Rare Earth Minerals, Technology Metals and Extractive Landscapes in North Koreas’ Web of Political Life

This is a very early pre-production, pre-editing manuscript of an earlier draft and is substantially different from the published and fully edited and peer reviewed version which can be accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214790X17300679 and will form part of a special issue of the journal Extractive Industries and Society on Rare Earth Minerals and Technology Metals.

2017 has barely lasted three months at the time of writing yet North Korea has already managed to become the centre of global news stories for what it would consider entirely the wrong reasons. While this is not really unusual when it comes to the difficult politics and diplomatic interactions Pyongyang is normally faced with, recent events have a great potential impact on North Korea’s economic and institutional structures. Much in the way of analysis and reportage has been expended in recent years especially from an IR and political science perspective on the relationships and interactions between North Korea and the People’s Republic of China. Western and other analysts have explored almost to destruction the relationship between these two countries, considering their bonds to be almost indestructible. Rooted in the difficult times of both the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War of 1950-1953 when many thousands of Chinese and North Korean soldiers fought and died together in two of the very early Hot wars of the Cold War, even in spite of the difficulties of the collapse of communism across the world, the reorientation of Chinese politics and economics towards the logics and practices of Capital and competition and the irritation of Pyongyang’s efforts at obtaining nuclear capacity and capability relations between the two countries have been more or less maintained throughout.

2017 it seems however has brought this long standing geopolitical status quo nearly to an end. Beijing has provided diplomatic cover and support for Pyongyang through the most difficult of recent times (Rodong Sinmun, 2016), including through the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights (UNCOI). While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has continued increase sanctions on North Korea, Chinese policies appeared to continue to offer Pyongyang routes through the increasingly restrictive international legal and diplomatic frameworks which its institutions and trade were subject to. However UNSC resolution 2321, passed unanimously on the 30th of November 2016 for the first time restricted one of the most vital elements of North Korean export and trade, non-nuclear and non-dual use minerals (United Nations, 2016). UNSC Resolution 2321 prevents North Korea from selling iron, nickel, silver and zinc and a host of other minerals and is restricted in the amount of coal it can export to other nations to 1,000, 866 ,metric tonnes in December 2016 and 7,500,000 metric tonnes per year after that. Considering that Pyongyang’s trade in minerals and particularly coal is a vital contributor to its economy, the fact that China almost immediately banned imports until the 1st of January 2017 was an extraordinary signifier that policy in Beijing had shifted against Pyongyang (SCMP, 2016). Further to events in late 2016, while trade in minerals and coal resumed in the new year of 2017, on February 17th, 2017, the Chinese Commerce Ministry let it be known that no further imports from North Korea would be accepted until the turn of 2017/2018 (O’Carroll, 2017) and a number of North Korean shipments already in Chinese ports were impounded and rejected (O’Carroll, 2017). Analysts of North Korea are waiting to see how lengthy and serious Chinese intentions are, as well as their impact on the already stressed and restricted North Korean economy (Haggard, 2017).

Along with these dramatic events in 2017 the research focus which has driven this paper was also inspired by an earlier mineral interaction between North Korea and an Australian private company called SRE Minerals (Mining.com, 2013). In 2013 North Korea’s Ministry of Mining and SRE Minerals announced a joint partnership known as Pacific Century Minerals to exploit the Rare Earth capacity of North Korea (Pacific Century, 2013a). In particular this enterprise would focus on extraction and development of what North Korea had termed the Yongju Deposit, a geological structure similar in form to that exploited by China’s famous facility at Bayan Obo (Pacific Century, 2013b). North Korea and SRE Minerals analysis claimed that Yongju was a potentially enormous deposit of Rare Earths and Technology Metals of some 67 Trillion US Dollars in value (Engineering and Mining Journal, 2015). It does not need to be said that such a deposit and resource if it could be financialised would dramatically alter the frame of geo-politics in the region, transforming North Korea into a financially stable actor, capable of a great deal of global impact, far beyond its current position. As it is, in spite of the initial surprise little has been heard of this enterprise since its announcement (and SRE Minerals itself though listed on an Australian Stock Index was always a fairly opaque organisation), and North Korea through its difficult interaction with the Egyptian engineering firm Orascom and its local extremely profitable mobile phone company, Koryolink has further demonstrated its esoteric approach to interacting with foreign investment partners (North Korea Tech, 2015). The SRE Minerals exchange and more recent interactions following UNSC2321 and efforts by the Chinese however demonstrate the really key role which minerals, both common and rare are playing within this particular geo-political space and suggest the deep and vital place of mineral exploration and exploitation within North Korea’s history since its foundation in 1948.


Literatures and Theoretical Frames

This historical depth of connection and importance to North Korean politics and its relationship with both its regional neighbours and the wider world is of course one of the most important drivers for this paper and its author. While the details of the very recent past are of course very interesting, for the most part this paper will be exploring the historical records and narratives of a much earlier moment in the life of North Korea. In spite of the fact that it is apparently quite possible to put a very exact tonnage on North Korean mineral production in recent years, especially when required to restrict that production at the behest of the United Nations Security Council, public and popular conception is that such production along with much else of the details of governance under Pyongyang is entirely opaque. If it were true such a state of affairs would present a real challenge to the author of this paper. However it this the assertion of this paper that when it comes to the exploration and exploitation of North Korea’s mineral and geologic capacity, while documents and evidence underpinning it are hard to come by and complicated to analyse, they certainly do exist and are accessible, so can certainly be accessed. Before framing the material this paper is primarily based on in temporal or historical terms, and undoing some of the imaginary opacity surrounding North Korean mineralogy, this paper turns to the theoretical and methodological themes which underpin its analysis. Just as North Korean politics and ideology has always found its own peculiar route through both history and the wider streams of geo-politics, so this paper frames theoretically the minerals and materials with which it is concerned in particular way in order to better trace their interaction with the politics and culture of that nation.

North Korean politics and political culture is characterised by the analysis of political science scholars generally as an example of extreme autocracy, which is derived from the ideologies of Marxist-Leninism and Stalinism, but with a very large element of Korean nationalism running through it. However recent writing by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung (2012) uses a reconsideration of Clifford Geertz (1980) and Max Weber’s (1967) analysis on the place of charisma and theatre to reframe North Korean politics as a space of political charisma and theatre. Kwon and Chung declare Pyongyang to be a theatre state in which politics is both performative and performed. This performance requires development and exploitation of mineral resources to engage as both actors and stage within North Korea’s politics. Rare Earth and technology metals, as well as coal and their exploration and utilisation are very much part of this performance. This paper also frames its approach through the social and cultural geographic lens provided by Denis Cosgrove (1984 and 2008) and Noel Castree (2001) and their articulation of landscape and terrain as symbolic and socially or politically constructed. North Korean mineral landscapes are certainly part of this construction, and this paper will explore these processes at a particularly generative moment in that process. The paper also deploys important work examining the reconfiguration of nature and natures through the social processes of scale and scaling from the work of Geographers such as Erik Swyngedouw (1997 and 2015). Through the use of distributed process and scale, natures are transformed into ‘techno-natures’ and impacted by and entwined with the imperatives of politics. Methodological transformations provided by analyses of scale in these senses allow for further insight into the local use of scale and scaling in North Korea (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Scale and scale making as transformative reflexive, distributed process allows for the inclusion of other inhabitants and participants within the landscapes marked by them.

Finally this paper is particularly interested in the agency, action and politics of terrain and topography involved within exploration and encounter of and with technology metals and the rarer metals and minerals. To consider this agency the paper considers the enormously important work of Jane Bennett (2010) and Sarah Whatmore (2005) on the generation and existence of what they have termed ‘vibrant’ matter or political matter. Bennett’s work which seeks to deconstruct the boundaries of human privilege over notions of agency and action through considering animals, plants and other non-sentient actors such as bacteria, viruses, metals, and tectonic energy as actors in themselves, possessed of a form of politics. Instead however of a politics controlled or possessed at the level of the individual and the singular, these actors develop a distributed, inter and hyper personal politics which connects, contests and co-produces other forms of politics and agency (Bennett, 2010). Notions of vibrant materiality and lively non-human actors can also connect to previous conceptions of political charisma, themselves very active in North Korea. Jamie Lorimer for instance has used Bennett’s conceptions to theorise a politics of non-human charisma (2007), which he uses primarily within the field of environmental and species conservation, but which underpins this author’s examination of the role of topography within North Korea’s politics and culture. The reader can certainly consider rare metals, minerals and technology metals in North Korea in this light, as vibrant, lively participants with their own intrinsic charisma, active in the theatric politics and history of the nation.

Beyond the theoretical framework that this paper adopts, it is necessary to give a brief sense of the situation and context from which its documentary and evidential base derives. For while surely much of the research into the exploration, exploitation and importance of Rare Earths, other minerals and what are termed technology metals is based on evidence recently collected and analysed by complex webs of technology themselves, this paper travels elsewhere in both temporal and conceptual terms. In particular this paper derives much of its empirical grounding from resources collected from the United States National Archives, (RG242). Record Group 242, or the Captured North Korean Documents Collection is an extraordinary body of material which underpins much interesting analysis focused on North Korea and its history in recent years. Captured by US Army document gatherers during the occupation of Pyongyang in October and November of 1950 the collection provides a unique insight into the narrative and textual basis for North Korean governance and institutional development during its early years as a separate sovereign nation. This paper is concerned with the boxes of documents and cartographic materials contained in the collection which were sourced from Pyongyang’s Ministry of Mining and from other institutions tasked with managing North Korea’s geological development and mineral resources following Liberation from Japanese colonisation in 1945. These boxes contain the blueprints, shaft and face layouts of all the active mines in North Korea in 1950. They also contain an extensive repository of documents from mineral and mining institutions throughout the country, including daily and output logs, longer term planning documents, internal and external contracts and agreements and research papers from academic institutions focused on mining, mineralogy and geology within North Korea (and some in translation from other nations).

Unlike other collections of documents and evidence addressing North Korean or more generally Korean mining and mineral histories, such as the Gottsche collection in Hamburg, and the Government General of Chosen’s series of annual reports which are, while useful for context, partial in their collection and difficult for analysts and academics to use to focus down on specific, local places and spaces within the nation, Record Group 242 allows for a very detailed view of particular locations to be developed. It is the author of this paper’s assertion that through an examination of these materials a fascinating glimpse may be gathered of developmental interaction between Russian and Soviet technicians and North Korean institutions and workers within the mining sector. This examination does not simply cover interactions in the mining of coal and more common minerals, but also allows a view at those cultural and social spaces from which rare minerals, technology metals and the base ores and materials from which Rare Earths would in the future be derived, would be extracted. This paper does not just of course consider the human and social aspects of these spaces and terrains, but also considers the minerals and metals themselves as actors, lively participants within a developing political and social culture, which has been responsible for the production of the North Korea visible in our present. The spaces and terrains conceived of in North Korean mineralogy through collaboration with external partners, and in sense also with topography and geology are demonstrative of more than simply industrial or extractive prerogatives. In the developmental vision presented by the documents through the reader should be able to discern not just the productive spaces of mineral exploration, but the social and lived spaces of an ‘everyday’ which in North Korea’s seeks the production of what might is termed a ‘socialist modernity’. However this space of utopian social and political aspiration is constructed of a wider network or ecosystem of enmeshed actors, a web of life and of political life which can just as easily include the ores of technology metals and rare earths as it can humans.

