From the Sino-NK Archives (28) – 09.11.2014 – Spaces of Leisure: The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play

Munsu Water Park

Munsu Water Park | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Spaces of Leisure: The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In this, the final essay in the Spaces of Leisure series, we shall move through the difficulty and strife of the 1990s, and into the contemporary urban and semi-urban spaces of today’s North Korea. We will see many threads and themes from earlier, more urgent days. Yet, this essay will also examine other, unexpected manifestations of physical culture, those marked out by their playful nature and co-option amid North Korea’s apparently austere past and political forms. I will examine the development of these “spaces of leisure,” which can be seen as new expressions of physical endeavor and entertainment, and consider the varied philosophical feedback loops between social and cultural practice in these terrains. In so doing, we shall tread a new analytical path through the maintenance of political norms and ideological framework in North Korea, a place that is rarely considered capable of ephemera or jocularity.

My first essay located the geographic and spatial birth of sporting leisure in the YMCA offices in Keijo (Seoul) during the Japanese colonial period. However, to move into the current period, we must seek connected terrain elsewhere. Social and personal practices we would now categorize as frivolous and/or ephemeral–essentially those of a physical nature that do not have self-improvement or betterment as their ultimate goal–demand more than geographic terrain and space. Temporality is also key to the manifestation of such “practices of leisure.” In order to investigate further, we need to begin not in Pyongyang’s wide avenues, but in the dense transportation corridors of Great Britain.

Making the Trains Run on Time: Walking for Fun | Plenty has been written on the impact of railway timetabling on notions of “customary time” in the United Kingdom. The requirements of industrial modernity demanded that clocks should read the same time at all stations in all towns. This sounded the death knell for seasonal, cyclical time, and popular connections to primitive forms of social and economic being, but at the same time provided a spur to the development and consolidation of leisure and consumption as a socio-economic repertoire of practices. This new capitalistic, linear timeframe was deployed to support the development of working and industrial environments, but could equally be deployed to support the partitioning of time for activities not connected to work.

The first manifestations of this included peculiar logistical festivals in the north of England known as “wake weeks,” where the entire populations of newly industrializing towns would be given a fixed week off and decamp en-masse to a particular seaside resort like Whitby or Brighton. Such activities thus supported leisure and, at the same time, the repair and maintenance of factory equipment while the workers were not at their machines. Similarly, “promenading,” or walking for a leisurely purpose, has a much longer history rooted in the development of formal gardens and parks in 17th-18th century Britain and their use by aristocrats for politics, diplomacy, or simply wooing. But in the 19th century, as working and life time became linear rather than cyclical, partitioned into working week/non-working weekend, promenading entered the repertoire of leisurely possibilities by which to fill non-productive periods within capitalistic, consumptive temporality.

Banks of the Taedong

Perambulating on the banks of the Taedong. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

In Britain, Europe, and the United States, natural spaces were harnessed as the spatial terrain in which promenading, perambulating and picnicking could be performed. Rivers such as the Thames, the Seine, and the Neva were reconfigured, their banks and flows directly reconstructed and re-conceptualized. New and rebuilt parklands were not spaces within which aristocrats could shoot deer and game, as Richmond Park and the ancient Royal Forests had been; rather, they were artificial social landscapes of intriguing topography for the performance of promenade and perambulation.

Small-p, Big-P: Promenade, Perambulate, Picnic, Politics | By embedding productive socioeconomic mores and temporality, these spaces were inherently “small-p “political, but were also co-opted at times to become assertively Political. North Korea, in common with many of the countries of the former Soviet sphere, still makes extensive use of concrete forms of military and political parading. It has become commonplace to witness North Korea placing its military hardware, infrastructure and personnel on show for annual celebrations in which political, ideological, and state power are theatrically paraded across specially built squares for charismatic effect. In these grand militaristic events and in trips to centers of ideological meaning outside of the capitol, the population are not merely spectators; they are encouraged to perform within politically imagined topographic spaces in acts of charismatic and ideologic tourism. Visits to the revolutionary spaces of Baekdu and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, as well as connecting weddings and the broader social repertoire directly to political monuments, all therefore serve to co-opt, coral and co-create leisure and non-productive time, energy and opportunity within the structures and landscapes of political charisma.

The rivers and riverbanks of Pyongyang have long been part of the political narrative. For instance, the Potong River Improvement Project of 1946 was “ground zero” for post-liberation hydrological development. Once neglected, the Taedong River has also been reconfigured by Benjamin Joinau’s charismatic axes of power and architecture into a participant in the topographic theatrics of modern Pyongyang. The river connects the demonstration space of Kim Il-sung Square to the ideological monolith of the Juche tower. Beyond asserting the requirement that the citizenry perform theatrical supplication to Kimism, recent years have seen alternate forms of occupation and activity on the banks of the Taedong.

As far back as 1997, at the end of the most acute phase of the North Korean famine, social and temporal relations on the Taedong were being conceived of in a different fashion. According to KCNA reports, this reconfiguration was entirely due to Kim Jong-il’s publication in September 1992 of the text “Let Us Improve City Management to Meet the Demand of the Developing Situation.” In the light of Kim’s theoretics, waxed KCNA, “The past five years witnessed great changes in the nation’s city management.”

Intriguingly, while the text primarily focuses on technical issues of sewerage and water supply management, the author also has time to note that “streets and villages take on a new appearance… [and] [b]oating sites have been built on the River Taedong and River Potong pleasure grounds.” The following year, the urban architecture of the recently redeveloped Tongil St. was discussed, including the fact that among the local attractions was “a 300-metre-wide promenade” that “stretches out to the riverside of the Taedong.”

By the turn of the millennium, North Korean reportage on the topography of the Taedong only paid momentary homage to the infrastructural events of 1946, instead noting that: “Many people of all ages and both sexes are having a pleasant time on promenades and parks.” This is an urban topography that would have been unfamiliar to the urgent revolutionary narratives of previous years; a topography of pleasure rather than conflict. While the river bank still saw vestiges of contest, such as the hulk of the USS Pueblo and its commemoration of American subjugation and defeat, pleasure rather than violence would seemingly be key to Pyongyang’s urban planning in the contemporary era.

It is unclear if changes to urban planning, design and amenity in the North Korean institutional mind were accompanied by changes in Pyongyang’s philosophical approach to the delicate relationship between various modes of human existence; whether leisure had become a key goal of the nascent Songun politics. Just as in previous manifestations, North Korea’s ideological structure is light on conventional theoretical principles, but extremely dense and demonstrative in practical terms. Urban planning and the embedding of leisure practices in the socio-political everyday seemed to support the restructuring of goals within the Pyongyang elite. The era of creating “a strong and prosperous nation” towards the end of Kim Jong-il’s reign, in particular, matched political and developmental goals to an expansion of leisure activity and space.

The Dawn of a New Era? Leisure at the Death of Kim Jong-il | During the final years of Kim Jong-il reign, those river banks on the Taedong were presented as much more complex spaces of consumption than they had been only a few years previously. Rungra Island, a small islet in the middle of the river, was a key site in the development of a leisure strategy which included a much larger repertoire of possibilities. “Rungra,” it was asserted, “has turned into a pleasure ground. There are boating site, swimming pool, football field, tennis court, roller-skating rink and other sports, amusement and welfare service facilities, a small zoo and a large flower garden.” A pleasure ground at Konyu was built in 2007, granting options for those who demanded more physical leisure, with facilities for “playing sport and folk amusement games including basketball, volleyball, Korean wrestling, Korean chess and yut and a boating ground.”

Rungna Slide

Rungra’s new water slide. | Image : Rodong Sinmun

In ideological terms, the transfer of power to Kim Jong-un has made little difference to the country’s core political philosophical and military strategies. The Byungjin line’s combination of a long held aspiration to “scientificization” (a term often employed by the North Koreans) and technological-rationalist approach with an urgent commitment to nuclear capability, though dramatic in its impact on North Korea’s geo-political situation, has not stemmed the flow of changes in socio-spatial relations.

While I am neither interested in nor capable of analyzing the Kim Jong-un era from a psychoanalytic perspective, changes in presentational tone from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un are obvious. The austere, tense, diffident tone of the previous era has been replaced with an almost jocular, frivolous optimism. Accordingly, structures, institutions and projects concerning leisure and consumptive space have been key to recent presentational narratives. Rungra itself has been narratologically reconfigured; necessary homage is made to the previous leader before connection is made to the ambitions of Kim Jong-un and wider North Korean governmental priorities: “It is one of the projects that leader Kim Jong Il was specially interested in. It is a product of loving care for people of Marshal Kim Jong-un as well as a socialist wealth to hand down for all ages.” Equally, the site has been practically redeveloped early in the era of Kim Jong-un, now containing a “Dolphinarium, wading pool, fun fair and mini golf course…” as well as “a very high water slide and… beach volleyball, basketball and volleyball courts.”

Socially Acceptable Leisure: A Revolution in Socialist Modernity | Sino-NK has covered developments at sites such as Masik Pass, which appear to harness older themes of physically grounded leisure practice to a developmental repertoire, at least in Masik’s case serving the leisure life and times of others, a touristic form. While these of course do contribute to my conception of leisure and consumptive spaces (especially true in the case of the Mirim Riding Club), it is clear that within the sites and spaces of Rungra and the banks of the Taedong River, leisure praxis and practices of consumption appear to have become both practically embedded within North Korean developmental repertoires–inasmuch as they have become socially and culturally acceptable. While previously it would have been possible to assert that these spaces were spaces of elite peculiarity and exceptionalism, resident only in Pyongyang, Rodong Sinmun recently announced the construction of a 45,000 meters squared waterpark in Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province, perhaps evidencing the spread of such spaces into the provinces of North Korea.

