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

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

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

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

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

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


Literatures and Theoretical Frames


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

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

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

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

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

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


Colonial Pre-Histories of North Korea’s Forests


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Encountering the Tainted Topography of Colonial Forests


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Forests of the North Korean Socialist Modern


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Contemporary North Korean Forests


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

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

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

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

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


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Kim Il-sŏng. 1947. “Let us Launch a Vigorous Tree Planting Movement Involving all the Masses”. Works 3. P’yŏngyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

SCAP - forests

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

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

Fungus and Fisheries amidst the Forest of Arms: 2016 New Years’ Address

Pyongyang marks 2016's New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Pyongyang marks 2016’s New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

January 1st, 2016’s New Year’s Address from Kim Jong Un given a couple of weeks perspective has of course been supplanted somewhat by the phenomenal challenge and narrative bluster of the 6th’s nuclear test. Whether the core material of the device tested by Pyongyang at Punggye-ri was made of Uranium or Lithium, its success or failure and the geopolitical impact of it all will no doubt be discussed and dissected for some time. It is doubtful that the same fate will befall Kim Jong Un’s longer statement of North Korea’s intentions for the coming year.

While North Korea’s New Year’s Addresses under Kim Jong Un have generally followed a familiar pattern and are full of the linguistic repetition and bluster familiar to any who follow its media or published output, occasionally an interesting developmental phrase can be turned. The demand of 2015’s New Years’ Address to generate mountains and “seas of gold” so far as its fisheries and forestry sectors were concerned was a particular favourite of this author. Equally 2015’s favoured revolutionary speed “the blizzards of Paektu” speed, brought to mind the charismatic and theatric struggles of Pyongyang’s guerrilla nationalism in an easier, more piquant and less clumsy linguistic form. The extraordinary focus on fishing institutions and infrastructures in the second half of 2014 of course will remind any reader of the real connections between North Korea’s set pieces of narrative and message production and its institutional and developmental agendas. Kim Jong Un in fact made five visits to offshore and onshore facilities devoted to aquaculture in the months of October and November, 2015 combined, a schedule of institutional activity surely not that far removed from visits to military installations. 2016’s Address from a week or so ago however is not blessed with quite the same level of articulacy so far as development is concerned.

 Encountering 'blizzards of paektu', August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Encountering ‘blizzards of paektu’, August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

For the reader it may in fact be that the non-military, developmental aspect to 2016’s New Years Address is very hard to discern at all. Kim Jong Un this year and presumably North Korea’s institutions appear very concerned to memorialise the events of the 70th anniversary of Liberation on August 15th and the institutional and governmental achievements that were underwritten by the events memorial themes of acute nationalism and imagined victory. The Address in a sense then undertakes an exercise in charismatic projection, using the carrier signal of Liberation’s authority and legitimacy to underpin the importance and potential of May’s coming Seventh Workers Party of Korea Congress. In this way the Address allows the charisma of the revolutionary and pre-institutional past to potentially be revivified in the institutional present of the Workers Party of Korea.


Obviously the reader will discern no developmental or environmental impact within this political sleight of hand, a form of which will be familiar to any considered analyst of North Korean ideological or presentational practice. We all would do well however to consider for a moment the past history of Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea, especially the last such event, which concluded its Plenary sessions on the 14th of October, 1980, some 36 years and a political epoch ago. Bearing in mind the fact that North Korean Party Congresses are more than the public set piece event we might be familiar with from meetings of the People’s Republic of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference, or in fact from modern Party Congresses or Conferences in democratic nations such as the United States or United Kingdom. Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea are in fact multi stranded, yearlong events, which yes, emerge above the political surface for a week of plenary and public sessions, but which then submerge again into the political and institutional substrata. Deeper down in the lower levels of committee and subcommittee the articulations and aspirations expressed at large and out loud in the public events are reconfigured and reframed for institutional and developmental function and incorporation. North Korea’s political and elite and no doubt in May, Kim Jong Un’s grand and dramatic words will be incorporated into institutional and infrastructural agendas that could well drive its frameworks for years or decades to come.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

How do we know this? Because that was precisely, when it came to development the role played by the Sixth Party Congress of 1980. While previous events in the 1960s and 1970s had sought to maintain the notion of Socialist progression and development, the connection between central planning and goal setting and economic and social success, 1980s Congress sought to abandon much of that very deterministic developmental framework. Whereas forestry, agriculture, mining or coastal reclamation had previously been set enormously ambitious, dramatic, charismatic production and development goals (the 1970s were the era of the 300,000 hectares of reclamation for example), the Sixth Party Congress dispensed with specific goals, which had both never been reached by North Korea’s institutions and in attempting and failing to do so had seriously disrupted economic and infrastructural production, for looser, more aspirational targets. Five Great Nature Remaking Tasks and their attendant complicated goals, became the Four Tasks for Remaking Nature. The output of the era of the Sixth Congress of course was not entirely without success, the Nampo Lockgate and some of the sporting and stadium infrastructure of Pyongyang exist to attest to that, but it was the end of North Korea’s most aspirational period so far as its developmental potential was concerned, and in a sense veiled acknowledgement of the impossibility of a number of its past ambitions.


