Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft

This paper is currently in draft format. It has as yet not been published in any form by a peer reviewed journal, but the author hopes it to become part of a future publication project.

Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft


National mythologies, connected topographies and commemorations are often inseparably connected to political narrative. North Koreas’ historical narrative for instance, contains frequent resistive encounters with the imposed legacies of Japanese colonial development, including an extensive programme of dam building and hydrological engineering. In-spite of this difficult developmental inheritance, post 1945, North Korea’s government has frequently asserted political authority derived in part from that legacy, even while formulating its own vision of ‘revolutionary’ statecraft.

This paper, therefore with Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s reconfiguration of Weberian analysis addressing North Korea’s ‘Theatric/Charismatic’ politics Cosgrove and Castree’s articulations of constructed, extrinsic notions of Nature(s), Karl Wittfogel’s assertions of water’s place in ‘Oriental’ state formation and Erik Swyngedouw’s conception of Hydrosocial Landscape and technonature in mind examines the role of hydrological engineering and coastal reclamation in North Korea’s development. The paper reviews foundational moments in this historical and developmental narrative such as 1946’s Potong River Improvement project, recent mega-projects such as the Taegyedo Reclamation Area and the contemporary importance of water resources to Pyongyang’s institutions and politics. With theoretical frame and historical narrative in mind the paper considers the possibility that both control of hydrological resources and the ability of the state to recover new and useful land from bodies of water are framed within North Korea’s politics as fundamental to its local notion of national construction, Hydraulic and Theatric political sensibilities therefore rescale amidst Charismatic or Hydrosocial Landscapes.


North Korean Politics, Hydrology and the Korean Peninsula, North Korean Hydrology, Wittfogel, Swyngedouw

 Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft

“The Potong River shoring-up work is the first project the Pyongyang citizens contribute to the building of a new, democratic Korea with their patriotic labour, and it is a great nature-remaking work our liberated people undertake for the first time. By finishing this project successfully we should make it the first beacon to the transformation of nature for the construction of an independent, sovereign democratic state, rich and strong.” (Kim Il-sung, 1946: 203)

North Korean historical narrative holds that Kim Il-sung’s words marked the end of the first day, May 21 1946 of the construction of the Potong River Improvement Project on the banks of the River Taedong, which flows through its capital Pyongyang. Contemporary historiography of course also holds that by this point the division of the peninsula between north and south was not even yet a year old and the official declaration of North Korean statehood and Kim Il-sung’s assumption of its leadership was still some two years away. This is North Korea in an infant state, emerging from the aftermath of unexpected liberation, Japanese colonial imperatives and the partition of the peninsula between forces loyal to the Soviet Union and to the United States of America. Yet event at this moment of infancy, the Potong project is today a vital moment in North Korea’s own historiography and developmental narratives and used frequently as a benchmark for local institutions under Pyongyang’s authority in their communication of new developments.

The Potong River Improvement project and other early developmental undertakings by North Korea are representative of an approach to the creation and re-creation of landscape and space that has shifted in approach over time, spurred on by and reflective of external influences upon North Korea. The central focus of this paper is the apparent importance of hydrology and hydrological engineering to the construction and maintenance of statehood in North Korea, as manifest at its outset by the Potong River Project in 1946. It considers the function of such engineering and construction practices throughout the historical narrative of North Korea, right to the present day, questioning to what degree this aspect of development contributes to Pyongyang’s current political form. The paper considers North Korean politics through the conceptual framework provided by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s notion of Charismatic Politics, which itself builds upon the work of Clifford Geertz on theatre states and Max Weber on political charisma. Given this local political frame it moves to consider the historical academic analysis of water control and management in Asia provided by the controversial theorist Karl Wittfogel and his notion of ‘Oriental Despotism’ underpinned by ‘Hydraulic Economy.’ While Wittfogel’s notion that power over hydraulic aspects of production and development was harnessed and deployed within historic Asian statecraft as some sort of charismatic power is certainly potentially attractive in such an apparently mystical and opaque autocracy as North Korea. However given the Korean Peninsula’s hydrological history and topography it is apparent to the paper that Wittfogel’s analysis is not satisfactory in explanatory terms, even considering his ‘hydro-agricultural distinction’ (used by Wittfogel to consider Japanese hydrology), in the case of North Korea. Methodologically therefore the paper seeks to connect Kwon and Chung’s notion of Charismatic Politics with more contemporary analysis sourced from Human Geography which considers generally constructed, political and social natures in the work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree (as well as their deployment and diffusion in North Korea in a political sense through the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri on de and re-territorialisations), and specifically the importance of scale and politics when it comes to water management and hydrological control in the work of Eric Swyngedouw and…

The paper finds that water management, as might be suggested by the apparent importance of the Potong River Improvement Project in 1946 is a key element to North Korea’s historical development and infrastructural agenda prior to 1992. While specific projects, as opposed to general aspiration are at first uncommon given the difficulty of post liberation national construction and the Korean War, hydrological engineering later becomes part of the wider of the framework of central planning in North Korea and specific goals for water management and control are set. These manifest in the 1970s and 1980s at sites such as Taegyedo, the narrative of which this paper explores at length. In more recent history of course North Korea has been beset by geo-political, economic, social and environmental crises and its development and potential has been significantly curtailed. Even in the difficult times however, North Korea has continued to use hydrological and water management themes and projects to underpin its political authority and legitimacy and the paper considers the completion of the Taegyedo project and other recent developments within this context.

