Developmental connectivity in the Tumen Triangle: Potato, “King of Crops”

“We want to live our own lives in our own way.”2
Although located a continent away, development in the peripheral spaces of the United Kingdom is not entirely unlike that of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, and nor are the challenges presented by individual and institutional agendas entirely novel. In the UK, peripheries and borderlands are abound; Lord Leverhulme’s paternalistic and impositional conception of economic and environmental possibility in Stornoway and the Isle of Lewis at the turn of the twentieth century is fairly typical of grand schemes and projects in the marginal spaces of the British Isles. Development in the periphery of any nation can thus appear peripatetic, marked by hard-to navigate realities and unsatisfactory outcomes. Undeniably, the areas investigated by the Tumen Triangle Documentation Project were once regarded as peripheral, distant, and marginal spaces, though this has become much less true in recent times. Ryanggang Province is arguably the most peripheral and distant of the provinces of the Tumen borderland. Comprising much of the DPRK’s interior northern border with China, Ryanggang is mountainous and forested, regarded by Kim Il-sung as a safe space even in the throes of war. Representing as it does the border with China’s Changbai region, the province is about as far from Pyongyang and the institutional centers and structures of charismatic Kim-ism as one is likely to find. This essay serves as a demonstration of the assertion that no matter how peripheral a space may be, developmental approaches can be enacted within it by both local institutions and national agendas.

Within national industrial strategy, Ryanggang has long been regarded as dysfunctional, but is also home to a now operative copper mine,3 the only such mine in North Korea. It is also key to the historical narrative of Kimist legitimacy due to the presence of the Mt. Baekdu4 massif with its accompanying Korean genesis mythos and authority- and legitimacy-generating narratives of Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla struggle and the birth of Kim Jong-il. Given the presence of Mt. Baekdu and wider knowledge of the topography of the Korean peninsula, it will not have surprised the reader to learn that the province is both highly mountainous and quite heavily forested. What might be surprising would be to learn if such a peripheral, marginal space played an important role within national political narratives. While it is not possible to declare that the province and its provisional locus of power, Hyesan, have always been at the center of agricultural possibility in North Korea, narrative connections do start comparatively early. However, general systemization of these connections did not occur cohesively until the publication of Kim Il-sung’s “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in our Country”5 in 1964.

However, what are termed “foundational events” in North Korea’s developmental and agricultural sectors can be found prior to 1964. Examples include the Potong River Improvement Project in 1946 (foundation for the hydrological sector), or the tree planting on Munsu hill (also in 1946 and used as a foundational moment in the forestry sector).6 This is also true of Ryanggang Province.

1958 saw the publication of the text “Tasks of the Party Organizations in Ryanggang Province,” ostensibly a recounting of an “inspection” tour made by Kim Il-sung in May of that year. Unlike a number of similar tours or moments of guidance in North Korean narratives, activities in the province appear to have deeply impressed the Great Leader, who stated that “considerable progress has been made so far in Ryanggang Province, which formerly was a backward region,” and going on to cite “great achievements [which] have been made in all fields of politics, economy and culture.”7

Ryanggang is marked out as needing to adopt a particularly local yield and production strategy, distinct from elsewhere in the North Korea of the time. Whereas the 1950s saw a great deal of focus on increasing the production of rice and grain in North Korean agriculture, Ryanggang was to adopt measures seen much more recently in the North’s media output, and which can be thematically connected to this earlier era, establishing a line of narrative connectivity stretching back comfortably far.

In short, Ryanggang was to focus on the realm of the tuber. In his marked observational style, Kim noted: “Potato is a high-yielding crop in Ryanggang Province. In this province potato, not maize is the king crop of dry fields.”8 It seems as if farmers, cooperatives and collectives had previously utilized this non-normative agricultural output goal (non-normative in the context of East Asia), but not to the extent required by Kim: “In plays and sketches you presented for us, you boasted so much about your potatoes. Although you are very proud of your potatoes, the area allotted to potato crops is small.”9 Accordingly, agriculturalists and their institutions in Ryanggang are to disregard the non-normative element of this approach. (“Some people seem to be become baffled and worried when they hear me saying this [and make production of tuber the key goals].” 10 Kim Il-sung went so far as to call for all land (with the exception of “the areas marked for industrial crops”) to be planted with potatoes.11

North Korean state narratives are marked by repetitive practice and connectivity between sectors. Thus, just as in the forestry sector, the agricultural sector of Ryanggang must “learn by doing” (or by not doing as the case may be). Kim Il-sung’s next interaction would be on much more combative terms, as, similar to foundational events or themes, secondary visits of chastisement are familiar in North Korean narratives.