Modernity reaches the Taedong. | Image: Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Modernity reaches the Taedong. | Image: Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The space, practice and socio-political manifestation of leisure, entertainment and consumption has of course come an enormously long way from Son Ki-jong and his sporting endeavour during the Japanese colonial period. Social and political relations in the North Korean institutional and ideological mind have equally come some distance from their initial assertion and desire to embed and bestow conceptions of “authentic,” raw socialist modernity on socio-cultural praxis. Ridding social relations of frivolous intent, frippery and ephemeral practice is no longer a key goal of Kimism or any of Pyongyang’s ideologic forms. Hints abound of disconnections between previous modalities of social practice and relation in the field of leisure, disconnections which might one day feed back into the wider praxis of politics. A painted young woman with a fashionable haircut and Kim badge, smiling privately at the text message on her Koryolink mobile phone in the park, young lovers holding hands on the Taedong promenade, children splashing wildly in Munsu or Rungra Water Parks, all with a sense of the leisurely informality that surely cannot be reconfigured into the rigor of the ideologically austere.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

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From the Sino-NK Archives (27) – 27.09.2014 -Spaces of Leisure: From Cinematic Birth to Physical Culture

pansori vs flower girlPansori vs The Flower Girl | Images: Wikipedia

Spaces of Leisure: From Cinematic Birth to Physical Culture 

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Pansori lacks interest since it is too old-fashioned. The ballads of the southern provinces are what nobles would chant over their wine cups in the days when they used to wear horse-hair hats and ride about on donkeys[1]

As asserted in the first essay in this series, I identified the pre-history of Korean leisure as having revolved around physicality and sport. Colonial Chosen’s engagement with the wider world of sports and sporting competition, as at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, might be conceptualized as the route through which modernist visions of entertainment or frivolity entered the Korean peninsula. David Rowe asserts that “sport in modernity is conventionally written as a process of cultural diffusion…with rationalized and regulated physical play either directly exported as part of the apparatus of imperialism and/or absorbed through the unfolding process of (post)colonialism,”[2] a notion that lays the ground for conceiving of sporting leisure as one of the fruits of the colonial period. However as the reader will be aware, while the physical pursuits may well have been modernity’s category wedge opening for citizens of Chosen (or, later, of both Koreas), it was not where the essay found leisure and leisure activities in the early years of North Korea.

Music of Leisure or Rigour| Before Pyongyang’s institutions had developed to a structural level capable of managing the rigours and narrative prat and pit falls of elite sporting endeavor, Party and community groups were capable of organising ideologically acceptable and popular or semi-leisurely musical events. Kim Il-sung’s denunciation of the musical styles of “Pansori” songs strongly connects with leisure activities as presented in 1961’s “A Happy and Cheerful Life for the Working People.”[3] Amateur singing and performance activities were closely rooted in working and family traditions, yet distinctly and determinedly connected to the needs of Party politics and ideology. Kim Il-sung’s “On Creating Revolutionary Literature and Art” outlines a musical repertoire for these productions and for more general popular consumption. In a sense Kim conceives of this musical milieu as being very much one of leisurely interaction and consumption, while at the same time fitting the needs of Party ideology, revolution and unification:

Writers and artists engaged in such fields as literature, the cinema, music and dance have a very great part to play in inspiring people with revolutionary spirit… our literature and art should serve not only socialist construction in the north, but also the struggle of the whole Korean people for the south Korean revolution and the unification of the fatherland.[4]

Perhaps this determined revolutionary, urgent musical, theatric or cinematic form does not sound conventionally leisurely, but similar political forms have produced similar revolutionary forms in occupying the leisure times and leisure spaces of its citizenry. Soviet Socialist artistic production in the USSR and the German Democratic Republic, for instance, resulted in the production of an enormous body of graphic and filmic work, meant not only to educate a politically conscious populace, but also to entertain, to consume and to reproduce.[5] Using somewhat more radical examples, self-criticism sessions were used to directly co-opt and occupy the leisure space and time of citizens of the People’s Republic of China during the Great Leap Forward[6] and under the Khmer Rouge regime of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.[7] While Kim Il-sung’s approach is of course rigorous in its denunciative tone, it is not entirely astringent, leaving grudgingly, some spaces of acceptability that are not entirely ideologically sound:

There are quite a few crooning tunes amongst the songs composed by our people at the time of Japanese imperialist rule. Of course decadent crooning tunes are bad. But we can continue to sing those songs which are not degenerate but are fairly cheerful…[8]

The Leisurely Charisma of the Cinematic| Musical and song-based entertainment or leisure of course has the advantage that it is in no way restricted by site or infrastructure: People, citizens, and revolutionaries can engage in such activity anywhere, so any space can be a place of leisure. In a sense this is the justification for early North Korean focus on film and cinema. Kim Il-sung called the cinema “in many respects… superior to other forms of literature and art.” Kim noted the site-based advantages of film: “Plays or a chorus of 3000 people, for instance can be performed only on theatre stages…. Films, however can be screened anywhere, both in towns and villages, and can be shown simultaneously throughout the country.”[9]

This mobility and flexibility of form of course supports the co-option by Party and ideological interests of the more liminal and diffuse artistic or leisure forms of the cinematic. In part perhaps this explains Kim Jong-il’s later near obsession with film production [10] and the occasional harnessing of wider national strategies towards the generation of greater, more artistic, more impactful, cinematic production.[11]

Kim jong-il man with a movie camera

Kim Jong-Il – Man with a movie camera | Image: Foreign Languages Publishing House

While cinematic production and the viability of North Korean filmic output continued to be vital and key to Pyongyang’s leisure strategies during the remainder of the 1960s, it is interesting to note how Kim Il-sung offered such little commitment to the generation of built leisure environments centered around film. Of course, as I have asserted in the previous paragraph, this is part of the point. Kim Il-sung’s focus on musical and cinematic primacy so far as the consumable output of North Korea’s socio-cultural production leaves little physical trace, requires little tangible investment outside of its own production and can be utilized in as flexible a form as politics, ideology and situation demand. In another sense there is little sense of the development of physical spaces for leisurely interaction, nor leisure spaces disconnected from the realm of ideological or political appropriateness.

It is instead a return to the leisure past, to the modes of colonial or early modernity’s leisure production and interaction that would herald the arrival and generation of the impetus for un-imagined, real spaces of leisure and consumption in North Korea.

Returning to Physical Culture | In a sense, Kim Il-sung’s landmark speech of the early 1970s “On Developing Physical Culture” identifies missed opportunities and pines for the lost, if acknowledged, past of colonial sporting prowess represented by Son Ki-jong and 1936. The speech also outlines a future institutional agenda and imperative that serves as the progenitor of future events, such as the World Table Tennis Championships (1979) and the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students (1989), both held in Pyongyang.

13 world festival of youth and students

Worlds of sporting possibility | Image: Wikipedia

The Great Leader of course does not outline as of yet a leisure or leisurely space focused or connected to paradigms of consumption, sport and physical culture is still very much to be harnessed to the needs of politics and ideology:

In our conditions, we can develop physical culture on a mass basis without difficulty. In a capitalist society or in the south Korean society, only rich people can go in for sports for amusement, but under the socialists system in our country everyone is provided with conditions for taking part on physical culture.[13]

I wonder however whether, the necessary incorporation of leisurely or sporting activity within this structure entirely precludes the participant or sporting actor for amusing themselves at all? What it certainly does not preclude is the investment in facilities in which sporting activity can be undertaken and this physical culture created: “It is necessary for the state to develop sports equipment factories and provide the necessary sports equipment and facilities. Balls, nets, backboards and baskets and their supports and all other equipment and facilities must be produced.”[14] Or, earlier: “At present, the state of physical culture is not satisfactory. Nowadays… it is lifeless and enthusiasm is cooling… no sport, not even football is making good progress. Almost all sports have dropped to a lower level than in the past and players records in international contests are not good.”[12]

In short what Kim Il-sung here demands in 1972 is the creation of the first real sporting spaces and terrains in North Korea, the first directly focused geographical spaces of leisure. From this imperative will spring both some of the obnoxious, overbearing sporting infrastructure of modern Pyongyang (such as the 1st of May Stadium and the Yanggakdo Stadium) and more local, community based leisure architecture. North Korea’s sporting diplomacy of recent years (both focused on football and basketball), would be impossible but for the resultant infrastructure. And as for the less savory, assertive ethno-nationalism of strength, blood and power negotiated by B. R. Myers, it, too, can be drawn into this Kimist imperative to physical improvement.

Of primary and concluding importance however for this essay series is the nature of infrastructural development unleashed by “On Developing Physical Culture.” Bridging the gap in developmental terms between the era in which North Korean landscapes were almost entirely regenerated to serve production capacity, generation or risk needs, such as those within early field of hydrological improvement (the Potong River Improvement project for example), and modern spaces of apparent frivolity and play (the afore-mentioned Munsu Water Park), it seems the connector from one era to the next.

In the concluding essay to this series, I will examine this modern era of leisure and consumptive space in North Korea, considering whether finally the importance and primacy of the playful (if only for the Party and institutional elite) has begun to supplant the imperatives of ideology and politics in their creation. After all, it needs to be determined whether or not in 2014 we can truly see the birth of not only local and indigenous North Korean spaces of leisure, but also space for pure consumption and accumulation.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “On creating Revolutionary Literature and Art,” Works. Vol 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964), 389.