The paper first introduces its theoretical framework and conceptual approach by considering the work of Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung on Charismatic Politics in North Korea, outlining the conceptual inheritance from Clifford Geertz, Max Weber and others on which and through which their analysis of North Korea functions. This theoretical review then encounters Karl Wittfogel and his conception of ‘Oriental Despotism’ and ‘Hydraulic Economy.’ The paper at this point considers not only the structure and content of Wittfogel’s analysis but also its deployment in the context of East Asia and its utility in the specific case of the Korean Peninsula. The review then concludes with a consideration of more contemporary theoretical approaches and methodologies from the academic world of Human Geography and elsewhere. This includes the work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree, but also that of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (which is helpful given the politics of historiography and memory in North Korea) and specifically in the case of water management and its connection with political power and governance, that of Erik Swyngedouw.

  1. Charismatic Politics, Oriental Despotism or Hydrosocial Landscapes: Theoretical and Analytic Frameworks

Given popular and academic conceptions of North Korea as curious, unique and confusing it is important for this paper to underpin its consideration of the importance of hydrological engineering within that nation, with a theoretical framing which serves to deconstruct and explain Pyongyang’s politics to the external or unfamiliar analyst. While there have been a number of conceptual analyses of North Korea’s politics in that past this section will consider and discuss how the notion of ‘theatre politics’ or charismatic politics is deployed within North Korean ideology and political forms to underpin not only its legitimacy and authority, but also practical forms of governance and development. This charisma and theatre can them become associated, as I will assert in a later section with what the paper will term ‘charismatic landscape’, specifically in this case of this paper the landscape of water management and hydrology.

This conception of theatric or charismatic politics, terms which the paper uses interchangeably, is source from the work Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung. Kwon and Chung’s landmark work Beyond Charismatic Politics (2012), brought an analysis of the theatricality of current North Korean political forms to the foreground, identifying what they termed North Korea’s “theatric politics. When Kwon and Chung utilise the notion of charisma or charismatic politics they do so in the wake of Max Weber’s articulation of the routinisation of political action and intent and its utility within the articulation and structures of politics, both historical and contemporary (Weber, 1967). Aside from Weber’s conception of charisma, Kwon and Chung triangulate their analysis with that of anthropologist Clifford Geertz on the place of theatre and performance within the process of sovereign and political activity in 19th Century Negara-era Bali (Geertz, 1990)..” Kwon and Chung hold that the theatre of politics in North Korea is driven by contemporary and current connections to a mythologised set of actions and charismatic moments in its past, especially those of its early leadership during the Guerrilla campaigns against the Japanese in the 1930s. These events including Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk (his first wife), become mythologised both in general and at moments of specificity. These specific moments then become moments of commemoration and performance, their performativity establishing connection with the charismatic past from which authority and political power can flow into the present.

The Potong River Improvement Project in 1946 is just one such moment in North Korean politics. Kwon and Chung would conceive of it as a moment in which the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung performs his aspirational authority in act of development. The memorialisation and later re-performance of that act through events and practices which commemorate it serve to connect the charisma of the past with the development projects of the present, especially those within the hydrological sector. Given the importance of politics and the performance of governance and authority to water management projects in North Korea’s developmental past, might there be other conceptual frameworks through which this paper could consider North Korean hydrology and its historical narrative?

Control over water resources in the historiographies of state development have of course been the focus of much analysis and intellectual consideration in recent history, offering the opportunity to consider the differences between developmental approach around the globe. Karl Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism – a Comparative Study of Total Power (1957) was an academic benchmark in developmental studies. Bailey and Llobera describe it as the “Wittfogel Watershed” in their 1981 book The Asiatic Mode of Production. Within Oriental Despotism. Wittfogel suggests that the nature of government and society develop, not as a by-product of a dialectical relationship between differing classes as Marx and Marxists would have it, but as result of the historical development of property holding and ownership within a nation or region. The development of property is, for Wittfogel, dependent on the local population and its environmental situation, the key factor in this development being the relationship between human politics and the supply and utilisation of water resources.

For this paper, it is Wittfogel’s controversial identification of what he terms a Hydraulic Society within an Asian context that is the most relevant. It was the cultural space with which he was most familiar, and in which his analysis was the most radical. Wittfogel identifies the existence in Asia of a hydraulic mode he names ‘Oriental’, within which institutions of the state assert a level of leadership and organisational capacity which cannot be countered by the actions or wishes of the population. Power in the Oriental realm was held and exercised by institutions that also held property and made laws, as well as the responsibility of technological and agricultural development: “As a rule, the operations of time keeping and scientific measuring and counting were performed by official dignitaries or by priestly …specialists attached to the hydraulic regime.” (Wittfogel, 1957:30) Earlier in Wittfogel’s career in 1929’s Geopolitics, Geographic Materialism and Marxism he had identified three distinct types of relation between state formation and hydrological capability and control: the Egyptian, in which the state was capable of exercising total power, the Japanese in which power was manifest locally and the Indian in which control was fragmented and impermanent (Wittfogel, 1929: 36).