The notion of ‘socialist modernity’ itself requires definition of course. The author of this papers takes it as read that readers will be satisfactorily familiar with both the terms, ‘socialist’ and ‘modernity.’ These are for the most part settled in their definition in academia (while what is actually socialist is certainly still a matter for debate and dispute in public discourse), but the conflation of the two into ‘socialist modernity’ is not. Rather like that other term I have used in the previous paragraph, utopia, whose original usage in 1516 was in fact a critique of some political aspirations. Thomas More playfully used the Greek roots of οὐτόπος to suggest that a place of political perfection was simply ‘no place’ or ‘not a place’ (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014, p, 17); ‘socialist modernity’ seems to many in the 21st century either an oxymoron or a non-sequitur. How is it even possible that something can be both socialist and modern at the same time, when much of political and ideological thinking in our present holds that modernity is in fact entirely a product of Capital and capitalism. This paper nor its author does not wish to contribute of course to this extremely energetic public debate, but instead derives its utilisation of the notion of ‘socialist modernity’ from elsewhere. While academics rooted in Marxist theory such as Adorno and Bauman (Adorno, 1973 and Bauman, 2000) have expended a great deal of effort in analysis of the modernity produced globally by Capitalism, such analysis was not available in any sense within the public or intellectual sphere in truly socialist or communist countries. Modernism or Modernity in these political geographies has in a sense only become known or theorised in an academic sense in retrospect, after the collapse of most of the political structures of international socialism or communism, and only in relation for the most part, to their physical products (Zarecor, 2011). Thus the architectures and build environments produced by governments and institutional frameworks self-defining as socialist or communist have been described as ‘socialist modernity’ (Zarecor, 2011), as have the artistic, literary and cultural products of such nations (Pence and Betts, 2008). In the case of North Korea there has been far less analysis of the modernity or otherwise of its infrastructure or urban architectures, as for the most part North Korean urban planning and design has produced a landscape which is an assemblage of traditional Korean building design and a Hausmannian approach to the layout of a city or town which is not really considered ‘modern’ in the 21st century, but rather derived from 19th century planning philosophy (Joinau, 2014). Such an approach to the topography of the city dovetails with the political imperatives of North Korea, which tends towards the personality cult and a monolithic or monumental representation or commemoration of its self. ‘Socialist Modernity’ in analysis of North Korean matters and in the mind of this paper’s author instead comes from work by scholars such as Suzy Kim on the social reorientation of the nation following its brief moment of liberation from Japanese Imperial rule and independence between 1945-1948 (Kim, 2014). Kim focuses less on architecture or the built environment of North Korea and much more on the impact of a political sensibility, at the time in flex and motion that promised to reconfigure and rewrite the social norms and practices which were rooted deeply in traditional Korean culture, and had it seems not been challenged by Japanese colonial domination. ‘Socialist Modernity’ for Kim and others, as well as for contemporary North Koreans was represented by the abolition of the rigid social and class structures of the past and the reconfiguring of gender roles, both huge changes which would generate dramatically different new social landscapes and topographies. It is these landscapes and terrains which at their nexus with extraction and production this paper is most concerned with.


In order to engage in an exploration of these landscapes and their place within North Korea’s ‘web of life’ the author and the reader of this paper will have to make a number of journeys, both in the temporal and geographical sense. In particular this paper journeys to the Museum of Ethnology, in Hamburg to the collection of the German Geologist Karl Gottsche (Danish Geological Society, 1909), to the University of Michigan’s Asian Studies Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. All three of these institutions possess material from different periods which reveal some of the landscapes of mineral extraction and exploration at different moments in the history of the Korean Peninsula


Korean mineralogical history in the English language is certainly not extensive before the 19th century, but it appears that extraction of precious metals such as gold has historically been a vital element in Korean, particularly in the maintenance of diplomatic relationships with nations neighbouring it. Edwin Mills’ rare account in English of Korean goldmining history emphasises the huge importance of gold in particular to the relationship with China during the Wei dynasty, King Wang-hyung for example outlawed in 1036 local usage and ownership of Gold in order to maintain supply to the Chinese (Mills, 1916). The Mongol empire and China under the Ming dynasty demanded extensive tribute from Korea and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions between 1592 and 1598 resulted in the loss of the state reserves of gold. Rather more successfully in the later 16th and 17th centuries Korean technologies of mineral extraction whose focus was silver, copper and gold were widely developed. New institutions, bureaucracies and legal structures were also developed around this time and both rights and infrastructures around mineral resource placed under the control of Korea’s Royal Household, with some outsourcing of responsibility to the provinces and regions. Individuals were within this new structure of control forbidden to own the rights to gold resource or extraction (Mills, 1916).

This ecosystem of control, organising Korea’s mineral extraction and exploration within a ‘web of life’ firmly under the control of both scholarly aristocracy and the institutions of royalty were soon subjected, as was Korea more generally to the impact of external colonial imperatives and interests. Taking advantage of the disruption and ruptures created by the nation’s experience of ‘unequal treaties’ and their politics, which began for Korea with the Treaty of Kanghwa in 1874, colonialists soon sought to extract value from Korea’s mineral resources and capacity (Kim, 2004). Ernst Oppert in 1864 made an audacious if unsuccessful attempt to pilfer the graves of the Royal Household and their extensive gold resource, but there were later more successful stories (Kim, 2004). James Morse, a Gold Miner from Nebraska who had participated in the California Gold Rushes of 1848-1855, was granted a highly successful gold concession at Unsan by the Yi dynasty (Swartout, 1996).  American Oriental Mining the company that sprang from Morse’s efforts would prove a very long lived enterprise and was in 1941 the last foreign owned mining company under Japanese rule, being evicted only after Pearl Harbour and the outbreak of the Pacific War (GGC, 1941).

These landscapes of extraction encounter by capitalist adventurers such as Morse were of course in the very last decades of their existence (Bird, 1905). Korea’s web of life and the metals and minerals involved in its developmental life would soon radically change. On the Korean peninsula an entirely chaotic and unsuccessful period of confused, sometimes desperate diplomatic triangulation between Imperial China, Imperial Russia and Imperial Japan by the Yi dynasty and its newly reconfigured governmental institutions were forced to accede to Tokyo’s will (Conroy, 1960). A brief period of protectorateship under the auspices of His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General, was followed by the full and comprehensive annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. The peninsula was to be governed in future by the Government General of Chosen, through whom Japan’s colonial, modernising and exploitative, extractive imperatives could run free (Shin and Robinson, 1999).

The history of Korea’s colonial period and the policies and processes of Tokyo’s rigorous reconfiguration of the peninsula’s society, politics, culture and language are of course heavily researched and academically very well known (Henry, 2015). The Government General of Chosen first sought to suppress Korean desires for nationhood and independence, second to accommodate them, third to subsume them within an extraordinary process of creating a new Imperial subjectivity and then finally in the headlong rush to conflict in the Pacific to transform the Korean Peninsula into a military site of production and labour (Buzo, 2007). It was a tumultuous and difficult period, full of unwanted transformations and reconfigurations. In developmental terms however it has proved an extraordinarily well documented and evidenced period of domination. From 1907 the Imperial Resident General Government and later fully from 1910, the Government General of Chosen published an annual series of reports, “The Reports on Reforms and Progresses in Chosen (Korea).” The reports in both Japanese and English laid out in fairly intricate detail the path and detail the Government General’s activity (GGC, 1910), especially when it came to the reconfiguration and transformation of Korean developmental culture and institutional structures[1].




As might be expected the Reports are highly extensive on the many issues of the colonial period. They recount much in the economic and legal field, but for the purposes of this paper contain an extraordinary level of detail addressing mineral extraction and exploration and the incorporation of new metals and substances into the nation’s material and developmental web of life.  Very much a product of their time and the colonial intellectual and political milieu the reports’ contain the developmental and mineralogical narrative as seen by the Chosen Government General and its institutions in the provincial and local areas of the Korean Peninsula. These include substantial changes to the legal frameworks through which mining and mineralogical research were undertaken and the institutional structures through which this legal framework operated. The Government General sought to transform the entire institutional culture of the field. For example it appears new mining legislation was formulated by the Yi dynasty under heavy Japanese influence, just before annexation in 1906 and replaced with a revision in 1916. These new colonial revisions allowed only Japanese institutions or subjects to access and control mineral rights, replacing the Imperial Household Agency as the sole controller and arbiter of these resources (GGC, 1916).  Equally the revisions also increased the range of minerals and elements subjected to the legal framework from 17 to 29. These minerals included very interestingly rare elements such as bismuth, and even more interestingly and enormously relevant for this paper’s concern Molybdenum and Quartz Sand (GGC, 1916). Quartz Sand, is now better known as Monazite the base material from which, along with Molybdenum, Rare Earths can be extracted from. The Government General of Chosen established a Geological Investigation Office in 1918, and according to Annual Reports it was tasked with a twenty year long programme of analysis (GGC, 1918). The expansion of extraction of such rare materials and metals during the early colonial period is recorded as having increased total tonnage of all minerals from 6,067,952 to 24,204,510 between 1910 and 1920 including 2629 tonnes of wulfenite, one of the ores of Molybdenum (GGC, 1920). Development in the later periods of the colonial period meant that 1933-1934 total tonnage had increased to 48,301468 tonnes (GGC, 1934). The reports also name and describe key infrastructural elements and the key mining sites which included Unsan, still managed by James Morse’s Oriental Consolidated Mining Company, although Unsan was now jointed by others such as Syozyo and Suian both owned and managed by Nippon Kogyo, one of the colonial Government General’s affiliated development and resource management companies (GGC, 1934).

The Government General’s Annual Report series therefore gives a fascinating, if partial glimpse into the developmental culture of mineral resource infrastructure, research, availability and extraction under the period of Japanese occupation and annexation. It is clear that from the focus on Molybdenum extraction, the Chosen government’s developmental focus in this era was beginning to approach what prospectors and geologists working today might be familiar with so far as the landscape of extractive possibility is concerned. Those focused on North Korea’s current mineral Rare Earths capacity, and it and SRE Minerals’ claims focused specifically on the Yongju deposit will surely be aware of the importance of the Molybdenum extraction and extremely interested in the statistics presented in the reports regarding tonnage extracted.