2016’s New Years’ Address which heralds most of all, all that is to be achieved and desired by the Seventh Party Congress in a few months’ time, similarly aims in developmental terms for the abstract and the undefined. In-spite of both Kim Jong Un’s many and varied appearances at fish farms, or even his occasional visit to tree nurseries and forestry projects, no specific goals are set for these sectors. The very best the Address can muster is that the “fishing sectors…should ramp up production as soon as possible and see to it that the fish farms…built across the country pay off…”

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

2016 it seems is to have no mountains or “seas of gold” and the only forest mentioned by North Korean institutions since the turn of the year, is its now Hydrogen fuelled  “forest of arms.” However perhaps we should all stop to ponder the potential viability or veracity of a more generalised, ad-hoc approach by Pyongyang to nutritional or other development. 2016’s Address, along with the fishing industries and infrastructures, also at that moment of focus references “vegetable greenhouses” and “mushroom production bases,” both developmental sectors to which Pyongyang has turned in the past and both of which both focused on last year within its political narratives and with which it has had some level of success in the past. Incorporating fungus production rooms into school and training infrastructure as well as generating the research institutions and communities to do so, and the combination of the human capital and resources provided by the Korean People’s Army and the fishing and aquaculture industries are key vectors to support more easily accessibly nutritional resources. While no doubt the elites of Pyongyang eat well amongst the newly lit tower blocks, 2016 New Year’s Address almost steels itself to admit the utility of such generalised sources of food resource when it ends its brief moment of developmental connection with the acceptance that these “contribute to enriching the people’s diet.”

Less ambitious, dramatic or charismatic in developmental terms, perhaps by necessity as much as design, 2016’s New Years’ Address appears for agriculture, environment and non-industrial or military infrastructure a call to carry on with the general, the non-specific, with what works. Perhaps the impending Seventh Party Congress and its reconsideration and reconfiguration of political, economic, social and ideological agendas demands a moment of pause, a breath in North Korea’s developmental echo chamber. Perhaps history and the Sixth Party Congress will be our guide. Perhaps, as on the 6th of January, Pyongyang will surprise or wrong foot as all again, but in developmental terms, so far as the New Years’ Address is concerned, developmental agendas will be more about past practice and carrying on, than the shock of the new.

New from RWC – From Paris to Pyongyang: of Kwangmyongsong and Climate Change



Ri Su Yong at COP 21

Ri Su Yong speaks at COP 21, Paris, Monday December 7th 2015 – Image : IISD Reporting Services

“At present, climate change is causing serious impact on human civilization and sustainable development together with socio-economic challenges such as dwindling natural resources, rapid increase of population and inequality” – Ri Su Yong, North Korean Minister for Foreign Affairs, December 7th, 2015

Perhaps there isn’t much space in our own narratives for other stories surrounding North Korean or North Korean policy at the moment than nuclear tests, missile or satellite threats and further moments of tension, distrust and apprehension on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang’s capacity to, even at moment of misdirected or confused pique launch a short range weapon at its neighbours certainly concentrates the mind and the priorities of policy makers the world over. A collapse in notions of security and narratological status quo however is not unique to matters simply inter-Korean.

As readers and analysts the world over have witnessed the collapse of the Sykes-Picot settlement in Syria in recent years, along with through American indecision the notion of uni-polarity. When it comes to environmental matters, last December apparently saw the coalition of interested parties coming to agreement on a new settlement focused on climate change at Paris, COP21 meeting. While the paucity of what was actually agreed has, in the mind of this analyst at least, not been fairly or comprehensively enough critiqued, the agreement reached in Paris was framed positively at least. As this agreement was dramatically undermined by the United States Supreme Court decision on the possibilities for local ratification, it seemed to this author an interesting moment to stop and think about its implications elsewhere, in a terrain more of interest to those interested in North Korean matters.

Pak Pong Ju’s visit to the site of an apparently frozen and wintery Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station, number 3 in February 2016 did not for many illustrate any great international connections or aspirations of North Korea. Pak’s visit perhaps was envisaged as one of a multiplicity of reiterative moments in Pyongyang’s developmental narratives of the early part of the year in which the themes of Kim Jong Un’s New Years Address and the intensive focus on the institutional and ideological frameworks surrounding the Seventh Workers Party Congress are projected and re-projected. The fact that the power station is one of a number in the same geographical area which form part of a Clean Development Mechanism project under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) might not jump immediately to the viewers mind.

Pak Pong Ju at Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station

Pak Pong Ju Visits Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station no. 3. – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station, 3’s developmental sibling, Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station, number 2, is just that though. CDM project number 5889 to be exact, part of the post Kyoto institutional and bureaucratic framework that sought at a more ambitious moment to concretise a collective sense that the time was now, to resist or mitigate environmental crisis and global climate change. While analysis from Benjamin Habib and this author has reiterated time and time again that it is an overstatement to ever claim that North Korea saw itself a vanguard nation in the resistance to climate change, it was at least once interested.

Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station, and presumably the other hydro-electric infrastructure of Samjiyon County surely attests to that interest. A quick reading of the documentation hosted on the UNFCCC archive which underpins the official approvals for the project and which is required by the Clean Developmental Mechanism (CDM) process suggests a real commitment to not only the aspirations behind the project, but the bureaucratic and conceptual linguistics of the process. While the certification documents’ assertion that local stakeholders were consulted through a series of questionnaires as to their concerns about the environmental impact of the power station may bring a wry smile to the face of many a North Korea watcher, this is Pyongyang rapidly learning the language and form of international engagement.