By 1957, in Oriental Despotism, Wittfogel had developed these three types into two distinctions: the “hydraulic” and the “hydro-agricultural.” Wittfogel suggests Japan as the prime example of the “hydro-agricultural” model (Wittfogel, 1957: 197). Institutional hydrological control in classical Japan could only be exercised on a local level, and therefore institutional control over the development of property, and bureaucratic control over the wider nation could not be fully exercised. Therefore, a true “oriental despotism” could not be achieved. Wittfogel does say that authorities in Japan attempted periodically to achieve reorganisation of bureaucratic and institutional frameworks in order to institute a centralised “Oriental” state, giving as examples the Taikwa reform of 646 CE and episodes during the Tokugawa period, 1603 to 1867. However, Wittfogel does not regard either of these examples as has having been a complete success: “The hydraulic innovations suggested in the Reform lacked the dynamism that characterized similar attempts in early hydraulic societies” (Wittfogel, 1957: 198).

While Wittfogel was certainly concerned with considering the development of state and hydrological sensibilities in Japan he never sought to apply his analysis of either Hydraulic Economy nor his hydrological distinction to the Korean Peninsula. This paper does not mean to conflate the historical narrative and development of Japan with the Korean Peninsula of course. Simply being in the geographic region of East Asia is certainly not enough to assert any such similarity, even discounting the complicated and difficult relationship between Japan and Korea. What is clear from the history of the different manifestations of Korean history in the field of hydrology or engineering is that little of what was built functions or was conceived of as being, on a monumental scale. There was no Grand Canal in any of the dynasties or kingdoms that have existed on the Korean Peninsula, and no radical reconfigurations of water courses. What was achieved, and exists in the sparse historical record of the Peninsula’s development, is the coordination through corvée labour of the constructive capacity of the peasantry. This was in order to harness the hydrological possibility of their local area, to achieve local agricultural production. For example Kang asserts that one of the most famous examples of hydrological engineering in Korea, the ancient reservoir at Yeongcheon, now in North Gyeongsang Province, “is independent and is not connected to any other irrigation system (Kang, 2006). This appears to sum up in the main the hydrological development of the Korean peninsula. Essentially, it focused on local needs, was sourced locally and constructed locally. The topography of the Korean Peninsula, it seems, has made grand hydraulic schemes unachievable and the localised and regional sources of political authority that exercised authority and control in the context of Japan were for the most part much weaker in the Korean instance.

Given the weakness of historical hydrological sensibility and practice in the case of the Korean Peninsula, yet the apparent utility in the North Korean present of projects focused on water management such as the Potong River project this paper will need to explore a different set of analytical literatures. It is clear from the work of Kwon and Chung on North Korean political form and process that the narratives derived or generated from or within North Korean historical narrative that elements of the charismatic or theatric politics spill out beyond the realm of conventional political interaction, marking the topography of both everyday life and the historical narrative. Given this interaction between politics and landscape, both it seems generally in North Korean history and specifically in the case of its hydrological development this paper will consider the theoretical frameworks provided firstly by Geographers such as Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree who analyse landscape and landscape development from a constructivist perspective, asserting that landscapes and nature themselves are constructed and built by the societies and political forms that inhabit them (Cosgrove, 1984 and Castree, 2000). Given Cosgrove and Castree’s analysis and the possibility of such construction we might assert that not only in North Korea is there constructed a charismatic politics, but that this construction perhaps necessarily begets a charismatic landscape.

But how might this charisma embed itself within the constructed or reconstructed landscape of North Korea? To explore and consider this embedding this paper holds in mind another theoretical contribution from political or human geography, namely scale or scaling (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Originally deriving from Geography’s interaction with Cartography and its graphical representations of spatiality and physical relation, scholars have built on Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that space and spatiality themselves are products, social products or political products (Lefebvre, 1991). 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: 167). 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: 221).   As well as however, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri conceptions of ‘de-territorialisation’ and ‘re-territorialisation’(Deleuze and Guatarri, 1984) also suggest vectors which might allow the rescaling of political experiences and aspirations in connected physical terrains.

Finally in this paper’s theoretical outline, it returns to Swyngedouw to consider development of his theoretical conception of scale within the framework of a another form and moment of utopian and charismatic politics harnessing of water management and development for the purposes of both ideological development and national construction. Swyngedouw, both in his own work and in collaboration explores the history of Spanish national modernisation and development through a reconfiguration and harnessing of its water sources. While this process has a long historical narrative, it is the later encounter between Spanish hydrological development under Franco and Spanish fascism and his analysis of the scalar processes and productions behind it that is most relevant to this paper and which might generate connective or extrapolatory possibilities for the space and charismatic politics of North Korea. Swyngedouw writes under Franco, the reconfiguration of what he calls Spains’ “hydrosocial landscape”, “was part of an effort to create a socio- culturally, politically and physically integrated national territorial scale and to obliterate earlier regionalist desire…” (Swngedouw, 2007: 11). Given what we will encounter in the historical narrative of North Korea, these concerns to generate a unified political, physical and social space around a singular notion of national identity which buries or replaces past historical alternatives appear certainly theoretically useful. Further to this however, and in some way echoing Wittfogel’s terminology, Swyngedouw terms this hydrological production a ‘Hydraulic Politics’. A combination of this Hydraulic Politics, autocratic charisma from Franco and his government, a complicated harnessing of resident and regenerated ‘networks of interest’ would enable the rescaling of political will and desire out into both pre-existing and newly created waterscapes in Spain. This process of production and political scaling ultimately generating what Swyngedouw refers to as a ‘technonature’ in which the political and social relations of power within the Francoist state become embedded within the physicality of the water and landscape themselves.