Captured Documents and Unveiled Narratives


As much as history and the Colonial Government General record the deep empiricism of the colonial period’s quest for mineralogical knowledge and resource, the collapse of Japanese power in 1945 and its replacement with altogether different forms of political organisation is also well recorded. The assumption of power of Kim Il Sung and what has been called North Korea’s guerrilla dynasty (Buzo, 1999), whose authority was rooted in their semi-mythic campaigns of harassment against the forces of Imperial Japan in the wildernesses of northern Korean during the 1930s heralded the unexpected arrival of modes of governance ostensibly rooted in socialist principle and Marxist theory to the Peninsula. Building a socialist territory in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula was really one of the central tasks of Pyongyang’s new government and bureaucratic institutions and for its most important foreign partner in its early years the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung and his Soviet advisers had inherited an industrial and mineral landscape that was most determinedly colonial and unpicking that bequest, constructing a new web of life, would be a key focus for the policies of the young North Korea.

As readers of this paper might expect this transformation would need to be as dramatic as Kim Il Sung’s conception of ideology would transform the spaces of its politics. While Pyongyang’s theoretical and narrative articulation was not as coherent or comprehensive as it became in later years; there was no detailed description of the three revolutions process, Taean work system or Ch’ollima method (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014), it was both dramatic and in some senses practical. Unlike in the early Soviet Union, North Korea’s young authorities and their supporters seemingly saw that the radical collectivisation of agricultural landscapes and communities would not be achievable immediately and so while taking care to remove those who had directly supported or collaborated with the Japanese colonial government as landlords or rentiers from that land, Pyongyang supported a mixed agricultural economy and development before 1950 (Armstrong, 2004). When it came to Forestry and timber resources, Pyongyang both adopted the developmental methodologies which had been introduced by the Japanese forestry specialists (Fedman, 2015), and sought to negate their memory and influence through campaigns focused on the notional reconfiguration of the Peninsula’s forests to become somehow more authentically Korean (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014) .  Trees and plants in this effort would become real players, real participants in the construction and reconstruction of national identity. Later in North Korea’s history, cityscapes and urban landscapes, such as Hamhung would be rebuilt from the ground up by architects and planners from ideologically friendly nations such as East Germany (Armstrong, 2009), in more dramatic and determined and comprehensive attempts to literally build a new authentically Socialist Korean urban space. There are a number of other examples in North Korea’s history in which partners from communist or socialist nations collaborated to reconstruct elements of the nation’s economy and terrain for more useful or positivistic ideological purposes (Szalontai, 2008).

Such external interest and support was of course much in evidence when it came to mineral exploration and exploitation, though naturally that interest is both collaborative and destructive. The Ch’olsan Uranium mine in particular would become the most famous site in the minds of opponents of North Korea and the Soviet Union (Weathersby, 2007, p.26). Cumings recounts the interest among American security specialists and lobbyists in the early years of both Korea’s independence (Cumings, 1990, p.150). Mineralogical research done by the Colonial Government General and the geological experience of the OCMC had revealed of course not only copious amounts of Gold, but also the Molybdenum, Wulfenite, Monazite and Tungsten deposits on the Peninsula. Intelligence at the end of the Second World War had focused attention on Japanese efforts to refine Monazite into Thorium in Hungnam in order to produce a crude radioactive weapon. While the area of the mining and research would later become part of North Korea, information on Japan’s wartime activities concerned the United States, as did the Soviet Union’s engagement of the resources and facilities there. When the Korean War did break out in July 1950, reports that the Soviets were mining monazite at around six North Korean mines made the whole infrastructure so militarily significant that the Hungnam complex was destroyed on August 24th, 1950 by United States bombers (Cumings, 1990, p.151). Documents which might reveal some element of the threatening enterprise would be vitally important both to contemporary military affairs and whatever future advantage was to be gained in contest against the Soviet Union, which explains the actions and interests of the gatherers of the set of documents with which this paper is most directly concerned.


The landscapes of extraction and attendant histories of Korea and North Korean technology metals and the precursors to contemporary Rare Earth minerals seen in earlier documentary collections and the Chosen Government General’s Annual Reports as well as in the minds of those who sought to contest Soviet power and influence on the peninsula takes this paper in temporal terms up to 1945.. However it is still some distance in intellectual and practical terms from that in evidence in North Korea today. It would be helpful if material were available which would support this paper and its author in taking the narrative closer in conceptual and governmental terms to the present.

Of course as the reader will expect, this is a difficult and challenging proposition given the politics and culture of contemporary North Korea. Pyongyang’s developmental culture or those practitioners who form part of it are unavailable, generally for anthropological, ethnological or sociological study. This in part is due to the extreme reluctance of Pyongyang’s institutions to allow foreign, empirical access to them on the grounds of potential political or ideological disruption. Data and analytic material locally sourced is also either entirely unavailable, badly maintained or produced in later years with difficult or contested methodological frameworks. Accordingly in order to get closer to the developmental and political culture of North Korea’s today this paper turns to another vitally important collection of material and documentary evidence. This collection will be familiar to the readers of Suzy Kim’s (Kim, 2013) recent monograph on women in the early politics of North Korea. The Captured North Korean Documents collection of the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration (NARA), (sometimes known by its institutional catalogue number as Record Group 242), in College Park, Maryland is an extraordinary and complicated collection of material gathered in difficult circumstances.

Exploitation and analysis of mineral resource in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, as at least partially evidenced by the narratives of the colonial Government General’s annual reports of course did not come to an end with the territories’ Liberation. The infant North Korea in its efforts to reconfigure the social, economic and political cultures of the spaces now under its control, towards what might be termed a “Socialist Modern,” also sought to reconfigure its mineralogical cultures. Pyongyang, while not bequeathed by the moment and processes of de-colonialisation a particularly useful or viable agricultural inheritance, was gifted more extensive mineral resources (Kim Il Sung, 1946). Accordingly North Korea sought to build upon the Government General’s developmental achievements in the sourcing and extraction of Molybdenum and other rare and valuable minerals and technology metals, especially at sites now classified as being within the Yongju deposit (Kim Il Sung, 1948). These materials, in the absence of more familiar or common elements of development, become a real part of the web of North Korean politics and culture, actors on its theatric ideological stage and narrative players within its historical discourse.

The Captured Documents Collection allows the author and reader some access to the urgency of this early period of North Korean history. Its collection was also a moment of extreme and negative energy. At the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950, North Korea made rapid gains and drove the Republic of Korea’s army and their American supporters far to the south to a small territory known as the Pusan Perimeter. However North Korea’s KPA was soon beaten backwards following the Incheon landings by United Nations forces and the ROK army. Southern and American forces in fact captured and occupied Pyongyang from between the 19th of October 1950 and the 3rd of December 1950 (Cumings, 1990). During this period of occupation United States and United Nations forces sought to extract as much information as possible from Government ministries and sources in Pyongyang. They raided ministries, archives and as many other institutions as possible. The  information and the documents collected were shipped back to the administration of the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (the United States occupying governing power at the time) in Japan and then across the Pacific to Pacific Command in San Francisco. Eventually the extensive original materials and an annotated translation of their contents in brief and at times unhelpful outline, were de-classified and became part of the NARA collection.


Element of the Cartographic Landscape at Kaechon Graphite Mine (RG242, SA 2009 5/154)


The author of this paper discovered this collection within the boxes and shipping advice numbers of the Captured Documents. Having undertaken several archival research visits to the collection and to the boxes in question, the author now has a complete catalogue of their contents and has made a visual/photographic record of the most relevant documents and materials. The author of this paper has identified blueprints specifically covering the topographic and mining terrain of the following mines: Ullryul, Yangdok, Chodong, Chaeryong, Sinpung, Musan, Kaechon, Kumhwa, Ilgon and Tongban (RG242, SA2009, 5/146)[2] Many of these sites are described in later North Korean literature and government documents as being among the most important in the field of mineral development, a number of them are considered by external agencies to be sites of Rare Earths or Technology Metals extraction (Ferenc, S, 1979). Perhaps reiterating the fact that this collection was extracted from Pyongyang’s bureaucratic heart, the materials currently being examined outline the institutional culture to be undertaken by projects focused on mineral extraction and exploration in the North Korea of the time (RG242, SA 2009, 3/68), They also detail both general and particular targets and agendas for the sector as a whole and very specific mines (RG242, SA 2009, 3/68). Representative of the accounting and recording systems of the Mining Ministry there is a very large collection of telegrams sent from individual mine superintendents which record the output of their institution, on both weekly and monthly bases and by specific mineral types and resources (RG242, SA 2010, 11/204). This element also includes the contract with the ministry signed by each extractive or research unit, stipulating the particular materials and elements of focus and the expected output (RG242, SA2010, 11/204). More generally, and in common with material gathered by the US Army’s collection team at other ministry and infrastructural sites, there is an extensive collection of academic and pedagogical material focused on mining theory, practice and geology theory and extractive practice. These documents are perhaps suggestive of the construction of new bodies of knowledge and expertise in North Korea and new cultures of developmental practice that the nation was becoming exposed to and through which practical development was to be undertaken. This would include building upon the research undertaken during the Japanese colonial period into their Molybednum and other rare materials capacity. Finally, and reminding the reader of the very specific local temporal context of the moment of this material’s collection, there are a number of documents within the collection which focus on the bureaucratic and legal framework as well as the institutional processes involved in the nationalisation of once private mineral resources and enterprises in newly liberated terrains of southern Korea.

These blueprints featuring mine infrastructure and shaft layouts are also replete with further non-topographical or Geodesic blueprints which serve as templates for the construction, in kit form of various infrastructural elements to a mining site. However these documents do not simply address those elements which serve the sites extractive prerogatives, but also those that serve social needs. Thus alongside blueprints for the construction of particular models of mine shaft or generators, there are blueprints for the building and maintenance of accommodation blocks, schools, social and community centres and even railway stations and other public infrastructure.

Infrastructure at Musan Mine (RG242 SA 2009, 5/160)

These blueprints featuring elements of construction not focused on productive output are suggestive of an urge on North Korea’s part to transform the landscapes of mineralogical exploitation to fit the creation of a different type of revolutionary landscape. Developmental and institutional culture in these blueprints and documents is put to work in the planning is set to plan and enable what was essentially the future and the physical manifestation of a Socialist Modernity surrounding North Korea’s mines and mining infrastructure. No longer were these mines and similar spaces of extraction to be the resource frontiers of Korean history known to Mills, Oppert and Gottsche, disparate, diffuse and masculine. Neither were these spaces to be governed by the cultures of colonial extraction. Instead these spaces were to be in the future, coherently included into the working, educational and leisure infrastructures of North Korean modernity, places of childhood and family as much as they would be of working men. For example when examining documents focused on sites at Kaechon, Chaeryong, Ullyul and Musan, Item 154 is to be found, recorded as “Blue print file containing distribution diagram of residence, railway for gasoline rail car, ore bin, elementary school, dated 1950, belonging to Kaechon Graphite Mine, P’yongan Pukto, NK.” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/154). Kaechon Mine is not an isolated case when it comes to this sort of social or educational infrastructure amongst the documents. The section in the index relating to Chaeryong Mine in Hwanghae-do includes the following“…draft of residence, bathroom attached to residence, extension of elementary school building…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/154). Documents related to Ullyul Mine also in Hwangdae-do mention a “…bathroom, storehouse, dispensary, elementary school, residence…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/158), those related to Sinpung Mine contain a “…design drawing of residence and elementary school..” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/159) and Musan appears ready to receive a “..telephone plant, system and exchange…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/160).

