Rematerializing the Political Past: The Annual Schoolchildren’s March and North Korean Invented Traditions


“Whan that Apriil with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

So priketh hem nature in hir corages;

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…”

(Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales – General Prologue, 1387/2005)

Geoffrey Chaucer’s 15th century narrative of pilgrims en-route to Thomas a Beckett’s shrine at Canterbury in England of course is a world away from contemporary North Korea. This chapter seeks really to make no connection between the two other than to reconfirm the cultural importance across time and space of the practice of pilgrimage and other such journeys. While pilgrimage has not faded from the world’s repertoire of cultural practice (Santiago di Compostella, Uman in the Ukraine and the annual Hajj to Mecca being particularly relevant contemporary examples), such practices are less familiar than in the past. But pilgrimage holds obvious advantages for the modern human; carving out time in busy human lives and creating shared and safe group experiences within a significant journey. But pilgrimage’s key feature as transmitted in secular, contemporary forms, has been its utility as vessel for the carrying, sustaining and socialisation of memory. New contemporary memories demand the creation of what Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) declared invented traditions. These invented traditions support and underpin what Benedict Anderson named imagined communities (1983). Chaucer’s pilgrims, Hajji’s the Islamic world over and contemporary Irish visitors to the shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Knock are very much part of imagined communities as Anderson would understand. These various communities pledge emotional fealty with their bodies and minds to community at its most loosely defined, to the Umma, to the fellowship of the faithful, to the ideologically sound. Together faith in the memory of something sacred and profound binds these communities together, constructing a framework of practice and praxis around those memories.

Invented Traditions and their Imagined Communities are not required to be either new products or of the deep past. This chapter does not suggest that Koreans as minjok (ethnic nation) are an Imagined Community. While disputes may rage as to the historical longevity or homogeneity of Koreans as an ethnic group, including any interruptions, ruptures or breaks in either longevity or homogeneity, this chapter does not suggest imagination is required on this point. Both Korean nations now present on the Korean peninsula have been subject to extraordinary historical and political forces in the last two centuries. Koreans have been forced to rethink what it means to be Korean in light of transformations in technology, capital, commerce, political and social organisation and notions of sovereignty. In more recent times Koreans have been required to imagine themselves anew once more. This time citizens on the Peninsula have had to define themselves as North Korean or South Korean, separated from family, brothers, sisters and minjok by what Paik Nak-chung described as The Division System (Paik 2011). While in 2018 it appears there may be unexpected gaps, cracks and fissures in the once monolithic separation, Koreans are still required to in some sense “other” each other by virtue of their location on the Peninsula. Much of that othering is undertaken through the function of a collection of new traditions, real, invented through which contemporary Korean sovereignty, statehood and communities are imagined.

This chapter looks to North Korean traditions which while vitally important to Pyongyang’s political structures, power and centralised institutional memory, are physically sited far from the capital, deeply connected and embedded within the landscape of its northern terrains. Paektusan is enmeshed in the political memory and practice of North Korea. Pyongyang refers to its political dynasty as the Paektusan Generals (Berthelier 2013) and the memories of struggles in favour of Socialism and Korean nationalism in the mid 1930s by a select group of guerrilla fighters (under the control of a Kim Il Sung, if not the Kim Il Sung), against Japanese and colonial forces are vital to the framing of national history (Suh 1995). These are themselves invented traditions but this chapter does not privilege the grand narratives of North Korea’s leadership. Instead its focus is rather more prosaic traditions involving its ungarlanded citizenry. While it is virtually impossible to directly engage with North Korea’s public in situ, the invented and imagined traditions which surround them, which they are supposed to engage with and which literature and public media from Pyongyang can focus on with some intensity are certainly accessible. In recent years some of these new traditions have become incorporated into the institutional structures and training practices of North Korean bureaucracy and important moments in the timetable of the country’s school year. This chapter specifically focuses on the 250 Mile School Children’s March, an event first seen in 2015 and the study visits of North Korean bureaucrats and civil servants to Paektusan, visits which have increased with such frequency in the last five years as to become important traditions themselves.

