North Korea’s New Years Address in a sense is an object lesson in connecting the dots of the nation’s political and ideological messaging, though which dots we are supposed to connect, and the pattern formed by them is not always abundantly or obviously clear. More often than not the shape of the next years priorities are marked out in advance in the previous months of the preceding year by a collection of speeches or moments of on the spot guidance building on the thematics of that year, but with a different direction or sensibility in mind. Often these seemingly carefully constructed sets of narrative connections can be thrown out of kilter by opportunity and surprise, one example of course being January 6th, 2016’s test of an ‘H-Bomb’ by Pyongyang which appeared to overshadow much of last year’s address. So as I write this reflection on Kim Jong Un’s latest statement on the morning of the 3rd of January (AEST), I am acutely aware that whatever direction and balance may appear present within the text may be blasted or reconfigured beyond recognition by the white light and white heat of unexpectedly explosive event in the coming days.
A white heat though, in the sense that Britain’s Labour politician Harold Wilson (and soon to be Prime Minister at the time), meant it in 1963 is a useful metaphor through which to which encounter Kim Jong Un’s desires for 2017. Heat and energy are a vital component of North Korean politics of course, and always have been. The hot energy of military encounter has always been the fuel for Pyongyang’s particular form of charismatic politics, its power diffused since 1945 (and in another manner since the armistice at the end of the Korean War in 1953), into the various materialities and temporalities of the contemporary, and sometimes not so contemporary DPRK. The leaders of North Korea have been attempting to harness the white heat of technological innovation for decades, though often not entirely with productive ends in mind. The Three Revolutions Movement for instance sought to utilise mechanisation and productivity gains in rural areas as the vector to implant new political and social structures outside of Pyongyang. Recent work by ‘Shock Brigades’ and ‘Soldier Builders’ as well as dramatically speeding up work on development projects such as the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station and its dams, surely also provides a transformative heat to those involved own personal political regeneration or development (or at least it aspires to do so). So while I personally had envisaged the coming New Year Address and the agenda for 2017 as one of looking backwards to the energy of the past (Rodong Sinmun’s repeated introduction of preparations for 2017 as the ‘year for praising the peerlessly, great persons of Mt Paektu’ seemed too coherent a theme to ignore), Kim Jong Un and North Korea as always had other ideas.
2017’s New Year Address of course, even if some of its contents are unexpected in tone or character, like all texts of North Korean political narrative sits within a complex web of both aspiration and historical content. 2017 must pay homage to 2016 as much as it must remember 2006 or for that matter 1956. The key political event in North Korea of 2016 (aside from the various nuclear tests and rocket/satellite launches of that year), was the 7th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea, an event which served to reiterate past practice as much as it outlined future intent. 2017’s New Year Address of course remembers the 7th Congress and the five year strategy for national economic development articulated in its reports and documentation. However it also asserts the importance of later events in 2016 such as the Conference of Chairpersons of Primary Committees within the Workers Party of Korea, an important event held in mid-December, whose task appears to have been embedding the priorities of the 7th Congress within the wider ecosystem of Workers Party institutions and sub-bureaucracies. Of course to do so new slogans and new energies must be harnessed.
“Let us accelerate the victorious advance of socialism with the great spirit of self-reliance and self-development as the dynamic force” is certainly not the most succinct slogan the institutions of Pyongyang have ever come up with – and this is from a bureaucracy whose narrative or propaganda sub-structures are renowned for long-windedness. However this is it appears to be the slogan through which the energies of 2017’s New Year Address are to be dissipated and diffused, the slogan through which Kim Jong Un’s new white heat of technological endeavour is to embedded throughout North Korea’s year. The dynamic force of technological capacity perhaps harnessed to the needs of self-reliance, is perhaps suggestive of some of the dynamics Pyongyang now faces, following the passing of UNSC 2321. While the energy needs and resources of North Korea and the strictures placed upon them by this most recent round of UN sanctioning and especially by the apparent cooperation of the People’s Republic of China are not really the direct interest of this author, Kim Jong Un’s assertion in the Address that “The sector of science and technology should concentrate efforts on…ensuring the domestic production of raw materials, fuel and equipment…” really speaks to the fact that without an unfettered access to coked and useful coal as well as other minerals (and market access through which to sell North Korea’s production), Pyongyang will face developmental trouble in the years to come rather than any coherent or cogent ability or capacity to maintain technological development at any temperature.