Shaft Plans at Ullyul Mine (RG242, SA 2009, 5/158)

Through documents such as these found in the Captured Documents collection not only can these new cultures of exploration, extraction and social organisation be glimpsed, but also elements of the role minerals and metals and the landscapes of their extraction will play in future North Korean history. Mineral spaces and terrains of either common or rare elements will be become real players within a wider framework of social and political practice and praxis under the control of Pyongyang. Later in North Korea’s history as its ideology and political narrative developed its state philosophy would as Han S. Park has theorised, assume an almost transcendental form (Park, 2002). In what Park terms a national ‘fishbowl’ (Park, 2002, p.37) all North Korea’s human residents would supposedly act together as one, their collective will forming almost a ‘hivemind’ through which the nationalist and developmental energies unleashed by its early revolutionary period and the thoughts attributed to members of the family Kim (Park, 2001). Eventually a reader of North Korean literature and narrative would see even the Bears and Storks resident in the nation incorporated as participant actors in the mourning process for Kim Jong Il in 2012 (KCNA, 2012). North Korean politics at this point would not balk from claiming the non-human and the non-sentient as politically active ‘citizens’, distraught and disrupted by the death of their ‘Dear Leader’. While this perhaps appears a more recent manifestation of North Korean politics, delving further back into the mythologies produced over the years by Pyongyang might lead a reader to find moments in which the trees of the forests surrounding Mt. Paektu gave their support to Kim Il Sung and his wife Kim Jong-suk, appeared to consciously protect the communist guerrillas from pursuit and capture by Japanese forces (Winstanley-Chesters, 2016). This would be later echoed by the vital place in national construction and reconstruction following the colonial period, what would be considered authentically ‘Korean’ species of trees and plants would play (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014). The forests and timber of North Korea in these narratives and historiographies are politically ‘lively matter’, players in the development of the nation.

Rare Earths, Technology Metals and other minerals, such as those mined and extracted within the landscapes conceived of within the documents this paper encounters in the Captured Documents collection, play a similar role, not only at the historical moment recorded in them, but in our own. North Korea’s rebuilding and reorientation with Soviet partners in the documents of 1945-1950, places both ‘rare’ and common minerals centre stage in the process of national development. Some of these minerals such as uranium and plutonium had of course been vital players in the end of the war in the Pacific, and would become enormously important in the minds of most humans during the Cold War (Thompson, 1985). Both were certainly important in the minds of the Soviet technicians and engineers supporting their North Korean counterparts in the time of these captured documents, as well as for North Korea for generally. In 2017 North Korean radioactive materials continue to be elements of concern throughout the globe of course, but for Pyongyang and its politics, radio-isotopes and technology metals appear as important as those forests and trees during the moments of the nation’s construction and reconfiguration. These lively matters and vibrant elements play the roles of both North Korea’s first and last line of defence within its contemporary political framework. They allow for Pyongyang’s continued survival in what it considers an extremely hostile geo-political environment, as well as for a potential response to future aggression from external agents. In this framework such metals and minerals form part of the wider networks of North Korean political sensibility and citizenry, agents of support and energy for the survival and continuity of its ideology and government. Rare Earth deposits that may or may not be extractable from the ground at the Yongju deposit would play a similar role, generative of new possibilities and future potential, similar in fact to the social and cultural extractive landscapes found within the Captured Documents this paper has encountered.




This paper has introduced a variety of repositories of Korean mineral and developmental cultural knowledge. The social landscapes and institutional structures which have marked the terrain of both this knowledge and accompanying cultures of exploration and exploitation have transformed as the political and economic processes acting upon the Korean Peninsula have transformed. The material which Gottsche collected in his forays across the land of Korea in 1884 suggests a developmental culture rooted in the deep past; of relationships of suzerainty as much as of sovereignty, of institutions highly centralised around the structures of the ancient Yi dynasty and of social practices closely connected to geomancy and shamanistic notions of land and terrain. The collection of Government General of Chosen reports reveal the complete transformation of these institutions and processes under the remit of Japanese governmental intentions. The reports describe the whole hearted reconfiguration of Korean mineral and developmental culture around the prerogatives of capitalist extraction and accumulation within a governmental framework profoundly concerned to achieve efficiencies and scientifically rational structures of management. Both of these sets of documents in a sense provide a cultural window into the developmental past of North Korea. Of course as is most likely the case with the majority of such previous cultural manifestations within a national history, this historical culture and the landscapes produced or manifest by it will have some relevance and impact on the present. However as readers will know this present is substantially different in all manner of ways not just from Korea’s historical memory, but also from the majority of the developmental cultures and practices of the wider world.

What essentially is encountered then when the author and the reader view the documentary material from the Captured Documents collection? We do not encounter the ancient terrains of Korean mineral extraction, nor do we experience the mineralogical space of colonial exploitation and rationalisation caught up the rush for imperial subjectivity. Instead we encounter a landscape of revolutionary aspiration. North Korea, with its supporters and collaborators from the Soviet Union is in the midst of both unmaking the mineral terrains of the colonial period, just as it has set about the task of generating a new form of landscape, more suited and connected to the needs of what was to be a Socialist present. Suzy Kim’s recent work “Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution” has also sought to unpack the structures and cultural processes of these landscapes, examining the female experience during the brief interlude between Liberation and the Korean War (Kim, 2014). Here in these documents is outlined a developmental and extractive culture which aspires to involve and serve the citizen, the comrade, as much as it does the needs of accumulation and capacity. This new form of cultural landscape was to generate an assemblage of the productive and the social; of mining shafts and medical installations, of winding gear and school buildings. As we have seen elsewhere in this paper and in more recent North Korean history these new cultural and political terrains would also include non-human participants. The minerals, metals and deposits themselves – both real and imagined, for much in North Korean historiography and member is both simultaneously real and imagined – become politically active players in the construction, propagation and continuation of these landscapes. This is true of course as much in 2017 as it was within the documents from 1945-1950. In our present, the uranium, thorium or plutonium possessed by North Korea, as well as a host of other less common minerals the nation may or not possess, are actors not only on the local stages of national politics and ideology, possessed of their own non-human charisma (Lorimer, 2007), participants embedded in both social practice and imagination, but also on the global stage. Minerals and Metals framed within North Korea’s political and social web of life, beguile and terrify, global institutions seeks to prevent their extraction and distribution, Pyongyang’s enemies plan and strategise for their negation. However within the political mind of North Korea, and within the narratives generated by its ideology and philosophy, these vibrant materials bolster national pride and resilience, as much defenders of its territories and terrains as the flesh and bones of the Korean People’s Army.

In conclusion much of North Korea’s political and social landscape could well have remained uncompleted or been swept away in the destructive moments of the Korean War. It of course was not and North Korea continues to exist in our present. The spaces of Rare Earth, Technology Metal and other mineral extraction that were of intense interest to the United States, its intelligence agencies and military during the Cold War have not diminished in the eye and mind of these institutions since. If anything they have increased in important and energy since, becoming yet more vibrant and lively in recent years, to the point in 2017 that North Korean minerals and mineral capacity is one of the key points of geo-political concern.  The author hopes that the reader through this reading of Korean and North Korean mineral histories, as well as some interaction with the documentary resources available which recount them, might have a deeper understanding of the place of the landscapes of these histories within North Korea’s present and history, within the nation’s web of life. Just as the Captured Documents record a political terrain deeply concerned to overturn Thomas More’s supposition that utopia is in fact nowhere, the landscapes of North Korea’s mineral and metal extraction are rooted in a concern to generate a present and continuing territory of utopian possibility. Within this terrain and political frame both human and non-human act and participate together, mineral, metal, flesh and bone active as vibrant, energetic material and materiel.

Acknowledgements, Romanization and Funding

Romanization strategies are considerably different between the two Korean nations. For ease of use and objectivity, the author uses the current North Korean Romanization style when referring to quotations and places sourced from within North Korea. However this paper both makes quotations from documents generated in North Korea between 1945 and 1950, before the current North Korean style was formulated and from documents translated by US Army document gatherers in 1950 and later which may not conform to either North Korean style or contemporary/historical style. For the purposes of authenticity and objectivity the author retains these variations when used in direct quotation

The research for this paper has received generous support from the Australian Research Council project FL120100155 “Informal Life Politics in the Remaking of Northeast Asia: From Cold War to Post-Cold War” and the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2010-DZZ-3104) during the author’s Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the Beyond the Korean War Project (University of Cambridge). Elements of this paper and future elements of the project which underpins it have been supported by translation and inspiration from Dr Adam Cathcart, School of History, University of Leeds and the author wishes to acknowledge Dr Cathcart’s expertise, support and influence in the translation and formulation of this material.

Reference List

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* This article is no longer online due to North Korea’s habit of removing old content from Rodong Sinmun and the KCNA’s online archive. However the author of this piece retains a copy of every Rodong Sinmun and KCNA article he uses for reference purposes and will gladly share specific articles with interested parties.



[1] Copies and collections of the reports in English are not common, many collections having been lost and abandoned over the years, however the author of this paper engaged in archival visits to the sets at the British Library in London (a collection that was sent as a gift from one colonial power to another, to the director of the British Museum), and the University of Michigan’s Asian Studies Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States. These sets include a full run of the reports in their entirety in both English and Japanese from 1907 until 1941.

[2] There is no agreed system for notation so far as Record Group 242’s catalogue and shipping advice numbers is concerned. However for this paper the author adopts Professor Charles Armstrong’s very rational model.

Forests in P’yŏngyang’s Web of Life: Arboreal Culture, Practice and Lively Matter in North Korea

This is a pre-edit, pre peer review version of this paper. It is substantially different from the to be published version.

“Covering the mountains with thick forests is also greatly important to protect the land and make the landscape beautiful. Dense forests…make our country a people’s paradise with beautiful environment and good conditions to live in…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1946, 172)

Whether North Korea has at any point become anything of the ‘people’s paradise’ envisaged by its future first leader in 1946 is not something this paper aims to debate or explore. North Korea’s forests are known in world discourse to be anything but dense. Instead North Korea’s forests are renowned for being barren, denuded and destroyed. Images of tree-less hills and degraded landscapes in North Korea are as much cyphers and avatars for its land in the eyes of external viewers as the frequently used satellite image of the nation at night which portrays it as dark, opaque void in between the energy of both China and South Korea (Shim 2013). While far less of a composite construction than that single image, the the huge genre of photographs and images presenting North Korea as entirely destitute in terms of timber and forest resource are no less political (Smith 2015). It matters in the weaponised practices of North Korea’s de-legitimation that it as a nation has no trees, that it has debased its environment to the extent that not even the barest stands of timber survive. For North Korea, however it is of extreme concern that its national landscape and terrain has abundant numbers of trees, that it is somewhere and somehow verdant. Kim Il-sŏng’s assertion in 1946 of the importance of forests to state building in what was to be the new North Korea that begins this paper is in this sense perhaps even more vital to the maintenance and sustainability of the nation than at its foundation.

