charisma’s most watery and diffuse of edges that politics and political advantage in this instance can concretise into a more direct form of political authority, underpinning later themes of authority and legitimacy.

Armstrong, C. Centering the Periphery: Manchurian Exile(s) and the North Korean State, Korean Studies, 19, 1995.
ed. Bulgarelli. Kim Il Sung, Legendary Hero for all Ages. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1978.
Buzo, A. The Guerrilla Dynasty. London: I.B.Tauris, 1999.
Castree, Noel. Social Nature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.
Cosgrove, Denis. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Cosgrove, Denis.  “Landscape and landschaft: Lecture given the “Spatial Turn in History”
Symposium German Historical Institute, February 19, 2004”. GHI Bulletin, 35, 57-71.
Deleuze, G & Guatarri, F. A Thousand Plateaus. London: Athlone, 1988.  Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. KCNA. 2012. “Phenomena Witnessed During Mourning Days (2) Kim Jong-il Peak
KCNA. 2012. “Phenomena Witnessed During Mourning Days (1) Bears Seen on Road in Winter Days”
KCNA. “DPRK Hero title awarded to traffic controller,” KCNA, May 5, 2013,, accessed June 26, 2015.
Kim Il-sung. Works vol 1. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1948.
Kim Il-sung. Selected Works, vol 1. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1967.
Kim Il-sung. Reminiscences With The Century, vol 1. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992.
Kim Il-sung. Reminiscences With The Century, vol 2. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992.
Kim Il-sung. Reminiscences With The Century, vol 3. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992.
Kwon, Heonik and Chung, Byung-ho. North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Levfbre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Marston, Sallie.  “The social construction of scale”, Progress in Human Geography 24 [2], 219-242, 2000. Rodong Sinmun. “Patriotism begins with a love of courtyard,’ Rodong Sinmun, March 26, 2013, 26-0018&chAction=S, accessed 10 June, 2015. Rodong Sinmun.  “At Biotechnology Branch Academy of the State Academy of Science,” Rodong Sinmun, March 15, 2014 [2014], 0004&chAction=S, accessed 26 June, 2015. Rodong Sinmun, 2015a. “New Years Address,” 0002&chAction=L, accessed 26th June, 2015.
Rodong Sinmun, 2015b. “Schoolchildren March Along the Course of 250 Mile Journey for National Liberation,” 0004&chAction=S, accessed 26th June, 2015.
Rodong Sinmun, 2015c. “Participants in Study Tour Visit Phophyong Revolutionary Site,” 0007&chAction=S, accessed 26th June, 2015.
Smith, Neil. Uneven development: nature, capital and the production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987
Swyngedouw Erik. “Excluding the other: the production of scale and scaled politics” in Lee,R and Wills, J, Ed. Geographies of economies, London, Arnold, 167-176, 1997. Winstanley-Chesters, Robert. “Charismatic Environs: From Local Landscape to National Landschaft”, Sino-NK, September 5th, 2013, environs-from-local-landscape-to-national-landschaft/ , accessed 26th June, 2015.  Winstanley-Chesters, Robert. “Patriotism begins with a love of courtyard’: Rescaling charismatic narratives in North Korea”, Tiempo Devorado (Journal of Consumed Time), 2 [2], 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s