Swyngedouw and his analysis of the example of Francoist Spain conclude this review of this paper’s theoretical approach. From this point the paper engages the hydrological narrative of North Korea holding in mind all of these conceptual frames as it does so and exploring the processes by which political charisma and ideological structures are embedded, re-territorialised or re-scaled within the land and waterscapes of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

  1. Hydrological Narratives of North Korea

2.1 Configuring the developmental nation: The early years of North Korean hydrology

The second half of this paper reviews the historical narratives of North Korean hydrology, beginning with a review of the early development approach in Pyongyang following its liberation from the Japanese colonial period and the disastrous and destructive Korean War. It considers the interplay with geo-politics faced by North Korea, similar to that recounted by Swyngedouw in Spain’s relationship with external partners such as the United States (Swyngedouw, 2007), in its relationship with the necessary technical partners for hydrological development, such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The paper then reviews the development of one particular hydrological project, at Taegyedo on Korea’s West Sea coast and the journey to its completion through the differing phases of North Korean politics and ideology. Finally the paper addresses before its conclusion, more recent projects in North Korean hydrological development in the era of Kim Jong-un.

The development of political and bureaucratic policy directed at the engineering of water courses and resources appears very early in North Korea’s history. Indeed, the regime was in its infancy when the Potong River Improvement Project, the foundation event for the hydrological sector, was initiated in May 1946. This was primarily a project to rebuild and support the banks of the river within Pyongyang and to create a series of weirs and discharge pools better to control its stream-flow. It is apparent, however, that Kim Il-sung envisaged the project in developmental terms which have been regularly applied to subsequent hydrological schemes and which might familiar to Swyngedouw and other theoreticians of ‘technonature’ (Swyngedouw, 2007) or landscapes marked by politics (Shapiro, 2001). The “worthwhile nature-remaking project” was declared by Kim to form part of North Korea’s struggle both in its liberation from the forces of “Japanese imperialism” and in building “a new, democratic Korea”. The project would help those taking part to form a “firm unity around the democratic national united front”, so that it would become “the first beacon to the transformation of nature for the construction of an independent, sovereign democratic state, rich and strong” (Kim Il-sung, 1946: 202). These themes of a multi-focused struggle, binding together those involved in a self-actualising process of 0national creation will be encountered many times in the history of environmental policy and practice of North Korea.

In the immediate aftermath of the war of 1949 to 1953, agricultural policy in North Korea focused primarily upon the return of farmland to productivity. As in the south conflict had damaged enormous areas of land, covering them in rubble and chemical by-products of war, such as napalm and white phosphorus (Cumings, 1997). Pyongyang had also inherited the least agriculturally productive half of the Korean peninsula, thanks mainly to its natural topography, and there was an acute need to increase food production. Much of North Korea’s initial post-war policy focus reflected the urgent need to increase output, with hopes being pinned on the productive potential of hydrological and irrigation, greater production and use of agro-chemicals and agricultural mechanisation. The theme of capacity increase also resulted in attention being paid to the scope for increasing the area of the nation’s cultivable land.

During the period of the first Three-Year Plan (1953-56) efforts to bring previously unproductive areas and wilderness into agricultural production were particularly concentrated on increasing the altitude at which agricultural production could be achieved in mountainous areas (Prybyla, 1964). But the post-war availability of credit and other forms of support provided by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (Prybyla, 1964), for infrastructure development allowed the initiation of a range of projects designed to transform areas not previously subject to agricultural development. Many such projects were exercises in hydrological reclamation, demonstrating the initial prevalence of an impositional, hydraulic approach to environmental matters, perhaps familiar to readers of Swyngedouw and other spaces of national reconstruction (Swyngedouw, 2007). Kuark (1963), recording that from total state investment of some 120 million dollars between 1954 and 1956, nearly 80 million dollars (4,200 million “old” won) “went on irrigation and river dyke projects”. Such investment was “a decisive factor in increasing grain production”. This reclamation and irrigation capacity building led to a rapid increase in agricultural capacity; and by 1957, some 301,350 extra acres of arable land and 940,800 extra acres of irrigated land had been put into a serviceable condition. Ultimately, such projects contributed to the generation of an acutely goal-oriented, impositional agricultural strategy, perhaps best described by Kim Il-sung’s statement of 1956: “Rice is immediately socialism.”

The early period during which North Korea’s hydrological strategy was simply impositional in character did not, however, last long. This reflected the influence of the more radical transformative environmental strategies undertaken in Maoist China during the “Great Leap Forward” (Atkins, 1985). In consequence North Korea’s own environmental and agricultural approaches became determinedly transformational. This, too, proved to be a relatively short period of ideological interjection, and a fairly rapid retreat was made by North Korea towards a arguably more practical approach, as the failures of the Great Leap Forward became apparent, and Chinese influence waned.

During this era of transition, the first small shifts in developmental strategy within the hydrological sector in favour of tideland reclamation, away from what Wittfogel might have understood as conventionally despotic control over the nations’ water resources, towards the generation of a constructed or ‘technonature’, became evident. Kim Il-sung’s On Some Problems for Future Development of Agriculture in 1957, contained the first commitment to the practical implementation of tideland reclamation projects, with its declaration that “tideland, wasteland or rain-dependant farmland should be reclaimed” (Kim Il-sung, 1957: 7). Yet during the early 1960s, few such reclamation projects materialised or were developed and, as evidenced by reports from the central committee during the Fourth Korean Workers Party Congress in September 1961 (Kim Il-sung, 1961), the political commitment to their execution remained weak.