Given their importance and vitality this paper will explore the historical arboreal landscapes of North Korea, terrains that in 2015 were termed ‘Forests of Gold’ by Kim Chŏng’ŭn’s New Years’ Address (Rodong Sinmun 2015). While it cannot hope to be exhaustive in scale the paper will outline the developmental imperatives and context which drove P’yŏngyang’s initial focus on forestry matters, including both the generation of new socialist landscapes and the repudiation or reconfiguration of the timbered spaces of Japanese colonialism. It will then suggest a periodization of North Korean forest history which maps both onto and around the periodic nature of P’yŏngyang’s developmental strategy and past adherence to the classical modes of central planning familiar to analysis of other Socialist or Communist states. Finally it will encounter North Korean forestry policy as it exists in the present, in opposition to narratives of de-legitimisation and negation from external agencies, and deeply embedded in the claims of authenticity and functionality of its current regime.

This paper is primarily a work of Historical Geography, however its theoretical and conceptual frame incorporates much active and energetic recent work in the fields of Political and Critical Geography as well as more thoughtful philosophical analysis of North Korean politics and ideology. While a review of this framework follows this introduction it is most important for the reader to understand that this will not be a history of passive resource or Nature in North Korea, material which is done to, Nature which is simply out there. Instead the author of this paper holds North Korea’s forests as active participants and agents in that history, a Nature which, as the case in all political and ideological configurations with us and in us, or in this case, within its politics, culture and ideology, a key part of the nations’ ‘web of life’.


Literatures and Theoretical Frames


The literature and theoretical underpinning of this paper derives generally from two directions. Firstly there is that which directly addresses and contends with North Korea, its politics and ideology and the impact of the present status quo on the Korean Peninsula and secondly there is that which derives from the field of Geography, which is itself split into theory and literature addressing the politics of nature, or the nature of politics and that which explores the physical historical geographies of timber and forest in East Asia.

North Korean politics, political culture, ideology and state formative process is characterised by scholarly analysis as an example of extreme autocracy, derived originally from ideological content within Marxist-Leninism and Stalinism, but with a very large element of Korean nationalism running through it. The work of Cumings (1981), Scalapino and Lee (1972), Armstrong (2002), Park (2002) and Myers (2010) perhaps are the best known examples of such literature. However for the purposes of this paper recent writing by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung (2012), is perhaps more useful for what it offers in conceptual terms for political terrain. Kwon and Chung use a reconsideration of Clifford Geertz (1980) and Max Weber’s (1967) analysis respectively on the role of political theatric performativity and charisma to reframe North Korea’s own politics as a theatric, charismatic space. Kwon and Chung declare P’yŏngyang to be a theatre state in which politics is both performative and performed. This performance requires development and exploitation of the landscape of the nation to serve as stage within North Korea’s politics. Timber, Forests and other arboreal resources are very much part of this performance, very much actors on the stage. The work of Sonia Ryang (2012) and Suk-young Kim (2014) on the cultures and performances of North Korean politics, social organisation and space also inform this author’s conception of the stage on which both human and non-human actors interact under P’yŏngyang’s rule.

Moving beyond the literatures of specifically North Korean politics and culture this paper frames its conception of landscapes more generally through the social and cultural geographic lens provided by Denis Cosgrove (1984 and 2008) and Noel Castree (2001) and their articulation of landscape and terrain as symbolic and socially or politically constructed. North Korean forests are certainly part of this construction, and this paper will explore these processes at particularly generative moment through the history of the nation. The paper also deploys important work examining the reconfiguration of nature and natures through the social processes of scale and scaling from Erik Swyngedouw’s work (1997 and 2015). Through the use of distributed process and scale, natures are transformed into ‘techno-natures’ and impacted by and entwined with the imperatives of politics. Methodological transformations provided by analyses of scale in these senses allow for further insight into the local use of scale and scaling in North Korea (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Scale and scale making as transformative reflexive, distributed process allows for the inclusion of other inhabitants and participants within the landscapes marked by them.

In tandem with this political conception of scale and scaling, this paper is also particularly interested in the agency, action and politics of forested terrain and topography itself. To consider this agency the paper utilises the enormously important work of Jane Bennett (2010) and Sarah Whatmore (2005) on the generation and existence of what they have termed ‘vibrant’ matter or political matter. However Bennett and Whatmore’s work on the specifics of non-human or non-sentient vibrancy is read in tandem with that of Jason Moore (2015). Moore’s interpretation of the ‘web of life’ holds that there can be no externalised Capitalism (or any other ism), acting upon Nature or natures for both are intrinsically within and around politics and political forms. Nature and natures run through economic, political, cultural and social imperatives, entwining, enmeshing, influencing and reordering them, and are inseparable from the many functions of human life. This must therefore be true of non-Capitalist polities and non-Capitalist Nature or nature. North Korea’s politics, institutions, cultures, social frameworks and topography must necessarily as much an assemblage of Nature, natures and human endeavours and practice as any other manifestation of sovereignty. Capitalism is in Nature as much as Nature is Capitalism in Moore’s reading, could be reconfigured for the North Korean case to read that Juché or Sŏn’gun is in Nature and vice versa.

Moving from Moore’s overarching reading of the wider ‘web of life’ to that of Bennett’s addressing the function of specific elements of Nature or natures, allows a reading of North Korean terrain which is active and energetic. Bennett’s work which seeks to deconstruct the boundaries of human privilege over notions of agency and action through considering animals, plants and other non-sentient actors such as bacteria, viruses, metals, and tectonic energy as actors in themselves, possessed of a form of politics. Instead however of a politics controlled or possessed at the level of the individual and the singular, these actors develop a distributed, inter and hyper personal politics which connects, contests and co-produces other forms of politics and agency (Bennett 2010). Notions of vibrant materiality and lively non-human actors can also connect to previous conceptions of political charisma, which are themselves very active in North Korea. Jamie Lorimer for instance has used Bennett’s conceptions to develop a politics of non-human charisma (2007), which he uses primarily within the field of environmental and species conservation, but which underpins this author’s examination of the role of topography within North Korea’s politics and culture. The reader should perhaps also consider the work of Thongchai Winichikaul, especially addressing Thai state development on notions of the eco-body, in which topographic features, and a sense of local natural sensibilities become entwined and enveloped by the processes of nation building and state formation (1994). Notions of a North Korean ‘eco-body’ were particularly important following the end of the Japanese colonial period, and as will be seen later in this paper, vital in early conceptions of the nation’s forestry, such as that outlined at the beginning of this paper in 1946 by Kim Il-sŏng. The reader can certainly consider the forests, trees and timber products of North Korea in this light, as vibrant, lively participants with their own intrinsic charisma, active in the theatric politics and history of the nation.

Finally the author of this paper holds in mind scholarship derived from the field of Historical Geography which specifically addresses the forested landscapes of the region. In particular there is the landmark work of Conrad Totman, particularly the Green Archipelago, his detailed examination of the place of the tree and the forest in the history of Japan and Japanese state and institutional development (Totman, 1989). Towards the end of his career Totman addressed the Korean peninsula and the interplay between Japanese political prerogatives and energies and Korean national sensibilities (Totman 2004). While this would never be fully explored or developed, David Fedman’s recent doctoral dissertation ‘The Saw and the Seed’ continues the spirit of Totman’s analysis into the colonial period, bringing Korean forest history and its place within national and political development almost to the North Korean present (Fedman 2015).


Colonial Pre-Histories of North Korea’s Forests


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

Before this paper moves to the forest history and arboreal web of life of North Korea, a little historical context for forestry on the peninsula is required. The quote beginning this section of the paper is the opening statement of the forestry section in the first “Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea”, published in 1907 by His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General in Seoul.  This is a fine summary of Japanese views of the forestry management practices of the peninsula, prior to its co-option by the institutions of colonialism. Coupled with later statements that Korea has “no forestry law to speak of” (GCC 1910), the conceptual difference between the bureaucratic legalism of Imperial Japan and the perception of forestry practices under the Chosŏn dynasty is fairly clear.  At the earliest moment of the colonial project, even while it was still in the infancy of the Residency General, Japan sought to extract value from Korean forestry resources and terrains, capitalising this element from the peninsula’s web of life.

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

Given this developmental sensibility, the Resident General records that a ‘joint’ enterprise was ‘negotiated’ and undertaken with the Korean Government in the building of a new forestry coordination and trans-shipment centre at Antung (present day Dandong in China), opposite the Korean town of Sinŭiju (which the document names, Wiju), on the mouth of the Yalu. This centre served to coordinate and develop timber shipments along the Yalu River from the deep northern interior forests of P’yŏng’anbuk-to and Chagang-do provinces. The annual report notes the extent of the timbers journey: “…The distance from the place where the timber is felled to the main station at Antung is 150 ri (375 miles) and the rafts take 40 days to make the journey…” (HIJMG 1908). This project in total extracted some 71006 cubic ‘shaku’[i] of timber from these ancient forests.

Further to these efforts to extract the value from the untouched arboreal landscapes of Korea’s northern interior, the Resident General sought in these early days to reorganise Korea’s forestry institutions wider strategy and approach. In a section of the 1908 Annual Report marked as ‘Agricultural and Industrial Encouragement’ the Resident General asserts that “The Korean Government, appreciating the urgent advice of the Resident General, established, in 1906, three modal forests in the mountains near Seoul, Pingyang (sic) and Taiku (sic)…” (HIJMRG 1908) These new forest projects guided by the logics of Capital and colonialism were to be the core institutions for the new approach to timber and forest management. They were to cover 83,300 acres and include the planting of a number of new species imported directly from Japan. Along with these projects whose focus was more mature forest stock, the landscape of research had also to be remodelled and reframed: “In 1907, three Nursery Gardens were established in the vicinity of the Model Forests near Pyingyang and Taiku, and also at Suwon. In these Gardens seeds of various trees were sowed in the spring of 1907, and promising results were obtained…” (HIJMRG 1908)

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

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

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

This transfer of responsibilities in a sense sought to break the bounds of reverence between local communities and their sacred or customary forests, as much as colonial Japanese administration would seek to break the bounds between the Korea and Koreans of the present and the Korean’s of the historical past and the historical Korea. The forest web of life of historical Korea was to completely reconfigured by new logics and processes, Chosŏn’s eco-body reimagined (Winichikaul 1994). Korean Forestry management and resource was to be catapulted into colonial modernity by a quasi-free market in forest management (be that for exploitative or regenerative purposes), one which would allow deep inroads to be made by the institutions and organisations of Japanese power.