[2] David Rowe,“Sport and the Repudiation of the Global,” International Review of the Sociology of Sport 38, no. 3 (2003): 6.

[3] Kim Il-sung, “A Happy and Cheerful Life for the Working People,” Selected Works Vol 3 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961).

[4] Kim Il-sung, “On creating Revolutionary Literature and Art,” Works. Vol 18  (Pyongyang” Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964), 381.

[5] Evgeny Dobrenko, The Political Economy of Socialist Realism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[6] Ezra Vogel, “From Friendship to Comradeship: The Change in Personal Relationships in Communist China,” China Quarterly 46 (1964): 46.

[7] Thomas Clayton, “Building the New Cambodia: Educational Destruction and Construction under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979,” History of Education Quarterly 38, no. 1 (1988): 1-16.

[8] Kim Il-sung, “On creating Revolutionary Literature and Art,” Works. Vol 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964), 388.

[9] Kim Il-sung, “Let us Produce More Films Which are Profound and Rich in Content,” Works. Vol 20 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1966), 232.

[10] Charles Armstrong, “The Origins of North Korean Cinema: Art and Propaganda in the Democratic People’s Republic,” Acta Koreana 5, no. 1 (2002): 1-19.

[11] Kim Suk-young, “‘Guests’ of the Dear Leader: Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee, and North Korea’s Cultural Crisis,” Joint US-Korea Academic Studies (2008).

[12] Kim Il-sung, “On Developing Physical Culture,” Works Vol 27 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1972), 312.

[13] Ibid., 315.

[14] Ibid., 317.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (26) -13.09.2014 – Spaces of Leisure: A North Korean (Pre-) History

Munsu

The Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, a contemporary space of North Korean leisure with origins predating the DPRK. Image: KCNA/Reuters

Spaces of Leisure: A North Korean (Pre-) History

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In recent years, the North Korea watcher or analyst has been continuously presented with a number of apparently humorous images of Pyongyang residents reveling in the delights of the Rugna Aquarium and Munsu Waterpark, grappling with the icy slopes of Masik Pass or engaging in equestrian delight at the Mirim Riding Club. Excluding some nascent analysis of North Korea’s very own developing “fluorescent night-time economy” led by the Moranbong Band, these singular enterprises and pleasure terrains jar our conventional understanding of North Korea as a defiantly socialist, revolutionary, austere, anti-consumption entity.

Might these instances actually represent the emergence of a new category of spatial and social relation in North Korea, serving as a harbinger of societal and social upheaval, auguring a reconfiguration that would render the bleak rigor of socialist modernity redundant? Alternatively, might these seemingly contradictory approaches to development signal a previously unseen (or un-theorised) maturity in North Korean political structures, manifesting an ability to co-opt even the most oppositional modes of social being within its socio-political framework?

This series of essays, titled “Spaces of Leisure,” seeks to investigate the historical narratives of leisure and non-productive social spatiality in North Korea. I aim to consider and examine the nature of North Korea’s current form and typology and to suggest an analytical framework for its “emplacement” within contemporary North Korean charismatic political and social form. While this is essentially a formative exercise in what, it is hoped, will grow and evolve into a major stream of academic research with the potential to tie in various ephemeral (or even deviant) strands of investigation within North Korean studies, I hope by the final piece to have laid some analytic and investigative strands, enough at least to spark the reader’s imagination and present new conceptual possibilities.

Leisure under the Colonial master | The title of this essay — A (Pre-) History of North Korean Leisure — naturally begs two questions of category and conception. The first is the meaning of leisure, which, as it is an academic discipline by itself (leisure studies), I will leave to one side. However, for the purposes of this essay, the secondary question — “When does this (pre-) History begin?” — is highly important to this essay and those that will follow.

Son Ki-jong

Son Ki-jong receiving the gold medal for the Japanese Empire at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Image: Olympic.org

As inherited by the polity now known as North Korea, society and culture in the northern half of the Korean peninsula had encountered what we might categorize as “modern” conceptions of leisure time and leisure space during the Japanese colonial period. Professor Koen de Ceuster, for example, has reminded us of the fact that at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 Koreans, Son Kijong and Nam Sungjong were first and third in the Marathon competition respectively (though classed as Japanese competitors and known by their colonial era Japanese names).[1] Such athletic prowess and expertise suggests at least some depth to colonial Chosen’s traditions of leisure. De Ceuster’s narrative recounts the incorporation of sport and physical activity into the educational strategies of Chosen via the YMCA and its commitment to ‘muscular Christianity’ and the fact that “modern sport as a leisure activity was initially met with incredulity by Korea’s upper class.”[2]

YMCA Keijo

Keijo (Seoul) YMCA – Ground Zero of Korean leisure prior to 1945. Image: Skilman Library, Lafayette College

In financial terms the Japanese economist Mitsuhiko Kimura, in an act of fiduciary archaeology within his reconstruction of economic developments during Chosen’s colonial era, asserts an astonishing 5.37 percent annual increase in spending on the leisure services and the products of consumption (running ahead of general inflation for the period of an annual .97 percent).[3]

Early narratives of North Korean leisure | Along with redeveloped railway networks, bureaucratic universe, and a modern industrial infrastructure, the colonialist enemy bequeathed at least some development in the conception of leisure to the emergent institutions of Pyongyang’s sovereignty. While North Korea’s early historical narrative does not seem to give much space nor time for activities conventionally understood as leisure, Kim Il-sung and the Korean Worker’s Party now in power following the collapse of Japanese authority and apparent Soviet favor found it necessary to address at least some of the elements necessary for the development of leisure time or consumptive space.

Artistic and creative activity now firmly and determinedly commodified or co-opted by capitalist endeavor in these early revolutionary days was harnessed primarily to support political intent and necessity. While one day artistic productions might serve the priorities and prerogatives of entertainment and frivolity, Kim Il-sung’s “On Some Questions of Our Literature and Art” from 1951 asserts that “Our writers and artists are entrusted with very important tasks today when the Korean people are fighting a sacred war of liberation.” These artists were then portrayed as “engineers of the human soul” who” should vividly represent in their works the lofty patriotism and staunch fighting spirit of our people and their unshakeable conviction of final victory.”[4]

Given these rather urgent, assertive, and intense conceptions, practices of entertainment, practices of cultural commemoration, and frivolity disconnected from the imperatives of revolution or liberation seem impossible, excluded, or forbidden. However even at this ‘ur-moment’ of North Korean cultural endeavor, activities which one day might be categorized as leisurely, that would birth skiing activities at Masik Pass, the artistry of the Sea of Blood opera troupe, and various Moranbong Band performances are not only perceived as possible, but conceptualized through that distinctly North Korean lens of assertive revolutionary nationalism:

It is necessary to preserve the fine features peculiar to our nation in all spheres of folk song, music, dance, etc., and at the same time, create new rhythms, new melodies and new rhythmic forms demanded by the new life and learn to put new content in the rich, varied, artistic forms possessed by our people.[5]

As a geographer of course the simple existence of the possibility of future cultural production directed at entertainment or leisure activity (no matter how political in form), is not enough for this author and for this series. Conceptual, theoretic, imagined space is no space at all if it does not occupy physical terrain. However, just as often in later governmental narratives from North Korea, the physical realization of Kim Il-sung or the structures of the central party committees would be the responsibility of more practical, more local institutions.

Kim Il-sung in a characteristically didactic moment. | Image: Queen's University, Belfast

Kim Il-sung in a characteristically didactic moment. | Image: Queen’s University, Belfast

Leisure, the People, and Politics | Kim Il-sung’s 1958 work “On Some Immediate Tasks of City and County People’s Committees” contains the first available and extant instructions as to the locale in which entertainment or leisurely activity would be undertaken. As one might expect given the intense “politicality” of the period, this first physical leisure space would be closely entwined with Party politics, ideological socialization, and educational development:

While raising the people’s level of knowledge, the amateur circle activities in physical culture, dance, music should be developed… In this respect, the democratic publicity hall should play an important role as the centre of cultural life.[6]

The democratic publicity hall, it seems, was to be the cave wall in North Korean leisure or cultural terms. Within three years the focus on cultural or artistic production had developed to the extent that Kim Il-sung in the intriguingly named “A Happy and Cheerful Life for the Working People” could assert that it “is desirable that every house has a musical instrument,” that “it would be really fine if family choruses, for instance were organized by workers’ families”, and that “one of the most important duties of all Party organizations and functionaries is to lead the working people in making their labour and life cheerful and cultured.”[7]

In a tendency to retrospective connection we will see many, many times in the future of North Korean political and narrative production, this inclination to the cultural or the leisurely is read backwards onto the narratology of guerrilla struggle and pre-revolution: “In former days, the anti-Japanese guerrillas were never dispirited even though they were poorly clad and went hungry for days in the biting cold of raging snowstorms.… When arriving at a village our guerrillas would immediately dry their shoes and come out to sing and dance.”[8]

Perhaps the veracity or reality of this narrative in which a wind and frost-beaten, exhausted Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk might strike up the nights entertainment at their mountain camp or rural hamlet, instantly creating a space of revolutionarily minded leisure or entertainment is doubtful or a conceptual stretch? What is not difficult to conceive of in our era is the importance of cultural or leisure production and spatiality to North Korean narratives and Pyongyang’s sphere of governmentality.