While North Korean efforts to gain accreditation for its CDM projects were certainly contested through the forums of the UNFCCC (though not as heavily contested as Iran’s projects, the last of which only gained accreditation in October, 2015), Pyongyang was of course eventually successful. As readers will know the process that began with North Korean ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, finally ended on the 23rd of October 2012. CDM project 6949 or Ryesonggang Hydropower Plant No.3, brought Pyongyang’s final total to six CDM projects, around a third of those accredited to the Dominican Republic.

Pak Pong Ju at Paektusan Songun Youth Hero Power Station

Pak Pong Ju and the Paektusan Songun Youth Hero Power Station – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Credits due under the CDM process in general will bring in a paltry and declining sum as the system and process tasked with the marketisation of credits for Carbon reduction ossifies and atrophies amidst post-Paris disinterest. This system in reality was never likely to bring enormous value to credit holders as might have once been envisaged, but North Korea’s interest never seemed to be entirely about this. Just as Pyongyang’s Nuclear testing and rocket launches (whether for the aims of ballistic testing or space exploration), are never really entirely about practical development, as much as they are about wider themes of legitimacy and functionality, so North Korean engagement with the CDM process and the Kyoto protocol was about Pyongyang being a global citizen.

This author therefore wonders what it does say that, Ryesonggang was the last project in the process of accreditation and that all six finally accredited CDM projects began their bureaucratic process in 2009 under Kim Jong Il. While they were completed in the era of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang’s under the current Kim has in fact offered little in terms of practical engagement with the process, as determined as Ri Su Yong’s words may appear.

Perhaps there is something to be said for institutional focus on the finer details of processes such as the UNFCCC and CDM. While North Korea has been concerned to speak the same institutional language as other nations, even for minimal or elusive gains, Pyongyang may have felt more constrained so far as other more apocalyptic, dramatic or dangerous projections of power were concerned. No doubt it can be proved that just as was articulated by Kim Jong Un as the Byungjin line or parallel approach in 2014, North Korea was engaged in the intricacies of the CDM accreditation at the same time as it was sourcing centrifuges, a twin track of developmental approach. However when even the functioning of the Green Climate Fund can be conceptualised by North Korea as yet another vector for insult and slight, the application of Pyongyang’s bureaucratic and nationalist energies on more positive, if labyrinthine processes would surely be welcomed once more.

Kim Jŏng-suk: Woman of Paektu

This text forms part of a peer-reviewed article in production at the moment. It is part of a joint project with a fellow collaborator and will remain here for only a few days. Essentially this is a teaser for a new piece focused on Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il-sung, mother of Kim Jong-Il and grandmother of Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-suk was born some 97 years ago last year and is still frequently referred to in North Korean media and analysis , perhaps more now than for several years. The coming piece shall explore that, but first that teaser (apologies for the McCune Reischauer Romanization by the way – it is my normal policy to use only North Korean Romanization when referring to North Korean characters and texts, but that is not universally applicable)…

Kim Jong Suk fighter 2


“…..Much previous research into the nature of North Korean political headship has focused on Kim Il-sŏng’s overt masculinity, a theme asserted by much of the local political narrative through its envisioning of the elder Kim as not only “the Great Leader” but as its founder and “Father”. This may have seemed an easier task in the era when North Korea occupied a geo-political niche as an aggressively anti-colonial independent force. Pyongyang sought to play off the twin poles of world communism, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (Cumings 1992) and engaged in a loose alliance with the Non-Aligned group of nations. Following this strategy, North Korea was relatively successful in diplomatic, economic and institutional terms (Szalontai 2011), although in the years following Kim Il-sŏng’s death success became more difficult to achieve. Kim Chŏng-il was bequeathed an essentially stagnant, decrepit nation caught in a cycle of degradation at a time of radical geo-political shift in which its position as lightning-rod of Liberationist and anti-colonial politics was becoming unsustainable and impossible (Kim, Sung-chull 2012). This second Kim was in no way equally blessed with the apparently easy charisma and anti-Japanese guerrilla authority of his father. Thus maintaining the previous narrative of legitimacy became increasingly difficult (Post 2008).

B.R. Myers has recently asserted that the past cultural, presentational and media production of North Korea conceived of Kim Il-sŏng as not simply a patriarchal, fatherly, male figure, but also a more conceptually androgynous figure. This assertion has thus broken the previous analytic stasis arguing that in some ways Kim Il-sŏng is presented as a mother to the nation. Myers thus fractured the narrative of exclusive monolithic North Korean maleness (Myers 2012). As radical as Myer’s claims have been in the context of contemporary North Korean scholarship, this diffusion and liminality of gender held by Pyongyang has manifested in concrete practical forms, both historically and in our era. The key example which this paper utilises is that of Kim Jŏng-suk, mother of Kim Chŏng-il, first wife of Kim Il-sŏng and feminine lightning rod for North Korean historical legitimacy.