Four years later, a return visit is documented in the forceful “Tasks of the Party Organizations in Ryanggang Province” from August 1963 (the same title), the introduction to which asserts that “you should not become complacent with successes already registered…you should maintain the spirit of advance and continue to battle hard.”12 While it seems that for the most part Kim was satisfied with developments, in the agricultural field it was a different matter: the section addressing the sector begins with the statement “the output of Ryanggang Province in negligible compared with that of other provinces.”13 Potato development has not apparently been at the forefront of institutional priorities within the province, or at least not in the way envisaged by Kim. In fact Kim refers to his previous visit for contrast “potatoes must not be planted without considering the consequences. I once said that the potato was king of the dry-field crops.”14 Agricultural workers have entirely misunderstood Kim’s direction and emphasis so that “Ryanggang Province grows it [potatoes] even in rice paddies and maize fields. This should not be done,” and requires reiteration of the policy with extra explanation: “You should not plant potatoes in areas where rice and maize grow well. The potato is king of dry-field crops in the highlands where grain does not grow well.”15

1964’s “Rural Theses on the Socialist Rural Question” principally focused on the systematization of productive and resource-driven agricultural approaches, and although it included calls for the adoption of a wider repertoire of productive strategies it did not address peripheral spaces or non-normative markets or production. Following the publication in May of 1964 of “Let Us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers,” Kim Il-sung embedded the “Rural Theses” approach within the forestry sector and the wilder geographies of North Korea, and in December the text “For the Development of Agriculture in Ryanggang Province” appeared.

Within that, institutional focus shifted from direct focus on potato focused agriculture, apparently at the behest of “scientificization” and “technicalization,” key themes of the Theses. In light of the provincial authorities continued failure to follow Kim Il-sung’s direction (“this province has not carried out the Party’s policy thoroughly and has failed to improve farming methods. Because farmers have continued to grow only potatoes on land where they can cultivate other grain crops, they gave been unable to produce sufficient grain. Even the potato crop has been attacked by disease and its seeds have degenerated.”16) the institutions of Ryanggang are further instructed to take light of developments in agricultural research which have begun to focus expertise on agricultural practice at altitude. Intriguingly under this new industrial-scientific approach, it is grains and legume crops that are relegated to a different category of marginal land; “as a matter of course, in those areas which have a lower altitude than 1000 meters above sea level you should continue to grow…potatoes widely.”17 #

As perhaps is now common knowledge, institutional and charismatic narratives have a tendency to contradict each other, and hence Ryanggang’s potato agriculture appearance in 1974’s “Let us Make Ryanggang Province a Beautiful Paradise” firstly features a slightly bizarre anecdote from Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla campaigning, in which the Great Leader has a disappointing, difficult encounter with the potato: “During the anti-Japanese armed struggle I lived on nothing but potatoes at the secret camp of the Tenth Regiment. I stayed with the regiment for nearly one month…they were reasonably good for a few days, but later it was hard to eat them.”18 However even in the mid 1970’s potatoes are in still in institutional focus in the context of the province; as Kim wrote, “it would be desirable to plant them in wide areas because their yield is high…your province should make [potato] syrup and supply it to the children and working people in the province, including the workers in the forestry and mining sectors, and to the visitors to the old revolutionary battlefields.”19

The level of relevance of potato production within institutional and narrative priorities and accompanying tuber-related science is difficult to ascertain in the decline of the 1980s and the chaos of the 1990s. However, if there is one thing in North Korean charismatic politics that is more predictable than the tendency towards repetition, it is the utilizable nature of themes from previous Kimist eras in contemporary times. It would not thus be surprising if Ryanggang echoed the institutional memory and memorialization of the province under Kim Il-sung in the era of Kim Jong-un the Young Generalissimo.

The first stage in the recovery of a dormant theme is its reiteration under a previous incarnation of Kimist legitimacy and authority. Kim Jong-il, according to this author’s reading, had very little to say on the matter of potato production, the narratives addressing tuber husbandry under the Dear Leader’s reign being extremely hard to follow. However, recently narrative connections began to be made in this area.

It is recounted, for example, that Kim Jong-il made a visit in October 1998 to Taehongdan County in Ryanggang during which he “initiated a proposal on bringing about a radical turn in potato farming” and “set the county as a model in potato farming and put forward tasks and ways for a leap in potato farming.”20 This visit and this desire to see potato production focused on the peripheral spaces of the Tumen Triangle once more. The necessary text setting all of this out is referred to as “On Bringing about a Revolution in Potato Farming.” Aside from the determination to initiate and drive development in a conventional yield-based direction, potatoes and Ryanggang are connected here with North Korea’s almost cultic or fetishistic approach to science and research. Further reportage notes this: “there is in Taehongdan County a well-furnished Potato Research Institute under the Academy of Agricultural Science, which solves the issue of potato seeds in our own way.”21

Of course the next important element of this rediscovery and repositioning is that the themes be brought into the present day, preferably in the same geographical locale and physical space. Hence in May of 2012 Rodong Sinmun reported that “Potato planting began in Taehongdan Plain, Ryanggang Province,” making sure of course to note that “the officials of the ministries and national institutions also went down to the fields to help the farmers in carrying out the behests of leader Kim Jong Il.”22