Producing a distinctly revolutionary or ideologically sound leisure or culturally productive space or spaces has become vitality important to these narratives and the performative element almost the focal point to the charismatic politics of contemporary Kimism. While such current performance spaces and productions will be the ultimate destination of this essay series, following review and uncovering of this genesis of revolutionary leisure and productive space in the village, family, or publicity hall, the following essay will review the development of entertaining or ephemeral spaces and places in North Korea from the era of the Sino-Soviet split to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in 1991: a period in which the production of leisure and entertainment, its procedures, structures, and terrains were vital to North Korea’s navigation of the geo-political spaces of the mid-twentieth Century.


[1] Koen De Ceuster, “Wholesome Education and Sound Leisure: The YMCA Sports Programme in Colonial Korea,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 2, no. 1 (2003): 53-88.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kimura Mitsuhiko, “Standards of Living in Colonial Korea: Did the Masses Become Better or Worse Off Under Japanese Rule,” The Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1993): 629-652.

[4] Kim Il-sung, On Some Questions of Our Literature and Art, Selected Works Vol. 1 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951), 305.

[5] Ibid., 310.

[6] Kim Il-sung, On the Immediate Tasks of City and Country People’s Committees, Selected Works Vol. 2 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958), 183.

[7] Kim Il-sung, A Happy and Cheerful Life for the Working People, Selected Works Vol. 3 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), 250.

[8] Ibid., 251.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (35) – 25.08.2015 – Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

Kim Jong-suk and the azaleas

Kim Jong-suk: Indomitable Revolutionary | Image: Women of Korea

Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

“Wreaths were laid before the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery on Mt. Taesong on Saturday, the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation…The participants paid silent tribute to the revolutionary martyrs who laid down their lives for the liberation, reunification and independence of the country and accomplishment of the revolutionary cause of Juche…They laid bouquets before the bust of anti-Japanese war hero Kim Jong Suk and observed a moment’s silence.”((“Wreaths Laid before Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong,” Rodong Sinmun, August 17, 2015))

The overt singling out of Kim Jong-suk amongst all the other revered residents of the cemetery on Mount Taesong at this utterly vital moment in North Korea’s political calendar suggests that the once humble share-cropper from Hoeryong certainly has assumed a uniquely important place in the narrative pantheon of Pyongyang’s political legends. Kim Jong-suk appears in 2015 alongside North Korea’s Great, Dear and Young leaders in a way unlike any other of its citizens. Within the narratology and historiography of North Korea, Kim Jong-suk now, alongside Kim Il-sung, overwhelms all other participants in these struggles and amongst this topography.

Pyongyang’s institutions urge North Korean citizens to re-temporalize and re-territorialize events from the period in contemporary time. This is done for the purposes of ideological reiteration or the transmission of political charisma — as we saw last year with the march of the school children and recently in the Red Flag Relay. ((“Red Flag Relay Groups of Service Personnel Arrive in Panmunjon,” Rodong Sinmun, August, 17, 2015.)) At the center of such drives are the experiences and encounters of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk and Kim Jong-il — but rarely are any other revolutionary Koreans singled out as exemplary.

It was, as one might suspect, not ever thus; there is a substantial fluidity and transmutability of North Korea historiography and narrative. Kim Jong-suk’s own biography makes repeated reference to other participants in the revolutionary struggles, describing her companions and fellow travellers as “other female guerrillas.” These women play a role at the moment of conceptual consummation of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk’s relationship: (“Leaning on a birch tree on which spring tints were emerging, he [Kim Il-sung] posed with the commanding officers…One of them suggested to him that he should have his photo taken with Kim Jong-suk. Hearing this, Kim Jong-suk grew shy and hid behind the backs of the women guerrillas. They pushed her forward to his side. In order not to miss the moment, the “cameraman” clicked the shutter. For Kim Jong-suk, it was as good as a wedding photo.”((Biography of Kim Jong-suk (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 132.)) However, they are rarely, if ever, mentioned by name and their stories are not described in any useful level of detail in the texts of Biographies or core publications directly focused on Kim Jong-suk.

So where might we travel as readers and scholars to encounter or uncover the stories of other woman, a supporting cast if you like, who supported and fought with Kim Jong-suk and Kim Il-sung during the period from which North Korea derives so much of its charismatic political authority?

Women of Korea: North Korean “Herstory” | Archival research by this author in the libraries and institutions of South Korea and the Captured Documents collection of the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration in College Park, Maryland has uncovered a fascinating publication, Women of Korea. One of North Korea’s extraordinary collection of semi-academic, semi-populist English language publications produced for an audience in the wider world between the 1970s and 1980s, Women of Korea seeks to address in detail the experiences of women in many different fields of business and life in the North Korea of this time. Women of Korea also sought to be educative so far as North Korea’s political and historical narratives were concerned at their intersections with women’s lives and what has been called by critical feminist historians “herstory.”((Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful (New York City, NY, Random House), 1970))

While such an approach to historiography perhaps unsurprisingly revolves around those most important to North Korean politics, such as Kim Il-sung and his “love and care” for women, the magazine includes narratives which are occasionally contradictory to its current political mainstream. A key example is the intriguing interplay of importance and centrality focused on Kang Ban-sok, Kim Il-sung’s mother, on the pages of Women of Korea throughout the 1980s. Kim Jong-suk does not appear in the magazine prior to 1981. Between then and 1984, Kim Jong-suk and Kang Ban-sok have an uneasy coexistence on its pages, and then Kang Ban-sok disappears from the narrative, seemingly not to appear again. It seems rather clear that the emergence and emphasis of Kim Jong-suk within North Korean history and myth is was connected to the succession campaign of her son, Kim Jong-il in the early 1980s, but this is not our focus here.

Between 1981 and 1992, Women of Korea featured an extraordinary monthly series focusing on a woman who accompanied or who was known by Kim Jong-suk during her guerrilla period. The series contains biographical details expounded about the women and their place within the wider charismatic political narratives. These articles form an important and extension corpus through which both the individual lives of these women can be glimpsed and in which perhaps familiar generic narratological tropes of the North Korean historical canon can be seen.

There is extensive focus, for example, on the similar backgrounds these women shared with Kim Jong-suk, whose childhood as an impoverished share cropper harassed by landlords and Japanese colonialists at the margins of Korean and diaspora life and the impact this had on her rapidly developing sense of nationalism is intricately detailed as a vector of her transformation in her many biographies. Choe Hui-suk, for instance, is described as having been “bereaved of her mother at the age of three. She and her father, a farmhand, barely got along under all kinds of exploitation, contempt and poverty.”(( Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) Pak Rok-gum was born into a ‘poor peasant family in Kyongsong County, North Hamgyong Province,((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) similar to Li Gye-sun.((“The Brilliant Last: Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter Li Gye Sun, Women of Korea 1 (1987): 27.)) Pak Su-hwan was even born in the same county, Hoeryong as Kim Jong-suk and grew up “undergoing all sufferings and sadness of a ruined nation.”((“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.))

Pak Rok-gum

Pak Rok-gum “brave as a lion in battles” | Image: Women of Korea

These women, similar to Kim Jong-suk utilize education as a transformational vector in their transformation from obscurity in the mass of Korean peasantry into politically inspired, committed revolutionaries. Choe Hui-suk, for example, “trained herself to be a woman revolutionary under the guidance of the great leader,”((“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) and Li Sun-hui was one of a “large number of women who were educated in the revolutionary idea” ((“Liberty, then Life Counts,” Women of Korea, 3, 1991, 29.)). Similar to Kim Jong-suk’s own experience, these women, having been bestowed with and transfigured by charismatic revolutionary consciousness, project this charisma through educative and agitative activities. Pak Rok-gun for instance apparently “concentrated her strength on bringing many women to class awakening and rallying them around the revolutionary organizations,”((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) and Chon Hui is recounted as “having exerted herself to train the children to become fighters possessed of iron will, perseverance, courage and boldness.”((“Chon Hui, Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Martyr,” Women of Korea 4 (1988): 20.))

Crackshots and Angry Tigresses | Perhaps unsurprisingly this group of attendant female guerrilla fighters beyond their perhaps more positive educational contributions are equally adept at acts of combat and violence. Kim Hwak-sil, apparently called “woman commander” by her colleagues and comrades was a “crackshot” who “could hold a rifle by the barrel in each hand and lift them overhead.”((“A Guerrilla Amazon: on Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.)) Kim Il-sung himself presented her with a golden ring for “mowing down the enemy with a sharp-edged bayonet like an angry tigress, shouting out ‘Enemies, Come on! I’m avenging my comrades with this bayonet.’”((“A Guerrilla Amazon,” 25.)) Pak Rok-gun was “as brave as a lion in battles…. She walked more than 15km a day with a machine gun on her shoulders,”((“Eternity,” Women of Korea 2 (1990): 25.)) and Pak Su-hwan “fought bravely in many battles including those at Chechangzi and Naitoushan.”((“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.))

Unlike Kim Jong-suk, however, these women are not always successful in battle nor in evading arrest and capture by the forces of Imperial Japan. Whereas Kim Jong-suk appears capable of resistingany threat to Kim Il-sung’s life and avoiding any threat to her own mortality in battle, Kim Jong-suk’s supporting female guerrillas are regularly dismembered, annihilated and eviscerated. Sometimes their deaths are portrayed and memorialized as acts of military significance. Such was the case for Kim Hwak-sil, who in March, 1938 encountered an attacking Japanese force having walked through “a field of shoulder-high purple eulalia.” Hiding behind a rock, she was wounded in the chest and then ran out of ammunition. Women of Korea describes her next move in some detail: “She disassembled the lock of her rifle and buried it under the snow so that the enemy could not deprive her of the rifle permeated with the blood and soul of her comrades in arms. Then she dashed into the enemy with hand grenades in her arms. An explosion shook the forest and the enemy was wiped out.”((“A Guerrilla Amazon: On Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.))