Ultimately it was not to be until 1968 that North Korean policy shifted decisively in favour of the reclamation of tideland, with the publication of the key text For the Large-Scale Reclamation of Tidelands. This ideological endorsement of tideland reclamation must, however, be seen within the wider framework of political and institutional action set out in Kim Il-sung’s Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country of 1964. This vital developmental text asserted that the framing of agricultural and development policy must be undertaken within the wider ideological context of the “three revolutions movement”: in which agricultural and environmental policy should be determined by “socialist” revolutions of an ideological, cultural and technical nature. The “Theses” in a sense marked the beginning of what might be termed North Korea’s institutional maturity, a maturity which was to include hydrological development as part of the praxis of its socialist statecraft, and which marked the landscape itself with a rescaled charismatic politics.

As is still common for North Korea, quick or efficient production and bureaucratic structures took some time to develop, in spite of Pyongyang’s efforts at generating focus. Although there is a level of implied urgency in the text of For the Large-Scale Reclamation of Tidelands, institutions found it difficult to reflect this ideological approach in their practice. At the fifth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in November 1970, even Kim Il-sung noted this in his concluding speech: “it is true that we should be able to obtain more land by reclaiming many tidelands. But that is something to be done in the future” (Kim Il-sung, 1970: 319).

It follows that the development of a distinct or cohesive policy framework on the reclamation of coastal land in North Korea would only become apparent with the publication of the Second Seven-Year Plan (covering 1978 to 1984). As had been identified as far back as 1961 (Kim Il-sung, 1961), reclamation activity would necessarily focus on coastal regions bordering the West Sea; in contrast the topography of the east coast of the Korean Peninsula was unsuitable given the lack of shallow coastal waters and large bays or estuaries (RAN, 2010). However, no particular goals or policy framework had been outlined until this new planning period beginning in the mid-1970s. The subsequent change in approach was a product of a wider approach – based on the setting of goals for production and the ideologically-based inclination not only to meet them, but to break them – which formed part of the general culture of revolutionary thinking and planning policy in the communist-influenced world of the time. In North Korea, the Maoist ideological concept of “revolutionary models” and “revolutionary speeds” had been translated into an institutional approach and policy framework invoking concepts such as “Ch’ollima Speed” and the “Taean Work System”. During the development of the Second Seven-Year Plan, general goals for productive capacity development and expansion, as well as those specifically relating to the reclamation of tideland, become part of this paradigm of “revolutionarily urgent” development.

A specific goal for the reclamation of 100,000 hectares of tideland thus became part of the planning process (Kim Il-sung, 1974), and was incorporated in the core plan document and accompanying legal framework for the Seven-Year Plan of 1978 to 1984. Hence, in its final version the Plan declared that “when solid material and technical foundations are laid for the large-scale tideland reclamation, 100,000 hectares of tidal marshes will be reclaimed”(Kim Il-sung,1977: 527). Article 50 of the accompanying “Land Law of the DPRK” stated that “the State shall direct a major effort towards tideland reclamation which will increase the area of arable land and a make a great change to the appearance of the land” (DPRK,1977: 215), embedding the necessity of reconfiguring hydrological landscapes at the behest of politics within the core functions of the state.

2.2 Taegyedo: Hydraulic Development as Political Theatre

This setting of specific goals and the incorporation into the legal and ideological structure of North Korea of such a “revolutionarily urgent” developmental approach focused on the generation of a political nature as much as a technonature, soon created an opportunity for a particular project within the hydrological field. Moreover, the initial aim of reclaiming 100,000 hectares quickly gave way to a declared target of 300,000 hectares for tideland reclamation. At the sixth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in 1980, not only was this up scaling of the aim made public, but the site at which the largest percentage of this land would be reclaimed was also identified. As Kim Il-sung announced to the congress that “if agricultural production is to be increased, the area under cultivation should be expanded steadily by reclaiming tideland and launching a dynamic movement to obtain new land.” (Kim Il-sung, 1980)

This need to manifest Kim Il-sung’s desire for a “dynamic movement” thus created the impetus for the birth and development of the Taegyedo Tideland Reclamation Project. This project is by far the largest reclamation project undertaken in the history of North Korea; and it is possible to track the emergence, development and occasional reimagining of Taegyedo over time, as a reflection of ideological developments within the nation.

Taegyedo is situated in the coastal province of North Pyongyan. It is a combination of four smaller sites, in an area of shallow bays and estuaries. The sites surround Taegye islet, Tasada islet, and Kwaksan islet. The project sited at Taegye islet is particularly large, connecting five islands within an estuary by a network of very large sea dams and breakwaters, which collectively comprise some twenty one miles of coastal damming. The various stages of project’s construction reflect the development and progression of policy and ideology focused on the reclamation of coastal land. It is also possible to identify moments of institutional or governmental action which demonstrate both pragmatism and reflexivity. Lastly, the project’s development also demonstrates a degree of institutional functionality within the hydrological or reclamation sector.