Government General reports are subject to statistical dispute and contest, as well as any later dispute and rejection by North Korea on conceptual or ideological grounds. Andrew Grajdanzev for example in 1944 utilising a later set of data points provided by the Government General of Chosen asserts that comparisons and reportage made by the Annual Report of 1938 “…are of doubtful value…” (Grajdanzev 1944, 123), owing to the failure to correctly combine and account for different methods of forest stock assessment in the later years of the colonial government. Further to this Grajdanzev asserts that in later years the Government General undertook large scale privatisation of forest resources, utilizing the revised legal frameworks to deliver Korean arboreal landscape into the hands of companies such as the ‘Chosen Ringyo Kaihatsu Kabushiki Kaishi’ or ‘Corporation for the Development of Forest Exploitation in Korea’. In fact Grajdanzev notes that this particular organisation was granted for no charge some 500,000 cho of forests in Korea (a quarter of the remaining ‘good’ forest) (Grajdanzev 1944, 126). This ownership transfer was not to allow the Corporation to engage in afforestation or forest protection on this land, but for its whole scale deforestation. Accordingly Grajdanzev and the Government General recount an increase in cubic meterage of timber felled across the peninsula from some 700,000 in 1910 to 2.8 million in 1939 (Grajdanzev 1944, 124). This wholescale denudation of Korean landscape during the final decade of Japanese rule would be the contribution of its forests to colonial lively matters, timber burnt in enormous quantities to support industrial and military production and prospective victories across the Pacific. Just as countless Japanese Imperial subjects would sacrifice their physical bodies for the good and will of the Emperor, so innumerable Korean trees would be fragmented and immolated for the same imperatives. The desecration of Korea’s ancient forest landscapes naturally would prove an extreme provocation for Korean nationalists, in particular it seems for that future polity whose later historiography sited its foundational generation and moments deep within the forests of its north. For North Korea these arboreal terrains could be characterised as ‘tainted topographies’.


Encountering the Tainted Topography of Colonial Forests


“The Korean nations is facing a question of life or death today – it either perishes for ever under the colonial yoke of the Japanese imperialists or rises up in a fight to survive. If it merely laments over its ruined land…our nation will fall never to rise again…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1930, 2)

Kim Il-sŏng here on the second page of the first volume of his(now) forty seven volume set of collected ‘Works’ writing as a young man, many years before the Liberation of Korea and ascent to power as the leader of the new state of North Korea stresses the Japanese impact on the topography of the peninsula. It is clear that the impact of colonisation on the physical material of the land and its resources was felt as keenly by those resisting it through alliance to the small group of nationalist guerrillas under Kim’s control as was Japanese bureaucratic or institutional control. During the pre-Liberation period this may have been down to the actual topographical locale of nationalist and communist resistance to the Japanese, as it is remembered by North Korean historiography as generally having been focused on the wild and mountainous spaces towards and beyond the Chinese/Manchurian border. Regardless of the veracity or reliability of these complicated and contested historical and geographical claims, upon attaining power in the North late in 1945, Kim Il-sŏng would find himself primarily responsible for the rehabilitation of Japan’s apparently nefarious developmental approach on the peninsula’s landscape.

Aside from Kim Il-sŏng’s many assertions of his capabilities so far as righting the many ‘plunderings’ and ‘robbings’ of Korean resources by the Japanese, the first important statement of future arboreal strategy and culture that would encounter, correct and reconfigure this colonialized topography came in April 1947. The publication of “Let us Launch a Vigorous Tree Planting Movement Involving All the Masses” would serve in the distant institutional future, of North Korea (our present), as the foundational moment in the forestry and afforestation sector. At the time however the document seemed more focused on both generating a level of political legitimacy and charismatic authority for the relatively new government, and serving as a statement of intent so far as its intended reversal of the impact of Japanese power on its territory was concerned.

“From ancient times our country has been widely known as a land of embroidered in silk, a land with beautiful mountains and sparkling rivers. Its beauty, however, was long clouded over by Japanese imperialist colonial rule…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171)

The document gives a more generalised sense of the tainting of Korea’s natural landscapes describing it as a ‘plundering’ and a ‘devastation’, however it is also becomes more specific on arboreal and forestry matters, declaring that: “…they robbed our country of forests…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171). This denudation would have to be restored, the pre-colonial web of life restored, the vibrancy of the peninsula’s forest matter regained, and this restoration and reconfiguration would require a model example. North Korean political process and articulation has been configured it seems to always require a model, not just during the period post the Chinese Great Leap Forward when residual Maoist influence mean that ‘revolutionary modelling’ and ‘revolutionary speeds’ became de-rigeur, but throughout the entirety of its institutional history. Topographic tainting when it came to North Korea’s forests therefore would have its model, its exemplar at Munsu Hill in P’yŏngyang itself. The hill according to Kim “…as the name signifies, the hill used to be as beautiful as a piece of embroidered silk…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171). However during the colonial period “It lost this beauty and became ugly, denuded by the Japanese imperialists…there is not a decent tree on this hill and there is nothing there except the old barracks used by the Japanese imperialists aggressor troops…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171)

Munsu’s destroyed and denuded landscape given the political frame dependant on revolutionary modelling could certainly serve for the generalities of wider forest stock on the Peninsula: “The Japanese aggressors stripped not only Munsu Hill but almost every one of our mountains and hills. The sight of these naked mountains rends my heart.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947. 171). Naturally therefore, according to Kim Il-sŏng it follows that North Korea’s more general forestry strategy should correct this denudation: “…We must plant trees well and remove quickly the aftereffects of Japanese imperialist colonial rule…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 171).

While in other sectors of the North Korean economy removing the impacts and aftereffects of Japanese colonialism would take many forms – from reordering land ownership and the legal frameworks surrounding land and land management, to education, culture, linguistic structure and even architecture – so far as North Korea’s Nature was concerned it would forestry policy and afforestation that would remove the taint and distress of colonial modernity. Forests and timber would contribute extensively to the construction of a new North Korean nation, their lively energies and vibrant materiality becoming enmeshed and entwined with the future ambitions of the nation: “Forests are the wealth of the nation….Creating good forest resources through energetic tree planting therefore, is of great importance in developing the national economy, improving he people’s standard of living and making our country rich and strong…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1947, 172). More than simple developmental capacity or resource availability, forest management and development would contribute to the more metaphysical elements of national construction and North Korea’s web of life, from simple economics to the charismatic and quasi-mythic realms.


Forests of the North Korean Socialist Modern


“Covering the mountains with thick forests is also greatly important to protect the land and make the landscape beautiful. Dense forests…make our country a people’s paradise with beautiful environment and good conditions to live in…” (Kim Il-sŏng 1946, 172)

These initial efforts within North Korean political and institutional imperatives to reconfigure the impact made by the period of Japanese colonialization and its attendant imperial and Capitalist logics, on the nation’s forests are remembered as an element of its foundational history. The theatric politics of contemporary North Korea (Kwon and Chung 2012), sources its energies and authorities from both the struggles of national pre-history and the moments of national foundation, both of which as we have seen include forest and timber actors. This necessity for ridding national forest topographies of Japanese influence however was soon overcome by both a greater challenge from history, and the diplomatic and political triangulations presented by geo-politics that North Korea has always been subject to. While Japanese colonial influence was certainly dramatic in and on both the urban and rural terrains of the Peninsula, these landscapes were generally greatly degraded, even annihilated by the Korean War of 1950-1953 (Cumings 1981). Enormous levels of environmental rehabilitation, including to national forestry stock would be required, an effort that could not be achieved by P’yŏngyang on its own. External support would be required and it would from this, rooted in the politics of the early Cold War that North Korea’s particular vision of both modernity and environmental management would derive.

The classical mode of Socialist central planning was initially fundamental to these strategies, even when it came to forestry matters. The Soviet Union under Lenin had sought to reconfigure its industrial and agricultural sectors through a rigorous and ambitious policy of central planning (Davies 1988). While such planning may ultimately have been more about narrative than reality and the application of core theory would lose some legitimacy and coherence during periods of revolutionary urgency such as China’s Great Leap Forward, later Stalinism and developmental policy under Khrushchev (Davies 1988), North Korea would at least until 1980 continue to organise its wider national strategy according to these lines. North Korea’s announcement in September 1953 of a “Three Year Plan” for the reconstruction of the country was however seemingly concerned with forestry rehabilitation or timber matters. The 1953-1956 plan undertaken with credit lines from the Soviet Union was primarily concerned with the rehabilitation of core transport and industrial infrastructure (Kim Il-sŏng 1953). It would not be until after 1956 with the plan’s completion, Stalin’s death and the destalinization period under Nikita Khrushchev that North Korea’s lively forest matters could again come to the forefront of the national political mind.

This would be a North Korea changed by new geo-political realities. Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech” and his critique of North Korean politics and the strategies of Kim Il-sŏng of April 1956, “On the Personality Cult in North Korea” required a shift in North Korea’s position (Szalontai 2005). Following the Sino-Soviet split, P’yŏngyang would seek the support of Beijing and Maoist influence can be felt on North Korea’s developmental approach. China’s Great Leap Forward and its harnessing of the energy and power of Mass politics would have a great impact generally on the next period of North Korean planning, but more specifically on its forestry policy and arboreal landscapes. North Korea’s First Five-Year Plan (1957-1961), for example, envisaged an approach based on the utilisation of the energies of the mass. Thus the text entitled “Tasks of the Party Organisation in Ryanggang Province” (Kim Il-sŏng 1958, 222) declared that tree planting “should be carried out through a mass movement”. This application of the ideologies of mass politics and revolutionary energy to forestry policy and practice clearly reflects the ideological influence of the Great Leap Forward. While perhaps connection could be made with collective bouts of “energetic tree planting” on Munsu Hill remembered by Kim Il-sŏng (1947), unlike China’s radical adoption of landscape focused Yundong[iii] (which would utterly transform landscapes and the social relations of those connected to them), whilst it would adopt the rhetoric of the mass movement, North Korea sought a different path. Forest planning outlines by Kim Il-sŏng and institutions in P’yŏngyang laid much greater focus on the detail, technical aspects and execution of forest strategy and less emphasis was placed on its more utopian possibilities. “Tasks of the Party Organisation in Ryanggang Province” from 1958, for example, sets out a highly organised pyramidal approach to forestry policy within the province and demands that organisational responsibility rest primarily with official afforestation stations rather than the energetic desires of a mass movement (Kim Il-sŏng 1958).

The early phase of North Korean forestry policy however would not really survive the first planning period. By the end of the decade North Korean sovereignty had a sense of permanence and solidity and its institutions and developmental focus would echo this. North Korea would also begin the process of political and institutional triangulation with its allies and friendly neighbours, and new strategies would derive from this. North Korean political and historiographical narratives record the early 1960s as a new era in central planning, one more focused on new realities of production and capacity increase, as opposed to previous efforts at post war and post-colonial rehabilitation. Forestry development continued to play an important role within the planning period, but the sector was to be primarily concerned with the development of orchards and other fruit production. Much less consideration was to be given during these years to the reconfiguration of forest land in order to eradicate the last vestiges of colonial taint. Instead forestry culture and arboreal landscapes under the First Seven Year Plan were to focus on the construction of an authentically North Korean socialist modernity.