Women’s bodies as topographies of violence | Kim Hwak-sil’s self immolation in resistance is by no means an isolated occurrence. The violence enacted by Hwak-sil on her own body and the bodies of her enemies (who no doubt died both agonizing and instant deaths), in fact becomes a key narrative and political device. The disfigurement and destruction of these women’s bodies at the hands of their Japanese enemies perhaps serves to illustrate for North Korean readers the potential violence to be enacted on themselves in the event of a future enemy victory. In some sense, it also echoes both the real and imagined violences of instances such as the Sinchon massacre during the later Korean War (an event very much in the mind of the commemorative authorities of North Korea at the moment).The brutality enacted upon fighters such as Pak Rok-gum whose “torture was extremely cruel,”((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) and who was apparently thrown in a room where “those with epidemic diseases were kept” and thus “died of illness on October 16, 1940 at the age of 25″((Ibid., 25.)) is extraordinary and savage.

Yet the acts and actions of these women’s deaths and tortures are presented in such a way that serves to transform them from simply gory testimonies which deny the victims of any agency. Instead they are rendered quite powerful moments of witness in which the dying women themselves testify to future revolutionary generations as to the charismatic nature and political, nationalist legitimacy of their cause. Pak Rok-gum while dying in prison coined a song with the verse “the red flag of the masses/covers the corpse of the fighter/the blood dyes the flag/before the corpse cools,”((Ibid.)) suggesting the transfer and rescaling of charismatic and nationalist power through violent death and narrative transfiguration.

This essay ends with the most extraordinary and violent narrative of them all, which really illustrates the intertwining of these women’s lives and deaths with North Korea’s political charisma and the potentially vital message for its future citizens. Through the story, the state argues the immolation and immersion of the needs and lives of the individual is sometimes an important and necessary process for the eventual success or utility of the collective.

Choe Hui-suk

“I have no eyes now, yet I can still see the revolution.” | Image: Women of Korea

Choe Hui-suk died on March 12, 1941. As rendered in Women of Korea, her death serves as the ultimate testifier at the altar of North Korea’s revolutionary period and its nascent political charisma, one whose political presence colours much of the later narrative focused on Kim Jong-suk. It is a telling absence in today’s North Korea that Hui-suk and these other women, having died horrendous deaths for the North Korean revolution, have been left behind by its narratives. Kim Jong-suk, as positioned by those who control her position in the histories, has subsumed the tropes of their narratives, effectively absorbing and embodying the political power generated by their deaths. Perhaps the urgency and pain of their annihilations perhaps is no longer necessary in the age of the Young Generallismo. Yet an encounter with the texts of Women of Korea and this charismatic supporting cast can revivify their presence in the mind of any reader.

Hui-suk, like many of her kind was captured by a Japanese “punitive force” while taking a message to Kim Il-sung and was badly wounded in the initial raid. After asserting to her captors that “A communist is also a human being. There is nothing to look down on!” she was spared nothing in her torture, the text recounting that “The enemy desperately inflicted atrocious tortures on her every day. They cried, “Reveal the secret of the partisan!” searing her body with a red-hot spit.”((“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) Eventually after entirely failing to break her will, Japanese army doctors “gouged out her eyes” and “scooped out her heart,” Hui-suk’s final words of testimony bequeathed to North Korea’s historiography and politics, and whose intent and power are surely transmitted to support its charismatic form, even at the most unlikely and desperate moments being, “I have no eyes now. But I can see the victory of the revolution.”((Ibid., 26.))

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (34) – 27.07.2015 – Returning to the Courtyard: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea

Ri Song-ryong and patriotic family in 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Ri Song-ryong and patriotic family in 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Returning to the Courtyard: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Following on from my 2013 article “Patriotism begins with a love of courtyard,” which focused on a particular extraordinary campaign of political narrative from North Korea revolving around the patriotism of one family unit in Pyongyang and their embedding of current charismatic political forms within the space of their own house, the author now further considers the utility of that campaign and the political methodologies and strategies which it might represent. Deploying in particular a conceptual framework derived originally from Cartography and recently reconfigured to support the empirical goals of human or political Geography, namely Scales and Scaling, this piece moves beyond and around the initial campaign, considering other campaigns and narrative projections. Ultimately it conceives of the process, in the context of North Korea’s political articulation as a carrier signal for its charisma. This article is a shortened version of a full length academic article published in Tiempo Devorado, the Journal of Consumed Time, published by the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

So before we turn to Ri Song-ryong and his family around their courtyard perhaps addressing the more general nature of patriotism might be helpful. When we do so in the more conventional social and political productions of the contemporary wider world there appears a particular texture and tone to the conception. Having been rehabilitated from enlightenment critiques, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s co-option of nationalistic fervor to underpin the modern nation-state and its democratic ideals (so under threat according to Rousseau as to require constant patriotic buffering), patriotism now serves generally the nation-state and its governmental-political-industrial complexes. Citizens are patriotic when they celebrate their nation’s success in war, defend it from defeat and subjection, resist the oppressor, commemorate the hero, and successfully marry their own personal commitments to wider repertoires of social and politically acceptable practice and praxis.

North Koreans, therefore, in an age of what has been termed Songun (military first politics)[1], can easily be imagined would be considered appropriately patriotic if they celebrated their nation’s military altercations with its enemies, they would be patriotic if they expressed loyalty to their political and scientific leadership when they developed new technologies of resistance or defense and they would patriotic when they commemorated the historical narratives of struggle against past colonizers and subjugators, in particular the Japanese. Of course, in a sense, this is very much so, especially in the presentation given by North Korean media output and official publications and as readers will know Pyongyang has an elaborate and extensive socio-cultural system of commemoration of national heroes and liberators. The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Sinchon Massacre Museum, and innumerable memorials, statues, and pilgrimage sites scattered around the country make sure that the citizenry of North Korea do not lose focus on the nature and importance of their nation’s military and liberation struggles[2]. An equally extensive temporal repertoire of commemorative events, days, programs, and festivals embeds these spaces of commemoration within a calendar of patriotism, which impacts deeply on North Korean’s social and political lives.

Kim Jong-un and Sinchon3

Kim Jong-un’s rescaling is underway at the Sinchon Museum. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Utilizing an intriguing deployment of the tools of revolutionary modeling originally masterfully used by the institutions of the People’s Republic of China under Mao’s Great Leap Forward[3], North Korea has focused the revolutionary energy of the mass upon its leadership characters. Thus Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un are transformed within this framework of commemoration and veneration into revolutionary models, in spite perhaps of their distance (in the case of the two later Kim’s), from the actual topography and temporality of that revolution. What then is done, enacted, and iterated by the Kim’s is almost intrinsically patriotic. The quotation that begins this section attests to the necessity of embodying that patriotism within institutional practice, in particular in its case, the service personnel of the Korean People’s Army. The text goes on to suggest connections between the defense of the territorial boundaries of the nation itself, Kim Jong-il’s patriotism, and its internalization or embodiment: “The history of his ceaseless inspections of outposts standing guard over the country in the death-defying spirit was cherished deep in the mind of the service personnel.”[4] And finally the connection of this patriotism, commemorative will, and science and technical capability is apparently manifest in North Korea’s space program: “The intense loyalty of the scientists to implement without fail the patriotic behest of him to glorify the country as a space power brought about such a miracle as the successful launch of Kwangmyongsong 3-2….”[5]

Unha 3-2 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Rescaling beyond the stratosphere: Image Rodong Sinmun

Unha 3-2 and Kwangmyongsong-3 Rescaling beyond the stratosphere. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Such cases and their articulation of a patriotic sensibility are, of course, singularly aggressive and combative. They are also in a sense exclusionary and cannot hope to include the entirety of North Korea’s population within their repertoire of practice and action, as not everyone can currently be a member of the service personnel (even in such a highly militarized state as North Korea during the reign of Kim Jong-il). But North Korean political narratives demand universality of applicability and connection, and ultimately patriotism must have a mode in which it can be diffused beyond the scope and spaces of military and service personnel. This paper wishes to assert that just such a diffusion was undertaken within Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard.

What the campaign within this familial space permits is a scalar shift in ideological and narrative manifestation from the grand, national, and institutional level to more approachable, local, and familial levels, through the construction of social-political relations at that level. At this scale patriotism and their enactment and construction into nature and the environment are translated to a more social level, the political and Party thematic, embedded within personal interactions and relationships. As Swyngedouw[6] and other social or critical geographers[7] might see it, here the state is empowering itself through enacting and re-embodying social processes within the landscapes of personal and familial life.

Revolutionary Modeling and Rescaling | It must be apparent that in some senses Ri Song-ryong and his family are classical and typical revolutionary models, in the Maoist or Stakhanovite sense.[8] Embodying correct socio-political practice through a rescaling of political narratives and processes from the grander scope of national and historical scale (in which legendary or slightly abstracted individuals or communities accomplish something apparently unlikely or near impossible), to the local, contemporary scale (in which you, the reader, the participant, must interact and accomplish those practices within your own life), revolutionary modeling in North Korea in general has manifested around the personages of the Kim family, or those groups of politically committed revolutionary pioneers that forged either the initial institutions and structures of North Korea or fought for the eventual liberation of Korea during the pre-colonial times.[9] Ri and his patriotic family however represent the re-scaling of the notion of the revolutionary model into a different landscape.