Like much of North Korea’s pre-Liberation history, Kim Jŏng-suk herself is a character difficult to place definitively within a conventional narrative. Even within North Korean historiography Kim Jŏng-suk takes some time to rise to the top of the revolutionary pantheon. Initially Kim Il-sŏng’s mother Kang Pan-sŏk was portrayed as the key female actor within the revolutionary period. Kang Pan-sŏk’s nationalist utterances such as “Only when one has his own country, can he enjoy a decent life. Therefore we must fight to win back our country” (Women of Korea, 1969: 12)[1] and her revolutionary activities with Kim Il-sŏng’s father Kim Hyong-jik[2] seem independent and forceful enough to describe her revolutionary status. However, Kang Pan-sŏk can also be seen as a cipher of authoritative filial connection, useful in linking an earlier nationalist era of resistance during the Japanese annexation period with Kim Il-sŏng and his era of guerrilla struggle against colonialism. This connection is made fairly explicit in the narratology: “Mother Kang Pan-sŏk trained Comrade Kim Il-sŏng from his childhood to have patriotism and indomitable spirit of a revolution…braving all sacrifices” (Women of Korea 1969: 12).

Kim Il-sŏng’s authority and legitimacy established, Pyongyang narrative moves from his mother, childhood and the spaces of colonial Chosŏn and begins to focus on the activities of later revolutionaries outside Chosŏn, in Manchukuo and on the later Sino-Korean border. In the 1970s the importance of Kim Il-sŏng’s son and eventual successor, Kim Chŏng-il, started to rise. In the light of this, a feminine figure had to be found to underpin and triangulate the filial and revolutionary legitimacy of this younger Kim. This legitimacy also had to be closer to the geographic location of the historical narrative of Kim Il-sŏng during the period, to offer equally revolutionarily authentic site for his birth. For a period, the revolutionary archetype centered on the figure of Lie Ge-sun, another female member of Kim Il-sŏng’s retinue. The narrative recounts that “one day she was arrested by the enemy and put to severe torture of all sorts. But she held fast to her fidelity to the revolution, resolutely defending Comrade Kim Il-sŏng’s great revolutionary ideas” (Women of Korea 1971: 35). While in North Korean history such fidelity and sacrifice can be useful, Lie’s participation in this narrative is fleeting. This is also true of characters from later accounts such Cho Ok-hi, a female North Korean combatant during the early months of the Korean War. Given their rather brief part in the narrative such figures were difficult to use as fulcrum for the underpinning of any revolutionary authority. Perhaps it is her apparent in historical terms during the guerrilla period that supports a coherent utilisation of Kim Jŏng-suk as the primary female protagonist.

While Kim Jŏng-suk personhood appears as coherent in this era, she still plays only a fleeting role in the wider North Korean political development. Accordingly, just as it is a contested question when and where exactly Kim Il-sŏng and his guerrilla band operated during the colonial period, so are Kim Jŏng-suk role, position and personhood transient and liminal in historiographical terms. Having died early in North Korean national narrative, Kim Jŏng-suk now plays a mythic role. When it comes, however, to her activities in and around Mt. Paektu , the existent North Korean rhetoric is determined to place Kim in an earthy, categorically real realm of contest.

“…Kim Chŏng-il was born at the Paektusan Secret Camp in the Sobaeksu Valley, Samjiyon County, Ryanggang Province, on February 16, 1942.” (Biography 2005: 1). Thus begins the official biography of Kim Chŏng-il, second in the Kim dynasty, son of Kim Il-sŏng and Kim Jŏng-suk. This biography was written some thirty years after the younger Kim’s birth, and even further in temporality from the important events which mark out the Paektu Camp as a mythologically important. For the authority of the Kim dynasty, the biography still feels the “fact” of Kim’s birth at the foot of Paektu as vital to mention. Indeed the biography continues, overtly connecting the landscape of the mountain and the body of Kim Chŏng-il:

“A saying has it that a man resembles his birthplace; it’s true to say that Kim Chŏng-il resembled Mt. Paektu. The mountain fascinates people with its majestic appearance – the enormous lake at its summit and its chain of high peaks – and its mysterious natural phenomena, all these are symbolic of the traits and mettle of Kim Chŏng-il, who possesses a far-reaching ambition, outstanding wisdom, firm courage, strong willpower, great magnanimity and perfect leadership ability…” (Biography 2005: 2).

This is the masculine gendering of Paektu landscape that we are used to, projecting the strength, commitment, endurance etc. of the Kim dynasty onto its topographical features, coupled with historical recantations of the activities of Kim Il-sŏng and his Anti-Japanese guerrilla band. However, if readers were to visit the primary memorial site commemorating the pre-Liberation guerrillas’ contribution to North Korean historiography in Pyongyang, the Revolutionary Martyrs Memorial, they might be surprised to note that the primary memorialised individual at this site is neither Kim Il-sŏng nor any male member of his band, but instead Kim Jŏng-suk.

Kim Jŏng-suk was born in 1917 at Osa-dong, North Hamyong Province and apparently possessed a “…patriotic and revolutionary family background…” that “…motivated from her early years to grow up into a great revolutionary…” (Biography 2002: 10). Within earlier accounts of North Korean historiography, Kim Jŏng-suk was initially, as we have seen, almost entirely absent. However, later presentations of Kim appear diffuse, made more distant by a packed narrative of revolutionary developments since liberation, the tumultuous Korean War and by the passage of the Cold War. However since 1984 and the rise of Kim Chŏng-il to full institutional power, representations of Kim Jŏng-suk within pre-North Korean anti-colonial struggle appear anything but distant. Instead, Kim Chŏng-il mother is utterly tangible and determinedly real.