Theoretical Frames

Aside from Hobsbawm and Ranger’s (1983) notion of invented traditions which is vital to the structure of this edited volume, its later intersection with Benedict Anderson’s articulation of imagined communities (1983), this chapter holds a number of other elements in mind within its theoretical frame. Both invented traditions and imagined communities must function within a wider ecosystem of politics, history and ideology. This chapter explores invented traditions within North Korea’s seemingly unique political framework. There are a huge variety of theories seeking to explain and explore the curiosities of North Korea’s politics. From concepts of North Korea as a gangster state, international security threat, quasi-fascist ethno-blood nationalist, place of institutional insanity, or bureaucracy focused on muddling through, even a rational actor, every stripe of ideological analysis has been directed at Pyongyang. This particular author holds to Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s influential channelling of Max Weber and Clifford Geertz in their assertion that North Korea has all the hallmarks of a theatre state (2012), in which performativity is vital political function. Pyongyang’s theatric sensibilities are powered by a Weberian sense of political charisma deployed on a national scale, breaking temporal boundaries and embedding itself within the nation’s historical memory. As a human geography for the author of this chapter space, scale, boundaries and bounding are all vital elements within analysis. In North Korea space and place for political performance and practice is equally vital. Theatric politics necessarily requires a stage for the performance or re-performance of its charisma, that stage is the landscapes of the nation itself. This author therefore twins theories and concepts from anthropology (Benedict Anderson, Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung) and history (Hobsbawm), with geographic theories on the construction of symbolic, political or social landscapes (Cosgrove 1984 and 2004; Castree 2001). Castree’s conception of political landscapes in particular (2001), connects with Eric Swyngedouw’s writing on scale as political practice within landscape (1997 and 2015), and the author’s own on the application of such ideas in North Korea (2015). The author holds the work of Roland Barthes on mythology (1972) and Robert Graves on mythography (1955) in mind as well as that of Robert Stoddard and Alan Morinis on pilgrimage (1997).

Bordering and border crossing as practices and processes have themselves been subject to extensive theoretical framing (Singer and Massey, 1998 on Mexican border crossing and Grundy-Warr and Yin, 2002 on Myanmar border crossing as examples). North Korean border crossing in particular is considered in academia as demonstrating the institutional and ideological failure of Pyongyang’s government. This is not the first time that border crossing has been problematic to institutional or national power on or near the north of the Korean peninsula. Korea or the Chosŏn dynasty’s (1392-1910) northern border has, nationalist narrative aside, always been semi-porous and in places undefined. Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and Chosŏn surveyors could not agree on the demarcation between the two in 1712 and 1885-1887 (Song 2016 and 2018). The diffuse nature of the boundary had not gone unnoticed and Korean settlers had problematically crossed the border and squatted on these debatable lands. Later this lack of definition would be used by Imperial Russia and Imperial Japan to problematise both Koreans in the border region and Korean sovereignty there at all (Song 2018). North Koreans crossing and re-crossing of the northern border are in contemporary times both problematised and idealised by Pyongyang’s opponents. North Koreans both engage in border crossing to become problematic migrants in China or South Korea (Chung 2008), or as a strategy for individual or group survival through practices of exchange and interaction with guerrilla or informal markets (Byman and Lind 2010). Both are in a sense problematic for Pyongyang itself, however analysis has suggested that informal border practices provide something of an escape valve for a system and its institutions which can no longer service much of their governmental responsibilities (Smith 2015). North Korea’s own historiography frames border crossers in the 1920s and 1930s as powerful actors and agents for national rehabilitation and re-creation. On the other hand, they were seen as extremely problematic to border and internal security by colonial and Japanese authorities (Haruki 1992). The reader will see how contemporary invented traditions from Pyongyang harness the energy of both of these conceptions of border crossing in the past. Finally and in relation very specifically to invented traditions encountered within this chapter the author explores the process of scaling of charismatic and theatric political energies across time. This temporal scaling in North Korean political charisma and invented traditions is best considered through the lens provided by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus (1984). North Korean invented traditions and theatric energies are rescaled across time and space through the processes of what Deleuze and Guattari termed deterritorialization and reterritorialization. While originally focusing on transformations across space and place, including a temporal frame so that such transformations also include de-temporalizations and re-temporalizations allow for more holistic consideration of the practices and implications of Pyongyang’s new invented traditions.

