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” ,