According to these new narratives, Kim Jŏng-suk was radicalized by the mistreatment of her family at the hands of hated and clichéd Japanese landlords. This malevolence towards the colonial power she held in common with Kim Il-sŏng’s mother Kang Pan-sŏk, the previous feminine narrative vessel in Pyongyang historiography. Kim Jŏng-suk crystallised her resistive attitude towards Japan in 1932 by joining the Young Communist League and was forced first to negate the expectations of her gender. Left in charge of her young nephew earlier in 1932, she gave up her connections with conventionally patriarchal ‘woman’s life’, a moment recounted by the narrative as key to her ideological and revolutionary development:

“…the child’s crying echoed through the valley, marking this eternal farewell between the brother who must have shed tears of blood hugging his son struggling not to be parted from his aunt, and the sister who had to go to the guerrilla zone hearing the heart-rending cry of her dear nephew, both taking the path of struggle, ready to sacrifice their family and everything else for the revolution…” (Biography 2002: 20).

The narrative argues that the decision to take a “path of struggle” was taken by Kim Jŏng-suk not in defiance of, but collectively with her brother, and the sacrifice mentioned is as much hers as his, with her brother relinquishing his right to her services and her role as a care-taker of his son. Nevertheless, we would assert that here for the first time the authors in their articulation of a “path of struggle” present a topographic element through which such a metamorphosis occurs. Kim Jŏng-suk would continue down this path, both transforming and being transformed by it. She will move further and further away from the terrains of familial convention, becoming a warrior upon joining the KPRA in September 1935, capable of the statement: “With this rifle bearing the blood of the revolutionary forerunners and the people’s desire for national liberation, I will be faithful to General Kim Il-sŏng to the last moment of my life. I take this one rifle as one hundred rifles and will shoot one hundred bullets to take revenge on the enemy…” (Biography 2002: 45).

The “path of struggle” taken by Kim Jŏng-suk will later lead her towards the mythic space of Mt. Paektu, where she will transform into a Revolutionary Mother. In the terms of Propp, Japanese occupation is a ‘trouble’ pushing Kim Jŏng-suk away from home, away from her ‘normal’ feminine life and occupations, associated in the current narrative with peaceful and happy existence, though darkened by the presence of ‘Japanese landlords’ ( Propp 1998 [1946]: 145). Mt. Paektu, on the other hand, will become for this new Kim Jŏng-suk a space of struggle, hardship and endeavour.

There are equally a great many statements from and about Kim Jŏng-suk of a similarly robust and blood curdling nature, suggesting a woman quite distant from patriarchal representations of the feminine or the maternal. When it comes to the period of actions on Mt. Paektu itself, however, the narratives attempt to combine this acute militaristic rhetoric with more tempered, caring behaviours (though still within the context of the guerrilla campaign). A key example for this is the incident at Naitoushan.

At Naitoushan in 1936, Kim Jŏng-suk and the guerrillas accompanying her are recounted as having defeated a Japanese force. They have instituted their own revolutionary authority for the first time, deconstructing the social and political regime implemented by Manchukuo regional government. Therefore it is an important moment in the narrative and one of those recounted within contemporaneous Japanese documents (Suh 1988), as well as repeatedly within North Korean historiography. Naturally, given their initial defeat, Japanese forces counterattacked the Korean revolutionaries amongst the hilly topography:

“One night while the battle was still raging, she [Kim Jŏng-suk] was climbing a mountain with a woman guerrilla carrying a jar of hot water for the combatants when she slipped on some ice and tumbled down a slope. The woman guerrilla hurried down, and found that though she had lost consciousness, she was holding the water jar tightly. Her affection for her revolutionary comrades and fighting spirit encouraged the guerrillas to endure cold and fatigue in the battle…” (Biography 2002: 49).

This Naitoushan incident represents the first instance of Kim Jŏng-suk exhibiting maternal qualities of love and care, expressed through the application of fortitude, strength and courage. Here Kim Jŏng-suk’s militaristic and revolutionary self encounters and engages the landscape of the field of battle, while simultaneously revealing maternal virtues: In the quotation Kim Jŏng-suk holds tight to the hot water in her care meant for her colleagues and comrades, in-spite of her unconsciousness. Further to this, Kim Jŏng-suk in the midst of the guerrilla campaign is given charge of a group of children. Of course, in spite of the difficulties Kim Jŏng-suk demonstrates her battle hardened, revolutionary resilience and her feminine, maternal abilities and does so entirely on her own terms: “Kim Jŏng-suk herself dug out grass roots from the snow-covered ground and picked berries to feed the children. Many times she had only water for her own meal…” (Biography 2002: 51).

The terrain of Mt. Paektu itself was not reached by the guerrillas until the summer of 1936. After crossing “boundless primeval forest” and the Amnok River (an important episode in the narrative of Kim Il-sŏng’s ascent to power – (Kim Il-sŏng 1992), the text announces “…the grand spectacle of the snow-capped ancestral mountain, the symbol of the long history of Korea…”. Kim Il-sŏng himself even lays out the narrative terrain to follow in his conversation with Kim Jŏng-suk: “…This wonderful natural fortress stretching from the summit of Mt. Paektu…will provide us with a theatre of our sacred future struggle…” In response, Kim Jŏng-suk considers the recent past as a topography of difficulty, presumably for the guerrillas and revolutionaries, one ripe for transformation: “Bearing his teachings in mind, she looked back upon the road the Korean     revolution had traversed to Mt. Paektu. It was indeed a course of a bloody struggle, which had to break through a forest of bayonets” (Biography 2002: 61).