The Deterritorialization of Pyongyang’s Sun

Readers who are already particularly interested in or focused upon North Korea will be well aware of the ideologies surrounding its dynastic leadership, whose role within the nation’s politics fully meets the definition of personality cult used in other instances of autocratic government. They might also be aware of some of the local distinctive peculiarities of North Korea’s personality cult. Kim Il Sung for instance, the first President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the official name for North Korea), is in fact the last President of the nation as he permanently holds that office, even though he died in 1994 (Yoon 2017). While forever having a dead President might seem unnecessarily odd or unusual, this extra-territorial, post-physical state of being in fact allows Kim Il-sung to serve more abstract and esoteric functions within North Korea’s political structure.

The Great Leader (one of Kim Il Sung’s many titles), serves as a vessel for memory and a carrier signal for the charismatic political authority generated as this chapter has already asserted, during the proto North Korean guerrilla period of the mid-1930s. In a further abstraction of Kim Il Sung’s physicality, one of the other titles ascribed to him is that of the “Sun” of the nation. As Pyongyang’s “Sun”, Kim Il Sung can permanently radiate beneficence, care and inspiration upon North Korea’s topography and territory, not subject to the impacts of time and aging (Suh 1995). His son Kim Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un, the current ruler of North Korea, as distinct and definite as they were political figures have also been abstracted a little by the impacts of this approach to both ideology and history. Kim Jong Il when younger and undergoing preparation or development for leadership in the 1970s was referred to North Korean publications as “the party center” rather than by name (Shinn 1982). Kim Jong Il is also referred to as the Dear Leader among other names and can be represented along with his father by the image of one of the national flowers of the nation; the Kimjongilia and the Kimilsungia (Oh 1990). Kim Jong Un himself is less abstract, but when describing his activities on a day to day basis, North Korean media still make sure, rather than grounding him in the present to place him within a continuum of memory that includes his father, grandfather and a variety of events and moments within North Korea’s memory (Rodong Sinmun 2018).

In order to concretise these abstractions of political power and to better ground the complex narratives of history and memory required to underpin Pyongyang’s institutional power, constructed and invented traditions have been required. It is natural that a large number of these traditions revolve around the birthdays, moments of transition, triumph or other important days in the lives of its dynastic leadership (Gabroussenko 2010). Another chapter or paper could perhaps indeed focus on the invented traditions around the visits of one of the Kim family to factories, farms, hospitals and other institutions or pieces of infrastructure, which lead to these places being named after the day on which either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il first visited them (Winstanley-Chesters 2015). This chapter however focuses on invented traditions which do not focus on infrastructure whether political, institutional or military in nature, and not directly on the leadership of North Korea as it is now constituted. Instead this chapter considers invented traditions which directly attempt to include members of its wider population and bureaucratic classes. Citizens of North Korea, no matter how politically engaged or institutionally connected, unlike the imagined traditions of their leaders live in concrete space and time. Citizens are therefore, regardless of how much effort central government spends on propaganda and political messaging, potentially disconnected in vital ways (from a North Korean institutional perspective) from the source and font of national ideological, philosophic or national inspiration. In order to bridge this disconnection Pyongyang has always sought to drive interest in the commemoration of important moments in the history of its leadership and charismatic political first family, or aspired to present an image of such interest where none might be actually present. A recent particular example of this tendency involved the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk on the 24th December, 2017. Kim Jong Suk, born in 1917 is a figure somewhat distant to North Korea’s contemporary population, even with her blood and filial connection to the Great and Dear Leaders. While Kim Jong Suk already has a number of places named after her (such as Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Suk Textile Mill), December 2017 saw a large number of public events focused on both remembering her life, developing public interest in her narrative and embedding it within the minds of future generations. These events appeared to be a collaboration between central government, the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea and the Korean Children’s Union. Therefore, alongside the traditional wreathing laying ceremony at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery (KCNA 2017a), the schoolchildren of Hoeryong watched and took part in a concert entitled ‘Eternal Sunray of Loyalty’ at Hoeryong’s Schoolchildren’s Palace (KCNA 2017b), KCNA asserted that interest in her and sites connected to her was ‘steadily increasing’, with some 300,000 visitors to Hoeryong in 2017 alone (KCNA 2017c). North Korea’s central bank printed gold and silver coinage with an image of her childhood home (KCNA 2017d), and the Ministry of Railways put a railway carriage and velocipede (a hand powered railway vehicle), on display that Kim Jong Suk has used in 1945 (KCNA 2017e). The crossings of Kim Il Sung this paper considers in detail have also been matched with events of re-territorializing Kim Jong Suk’s own moments of crossing. Important moments of historical memory essentially serve as North Korean “Saints Days”, temporalizations and crystallizations of the supra-temporal and esoteric streams of narrative charisma. As well as a mythology such events also require a mythography onto which traditions and imagination can be implanted. While both the developing mythology of the North Korean political present has been considered by past academic work (Kwon 2013) and even the structural elements of the mythography onto which it is laid (Joinau 2014), what has not been addressed is the developing tendency for North Korea to provide opportunities and spaces for North Korea’s own citizens to encounter the narrative and charismatic energies transmitted by these “de-territiorizalisings” and “de-temporalizings” for themselves, to walk theatrically in the footsteps of the nationalist past. In doing so these citizens become actors and agents within the process of new invented traditions which seek to revivify the political energy of the past, bringing it physically into the present.