Taegyedo was initially designated as a vital project by Kim Il-sung, during an instance of “on the spot guidance”, a familiar moment of political charisma as part of the wider framework of action in the reclamation sector of its time. Its subsequent development has followed a course that is much less urgent or “revolutionary” than projects within the hydrological field from the 1960s. Developments and projects including Taegyedo were stipulated in the concluding document and report of the 1980 Workers’ Party Congress, and also by texts such as Kim Il-sung’s Four Great Nature Remaking Tasks of 1981 (Kim Il-sung, 1981), and the New Year’s Message of 1982 in which Kim Il-sung declares: “The most important task facing us in the socialist economic construction of the coming year is that of vigorously pushing forward nature remaking projects” (Kim Il-sung, 1982).

The construction of the Taegyedo project continued to be recorded in the literature and publications of North Korea throughout the 1980s and was often used as a specific example of an ideologically-inspired policy approach and developmental progression. For example, North Korea’s Minju Choson newspaper and its ‘tideland reclamation special correspondent’, Sung-Won Kim, recorded the first damming of breakwater three at Taegye islet in 1983. Kim recounted the event as: “fanning the flames of the creation of the “Speed of the Eighties”” and that “the doorway to gaining new land equal in area to one county has been opened” (Kim, 1983). The Minju Choson further reported in 1985 that: “the North Pyongan Province Tideland Development General Workshop…have completed, with a burning enthusiasm for creation under the ‘Speed of the Eighties”’ the construction of seven dikes in less than a few months and are now launching an all-out drive to link the remaining stretch”(Chung, 1985).

The final damming of the outer ring of Taegye was recounted in March 1985 as having extended the reclaimed area by some 8,800 hectares. (KCNA, 1985). In total, Rodong Sinmun recorded that, by October 1985, reclamation throughout the West Sea area, including that at Taegye, had reached some 50,000 hectares. According to the timetable for the development of the Taegyedo area, within the 1981 text Four Great Nature Remaking Projects (Kim Il-sung, 1981), completion of the project was envisaged within five years. Even if motivated by the revolutionary concept of “the speed of the eighties” this would have been a challenging target for any political polity or institution.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that by 1987 work at Taegye had only progressed to the point of building the defensive coastal levees. Nationally, progress towards the projected reclamation of 300,000 hectares had advanced little beyond the 50,000 hectares claimed two years earlier. It was thus increasingly apparent to key state actors that the reality of construction was not fulfilling the principle of revolutionary models and speeds. A reinvigoration and reiteration of the theoretical imperative for such construction was therefore necessary if national hydraulic goals were to be achieved.

The necessary reassertion of the goals, both ideological and developmental, the declaration on “Four Great Nature Remaking Projects” came in the guise of the Rodong Sinmun’s response to the New Year editorial of 1987 entitled Let us Actively Accelerate the Major Construction Projects (Rodong Sinmun, 1987). What was needed according to the editorial bore some similarity to the “Year of Adjustment” in 1977 which had paved the way for the Second Seven-Year Plan (1978 to 1984). At this point institutional improvements and bureaucratic developments to correct the difficulties and disruption caused by the previous planning period were followed by The Four Great Nature Remaking Projects and a new long-term plan. Hence, writing at the time, Koh (1988: 62) regarded the impending “Third Seven-Year plan as key to the future survival of North Korea; noting that, “unless the DPRK can reinvigorate its sagging economy, it will face a legitimacy crisis of monumental proportions at home, as well as a formidable challenge from the South”. Of course Koh perhaps couldn’t have been aware that such a crisis was only a matter of a couple of years away for North Korea and that the Third Seven Year plan would never really be articulated, let alone completed in the chaos of economic and political retrenchment. This work at Taegyedo in the mid-1980s and the Four Great Nature Remaking projects would serve as the final act of North Korea’s previous mode of statecraft. Pyongyang’s claims to hydrological and developmental possibility would never really again be made on the grounds on the functionality or feasibility of its particular approach to development or statecraft. Future projects instead would have to make deeper connection with the core of North Korea’s ideological superstructure and charismatic politics

2.3 Tidal Reclamation in the Arduous March and Hydrological Charisma

As hinted in the previous section of the paper, in practice, the new period of planned industrialisation of agricultural production, hydrological development and tideland reclamation under the “Third Seven- Year Plan” considered by Koh was relatively short lived. Policy was rapidly overtaken by the consequences for North Korea of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. The loss of most of Pyongyang’s trading partners, and financial and technical supporters severely affected North Korean hydrological efforts. More generally, North Korea’s developmental approach was forced to take a new direction, disregarding any previous ideological agendas or progression. Academic and media narratives surrounding this period, including the work of Noland and Eberstadt, regard North Korea as having institutionally and developmentally virtually ceased to function during this period. The regime’s own propaganda also painted a picture of severe struggle, referring to the period as the second “arduous march”.