Having arrived within this sacred terrain, Kim Jŏng-suk embeds her revolutionary femininity and political commitment through a performative act of theatrics. Its ‘constructed remains’ are key to the contemporary North Korean touristic experience of revolutionary space at Mt. Paektu (Rodong Sinmun 2014)[3] and provide further evidence for the Kwon/Chung charismatic/theatric thesis (Kwon and Chung 2012): “When the construction [of the camp] was complete, Kim Jŏng-suk peeled bark from trees in the surrounding area and wrote meaningful slogans on them: “A General Star has risen on Mt. Paektu”, “Oppose the predominance of men over women. Long live the emancipation of women! Humiliated Korean women, wise up in the struggle against the Japanese!” (Biography 2002: 62).

In Southern myth, Mt. Paektu appears as a space of contest between female Woman of Heaven and male Bodhidharma. The heroine of Northern legend, Kim Jŏng-suk, does not demonstrate similarly hostile attitude toward her male counterpart, her husband and general Kim Il-sŏng. Their relationship instead is one of love, harmony and mutual support. However, the motif of female-male dispute is not absent entirely from North Korean narrative: here we see Kim Jŏng-suk writing on the trees of sacred Mt. Paektu “Oppose the predominance of men over women!” In doing so, Kim Jŏng-suk allies herself with all women against all men – or at least against those men who intend to dominate women. Through this Kim establishes herself not only as a heroine of Mt. Paektu or of Korea, but as a ‘protector and representative of all women’.

Coupled with these demonstrative theatrics Kim Jŏng-suk’s behaviour in the “natural fortress” exhibits both feminine and militaristic qualities, sometimes entirely merging the two, constructing an image of ‘militaristic femininity’. A key example is her maternal support of the guerrilla Ma Tong-hui. Described in semi-comic tone, Ma apparently “…had flat feet…this made it difficult for him to act in concert with the other guerrillas…he was too exhausted to notice that his trousers were falling down…” (Biography 2002: 65). In-spite of his obvious lack of utility to an active band of revolutionary guerrillas, Kim Jŏng-suk seems determined to nurse the inept soldier to usefulness: “Kim Jŏng-suk walked together with him on marches, to encourage him, and helped improve his marksmanship…” (Biography 2002: 65); she also mended his clothes (Biography 2002: 66). Such maternal support is fundamental to the narrative of Paektu and primarily important so far as the contemporary transformation of Kim Jŏng-suk into militaristic saint is concerned. Actually, in teaching the young soldier to fight and providing him with a role model for emulation, Kim Jŏng-suk functions as much as a father as a mother. In this sense, Kim Jŏng-suk shows androgynous qualities of both female and male, similar to Kim Il-sŏng, in B.R. Myer’s conception (Myers 2012).

Besides demonstrating her ‘militaristic femininity’, the episode with Ma Tong-hui also portrays Kim Jŏng-suk as a martial arts teacher: she coaches Ma Tong-hui to become a good fighter. She is also portrayed as a teacher of ‘Revolutionary Truth’ to Ma, inspiring him with her personal example.

Moving to similar geographic and topographic terrains, the text recounts an important event of March 1940. This moment is categorised in hagiographies of Kim Jŏng-suk and conventional North Korean histories as the moment of “Becoming a Human Fortress and a Shield”, echoing the status of Paektu as “natural fortress” (Kim Il-sŏng 1992) Having, counter to conventional military strategy, attacked uphill, and engaging with Japanese forces high up in the mountains, the guerrilla band was subject to a counter attack. The narrative describes the events as following: “Kim Il-sŏng commanded the battle from a rock on the ridge of the mountain. Mindful of his safety, Kim Jŏng-suk kept a close watch on the surroundings. Noticing reeds swaying strangely, she turned her eyes and saw half a dozen enemy soldiers hiding in a reed field, taking aim at Kim Il-sŏng on the ridge…at the hair-raising moment, Kim Jŏng-suk raced to Kim Il-sŏng, shouting “Comrade Commander!” and shielding him with her body. Then she pulled the trigger of her Mauser. The enemy soldier in the front fell down, dropping his gun. A gunshot followed. Kim Il-sŏng had shot over her shoulder. In this way they both shot all the enemy soldiers in the reed field dead…” (Biography 2002: 165).

This linguistic formula is intriguingly repeated once more in October of 1940 at another battle in the forest at Huanggouling. Attacked by surprise within similarly heavy topography, the narrative describes how “[…] Kim Jŏng-suk shot the enemy machine-gunner to death, covering Kim Il-sŏng with her body as she did so. ‘Comrade Commander! It is dangerous here. You must leave here.’ It was really a hair-raising moment.” (Biography 2002: 132). Analysis of these particular instances of weakness on the part of Kim Il-sŏng and the apparent willingness to self-sacrifice on the part of Kim Jŏng-suk, set within a backdrop of particularly rugged topography of Mt. Paektu and its slopes, suggests not simply a transformation of the field of battle and ‘miraculous turn’ when it comes to Kim Il-sŏng’s continued survival. Kim Jŏng-suk, already a figure of considerable acclaim is herself transformed by these events, moving toward a charismatic, saintly status, marked by selflessness, deployment of her agency and concern for the person of Kim Il-sŏng and for the continuation of the revolution….”