Far from Pyongyang and the current centers of political power and energy in North Korea, as well as the monolithic, commemorative architectures of the city, the Tumen and Amnok rivers on the nation’s northern boundary play a huge role in the way the rest of the world conceives of the nation. Gazing across the rivers from China, foreign eyes see a landscape of deprivation, barren nature and failures in governmentality and development (Shim 2013). However, these river boundaries have an enormous place in North Korea’s own self-perception. Long considered the boundary between Korean national territory and that of either China or Manchuria, the Tumen and the Amnok and their shores play a vital role in the histories of North Korea and Korean nationalism as transition spaces or zones of malleability (Winstanley-Chesters 2016). Travel through or interaction with these zones and spaces is in some Korean historical and mythological memories akin to crossings in sacred literatures of other rivers such as the Styx or the Jordan, crossings which transform and transfigure the crosser (Havrelock 2011). Another aspect of such zones and places are that they are seen within both mythologies, histories and hagiographies as places in which “special” or significant things are more likely or possible to happen than in other more conventional territory (Barthes 1972). New Testament Biblical texts even suggest that in such special places, a special temporal frame exists in which chronos, “chronological time” (χρόνος) is replaced by “kairos” (καιρός) or “special/significant” time (Smith 1969). Within North Korea’s historiography the landscape of the Tumen and the Amnok is subject to an interesting historical dualism, in which the spaces of the rivers are both zones in which things that are significantly bad can happen and where events which are particularly positive can occur. In North Korea’s historiography a number of key figures in the proto North Korean nationalist guerrilla movements, such as Kim Il Sung and his first wife Kim Jong Suk have important moments of crossing and re-crossing in their lives centered on these river zones (Winstanley-Chesters and Ten 2016). These important historical figures in North Korea’s national story are forced by the circumstances of colonial rule to flee across the rivers to the less distinctly Imperial space of Manchuria (later Manchukuo). They later return in a no less transformative a moment, crossing back over the rivers to begin their campaigns of guerrilla harassment of colonial forces, campaigns which of course later become foundational to North Korea’s notion of revolution and sense of national self (Suh 1995). In the process of crossing individuals such as Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk not only support the transformation of the narrative of Korean or North Korean nationalism, but the transformation of their own selves. Connected via the transformative power of the de and re-materializing process of crossing and re-crossing into special or significant places and times, these important characters in North Korea’s history are transfigured from their child or precarious lives as colonial subjects, to powerful resistive, aggressive, political adults (Winstanley-Chesters and Ten 2016). Kim Jong Suk in particular was completely transfigured by her crossing, leaving a slight child of oppressed and destitute share croppers and returning across the Tumen river a politically aware, energetic expert in military tactics and excellent sniper (Winstanley-Chesters and Ten 2018).