First and foremost during this period in North Korea modern landscapes were productive spaces. Forestry strategy prioritised orchard development, and stressed their role in both increased production and the generation through the entwining of their lively matters and political imperatives of utopian terrain. Kim Il-sŏng’s statement of 1960 for example is particularly concerned with the generative energy of such enterprises: “We are struggling for the future. We must build a communist society and hand it down to the coming generations…. We are creating everything from scratch in our time…. This is the only way we can be as well off as other peoples, and hand over a rich and powerful country to the new generation. If we plant many orchards, our people will become happier in seven or eight years” (Kim Il-sŏng 1960, 21).

Forestry policy during the First Seven-Year Plan with its focus on politically charismatic, ideologically utopian and developmentally productive processes such as fruit growing would soon have it foundational text. “On Planting Orchards through an All-People Movement”, of spring 1961 ostensibly to consolidate existing strands of forestry policy reconfigures the goals of the sectors, asserting the need for forest culture and arboreal institutions to focus on the production of economic exploitable output. Forest landscapes would certainly have to be reimagined and transformed to fit this focus. The sectors goals were thus aligned with the wider planning goals and policy in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Forested areas therefore rather than peripheral were deemed central to food production. They were also later envisaged as a key area in which utopian “mass line” principles appropriated by North Korea from Maoist China, could be healthily reconfigured to suit the local political terrain.

Even with its focus on productivity and economic utility, the First Seven-Year Plan did not apply all of the tenets of classic central planning policy to North Korean forestscapes and cultures. Initially there were no specific goals set for either the level of production or the development of capacity as had been common in planning policies and strategies of the Soviet Union. However towards the end of the planning period this lack of specificity began to change; statements of productive intent within forestry planning and production acquired new quantitative indicators of intended outcomes. Kim Il-sŏng states for instance in “On Developing the Successes Achieved in the Rural Economy” from 1963, that: “we have planted 120,000 chongbo[iv] of orchards in different parts of the country”. Kim’s focus on quantitative achievement is then also coupled with demands for infrastructural and technical improvement within these productive forests: “We must establish an effective system of orchard management so as to improve fertilization and cultivation” (Kim Il-sŏng 1963, p.402).

Both the incorporation of forested landscapes and arboreal culture within the frame of developmental planning and the planning process itself appear to have become disrupted in First Seven-Year Plan’s final years. The plan was scheduled to last until 1967, but was extended by several years to 1970 and in a similar fashion to the previous First Five-Year Plan, appears not to have achieved its outlined goals (Chung 1972). This failure of planning perhaps reflects the disruption caused by the incorporation of both Maoist “revolutionary models” and “revolutionary speeds” into North Korean policy. This drove a more overtly utopian approach into an economy whose structure and practice was organised on institutionally technocratic and productivity-driven lines. In spite of considerable contrary evidence and the reorganisation of the planning frameworks in 1967 and 1971, Kim Il-sŏng and official political narrative maintained that the Plan was ultimately successful. This success is considered to have moved North Korea closer to a utopian reality, to the socialist modern which was entirely distinct from its colonial past. As Kim asserted: “During the Seven-Year Plan we have founded a modern industry, self-supporting in structure, and have, in the main, put all the branches of the national economy on a modern technical footing, by vigorously accelerating the socialist industrialization of the country and the all-around technological reconstruction of the national economy”(Kim Il-sŏng 1971, 277).

The final period of the First Seven-Year Plan saw forestry policy come to be directed more closely by P’yŏngyang’s central institutions in order to achieve as much growth in output and productivity as possible, which in itself was a disruptive process. Given the disruption and counterproductive or irrational imperatives driven through the previous planning period, during the next, the First Six-Year Plan institutions sought to rework productive forestry development to generate more cohesion. Forest landscapes and productive cultures during this period would exist under the second of “three major objectives for the technical revolution”. This second objective directed institutions to “continue to accelerate the technical revolution in the rural areas, to reduce the difference between agricultural and industrial labour” (Kim Il-sŏng 1972, 30). Although the core directional text for forestry during this planning period did not appear for further year with the publication of “Let us expedite the Introduction of a Supply of Running Water in the Rural Communities and Press Ahead with Afforestation” (1973), institutions of local and provincial government level were already exposed to new developments in forestry strategy.

Absent both from the First Six-Year Plan as a whole and forestry strategy in particular, was a focus on grand utopian national targets, or quotas and targets for forestry and afforestation. A profusion of specific targets continued to be set for particular localities and institutions, but national targets, such as the 400,000 chongbo of afforestation demanded under the First Seven- Year Plan, were not outlined. In the place of any aggregate national target for forest reconfiguration, the new Plan set a series of smaller goals for particular agencies and institutions; the People’s Army, for example, “must plant 15,000 hectares of forests every year, of which 5000 hectares should be planted with oil-bearing trees … the Ministry of Public Security should plant 5000 hectares every year.”(Kim Il-sŏng 1973, 275). Cooperative farms were also given detailed instructions: “it is desirable in future for cooperative farms with 300 to 500 hectares of cultivated land to devote one hectare to the cultivation of young trees, for those with 501 to 1000 hectares of cultivated land to devote two, and for those with more than 1000 hectares of cultivated land to devote three hectares, for the purpose.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1973, 276).

North Korea again appears to have found the implementation of the goals of the First Six-Year Plan difficult and disruptive. In 1976 it was announced by Kim Il-sŏng that “The Party Central Committee has defined the new year 1977, as a year of readjustment for easing the strain created in certain branches of the economy in the course of carrying out the Six-Year Plan, and for preparing to embark on a new long-term plan.”(Kim Il-sŏng 1977, 5). Chung (1972). However, efforts made to fulfil the goals of the First Six-Year Plan in the developmental sector were not wasted. This planning period contains perhaps the most overtly utopian or charismatic environmental strategy advanced during North Korea’s history, the “Five Great Nature-Remaking Tasks”. The dramatic strategies of the “The Tasks” with their desire to reconfigure wholescale topographies and to harness the energies and liveliness of their materialties for political and ideological gain influenced a great deal of North Korea’s later development policy. “The Tasks” would go on to influence North Korea’s political and ideological agenda, even when its own realities and possibilities have seemed far from utopian. “The Tasks” in a sense are a key moment in the construction of a North Korea identifiable to our present, replete with theatric political energies, grand narratives and a tendency to include all life within its ideological and social matrix. “The Tasks”, more prosaically would also contribute to the formulation of specific targets for forestry sectors during the next planning period, the Second Seven-Year Plan which was to run from1978 to 1984.

The Second Seven-Year Plan was introduced in December 1977, its goals appearing similar to those defined by previous planning documents. The first paragraph of the text even bears some similarity to that of the First Six-Year Plan: “The principal task of the Seven-Year Plan is to further strengthen the economic foundations of socialism and to raise the standard of living of the people still higher by introducing Juché, modern techniques and science into the national economy at a rapid pace.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1977, 519). In practice, however, policy during this period proved to be less overtly utopian than during earlier phases of North Korea’s development. Previous plans and planning period had emphasised the requirement for: reconstruction (the Three-Year Plan); capacity building (the First Seven-Year Plan); diversification and consolidation (the First Six-Year Plan). The Second Seven-Year Plan in contrast was to focus primarily on modernisation, mechanisation and research capacity building.

In words very familiar to contemporary analysts of North Korea a “scientific” approach to the economic development would became a key goal of the Second Seven-Year Plan: “Scientific research should be given priority and the development of science must be strongly encouraged, so as to place all production-technical processes, production methods and management in all fields of the national economy, particularly industry and agriculture, onto a more scientific basis” (Kim Il-sŏng 1977, 519). For the forest landscapes and institutions, located within the industrial sector by the plan, this would mean for the first time since the 1950s and the era of revolutionary fruit growing, national targets for production-focused afforestation. These targets divided the forestry estate and landscape into productive categories, demanding that some 170,000 hectares of “fibre and pulp-wood forests” and 340,000 hectares of “oil-bearing forests” be created. The forestry industry would also be subject to goals surrounding the diversification of its productive output; “the output of chipboards and wood-fibre boards will be increased; and the wood chemical industry will be developed so that comprehensive and effective use is made of timber” (Kim Il-sŏng 197, 532).

Ryanggang-do was suggested as a priority area for the realisation of the goals of the Second Seven-Year Plan. In particular this the province would be required to diversify its production of timber and forest products. In spite of these suggestions and requirements, subsequent critical comments from Kim Il-sŏng indicates the failure of local engagement with the policy: “Forestry officials are not implementing to the full the Party’s policy on producing a variety of goods from treetops and branches”, but proper utilisation of research inspired forestry management could “produce wood-shaving and wood-fibre boards, ethyl and methyl alcohol, tannin, tar, acetic acid, paints and many other goods.” (Kim Il-sŏng 1979, 290). The Plan was, however, clear that none of the strategies for productive development within the forest sector should exist in isolation. In an echo of the mores of other ideological elements within North Korean politics instead it called for the dissolution of differences between industrial and agricultural sectors, which would have had important implications for forestry policy and culture. The Plan not only urged greater connection between forestry and other sectors of industrial production, but also that afforestation should become a goal shared by all members of the wider socio-economic community and the population at large: “When planting trees, you should mobilize factory and office workers, pupils and students, housewives and all the other people living in the province…. The afforestation office and work-teams should be developed well so that they plant large numbers of trees in a mass movement” (Kim Il-sŏng 1979, 287).


Contemporary North Korean Forests


This paper truncates its conventional historical view of North Korean forestry policy and culture here, in 1979, which is at the time of writing some 38 years from the present. The author of the paper does so not because this where the historical narrative ends, but as far as North Korean forest matters are concerned this where the concrete lines of ambition and developmental connection which lead from the peninsula’s colonial past and its reconfiguration of its forest landscapes and arboreal matter. This in a sense to its where ambitious plans to create a beacon of socialist modernity under the domain and control of North Korean institutions end. The Fifth Party Congress of the Korean Workers Party was held in 1980, an event at which North Korea’s more charismatic and theatric aspirations as well as practical policy goals were finally checked. Environmental development and specifically so far as this paper is concerned, the forestry sector had the concrete, structured goals and framed priorities abandoned and national targets for the reconfiguration of forestry landscapes have been neglected since. History recounts that from 1980 onwards North Korea was beset  by challenges and troubles, along with the wider world of its supporters and allies which would lead to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the famine period of the mid 1990s, the conflicted muddling through of its later years, and its extraordinarily difficult present.