[1] “Women of Korea” was an English language journal published by North Korean Foreign Languages Publishing House focused on the lives of North Korean women. In common with many North Korean publication series and journals no individual authors are credited. Accordingly the author ascribes authorship simply to “Women of Korea”.

[2] According to North Korean narratives, upon dying of Kim Hyong-jik “instead of showing tears and sorrows” she “mustered up fresh fighting spirit and determinedly set out on her revolutionary road” (Women of Korea, 1969, p.12)

[3] The “revolutionary” battlefield sites on and around Mt. Paektu have spawned a considerable North Korean tourist industry and accompanying tourist architecture. These sites are discussed at length by scholars such as Christopher Richardson (2014) and in particular by Benoit Berthelier (2014). Berthelier addresses current historical scholarship which views much of the guerilla campaigns undertaken by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk, as real historical events located elsewhere, in the border regions of colonial Manchukuo and Chosŏn.

[4] Thus formulated moral and social obligations show that women were traditionally included among the subjects of virtue in East-Asia.

Mountains and Seas of Gold: 2015’s New Years Message


Kim Jong-un visited the KPA-run No.18 Fisheries Station in November 2014. | Image: KCNA


Mountains and Seas of Gold: 2015 New Year’s Message

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Forecasting the genuinely new in an annual message from North Korea’s Supreme Leader is to anticipate category failure and disappointment. Novelty by definition requires the potential for change or difference… and contemporary North Korea has never been marked by either. It seems that no matter how much it is wished for and conceptualized, Pyongyang has deflected, co-opted, negativized or outright ignored potential challenges to the core of its system. Nevertheless, that does not mean that the New Year’s Address can be discounted.

The 2014 New Year’s Address was acutely demonstrative of the genre’s form as a ‘directional beacon’ highlighting the narrative and developmental direction of the state for the coming year. Where 2013 had been a year of multiple revolutionary speeds, Masik Pass and other megaprojects, so 2014 focused on a key text from Pyongyang’s developmental history: 1964’s Rural Theses on the Solution to the Socialist Rural Question, a conceptual linchpin of practical and ideological progress in agriculture during a more governmentally coherent (though no less difficult) period in North Korean history. The return of the Rural Theses in 2014 suggested a structural cohesiveness to the developmental strategy of the Kim Jong-un government that, of course, may not really be present (a fantasy on the part of Pyongyang agricultural institutions); but, vitally, it politically underpinned the developmental goals of the Address.

Like most North Korea watchers, I was caught unawares by the prominence of the Rural Theses in the 2014 speech, in-spite of having written a considerable portion of my recent monograph on their structure and impact. The anniversary had not seemed significant. The 2014 Address sought to move on from the construction of dramatic megaprojects such as the Masik Pass Ski Resort, applying the Theses’ charismatic impetus to programs that had seemed fairly esoteric and diffuse, such as the Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project. Doing so appeared to be an exercise in reinforcement of their potential, which had hitherto appeared tenuous at best. The North Korean media continued to make reference to the Theses and their place in the New Year’s Address for much of the year, with mentions in Rodong Sinmun as late as the end of October.

Caught between the Tides: Predicting 2015 | In the lead up to January 1 this year, I racked my brain and delved deep into Kim Il-sung’s Works in search of agricultural/developmental focal points around which Kim Jong-un’s statement could coalesce. Of course, environmental historians of North Korea will be aware that the next significant developmental publication following the publication of the Rural Theses in 1964 was 1968’s ‘For the Large-scale Reclamation of Tidelands’. Therefore, lacking an obvious textual anniversary for 2015, the potential of the coming January remained a mystery.

Kim Jong-un’s message of January 1, 2015 heavily focuses on narrative, legitimacy and authority. It makes deep connection (as ever) with the historical narratives of Korean liberation in 1945 and the pre-history of that moment; one embedded deep within the Mt. Baekdu discourse of guerrilla struggle. Mt. Baekdu as a historical revolutionary terrain and physical topography has been a focal point of recent North Korean narratological themes, connected where possible to historical figures and anniversaries (such as Kim Jong-suk’s 97th birthday commemorations in December 2014), and contemporary institutional agendas and processes (the use of Baekdu revolutionary architecture, monuments and sites as epistemic space for the ideological training of Pyongyang bureaucrats early in 2014). Of course Mt. Baekdu has long been a vitally important political stage for the authority of the family Kim; but further than this, the 2015 Address makes great play at the coagulation of as many themes as ideologically and linguistically possible in a single text, on the physical site and within the metaphysical remembered space of Mt. Baekdu.

Leading Party Officials Visit Battle Sites in the area of Mt Paektu.

The biography of Kim Jong-suk recounts similar connections between the geography of Mt. Baekdu and contemporary North Korean political and institutional need, as well as, usefully for his revolutionary and political legitimacy, the physical and metaphysical characteristics shared by Kim Jong-il and the topography of Mt. Baekdu itself.