Kim Il Sung’s own particular moment of river crossing, according to current North Korea historiography, occurred in January 1925 over the frozen waters of the Amnok River (Suh 1995). It was this crossing which in North Korean mythology begins the period of Guerrilla exile from which so much of his authority and charisma in Pyongyang’s conceptual mind derives. 2015 would be the ninetieth anniversary of this moment so perhaps it should not be surprising that the anniversary was marked. Rodong Sinmun on the 23rd of January, 2015 reported: “A national meeting took place at the People’s Palace of Culture Wednesday to mark the 90th anniversary of the 250-mile journey for national liberation made by President Kim Il Sung” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a). Neither was it surprising that the newspaper continued its report with a paragraph of assertions “On January 22, Juche 14 (1925) Kim Il Sung started the 250-mile journey for national liberation from his native village Mangyongdae to the Northeastern area of China. During the journey he made up the firm will to save the country and the nation deprived by Japanese imperialism. New history of modern Korea began to advance along the unchangeable orbit of independence, Songun and socialism” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a). As is common in North Korean media the text of the report attempts to include all three leaders produced by Pyongyang’s political dynasty. Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader’s efforts to utilise this key source of nationalist power in 1975, through a commemorative march on its fiftieth anniversary is also addressed by the text. Finally space is also made for some of Kim Jong-un’s rather urgent and vociferous Paektusan focused themes found within 2015’s New Year’s Message: “Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un is wisely leading the work to ensure that the sacred tradition of the Korean revolution started and victoriously advanced by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is given steady continuity…calling on the school youth and children to hold them in high esteem as the eternal sun of Juche and carry forward the march to Mt. Paektu to the last.” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a)


While repetition of past efforts and thoughts from North Korea’s leadership might not be surprising in such a medium, the mention of the march is the first moment in which the invented tradition considered by this chapter appears. Observers and analysts of North Korean cultural and historical practice are familiar with many of the traditions connected to its political mythology. Many engage the audience and citizenry in worshipful, passive veneration of North Korea’s political elite and their mythic past: standing in front of statues and monumental architectures, being shown sacred and important sites of memory, occasionally taking part in staged bouts of traditional dancing (Rodong Sinmun 2018). So how would the school youth and children mentioned in the report from 2015 hold this “sacred tradition” in esteem, by passive participation at a meeting of the Workers Party of Korea? Through the singing of songs and poems dedicated to moments of nationalist history recounted by the text? By appearing slightly overawed or afraid next to Kim Jong Un during a moment of on-the spot guidance? In fact the answer would be none of these things, but something far more important, something that worked apart and aside from North Korea’s more conventional commemorative traditions. Instead of abstraction and narrative opacity, there would instead be a period of de and re-territorialization on the streets and paths of South Pyongan Province which itself would constitute a newly invented tradition. These schoolchildren would re-enact the crossing and journeys of Kim Il Sung in the 1930s, in the process using their own bodies as vessels and channels for the charismatic political energies rooted there for North Korean history. In short by this re-materialization of the political past, the children themselves become as Kim Il Sung and his small band of guerrillas.

There is a great deal missing in this first mention of this new tradition, much left out in the structure and conceptualisation, but this is not uncommon for North Korean political practices and praxis which often excludes content and coherence which might otherwise be expected. The process for the schoolchildren’s selection, the nature of the institutions from which they came, or their ages, the number of children involved, even the exact length of the journey (as it is unclear whether the schoolchildren walk the entire distance), elements which might support a really convincing re-enactment process elsewhere in the world and tie into political themes and agendas are never stated within the text of Rodong Sinmun reporting of their enterprise. Yet the actual physicality and presence of their journey is clear and important to the narrative and the tradition. This physicality, common to pilgrimages elsewhere, perhaps even common to Chaucer’s pilgrims mentioned at the very beginning of this chapter, in which breaks, pauses and stops must be taken, presumably in this case to rest the children’s tired legs after having “crossed one steep pass after another”, is clear to the reader and a real element in the construction of this event (Rodong Sinmun 2015b). These are presented as real children of North Korea in 2015, not simply cyphers for the pre-Liberation, nationalist past, revitalised by the ideological connection and charismatic energies of the history they re-enact.

