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.

 

Conclusion

 

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.

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