Leaving behind Ri, his family and their courtyard for socio-cultural spaces elsewhere in North Korea, but spaces nonetheless that are re-scaled through the process of revolutionary modeling to become socially and ideologically exemplary in such a way as to privilege processes over rather more dramatic outcomes. It is something of a cliché to declare that Pyongyang’s roads have rather less traffic than is usual for an East Asian city. In recent years North Korea’s Party and institutional elite appear to have bought many more vehicles and its roads have much more traffic.[10] This has not so far encouraged Pyongyang’s city authorities to invest in more traffic lights and other organizational infrastructure, accordingly drivers at its intersections and junctions are still directed by a group of fashionably uniformed police women known as the Traffic Command Corps. These woman have been the subject of the academic and touristic gaze in the past,[11] and the focus of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s interests[12], but 2014 saw an extraordinary moment of focus in which a member of their team gained international prominence.[13]

Ri Kyong Sim

Ri Kyong-sim: Rescaling personified. | Image: KCTV

Ri Kyong-sim, district traffic controller within Pyongyang City People’s Security Bureau’s Traffic Command Corps, one of those responsible for organizing and directing the city’s traffic, suddenly became a feature on North Korea’s main news channels. On May 5, Ri was granted a number of the most prestigious awards in North Korea’s gift. She was made a “DPRK Hero,” granted a “Gold Star Medal,” and made a member of the “Order of National Flag First Class,” all granted by one of the most senior institutions in the government The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Why should such a person, in a fairly low position, undertaking a job which, in the North Korean institutional hierarchical pyramid in Pyongyang is fairly close to the bottom be according such extraordinary treatment? The original KCNA coverage reported that “Ri dedicated herself to ensuring the traffic order in the capital city and displaying the heroic self-sacrificing spirit of safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance….”[14]

Rodong Sinmun and KCTV were, even given their initial reporting of such an apparently important moment, not entirely clear as to what had actually occurred. But it became apparent that Ri Kyong Sim had in the midst of a traffic accident rescued or protected a pair of images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Images of the leaders (and of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s first wife, and Kim Jong-il’s mother) are protected by law in North Korea, revered objects which serve to remind citizens of their position at the base of the revolutionary pyramid, to assert and reinforce the regimes assertion of “fatherly love” and to transmit its perceived charisma and authority. There are a number of examples during the guerrilla period in which Kim Il-sung and his fellow supporters fought and harassed Japanese forces on the borders of Korean and Manchuria and from during the Korean War, when representations of important figures and physical relics of moments in those key struggles in the construction of North Korean national identity and mythology become vital to current political commemoration.[15]

Ri Kyong-sim, it seems, was to be a new defender of such revolutionary narrative and imagery, her act of defense a rescaling of more urgent narratives of both national construction and defense, in line with Swyngedouw and others[16] conception of this process’ production of embodied social and political relations. Ultimately this was made even more explicit by the KCNA’s assertion later in the month that Ri “devotedly defended the security of the headquarters of the revolution in the unexpected situation and rescued portraits of the great men of Mt Paektu.”[17] The process of social and political production rescaled in the contemporary North Korean present right back to the semi-mythic period of the resistance to colonial power and subjectivity.

Charisma in the Biotechnology Branch Laboratory: Image KCNA

Charisma in the Biotechnology Branch Laboratory | Image: KCNA

While Ri is by no means the only individual or group of individuals whose contemporary experience or interaction with a landscape impacted or embedded within North Korea’s charismatic political narrative is rescaled through this process of revolutionary modelling so as to support the transfer of that narrative and its charismatic content from one scale of socio-political relations to another. In 2014 and 2015 for instance, scientific endeavour and academic research has been a key element of North Korea’s developmental agenda. Rodong Sinmun in particular has carried a number of picture articles focused on institutions such as the Academy of Koryo Medicine,[18] the State Academy of Sciences,[19] and Biotechnology Branch Academy.[20] In all of these articles groups of scientists are shown engaging in their particular specialism surrounded by the landscape determined by their empirical methodologies, such as research greenhouses, clinics with medical facilities and laboratories replete with autoclaves and other technical paraphernalia. These are scientists and researchers from our contemporary time, entwined with the landscapes of North Korea and the context of its socio-political relations: as they currently manifest. However Rodong Sinmun also editorialises their activity in language such as “our scientists and technicians serve in advance units in the decisive battle for the defense, system and life…. For them there is no fortress invulnerable. They are revolutionaries….”[21] Just as Ri Kyong Sim’s contemporary encounter with the landscape of charisma is rescaled, these anonymous scientists and academics find their everyday research terrain transmogrified into a revolutionary space, a landscape akin to the de-temporalized and de-territorialized truly charismatic landscapes of North Korea’s nationalist mythologies.

Sui generis descriptions of North Korean politics are, as we have made clear many times on Sino-NK, neither analytically useful nor empirically valid. North Korea’s politics is not unique and plenty of other nations have sought to maintain political and social infrastructures and approaches similar to it. Other nations have also acted diplomatically or militarily in ways the roots, ambitions, interests, and outcomes of which were hard to discern. Other nations have even sought to utilize extensive cults of personality. That is not, however, to say that politics and the articulation and manifestation of political narratives in North Korea does not do interesting, sometimes extraordinary things that are worthy of study.

This piece’s framing of the impact and outcomes of North Korean political campaigns, their embeddings, enactments and articulations through the lenses of Kwon and Chung’s charismatic and theatrical politics,[22] Castree,[23] and Cosgrove’s symbolic, socially, and politically constructed landscapes,[24] and Smith and Swyngedouw’s reconfiguration of the nature of scaling, from one of pure cartography to one of social and political analysis and comment, has, it is hoped, allowed the reader to encounter such political interactions in a new light–in a sense for them to have been rescaled themselves.

As Kwon and Chung make clear in their analysis of North Korean political interactions, it is not enough for a political figure, element, narrative or instance to simply be charismatic, its charisma cannot simply be innate, it is must be actioned and actualized through an enacting and performance in theatrics. Thus these campaigns as they are experienced on paper or as they are interacted with on the ground by North Korean citizens are not simply static moments of assertion, but through the act of rescaling become re-territorialized and re-temporalized in the experiential present. Rescaling allows the witness or viewer to experience something of the content of their charisma. Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard would simply be a picture of Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard on the page or on the screen, were its articulation not ultimately an act of rescaling.

The transfer of one thematic or element of political charismatics from one scale to another, whether temporal or topographic (national to local, historical to contemporary for example), transmits and transforms the social-political process and its interaction with those landscapes and terrains involved, one to another, the act of transmission itself serving as a carrier-signal for the transformation. In this way rescaling itself becomes an actor in the social-political process of North Korea’s charismatic politics, as much as those landscapes or participants who are themselves rescaled. Through such carrier signals, the spatial reality of Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard in Sowon-ri can be transformed into any courtyard and Ri Song-ryong’s expression of patriotism through enactment on his own landscape can become any citizen’s patriotic expression.


[1] Alexey Vorontsov, “North Korea’s Military First Politics: A Curse or a Blessing,” Brookings Institute, May 26, 2006 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[2] Suzy Kim, “Specters of War in Pyongyang: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in North Korea,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 14 (2015): 124-151 and Adam Cathcart, “Museum Pieces: Kim Jong-un, the Korean War and the shadow of Maoism,” Sino-NK, August 5, 2014 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[3] Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[4] “Thoroughly Embody Kim Jong-il’s Patriotism,” Rodong Sinmun, December 11, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[5]Ibid.

[6] Erik Swyngedouw, “Excluding the other: the production of scale and scaled politics,” in Geographies of economies, Roger Lee and Jane Wills (eds.) (London: Arnold, 1997), 167-176.

[7] Neil Smith, “Geography, difference and the politics of scale,” in Postmodernism and the social sciences, Joe Doherty, Elspeth Graham, and Mo Malek (eds.) (London: Macmillan, 1994), 57-79.

[8] Mitch Meisner, “Dazhai, The Mass Line in Practice,” Modern China 1 no. 4 (1978): 27–62 and Xin An Lu, Dazhai: Imagistic Rhetoric as a Cultural Instrument,” American Communication Journal 5 no. 1 (2001): 1–26.

[9] Robert Winstanley-Chesters,  Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Press, 2015).

[10] Charles Armstrong, “The view from Pyongyang,” The New York Times, August 15, 2012 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[11] Gareth Mizrahi, “The North Korea Traffic Girls,” The North Korea Blog, May 22, 2013, (accessed July 24, 2015).

[12] Tania Branigan, “What we know about North Korea,” The Guardian, August 6, 2009 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[13] “North Korean traffic cop may have saved Kim Jong-un’s life,” The Daily Telegraph, May 9, 2013 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[14] “DPRK Hero title awarded to traffic controller,” KCNA, May 5, 2013 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[15] “At Academy of Koryo Medicine,” Rodong Sinmun, May 5, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[16] Swyngedouw, “Excluding the other” and Neil Smith, Uneven development: nature, capital and the production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).