Unlike the almost random inculcation of interest in potatoes that marked the drive and development of the sector initially under Kim Il-sung (in 1958), this is an element that not only echoes the assertions and apparent considerations of both previous Kims, but also the framework instituted under the 1964 Rural Theses which instigated concern for scientific development. Taehongdan and Ryanggang’s exploits in the field of potato development would be harnessed by the need for all of it to at least appear possessed of a deep commitment to empiricism and evidence-based practice. Wonsan University of Agriculture’s “Bio-Engineering Institute,” for instance, is noted in the narrative as having “succeeded in breeding a new species of potato, which contains much starch and makes it possible to raise the per-hectare yield by far, pooling their wisdom and efforts.”23 There are other similar appearances by Pyongyang’s “Agro-Biological Institute,” which has been “culturing virus-free potato tissues in a scientific and technological way.”24

North Korea’s “Byungjin line” approach can seem a long way away from the potato fields of Ryanggang; however, the line’s parallel conception of political, ideological and institutional formation, utilizing as it does twin themes of nuclear deterrent strength and scientific/technological development, allows such apparently peripheral elements as potato production in the Tumen Triangle to both contribute to and be directed by the line.25 The focus on scientific and technological ways of approach potato and tuber research, based in the paradigms of pure science but harnessed by goals of capacity increase and efficiency, is also driven by a long asserted desire to embed multi-functionality in productive sectors. Hence, perhaps, the potatoes emerging from the marginal earth of Ryanggang will not simply be consumed in the conventional manner, but through the efforts of “Byungjin science” adopt radically different forms. “The Foodstuff Institute of the Light Industrial Branch” for instance was recently recorded as having “added much to the variety of processed potatoes by producing sweet drink, lactic fermented sweet juice, lactic fermented carbonated juice with potato.”26

Ultimately what Byungjinization allows for and promotes by way of its multi-stranded development approach has always been possible and desired in the North Korean institutional mind. As we can see from the case of Ryanggang up in the Tumen Triangle and developments surrounding the production, research, and development of tuber-focused agriculture, marginal and peripheral spaces can always be utilized and harnessed for the requirements of narrative development. The narrative of the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle undertaken by Kim Il-sung, from which Kimism draws much of its authority and which serves as the genesis myth and mythos for the North Korean political, reflects this most of all, but marginal narratives such as potato production at Taehongdan equally reflect this tendency. Ryanggang’s potatoes and other counties and provinces of the Tumen Triangle may indeed be a long way from the institutional and narrative heart of the nation in Pyongyang, but, in terms of narrative, the Tumen Triangle and its developmental spaces are right next door.

1 Readers may find that some of the links to official North Korean documents are dead. This is a direct result of amendments to online archives made on the North Korean side following the purge of Jang Song-taek in December 2013. 2 John R. Gold and Margaret M. Gold, “To Be Free and Independent: Crofting, Popular Protest and Lord Leverhulme’s Hebridean Development Projects, 1917–25,” Rural History (1996), 191-206. 3 “China-N.Korea JV starts production at copper mine,” Reuters, September 20, 2011. 4 Benoit Berthelier, “Symbolic Truth: Epic, Legends, and the Making of the Baekdusan Generals,” Sino-NK, May 17, 2013. 5 Robert Winstanley-Chesters, “Treasured Swords Redux: (Re)Construction and the ‘Rural Theses’ of 1964,” Sino-NK, June 21, 2013. 6 Robert Winstanley-Chesters, “Forests as Spaces of Revolution and Resistance: Thoughts on Arboreal Comradeship on a Divided Peninsula,” Sino-NK, June 28, 2013. 7 Kim Il-sung, Tasks of the Party Organizations in Ryanggang Province (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958), 219. 8 Kim, Tasks of the Party Organizations in Ryanggang Province (1958), 231. 9 Ibid., 231. 10 Ibid., 232. 11 Ibid., 231. 12 Kim Il-sung, Tasks of the Party Organisations in Ryanggang Province (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1963), 276.13 Kim, Tasks of the Party Organisations in Ryanggang Province (1963), 277.14 Ibid., 291. 15 Ibid. 16 Kim Il-sung, Let us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964), 410. 17 Ibid., 416. 18 Kim Il-sung, Let us Make Ryanggang Province a Beautiful Paradise (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1974), 301.19 Ibid.,304. 20 “Model in Potato Farming,” Rodong Sinmun, January 10, 2013. 21 Ibid. 22 “Potato Planting Begins,” Rodong Sinmun, March 5, 2012. 23 “More Research Successes,” Rodong Sinmun, March 22, 2013. 24 “At Agro-Biological Institute,” Rodong Sinmun, June 13, 2013. 25 Heonik Kwon, “North Korea’s New Legacy Politics,” e-IR, May 16, 2013. 26 “New Potato Beverage,” Rodong Sinmun, January 25, 2013.