Simply conceiving of this journey or pilgrimage as yet another theatrical moment in North Korea’s ceaseless flow of historiography and hagiography however would be to miss some of the important elements of the process and fail to draw out the greater and deeper levels of context and connection which underpin this new tradition. The theatric or performative potential of the event is clear. The children pass through, in North Korean tradition and practice a well prepared and well-trodden list of charismatic terrains, a list that is no doubt ideologically and narratologically entirely sound.  Having left Mangyongdae, Kim Il Sung’s home village according to Rodong Sinmun’s report, the children on the first march passed Kaechon (Kaech’ŏn, South P’yŏngan Province), Kujang (North P’yŏngan Province), Hyangsan (North P’yŏngan Province), Huichon (Hŭich’ŏn) and Kangyye, (Chagang) “along the historic road covered by the President with the lofty aim to save the destiny of the country and nation in the dark days when Korea was under the Japanese imperialists’ colonial rule” (Rodong Sinmun 2015b)

Following Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialization, the spaces of relation and the practices of relation within the frame of the schoolchildren’s journey are equally as important as its starting point, route and destination, a fact held in common with much of the earlier narratives of North Korean journeying and crossing (Winstanley-Chesters 2015). Though within this newly invented tradition these children walk the route of the commemoration of what North Korea considers to be its period of national revolution and Liberation at this moment, temporally fixed in 2015, conceptually for those involved however it is supposed to be 1925. Whatever these North Korea children think in the quieter moments of their own particular everyday (perhaps watching South Korean TV dramas on smuggled in USB sticks, helping their parents engage in furtive transactions at semi-legal markets or coping with the mixed ennui of resignation, exasperation and desperation surely produced by daily interaction with Pyongyang’s institutions), the social and personal context of those “dark days” in the late 1920s is activated and actualised by their every footstep. When they stopped for breaks they would hear the “impressions of the reminiscences of anti-Japanese guerrillas” and beginning their march again the schoolchildren, following the political power of those reminiscences, would become, represent, even channel the affect, relation and aspirations of those same guerrillas (Rodong Sinmun 2015b).

Following their departure from Pyongyang on the 22nd of January, 2015 these children, would arrive at their (and both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s) destination, Phophyong in Ryanggang Province around the 4th of February (Rodong Sinmun 2015c). Phophyong, according to North Korean historiography, is the actual site of Kim Il Sung’s crossing of the Amnok River, the site where the young man would transition from subjugated Chosen (Colonial Period Korea) and the political frame of colonisation, to resistance in the wild edges of Manchuria and new commitments and practices aiming for personal liberation and political and ideological struggle. This was the place and moment of Kim Il Sung’s transformation and the foundational moment in this new invented tradition.

The North Korean historical narratives surrounding Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk also, as this chapter has suggested already have her leaving her hometown of Hoeryong (North Hamgyŏng Province), and crossing the Amnok River in the early 1930s (Winstanley-Chesters and Ten 2018). The crossing itself is conceived of in a similar way to Kim Il Sung’s as a moment of transformation, a harbinger of special times to come. It would not be surprising if other elements of this newly invented tradition of marching and re-materialization would be used to repurpose and reconnect with the charismatic energies of Kim Jong Suk’s crossing (Rodong Sinmun 2014).