[17] “Many models in new era produced in DPRK,” KCNA, May 31, 2014 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[18] “At Academy of Koryo Medicine,” Rodong Sinmun, May 5, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[19] “At State Academy of Sciences,” Rodong Sinmun, February 10, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[20] “At Biotechnology Branch Academy of the State Academy of Science,” Rodong Sinmun, March 15, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[21] “Scientists must discharge their mission with honour,” Rodong Sinmun, April 8, 2014 (accessed March 25, 2015).

[22] Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[23] Noel Castree, Social Nature (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2001)

[24] Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (33) – 08.06.2015 – Cultures of Critique: Kim Jong-un on North Korean Deforestation

Kim Jong Un and the Tree Nursery

Kim Jong-un visits the General Tree Nursery in May 2015. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Cultures of Critique: Kim Jong-un on North Korean Deforestation

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

The seemingly acute developmental concern of the “Respected Marshall” Kim Jong-un has been fairly, if intriguingly, clear since his accession to the throne of charismatic Kimism on the death of his father in December 2011. Amid the ensuing theatrics, speculation over the pedagogy Kim Jong-un received during his later youth in Switzerland has not been terribly serious, focusing more on the influence of Michael Jordan rather than lingering on any possibility of environmental training. But, rather oddly and nevertheless, Kim Jong-un has been developmentally focused.

In between his now-standard appearances next to military hardware, sites of family commemoration, and the odd visit from Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong-un is now presented as having found the time and inspiration to write a number of texts on developmental matters. While these texts do not betray an in-depth, empirically grounded knowledge of science or environmental process, they are surely informative from a narratological perspective.

Kim Jong-un has ploughed a very individual and distinct developmentalist furrow, starting with his first work delivered in April 2012. Entitled “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country,” the essay sparked speculation outside of North Korea that the young leader had a kind of possibly reformist zeal, while internally, the essay became a touchstone for North Korean officials concerned with land management.  Kim Jong-un then moved on instructively into institutional and bureaucratic matters for a group of agricultural “subteam” workers in 2013. His New Year Messages of 2014 and 2015 then focused, respectively, on celebrating the anniversary of 1964’s Rural Theses and climbing the topography of nationalist, foundational struggle on the volcanic heights of Baekdusan.

Covering the Mountains with Green Woods | The environmental aspects of Kim Jong-un’s messages and their embedded collective hymnal to national topographies will be well known to regular readers , who will have traced the themes and flows of narrative, primarily the North Korean aspiration to build and better utilize what Kim termed “mountains and seas of gold.” Readers thus should not at all be surprised to see Kim Jong-un returning to the field of developmental publication this spring with a new text entitled “Let the Entire Party, the Whole Army and All the People Conduct a Vigorous Forest Restoration Campaign to Cover the Mountains of the Country with Green Woods.”

This latest piece of long-form apparent authorship comes at a fitting moment during the political and bureaucratic commemorative calendar of North Korea. National Tree Planting Day arrived early on March 4, and has been followed by the highly important Spring Land Management Campaigns. I have in the past considered these aspects of the yearly cycle of institutional impetus and charismatic connection, as the period is marked and remarked upon nearly every year. Yet, although the moment is indeed frequently noted, it is still rare for such an extensive statement to be made.

Apples planted at the Palace of the Sun

Apple planting at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Does the extensiveness or tone of the statement invite us to read it as a rebuke or critique of the status quo? No more so, perhaps, than Kim Il-sung’s dressing down of unresponsive provincial authorities in Chagang Province during the 1960s. And certainly Kim Jong-un is intentionally echoing language used by his grandfather in no less foundational text than the 1964 “Let Us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers.”

Kim Jong-un asserts that:

Forests are precious resources of the country and a wealth to be handed down to posterity. Our country has been called a land of golden tapestry for the mountains thick with forests and the fields covered with beautiful flowers. [Under] Japanese imperialist colonial rule, [Kim Il-sung had] unfolded a far-reaching plan to turn all the mountains into thickly wooded places of people’s resort by having trees planted in large numbers.

Surely positive words to the ears of provincial administrators everywhere, these opening remarks in the text are, alas, for that audience, the last of reassurance and charismatic comfort.

Complaints follow:

People have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent.

On the face of it, such statements sound akin to critiques of Korean approaches to forest and timber resource from the days of the Government General of Chosen. Not only that, but they very much echo the tone set by a disappointed Park Chung-hee on his return from a verdant Japanese mainland, as much as they mirror critical commentary from Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. This denunciation of bureaucratic efforts and focus on arboreal matters clearly has multiple precedents.

Kim continues:

As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountain.

Considering the importance of developmental narrative elements in North Korea, this statement sounds a discordant note. Propaganda from Pyongyang seeks to embed a patriotic sense in its landscapes, which are associated with the desires of the leadership itself. Kim Jong-un thus presents Kim Jong-il’s own pain at the situation of the 1990s, remembering that the now-departed leader had “grieved for the decreasing forests of the country.” In Kim Jong-un’s reading of his father’s intention, deforestation was also an aftermath of the “Arduous March,” heightening the institutional necessity “to turn the misfortune into a blessing and hand down to the coming generations beautiful mountains thick with forests.”

Planting trees at Central district

Planting trees in Pyongyang Central district. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Forests under the Young Generalissimo | But those thick forests and beautiful timber covered mountains would never come in Kim Jong-il’s time. Accordingly, his successor clearly feels a sense of acute urgency on the matter. “The forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads—whether to perish for ever or to be restored,” he states rather dramatically. Going further, Kim Jong-un asserts that North Korea “can no longer back off from the issue related with the forests. As long as the forests are left as they are, no one can claim that he is a master of the country nor can he speak about patriotism.”

The achievement of this patriotic developmental outcome, given all of the apparent stasis and stagnation that surrounds it, will be no mean feat. One would imagine it would require nothing less than a complete institutional revision and dramatic reconfiguration of the approach and structures of its forestry sector.

Yet imagination is predicated on the social and cultural context of the imaginer, and North Korea’s particular Weltanschauung is, if not unique, certainly distinct. Kim Jong-un’s outlined solutions and framework thus appear as having derived from a smorgasbord of tendencies sourced from throughout North Korea’s political, sovereign, and developmental history. Turning to a favorite military metaphor, Kim notes that the struggle for afforestation will be an all-encompassing effort, requiring nothing short of combat:

The entire Party, the whole army and all the people should conduct a vigorous forest restoration campaign to make the mountains of the country thick with forests…. Forest restoration is a challenging and complex undertaking of raising young trees, transplanting them and then cultivating them year in, year out in the face of harsh challenges of nature…. The forest restoration campaign is a war to ameliorate nature.

Kim Jong-un thus places himself in a common frame of reference with previous modes of revolutionary speed, such as those from Maoist China. However, it is not simply mass fervor that is needed, but institutional development and a renewed focus on science. Kim calls for the establishment of new central nursery institutions, which will be vital to the conceived process of afforestation and scientific endeavor. This research is to be led at an elite level by an Academy of Forest Science, which, according to Kim Jong-un, should be refurbished “into a world-class academy.”

This mention of the rest of the world, surprisingly perhaps for a text so defiantly local and North Korean, leads Kim Jong-un to again echo the past. But this time it is an echo with its origins in the colonial period’s efforts to transplant a forestry of modernity into the post-annexation peninsula:

We should take measures to introduce and widely disseminate the global achievements of the advanced science and technology related to forest planting and conservation…we should bring in… trees from foreign countries and widely proliferate them.

The reality and rationality of charismatic empiricism | Further to this call to global connection, and to this author even more surprising, is Kim Jong-un’s demand for the embedding of these externally sourced conceptions within local institutions and frameworks. As he puts it, “a brisk drive for disseminating forest science and technology should be waged to keep people abreast of the world trend of development of forest science and technology.” In other words, Kim is seeking increased developmental knowledge and exchange with the wider world, more focus on empirical rigor within the sector, and better organized, nationally aware but locally focused institutions and bureaucracies.

If they were to be followed, Kim Jong-un’s suggestions might make a real difference to the functionality and viability of forest resource in North Korea, as such an approach would in any nation. However within Pyongyang’s sovereign realm there are other forces and agendas at play, so these fairly rational scientific platitudes must be matched to commemorative and legitimating narratives and practices.

Kim Jong un and the pilots - empiricism

Kim Jong-un and charismatic empiricism | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Just as urgency is deployed in the scientific realm, so it will be utilized within the charismatic. Within later sections of the document, Kim Jong-un reverts to what we might term the revolutionary mean. Here politics and functional development are undertaken by “the mass” as Chairman Mao would have understood it: One homogenous, energetic, powerful yet not necessarily functional assemblage of co-opted, coerced and perhaps enthusiastic publics. Kim Jong-un suggests, for instance, that “it is our Party’s traditional method of work to propel the revolution and construction by means of mass-based movements;” he then goes on to compare whatever projects must be undertaken to redevelop and regenerate North Korea’s forestry stock to projects and campaigns such as the Chollima Movement.

Perhaps ultimately the charismatic and commemorative inclination of the mass is what prevents Kim Jong-un from moving on to new pastures (or new timbers, as it were) within this key text. As much as it would make sense to leave forest development up to the nurseries, from the Forest Academy to the local bureaucracies tasked with increasing stock in their domain, North Korean politics is nothing without its key institutional base of Party, army, and a perceptual (if perhaps not real) popular mass. When Kim Jong-un begins to make assertions that “only when the whole country and all the people are involved, can the forest restoration campaign bear fruit” it cannot be surprising that the phrase “as they conducted reconstruction after the war” should follow. The purpose of the exercise is not merely to reforest the landscape, but to activate and reiterate the mobilizing center, with connections to both Party and Army, centered upon Kimist authority and the embodied narrative of resistive national struggle.