Progress on hydrological projects during such a period of disruption might be expected to have been limited. However, documentation from the KCNA and the US DTIC sources suggests that work on key tideland reclamation projects, including Taegyedo, was sustained to a surprising extent, providing evidence both of necessary pragmatic shifts in developmental strategy and the use of political charisma at such a time of capacity restrictions. During August 1992, for example, it was reported from the Kumsong tideland reclamation area in Hamgyong province that “soldier builders have laid a dam extending more than 1,400 metres in the last two months to complete the first damming project by introducing advanced construction methods”(KCNA ,1992). This project was soon finished with the KCNA reporting a year later that “3,300 hectares [had been] reclaimed , as part of the wider project for the reclamation of 300,000 hectares, including 110,000 in North Pyongan,110,000 in South Pyongan and 80,000 hectares in South Hwangae” (KCNA, 1993). Further work was also undertaken in 1995 within North Pyongan province, in areas surrounding the Taegyedo project, and there were reports of a new barrage at Cholsan being constructed. Rodong Sinmun (1995) reported that this barrage “makes it possible to water 6,000 ha of reclaimed tideland”.

In the wider field of hydrological engineering, 1992 also saw the completion of a number of large projects connected to the West Sea Barrage. As the KCNA reported: “the excavation of the West Sea Barrage – Unryul – Kwail county waterway extending to 70 km, the Pakchon waterway and the Tongha two-stage pumping station waterway have been completed…. The construction of six reservoir dams and 700 pumping station was brought to completion and a waterway extending 385 km was excavated in North Hwanghae province”(KCNA, 1992).

The continuation of such projects within this difficult period surprisingly is matched by something of a shift within institutional governance and functionality which is seen further developed during recent years. This shift chimes with the Swyngedouw’s identification of Franco’s harnessing of ‘networks of interest’ in order to drive forward political or nationalistic reconfigurations of nature (Swyngedouw, 2007). Previously, the construction and planning of projects that encompassed both general hydrological engineering as well as tideland reclamation had fallen within the remit of local and regional government institutions, and had been carried out by local organisations, as evidenced by the plethora of provincial committees involved in decision making. However the period of geo-political change and instability which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the associated experience of environmental disaster in North Korea itself, saw responsibility for major reclamation projects shift from local and the provincial institutions to the military, which during the most difficult of times both maintained functionality and accumulated a certain level of institutional charisma. The KPA is thus described in contemporary reports as the initiator and planner of such projects reflecting this change in policy. Whilst the KPA had undoubtedly provided support for local projects, Pyongyang’s military forces had not previously assumed direct responsibility for projects which developed industrial, technological, agricultural or hydrological capacity. The shift identified here may thus be seen as a pioneering instance of “Songun Politics”, through which the “military first” concept was subsequently incorporated into most elements of practical policy and institutional structures within North Korea, the military acting as a key actor in North Korean ‘networks of interest,’ through which the political legitimacy and charisma of the Kim family is now projected and through which North Korean political nature is constructed.

Taegyedo and hydrological engineering’s place within this new political and ideological era starts with a disaster for on August 21 1997, a storm-system driven tidal wave apparently destroyed four sections of the breakwater to a total extent of 5,800 metres. KCNA reports suggest that the third section of the dam at Soyondong Islet was the worst damaged, leaving a 57-metre-wide hole in the breakwater, and allowing 250 million tonnes of tidal water to flow through into the draining area behind it (KCNA, 2009). This is presented by the KCNA and the Tideland Reclamation Bureau as “a titanic struggle against the elements”. It took eight years, until 2005, to repair and this reconstruction process gave something of a spur to a project which had previously seemed increasingly moribund. Accordingly development at Taegyedo moved on quickly following the reconstruction and breakwaters two and four were completed in July 2006 (KCNA, 2010).

As it neared completion, Kim Jong-il appeared to have focused upon Taegyedo and the hydrological engineering sector and the final stages of the project’s construction and completion were utilised institutionally to connect with newly developing ideological themes and the notion of a Kim centred charismatic political approach. On June 13 2009, Kim Jong-il visited the Taegyedo project for the second time. In the course of the visit and while praising Kim Il-sung’s “on the spot guidance” there, Kim Jong-il sought to reconfigure the project’s purpose: “it is the fighting trait of our working class to take the lead in pushing forward the cause of our socialism in the spirit of the “arduous march” while firmly adhering to the socialist principle, the principle of the revolution” (KCNA, 2009). In a further visit, we can see the theatric and charismatic elements coming to the fore, as well as possible echoes of BR Myers’ recent assertion of the use of imagery of storms and waves as representative of North Korea’s perceived resistance to modern capitalist, imperialism and the notional threats posed by the United States (Myers, 2010). Kim Jong-il is reported to have remarked on July 5 2009 that the “builders in the tideland reclamation site, fully determined to successfully carry out the behest of President Kim Il-sung, are the brave conquerors of the sea and indomitable fighters expanding the land of the country braving rough waves” (KCNA, 2009). During this visit, moreover, the project was connected with the charismatic ideological manifestation of Songun Politics. According to the KCNA, Kim Jong-il “highly estimated the feats performed by the builders intensely loyal to the party for having built one of the great structures to shine forever with the Songun era, by courageously overcoming difficulties and ordeals, and displaying popular heroism and unparalleled devotion”(KCNA, 2009).

By 24July 2010, the Taegyedo project was finished, having reclaimed in total some 17,000 hectares of tideland. However, its completion demonstrated further elements of the connection between North Korea’s approach to practical environmental policy and its contemporary theatric political nature. Perhaps the older concepts of “revolutionary modelling” are brought to mind when we consider Kim Jong-il’s conferment on the “North Pyongan Provincial Tideland Reclamation Complex”, the local government agency responsible for its completion, of the “Order of Kim Il-sung”, as well as the “Kim Il-sung” prize for the design of the project. It is again potentially revealing to examine Kim Jong-il’s statement at a further and final visit on the 15of July 2010 marking the project’s completion, through the frame of “reclamation of the tideland is an important work for the prosperity of the country” he further declared that “there are highly important tasks to be fulfilled to undertake the project for tideland reclamation in a bigger way in the future” and so “there should be no slackening of the high spirit displayed by the complex to complete the Taegyedo tideland”(KCNA, 2010).