There have since 2015 been a wide variety of periods in which groups of children, workers, civil servants and others within the institutional and political frameworks of North Korean society and bureaucracy engage in such walks, marches and study tours (Rodong Sinmun 2016, 2017 and 2018b). A number of these have marched and walked within some of the very same territory as the first march in 2015 (Rodong Sinmun 2018c). The Schoolchildren’s March itself has been repeated again in 2016 and 2017 following a similar route, but with additions and subtractions on each occasion. Some have sought to connect other places and spaces of political memory and power into the routes of their walks and marches, still others have included museums and commemorative spaces themselves within the itinerary. The marching visit of the Korean Children’s Union to Mangyongdae and the Youth Movement Museum in June, 2018 serves as a good example of such walks (Rodong Sinmun 2018d). It would be possible to frame these as more conventional acts of pilgrimage, if they were not deeply integrated into the ecosystems of North Korean politics. There have even been connections with the rich history of sacred spaces on and around Paektusan, in particular to the Secret Guerrilla Camp, the bivouacs, cooking spaces and campsites of the guerrilla campaign and even to the extraordinary slogan trees (Rodong Sinmun 2018e). Paektusan’s summit has not been excluded from these practices and there have been a number of instances of study tours and marches of civil servants and bureaucrats visiting the peak of the mountain as part of their activities (Rodong Sinmun 2018f). While surely visits and ideological pilgrimages to the sacred spaces of political memory in North Korea are not a new element to its conceptual repertoire of practice, there is something distinctly new about this category of invented tradition.


In ending this chapter let me reiterate what in fact is distinctly new in the North Korean context when it comes to this newly invented tradition. The Schoolchildren’s March of 2015 has been repeated in 2016 and 2017, so it is not simply a one off re-enactment to connect to the particular energies generated by that year, or by the impending 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s first wife Kim Jong Suk in 2017 who also engaged in river crossings and much journeying around the same time (which have themselves also been remembered through acts of re-territorialization and remembering in recent years). These marches are also not commemorating one particular moment in the history of Kim Il Sung’s journeys and crossings, they do not follow a coherent or specific path of a single journey made by him. Instead as much as they are re-territorializing’s of collections of powerful moments, such as the crossings of the river, they also assemblages of a number of different bits of historical narrative from the period within a geographical area in general considered to be charismatic within North Korea’s political history. Essentially the march is a repertoire of important moments of historical memory connected together in such a way as to amplify the charismatic energies present within each moment.

However important and interesting as the Schoolchildren’s march is, we should not only think about the specific event in 2015, but perhaps movement, crossing, journeying and their utility and usefulness in North Korea as processes of political scaling and rescaling. While such organised de and re-territorializings (and intrinsic de and re-temporalizings), are novel as newly invented traditions, Pyongyang’s institutions  have often harnessed the power of a particular sort of physical movement within its developmental and institutional strategies in order to underpin its goals or reconfigure the agenda. Analysts and watchers of North Korea will be familiar in recent years with the terms “shock brigades” (충격 여단) and “soldier builders.” (병사 건축업자)  (Rodong Sinmun 2018g) This category of worker or operative are common to development or infrastructural projects in North Korea. They are deployed from an institutional network rooted in either the Workers Party of Korea or the Korean People’s Army either at moments of crisis for a pre-existing project or to undertake a key element of a new piece of strategy at an accelerated time scale. Rodong Sinmun and other North Korean media often report on the call for their usage or their later or finished work on the project, often when doing so making sure to comment on the manner and speed of their journey to the site (Rodong Sinmun 2018h). It would not surprise the reader surely to hear that such journeys are often undertaken at considerable speed. The journeys of these “shock brigades” and “soldier builders” are themselves part of the theatric process of North Korean politics. In the terminology of Geography, they are practices of scale and scaling in which the political/social frames and praxis of the center are rescaled out elsewhere in the nation’s landscape and embedded in new terrains, reconfiguring provincial or peripheral political/social frames as they do so (Winstanley-Chesters 2014). As might be familiar to Erik Swyngedouw, such processes have most recently been seen within North Korea’s hydrological and hydro-power industries as the energy and authority of the state has been brought to bare on the river and reservoir systems of the country, embedding the logics and agenda of a particular form of politics in that terrain (Swyngedouw 2015). The invented traditions of the Schoolchildren’s March and other Marches or practices of journeying are themselves scalar processes in common with these pre-existing traditions.

