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


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