A saying has it that a man resembles his birthplace; it’s true to say that Kim Jong-il resembled Mt. Baekdu. The mountain fascinates people with its majestic appearance – the enormous lake at its summit and its chain of high peaks – and its mysterious natural phenomena, all these are symbolic of the traits and mettle of Kim Jong-il, who possesses a far-reaching ambition, outstanding wisdom, firm courage, strong willpower, great magnanimity and perfect leadership ability… (Kim Jong-suk Biography, 2005, p.2)

Further to this, and extending the connection beyond the personhood of Kim Jong-Il and other members of the Kim dynasty, this year’s Address bestows the authority and charisma of Mt. Baekdu’s revolutionary topography upon the entire nation, its army, developmental approach and technological output.

This year we should display the revolutionary spirit and mettle of Baekdu to scathingly thwart the challenges and manoeuvres by hostile forces and score a signal success in the struggle to defend socialism and on all fronts of building a thriving nation…Upholding the slogan “Let us all turn out in the general offensive to hasten final victory in the revolutionary spirit of Baekdu!”…Bearing in mind the soul and mettle of Baekdu, we should become honorable victors in the general offensive to exalt the dignity of our socialist country and promote its prosperity on the strength of ideology, arms and science and technology. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

All Eyes on August? Transcending Liberation | Much of the metaphysical and narratological connectivity in the 2015 Address is aimed squarely at the lead up to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Korean peninsula from the Empire of Japan in August. However, this newly reasserted sense of revolutionary authority is not designed simply to alight on preparations for commemorative events marking the septuagenarian anniversary, but also to connect them to annual Workers’ Party of Korea founding ceremonies, all at “blizzards of Baekdu speed”. Possibly successful developmental strategies (even if only “successful” in a narrative or presentational sense) from recent years are also reconfigured to these aims, redeploying the wind themed narrative structure of early 2014.

We should raise a stronger wind of creating the Korean speed…by completing with credit the major construction projects, including the multi-tier power stations on the Chongchon River, Kosan Fruit Farm and Mirae Scientists Street, we should splendidly adorn the venue of grand October celebrations. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

This reconfiguration is a trope of institutional and ideological focus common to many other periods of North Korean developmental history, moments of urgency and instances of Kimist demand. Fruit production, in particular rising apple production (the key focus of Kosan Fruit Farm), has a long, auspicious history dating all the way back to the agenda of the First Seven-Year Plan (1960-1967) and Kim il-sung’s landmark text, On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement (1961).

We are struggling for the future. We must build a communist society and hand it down to the coming generations. . . . We are creating everything from scratch in our time. . . . This is the only way we can be as well off as other peoples, and hand over a rich and powerful country to the new generation. If we plant many orchards, our people will become happier in seven or eight years. (Kim Il-sung, 1960, p. 21)

Kim Jong Un visits the Central Tree Nursery Image

Five Orchards and Two Fisheries Stations: Mountains of Gold | Of course it remains to be seen (and may never be) whether the citizens of North Korean became happier in seven or eight years due to the planting of orchards, nor whether they were planted with the manner or urgency envisaged by Kim Il-sung. Similarly, a feature shared with President Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Kim Il-sung’s desire to reforest his sovereign domain following the impact of the final extractive, destructive years of Japanese colonialism has long been a key feature of North Korean developmental aspiration. In the lea of 1964’s Rural Theses, Kim Il-sung’s Lets Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers with its assertion, “Using mountains does not mean only living by them. In order to use them fully it is necessary to create good forests of economic value before anything else” (Kim Il Sung, 1964, p. 256), set the stage for extensive focus on timber resources, one which is again echoed in the 2015 New Year’s Message.

The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should, as they carried out rehabilitation after the war, turn out in the campaign to restore the mountains of the country so as to turn them into “mountains of gold” thickly wooded with trees. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

Ultimately, the 2015 New Year’s Message reads akin to a hymn or paean to revolutionary stasis, a developmental treading of urgent water in anticipation of imagined new Utopian possibility. The Message’s diplomatic and political vision of trans-peninsular unification and Korean nationalism is configured with virulent aggression through the lens of Mt. Baekdu, anti-colonialism, perceived anti-imperialist victory and the embedding of revolutionary politics. This makes a non-starter out of any movement towards a resolution with those whom Pyongyang sees as the inheritors of colonial collaboration, the new colonizers, the old enemy and the not-so-new imperialist. Equally, 2015’s Message brings a developmental agenda frozen in urgent, assertive aspic. Perhaps KPA Unit 534 will bring in bounteous catches of pollack on the jetties of the January 8th Fisheries Station, revealing, as the New Years Message hopes, “a sea of gold”; however, for the North Korea analyst the counterbalance is the lead weight of history and narrative. Even in developmental terms, this Message required an acute awareness of North Korea’s revolutionary history to negotiate its sloughs and sumps.


Biography of Kim Jong-suk. (2005), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1961). “On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement,” Works 15, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1964). “Let us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers,” Works 18, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1964). “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country,” Works 18, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1968). “For the Large Scale Reclamation of Tidelands,” Works 23, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Rodong Sinmun. (2014). “Kim Jong-un’s 2014 New Years Message”,

Rodong Sinmun. (2014). “Kim Jong-un Visits New Aquatic Products Refrigeration Facilities”,

Rodong Sinmun (2015). “Kim Jong-un’s 2015 New Year Message” ,