Beyond North Korea’s more conventional and historically familiar efforts to scale and rescale its political energies across its territory, the journeys reconfigured within the newly invented traditions which this chapter encounters and explores are in themselves also acts of rescaling. However more than the practices and processes of aligning the agenda of the periphery to the political aspirations of the center, these traditions scale through and across time. Coupled with the processes of de and re-territorialization and de and re-temporalization the schoolchildren participants interact with the powerful political energies of North Korea’s mythological or historiographic past, the charisma on which the authority and legitimacy (perceived) on which Pyongyang’s Paektusan Generals sit, rescaling it into the present day and our own temporal plane. These marches, processes and journeys are themselves therefore scalar acts, as much as they are invented traditions. In the practice and process of these acts the participants are conceived of as not just re-enacting the journeys and travels of the past, cyphers and metaphorical vessels for them, but in some way they are transfigured into the physical realities of those who once, in North Korea’s historical imaginary trod the same paths and ground.

The Schoolchildren on the 250 Mile March in 2015 and other marches which sought to connect to the history and memory of Kim Jong Suk are powerful and capable of many things, from serving as potentially transformative and transfigurative for those involved, to establishing a repertoire of newly invented traditional practices which can be and have been deployed elsewhere in North Korea. While they are extremely powerful and the practices of both scaling and de and re-territorialization at the heart of them can achieve much, there is one key thing that they cannot. In 2015 it was intriguing to consider their geographical emplacement at the edge of North Korea’s sovereignty and in 1925 it was the edge of the Japanese colonial terrain. While later in the history of Japanese Imperialism Manchuria would be reconfigured as the puppet state of Manchukuo, in 1925 the other side of the Amnok river at this point was still nominally Chinese territory. The crossing itself of Kim Il Sung is vital to the narrative for North Korea. However in 2015 the schoolchildren arrive at Phophyong, the site of this famous existential passage from one form of territory to another…yet they do not cross. Perhaps in those days of difficult and strained relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, prior to the events of 2018, such charismatic commemorations could not be enacted either side of the boundary of sovereignty. Perhaps given the importance for North Korea of ideological soundness, its schoolchildren never could in reality have crossed over into a different political space. Whatever the reason, the most important fact is that in this act of pilgrimage, this newly invented tradition focused on the re-materialization of powerful charismatic energies by those schoolchildren, at the moment and place of crossing, they cannot actually cross which leaves both the narrative and the invented tradition with a distinct disconnect, a functional void at its heart. Whatever aspirations North Korea may have at this point for this set of invented traditions, ultimately it cannot fully engage in their re-materialization. This newly invented tradition is for the moment at least trapped in North Korea’s political present.


충격 여단 chungkyŏkyŏdan “shock brigades”

병사 건축업자pyŏngsa kŏnch’ukŏpja “soldier builders.”


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[i] Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state news agency has several websites. In 2010 KCNA established a .kp address registered in North Korea, but this did not supersede the original address as this Japanese registered version has a searchable database going back some 18 years whereas the North Korea site only has the current years stories. Recently the site has been unavailable as it has been geo-blocked so that only browsers and computers accessing it from a Japanese internet connection can access it (NorthKoreaTech has a report on this at . This was extremely frustrating to all that use it and enabled the commodification of the database through paywalled access sites such as kcnawatch. The fact that it should only be available from Japanese computers however is not a barrier to using it outside of Japan, so instead of paying to access these links, use a VPN like Tor, or install the Hola extension on Google Chrome and set it to spoof your internet connection so that it looks as if you are browsing from Japan. will then be free and accessible to you anywhere in the world. Download Hola from, download Tor from

[ii] It must be acknowledged that due to North Korea’s habit of wiping the database of Rodong Sinmun articles every year or two, the author cannot guarantee that articles from Rodong Sinmun will still be available at the web addresses given. The author however keeps a copy of each Rodong Sinmun article in a word document and would be happy to share any with interested readers. It is also worth acknowledging that these are the English language versions of the Rodong Sinmun articles, Korean language versions of course exist and the author has copies of all of these as well. Again the author would be willing to share these with interested readers.

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