This is not to say that forest cultures, arboreal landscapes and the vibrant and lively matters within them are not still of huge importance to North Korea, its political narratives and developmental cultures and institutions. Nor does it mean that North Korea’s acute rejection of the impact of Japanese colonial development on the forest landscapes of its territory is any less definite. P’yŏngyang and its charismatic politics still utilise real and imagined victories over colonial forces during the guerrilla period of the 1930s in the deep forests of the north to bolster both its authority and legitimacy. These forests of history as well as the forest stock of contemporary North Korea still play their part in these narratives and in whatever authority its government still claims. This is true even in spite of the abrupt reversal of many decades worth of afforestation policy during the famine period: “the Ministry of Land Management and Environmental Protection … sanctioned deforestation, in order to produce crops on the marginal land, especially on sloping land” (Bobilier 2002, 5). Later Bobilier (2002, 5), among many analysts records the results of an UNDP/FAO investigation, which concluded “that more than 500,000 hectares of marginal lands were deforested and cultivated”. Recent FAO (2005) reporting has asserted, utilising statistics sourced through the “FAO STAT” system, that forestry cover in North Korea declined in total from some 8.2 million hectares in 1990 to 6.8 million hectares by 2000,  or nearly one-fifth of total forest cover was removed in a decade. In this light far from respecting its forests and arboreal landscapes, including them within its national web of life, its ecobody, P’yŏngyang appears to have been similarly destructive to these forest spaces as the imperatives of Japanese colonialisation. At a time of acute emergency the enmeshing of forest and Capital was re-enacted as enmeshing of forest and North Korea’s own peculiar political and economic sensibility.

These later difficulties it seems for North Korea do not diminish the institutional impetus or imperatives for developmental strategy when it comes to the realm of forestry. This period and this deforestation were issues, like the Japanese colonial period and its environment and topographical impact for North Korea to be overcome and which in a manner have been overcome. North Korean institutions and narratives now deploy environmental themes to support its legitimacy, not simply from the guerrilla period, but from its later history, even from its recovery from environmental crisis in the early 1990s. One important example of this incorporation of forest matters within North Korea’s contemporary politics is the role accorded to National Tree Planting Day. For many years North Korea had celebrated National Tree Planting Day (its own inheritance of the colonial era’s Arbor Day), on 6th April which marked Kim Il-sŏng’s visit in 1947 to Munsu Hill.  In 1999, however, National Tree Planting Day became 2nd March. This new date was presented as commemorating an earlier event on 2nd March 1946 when Kim Il-sŏng climbed Mount Moran on the outskirts of P’yŏngyang, with both Kim Chŏng’il and Kim uk. Kim Chŏng’il would have been 4 or 5 years old at this time. The KCNA described the background to the event in the following terms:  “On March 2nd, 53 years ago, the President Kim Il-sŏng climbed up Moran Hill together with the revolutionary fighter Kim Chŏng-suk and General Secretary Kim Chŏng’il and said that many trees should be planted there to turn it into a recreation place for the people”. Accordingly, “the working people across the country are now all out in the drive to plant more trees in mountains and fields of the country on the occasion of the tree planting day” (KCNA 1999).

In the very recent present North Korea’s current leader Kim Chŏng’ŭn has not only been seen to take part in the commemorative practices of National Tree Planting Day on March 2nd, but has incorporated extensive focus on forest and arboreal culture within his New Year’s Address in 2015 and 2016. In 2015 Kim, as recounted at the beginning of this paper, asserted a key developmental priority for the year to be the generation of “forests of gold” in North Korea (Rodong Sinmun 2015). In 2016 forests and the lively matters of arboreal culture were framed in the New Year’s Address within the wider ecosystem of state responsibilities and aspirations as a “forest of arms” (Rodong Sinmun 2016a). In common with a number of figures of political authority throughout Korean history, including most Governor Generals of the colonial period (Winstanley-Chesters 2016), Kim Chŏng’ŭn has even been seen planting trees (sometimes in the company of his wife Ri Sŏl-ju), on March 2nd (Rodong Sinmun 2016b) The “thing power” of North Korea’s forest past and present is projected through the authoritative power of Kim Chŏng’ŭn, bestowed, embedded and enmeshed in the wider network of national politics and institutions. While North Korea’s timber and forest products are a rare exception to the wide scale sanctioning of the nation’s economic production under recent United Nations Security Council resolutions, UNSC 2371 and 2375 (United Nations, 2017), make the export of North Korean timber workers and knowledge problematic materials in the geopolitical present.

In this enmeshing there is also a mirroring both Kwon and Chung conception of North Korea’s politics as charismatic and theatric (Kwon and Chung 2012) and Cosgrove’s socially or politically constructed landscapes (Cosgrove 1994). Forests and forested landscapes thus become an activated, lively, energetic, charismatic and politicised terrain. They were in the history presented within this paper and continue to be in the contemporary North Korea, though perhaps marked by changed or diminished geopolitical circumstance and developmental possibility. Whatever changes and challenges have been troubled or challenged North Korea and its politics or development in more recent history, what has not diminished or been negated is the energy of both its politics and the relational exchange and interaction with its terrains and territory. This energy is not unique to Nature or natures in North Korea, but dominates socipolitical interaction, flowing into a wide variety of temporal and material contexts. Forests and arboreal terrains are thus combined with the human realm under P’yŏngyang’s sovereignty, a key component of both its history and wider web of life.


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* These articles are no longer online due to North Korea’s habit of removing old content from Rodong Sinmun and the KCNA’s online archive. However the author of this piece retains a copy of every Rodong Sinmun and KCNA article he uses for reference purposes and will gladly share specific articles with interested parties.


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

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

[iii] Transformative mass campaigns during the Great Leap Forward were known as Yundong. For more information see Mao’s War on Nature, Shapiro 2001.

[iv] A ‘Chongbo’ is a traditional Korean measurement of area equivalent to 9.2 hectares


70 Years on the Slab of Progress – Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Years Address


On the slab of progress for Kim Jong Un: Image – Rodong Sinmun

2017 will be famous for a lot of things, Robert Mugabe’s unexpectedly peaceful retreat from power in Zimbabwe, the conflagration at Grenfell Tower, Harvey Weinstein’s metamorphosis into an American Jimmy Saville, hurricanes in North and Central America, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar/Bangladesh and a whole lot of covfefe. The C word will no matter how much social media twitterers demand it, never really be a word, but if it is a bastardisation of kerfuffle then Washington’s current Commander in Chief will have gifted the planet a useful term for describing North Korea and North Korean watchers year. 2017 was certainly something of a covfefe. This author has been watching Pyongyang and its various landscapes and terrains for a few years now, but never felt the energy of commentary and geo-political potential reach quite the level of urgency of the past twelve months. As much as external hyperbole and anxiety has not helped the situation, neither has North Korea’s equally unexpected success in the development of its intercontinental ballistic missile technology and nuclear capacity. A few years ago I was guilty of prevarication on the issue of Pyongyang’s capacity so far as O-rings and metal tooling were concerned; no more. Pyongyang’s notion of Byungjin was hard to pin down at first, but no matter how obtuse or opaque, or even how neglectful of the second element in its equation (economic development and growth), North Korean parallelism has gone heavy on the side of capability.

In the days leading up to the end of the old year and the start of the new, this Pyongyang watcher, as all tasked in life with a similar or allied occupation do, pondered where Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address for 2018 would take us in the coming twelve months. Would 2018 bring us a complex weaving of charismatic energies and commemorative moments, something outlandish and unexpected or an outburst of new sloganeering generated by never heard of before conferences in Pyongyang (late Decembers’ 5th WPK Cells Chairpersons Conference was a case in point)? Might Kim Jong Un even pin the text around the celebrations and political heat of 2018’s 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Suk, his grandmother and a powerful satellite to North Korea’s tryptic of Paektusan Generals?

While I will consider the potential impact on North Korea’s developmental agenda, environmental terrain and constructed natures later in this piece, I cannot let what is essentially the news story for the wider world in the New Year Address pass entirely unremarked. No doubt commentators of the hawkish persuasion will declare Kim Jong Un’s words an attempt to create a little fracture in the Seoul-Washington DC security-military axis and that may be true. It is also true that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in did not run for office to arrive at the nuclear impasse with North Korea, dependant on the most conservative and chaotic US administration yet seen and the most nationalist Japanese government since the Showa period. The speed that the Moon government has picked up the baton from Kim Jong Un should not be surprising. The final section of the New Year Address pirouette to matters of PyeongChang is however fairly extraordinary in tone. It would have stretched the imagination a little to predict the words: “I sincerely wish that in this significant year everything would go well both in the north and in the south.” While the prospect of Kangyye born participants for the skeleton or snowboarders trained in radical halfpipe at Masik Pass may evaporate in the heat of disappointment at the impending meeting at Panmunjom, the sheer possibility that North Korea might participate at the 2018 Winter Olympics generates a gap of a couple of months in which war (either conventional or nuclear) is impractical and the world just might be able to talk about something else and tone down the histrionics.

Beyond or outside the efforts at some sort of curve ball (perhaps triple axle would be more appropriate), rapprochement the spirit of Byungjin’s nuclear ambitions is present and correct. Kim Jong Un uses the recent 8th Conference of the Munitions Industry to call for the manufacturing of “powerful strategic weapons and military hardware of our style” and the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Such ambitions and intentions are not surprising given Pyongyang’s success in 2017 and feels a little incongruous given the message of the final section of the address. This incongruity dissipates a little if the reader holds Kim’s framing of the potential use and need for these weapons as not actually focused on Seoul and the south at all, but a ‘mutual’ enemy across the Pacific, the root in Pyongyang’s institutional mind of all difficulty so far as Korean unification and cooperation is concerned (it is hard to read the Myers thesis of violent unification in this text, but I am always ready to stand corrected).

SCAP - forests

Reforesting in Korea since 1946: Image – SCAP/GHQ Natural Resources Section

Readers of other writing by this author by now will be wondering where is the topography or terrain in 2018’s New Year Address. Beyond unlikely landscapes of peace and friendship on the snowfields, or unwanted spaces of devastation following nuclear exchanges, Kim Jong Un reiterates a huge number of the agricultural and developmental projects familiar to readers of past addresses. While North Korean agricultural, aquacultural or maritime products are since UNSC 2397 entirely prohibited and sanctioned, the era of ‘great fish hauls’ does not appear to be over for Pyongyang. Neither are the efforts of shock brigades and other institutional and party units on vegetable, mushroom or livestock production forgotten. In common with innumerable statements, requests, demands, even pleas from both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, 2018’s New Years’ Address is replete with desires to “enhance our ship building and repair capacities” and “properly protect and manage the forests that have already been created.” Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung’s Works are equally replete with political efforts to both develop the building of deep sea fishing boats and manage the north’s forests, energies which in the end are never entirely fulfilled in North Korea. Since Wonsan and Chongjin’s fishing fleets have remained similar in tonnage and scale since the 1960s and its forests (apart from the far north) have remained troubled and denuded for the last decades 2018’s New Year Address heralds a landscape quite familiar to the geographer of the peninsula, one of utopian desire and practical difficulty. Kim Jong Un does not ultimately mention Kim Jong Suk’s 100th anniversary, but instead reminds the reader that 2018 is the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s declaration of independence, crystallising the division of the peninsula. In 2018 North Korea will have existed for 29 years longer than East Germany and 2 years longer than the Soviet Union, both governmental spaces similarly challenged by the vagaries of utopian ambition and energy. Perhaps those long years on the slab of progress are the unwritten message at the heart of this and every New Year Address from Pyongyang.