Of course the real interest of this geographically and environmentally minded author is focused on North Korea’s topography, its rivers, forests, soils and coasts. These natures and techno-natures in Pyongyang’s ‘web of life’ have been subjected to the heat of both political and developmental energy (as well as to the rather less controlled desperate energies of human’s beset by lack and deprivation on occasion), innumerable times in the historical narrative of North Korea, and have certainly featured in the New Year Address in recent years. 2017’s in this sense is no disappointment for the agronomist, the soil scientist or the fisheries specialist. The heat of both technological innovation and generation and political or developmental self-reliance touches all of these fields within Kim Jong Un’s text. The fishing sector of North Korea’s economy has been subject to a huge level of focus in the last year, much in the way that fungal science and the growing of edible mushrooms was in 2014. The year of great fish hauls and ‘spectacular fish-scenery’ is to be extended into 2017. Kim Jong Un suggests in the address that: “The fishing sector should conduct a dynamic drive for catching fishes and push perseveringly ahead with aquatic farming…It should build modern fishing vessels in a greater number…” North Korea is of course challenged greatly by its maritime borders (especially the Northern Limit Line) and its geo-political position, and these issues when it comes to industrial fishing have of course only become more difficult in recent years. Therefore the development of fish farming and aquaculture that does not rely on the resources and diplomatic or geo-political environment required for deep-sea fishing is certainly an advantage. The availability of fishing vessels of a useful tonnage and capacity has long been an issue for North Korea, Kim Il Sung was certainly concerned with these matters throughout his reign, and any developments in this regard would certainly of enormous benefit to Pyongyang.
When it comes to agricultural production, North Korea has long been challenged by the restrictions of land availability (given its mountainous topography), and more recently by the issues of soil deprivation and degradation. Kim Il Sung’s solution of radical chemicalisation left a post-1992 North Korea with soil that was virtually dead (Pyongyang’s management of its humus is surely an object lesson in what Salvatore Engel Di-Mauro would hold is the politicisation of soil itself), and a fertiliser habit that was simply unsustainable. More recent efforts by North Korea to find new methods of fertilising its soil, organic agriculture and agricultural methods which allow production in new terrains have to a degree been a little successful in mitigating the sense of acute crisis that beset this field for much of the 1990s. Perhaps the heat of 2017’s technological drive will impact positively on this and Kim Jong Un has certainly included the sector within this Address: “The agricultural front, the major thrust in building an economic giant, should raise a strong wind of scientific farming and push forward the movement for increasing crop yield.” This ‘strong wind’ will no doubt be felt at research stations such as Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project (a key site of North Korea’s developmental impetus since late 2013), and other experimental sites, but it will require a huge energy to turn this element of North Korean development in a positive direction – and some degree of luck.
Luck and fortune are of course key to much of North Korea’s positionality in the early 21st century. It is luck, from a North Korean sense, that the United States in its post-Cold War unipolarity was quickly troubled by the fruits of past interventions and following 2001 was pre-occupied with asymmetric ideological enemies who played by no rules whatsoever, so troubled that much of its military capacity and diplomatic energy was expended in global struggles to counteract unseen or unseeable enemies, rather than in overwhelming North Korea. Luck that Pyongyang was able to navigate its mid-1990s struggles in such a way as to incorporate extensive new practical knowledge and practice from those NGOs and agencies which sought to help it. North Korea has not been in any way lucky however with its climate and weather in recent years, troubles which were seen last year in North Hamgyong Province and which were seen in the mid-1990s to amplify the degradation of soil capacity and the impacts of deforestation. From the early 2000s onwards, forest rehabilitation has been a key vector of North Korean development, or at least aspirations towards afforestation. Just like that composite satellite image of North Korea as the dark ghostly patch between the bright lights of South Korea and the increasingly bright lights of the People’s Republic of China, Pyongyang is well aware of the delegitimising capabilities of visualisations of its terrain. Barren, brown, dusty hills are as much as signifier for the wider world of North Korea’s incapacity and ineptitude as its seeming incapability to keep the lights on anywhere outside of central Pyongyang. Huge efforts have therefore been directed at afforestation in recent years, but these efforts really in a sense merely build upon a longer time frame of interest in North Korean politics that reaches back to the northern forests of the 1930s, the Japanese forestry stations of the colonial period (which sought to implant foreign, Imperial species of tree on the peninsula), and the need to rehabilitate a blasted landscape following the Korean War. Kim Il Sung’s Rural Theses from 1964 and subsequent texts from 1968 and later are deeply committed to harnessing the energy of technology and politics to produce an authentically socialist terrain. Kim Jong Un’s assertion in 2017’s New Year Address that “We should further transform the appearance of the land of our country by building modern tree nurseries in provinces…” is a continuation of that impetus, a continuation of the desire to transform physical materialities under his control as much as political conceptions and commemorative temporalities.
There surely is an enormous amount more I am missing from this review of 2017’s New Year Address on the grounds of personal interest (or disinterest) and expertise (or otherwise). A little should be made by others of the failure by Kim Jong Un to mention the various leadership birthdays and anniversaries of this year, instead recalling the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army. Of course much can be made of, hopefully by other writers, the role of that institution within Kim Jong Un’s many desires and assertions. No doubt many of the blanks, most of the dots will be filled in by future connections made within North Korea’s narrative and through its actions, some of which in this most unstable of years will be confusing and counter-intuitive. As the days and weeks go by Pyongyang’s intent and intentions will become clearer, its thematics for the year less opaque. However at this years very outset, Kim Jong Un has provided a reassertion of the energies which drive North Korean development, past, present and future. Whatever white heat exists in the words of this New Year Address has been present for much of North Korea’s existence, its temperature rising and falling at moments of crisis, moments of comparative success throughout its history. Ultimately it will be the present and residual heat of this powerful political energy that will prove the success or failure (in North Korea’s terms) of 2017.