Ultimately it seems that however far Kim Jong-un might want to reach in systematic arboreal terms, in this text he proves himself trapped by the weight of history and its necessary recantations and representations. Developmentally trapped by the weight of history in engaging in North Korea’s recurrent theoretical, narratological and metaphorical hostilities, the Young Leader can only conclude that “nurseries are to a forest restoration campaign what munitions factories are to a war.” We must conclude that in this instance of forestry and timber resources, developmentally Pyongyang finds itself incarcerated by a patriotism of its own perception.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com

From the Sino-NK Archives (32) – 07.05.2015 – The Legendary Women of Baekdu: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

kIm Jong-suk warrior

A recent state-produced rendering of Kim Jong-suk | Image: KCNA

The Legendary Women of Baekdu: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Wonderful Natural Fortress: Theater of Struggle | Kim Jong-suk was semi-mythic even before she became intrinsically connected to the territory at the place of her eventual immortalization. Kim and the guerrillas did not reach the terrain of Mt. Baekdu until the summer of 1936, having crossed “boundless primeval forest” and (once more) the narrow span of the upper Yalu River. Her official biography, published in 2002, announces the moment in portentous, dramatic terms, evoking “[t]he grand spectacle of the snow-capped ancestral mountain, the symbol of the long history of Korea.” Naturally Kim Il-sung is there to set the narrative terrain in conversation with his future wife, explaining that this “wonderful natural fortress stretching from the summit of Mt. Baekdu… will provide us with a theater of our sacred future struggle.”[1]

Kim Jong-suk, in response, appears to already consider the physicality of the recent past as a topography of difficulty for the guerrilla revolutionaries. It is a space which she sees as being ripe for transformation and future territorializations, deterritorializings, and charismatic theatric presentations.

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.[2]

Having made an assortment of physical and conceptual crossings to arrive at the sacred Mt. Baekdu terrain, Kim embeds her revolutionary femininity and political commitment through performative acts in interaction with what would later become “the secret guerrilla camp.” The camp and the physical manifestation of her interaction with its “constructed remains” are key to the contemporary North Korean touristic experience of revolutionary space at Mt. Baekdu, and provide further evidence for Kwon and Chung’s charismatic political thesis:[3]

When the construction [of the camp] was complete, Kim Jong-suk peeled bark from trees in the surrounding area and wrote meaningful slogans on them: “A General Star has risen on Mt. Paektu,” [and] “Oppose the predominance of men over women. Long live the emancipation of women! Humiliated Korean women, wise up in the struggle against the Japanese!”[4]

Dualistic Femininity: Becoming a Human Fortress | Kim Jong-suk’s behaviour and personal interaction in the “natural fortress” exhibit a dualism of feminine and militaristic qualities, sometimes merging the two to construct an image of “militaristic femininity.” One key example is her maternal support for the guerrilla Ma Tong-hui. Described in semi-comic tone, Ma apparently “had flat feet… [which] made it difficult for him to act in concert with the other guerrillas…. [H]e was too exhausted to notice that his trousers were falling down.”[5]

In-spite of this obvious lack of utility to a band of revolutionary guerrillas, Kim Jong-suk seems determined to nurse the inept soldier to usefulness: “Kim Jong-suk walked together with him on marches, to encourage him, and helped improve his marksmanship.”[6] In addition to helping him learn to shoot straight, she also mended his clothes.[7] Such maternal support is fundamental to the narrative of Baekdu, and of primarily importance to her contemporary transformation into a militaristic saint. In engaging in pedagogical practice toward the unlikely young soldier, encouraging and teaching him to fight and providing him with a role model, Kim functions as father and mother. In this sense, she shows androgynous qualities of both female and male.

Beyond the mountain but in similar topography, North Korea’s narratives recount an important event in March 1940. This moment is categorized in hagiographies of Kim Jong-suk as the moment of “becoming a human fortress and a shield,” echoing the status of Mt. Baekdu as a “natural fortress.”[9] This is another vital moment in her semi-deification, without which moments of deterritorialization and reterritorialization would not be possible. Having, counter to conventional military strategy, attacked uphill and engaged Japanese forces high in the mountains, the guerrilla band was subject to a challenging counter attack.

The narrative describes the events:

Kim Il-sung commanded the battle from a rock on the ridge of the mountain. Mindful of his safety, Kim Jong-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-sung on the ridge… at the hair-raising moment, Kim Jong-suk raced to Kim Il-song, 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-sung had shot over her shoulder. In this way they both shot all the enemy soldiers in the reed field dead….[10]

pedagogy and violence

North Korean soldiers living out Kim Jong-suk’s militant legacy. Via KCNA.

Maternal Strength: Pedagogy and Violence | Kim Jong-suk’s selfless moment of sacrificial charismatic intent denotes a moral obligation towards the physical person of the leader, Kim Il-sung; one that goes beyond simple protection. Equally, it co-opts the difficult, fractious terrain of the mountainscape into the realm of Kim Jong-suk’s commitment and obligatory sensibility. North Korean landscapes in which these moral obligations were dramatically put into practice by Kim Jong-suk are now further marked by the institutional utilization of that drama and authority .

The ridge on which Kim Il-sung was nearly killed now forms part of an educational program for civil servants at Mt. Baekdu; these “study tours” of the revolutionary topography are meant to underpin their own ideological commitment. The birch trees at Lake Samji, under which the female guerrillas led by Kim Jong-suk rested, and under which the Kims’ relationship was abstractly confirmed and consummated, are now a site of revolutionary reflection and pilgrimage; a place of reterritorialization.

Leaning on a birch tree on which spring tints were emerging, he [Kim Il-sung] posed with the commanding officers…. One of them suggested to him that he should have his photo taken with Kim Jong-suk. Hearing this, Kim Jong-suk grew shy and hid behind the backs of the women guerrillas. They pushed her forward to his side. In order not to miss the moment, the “cameraman” clicked the shutter. For Kim Jong-suk, it was as good as a wedding photo….[11]

The role of other female guerrillas pushing forward this shy, almost coy Kim Jong-suk echoes another gentle moment in which a fellow female guerrilla and Kim convey a jar of hot water up an icy hill:

One night while the battle was still raging, she [Kim Jong-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….[12]

While other female protagonists are not frequently mentioned, they play a narrative role as Kim’s “ladies in waiting” and create a background territory upon which Kim’s revolutionary glory shines and can be reterritorialized. Their stories are sometimes directly told. The primary vehicle for female participation in the struggle was a group known as the Anti-Japanese Women’s Association, which served as a logistics and operational support unit for the main guerrilla group. While not directly involved in fighting, they did cross front lines and engage in dangerous activities. Their capture and harassment by Japanese forces is recounted in very distinct terms:

The Japanese aggressors ran amuck in an attempt to hamper the people’s support to the guerrilla army. The bestial aggressors recklessly arrested and slaughtered those people who purveyed provisions and commodities to the guerrilla army….[13]

KIm Jong-suk and statue

A recent artistic depiction of Kim Jong-suk’s post-liberation activities prior to her death include endorsement of Kim Il-sung statuary in Pyongyang. Image via Mansudae Arts Studio.

This passage describes resistance to torture and sometimes death. Similar instances play a part in the stories of particular female guerrillas. For example, fellow female guerrilla Kim Myong-hwa recounts Kim Jong-suk’s own torture: “The enemy locked her up in the house of a peasant there and put her to severe torture, threatening to kill her.”[14]

While Kim Jong-suk survived this ordeal, the same could not be said for Chang Gil-bu, mother to a number of revolutionaries. Not only was Chang’s son Ma Dong-hui tortured so severely that he “bit off his own tongue” rather than reveal anything and was then killed “viciously in a police station;” also, her daughter and daughter in law, Ma Guk-hwa and Kim Yong-kum, both reportedly died “a heroic death in battle.” Chang is portrayed as also undergoing torture, wherein “clubs and leather whips struck her until she was badly smeared with blood.”[15] Thus we can see that the action on the field of battle and violent deaths of some of the women following Kim Jong-suk are important elements in the story. A narrative element of their own, they are not just a supplement to bolster the fame of Kim Jong-suk.

Kim’s apparently selfless actions in collaboration with the topography allow future generations to access the charisma of her militaristic, transcendental femininity. Within the narrative, Kim Jong-suk emerges as a demiurge, the text of her biography explicitly mentioning that she barely sleeps or eats; indeed, “many times she only had water for her meal.”[16] Through her reported actions, Kim Jong-suk depersonalizes and de-materializes herself into the realm of the saintly, the mythic and the immortal.


[1] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 61.

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung, Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[4] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 62.

[5] Ibid., 65.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Brian Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters (New York City: Melville House, 2012), 48.

[9]Kim Il-Sung, Reminiscences With the Century, Vol. 3 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992).

[10] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 165.

[11] Ibid., p.132.

[12] Ibid., p.49.

[13] “Anti-Japanese Women’s Association and its Assistance to Guerrillas,” Women of Korea 91 no. 3 (1991).

[14] “In Memory of Comrade Kim Jŏng-suk,” Women of Korea 63 no. 3 (1974).

[15] “You Must Follow the Leader with All Devotion,” Women of Korea, Vol. 63 no. 3 (1974).

[16] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 51.

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com