Taegyedo has been an important project, central to the development of practical policy and institutional development within the field of tideland reclamation in North Korea. Taegyedo has also embodied much of the ideological development and institutional progression which occurred during its period of construction. It would of course be quite unnatural if Taegyedo was the end point of tideland reclamation or hydrological development in North Korea. Future projects might be expected to incorporate new approaches to developmental strategy, as well as to maintain the embedding and scaling of political charisma within the physical landscape of the Peninsula. Indeed, since the completion of the Taegyedo project, the intriguing Punijman Tideland in South Hwanghae Province has been completed, the first reclamation project documented explicitly intended to serve multiple functions, rather than simply delivering an extension of agricultural capacity. According to the KCNA, the area of reclamation will provide areas for aquaculture as well as arable land, and also the extraction of sea salt. It is possible that this model of reclaimed tideland serving multiple functions will develop into a wider theme in the field, and will prompt revision of the purpose of older schemes. For example, the Ryongmae project in South Hwanghae province (initiated in 1998, but since neglected) held a ground breaking ceremony on December 28 2010. This project is now envisaged as a multi-purpose reclamation area, including provision for aquaculture and hydro-electric power. It is potentially the largest of the newly developing projects, at some 12 miles long (KCNA, 2010).

  1. Conclusion

This paper has traced North Korea’s rapidly developing sense of political charisma and theatre, deployed within its development strategy. In particular this paper has examined Pyongyang’s policies towards hydrology and hydrological development. It has recounted the development not only of the wider planning framework which supported the sector from very early projects such as the Potong River project in 1946, and subject to the vagaries of geopolitics projects undertaken in later political and ideological frames. Finally the paper has analysed the historical and political narrative focusing on one particular hydrological project, Taegyedo, North Korea’s largest ever tidal reclamation project. Taegyedo spans the geo-political eras in North Korean history, founded in the early 1980s in the last decade of the Warsaw Pact and completed following the famine and crisis period of the 1990s.

Tidal reclamation it seems has been particularly important to North Korean hydrological development. The reconfiguration of coastal and tidal landscapes demanded by these policies allows for the enactment and projection of what, for North Korea must surely be the most radical form of political utopianism, the physical generation of new revolutionary space. Not only does this literally new landscape add to the capacity of Pyongyang’s agricultural or aquacultural sectors, it provides connections between the generations of the Kim family, allowing legitimative charisma to flow between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (and perhaps even Kim Jong-un), through vectors and channels that need not be based back in the guerrilla period of the 1930s and the struggle against Japanese imperialism. We might perceive this as fundamental to North Korean claims to be the governors and progenitors of a new form of sovereign body, a socialist body politic which extends and includes more than simply its political aware and active human population, but the topographic spaces which bound and make up its terrain.

This charismatic re-projection of course is conceptualised by this paper through the theoretical frame so far as North Korea is concerned of Kwon and Chung’s conceptualisation of charismatic or theatric politics. This political theatre of course spreads out into the physical landscape of the nation, in particular in this instance the coastal landscapes of the nation. Such political landscapes are conceptualised by the paper as constructed political, social or cultural spaces and places through the analysis of scholars such as Cosgrove and Castree. Hydrology and hydrological engineering is of course for this paper considered in the light of Karl Wittfogel’s extraordinary notion of both Oriental Despotism and Hydraulic Economy, concepts which specifically address the politics and state development of Asia landscapes. Given the autarkic political form of North Korea, this paper has considered Erik Swyngedouw’s analysis of a hydrological aspiration in a similarly difficult or autocratic political form, namely Francoist Spain.

It is, as may be glimpsed in this paper’s analysis impossible to hold to Wittfogels’ conception of the Hydraulic Economy in the case of the Korean Peninsula (or for that matter, much of the Orient as perceived by that author), owing to local hydrological and topographic conditions and the course of Korea’s historical development. However it is the case that hydrological engineering and more specifically the control of the tidal and coastal edges of North Korea through the processes and efforts of a radical form of politics and governance has been key to North Korean state formation and to its developmental processes. Projects such as Taegyedo can be placed within a coherent historical structure of development, demonstrative of the successes and failures of North Korea’s approach to state craft. The landscape of that state certainly echoes Swyngedouw and others conception of both technonature and perhaps political natures. A brief glimpse at news reports from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper in recent months reveals concrete examples of the physicality of such a technonature in the Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station (Rodong Sinmun, 2016). In conclusion therefore hydrology, hydrological engineering and coastal reclamation projects can be said to have been key to previous modes of Pyongyang’s institutional functionality, real projections of past political authority, they are also as much manifestations of a technonature harnessed for national construction and reconstruction. Given the shift in political forms in North Korea from the simple autocracy of the Kim Il-sung era to theatric present under Kim Jong-un, this paper anticipates North Korea’s hydraulic future as a composite mix of these constructed, rescaled, charismatic processes of continuing construction and reconfiguration.

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