Fossil Fuel Futures for North Korea – Kim Jong Un’s 2019 New Year Address

2018 has been an enormous year for North Korea watchers. Reading my own thoughts on past year’s New Year Address gives a sense of the fear that pervaded the globe in late 2017, but it appears I failed to pick up on the hint of something new in Kim Jong Un’s words last January. This connective possibility would blossom into a huge burst of theatrics around the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the meetings of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un and in the extraordinary moment of the Singapore Summit. Little of course has been agreed between the United States and North Korea of practical use since and the US Presidency is mired in a destructive, chaotic schizophrenia in the run up to the 2020 election so it is unclear as to whether the Trumpian gaze or a moment of lucidity and focus will once again settle upon the peninsula before then. While Mike Pompeo has been busy cleaning up the mess in POTUS’s wake and John Bolton has been energetically destabilising and unsettling the New World Order, the two Korea’s have been busy with both optics and practical organisation. A great deal of de-escalation was managed in 2018 between Seoul and Pyongyang on their own, and recent efforts to actually reconnect railway lines across the DMZ are testament to the industry of the two sides. Whether trains run in any useful or functional way north of Dorasan station in the future cannot yet be known, but even the temporary solution to practical issues which once seemed unsolvable is progress of sorts.

kim jong un early in the morning

No more of these early morning outings for Kim Jong Un in 2019

Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address for 2019 has some of these developments within it, as has much of North Korea’s messaging since the middle of 2018. The removal of the dangerous, negative energy from interactions between North Korea and the outside world in the last twelve months is certainly an achievement for all and Kim Jong Un’s words make some effort not to provoke, other than the expected and unavoidable proviso that if the United States doesn’t keep to its side of the post-Singapore bargain then Pyongyang will be ‘compelled to find a new way’ to defend its sovereignty. We all of course know what that new way is, it’s the old way, currently removed from the repertoire of possibilities, with no more pre-dawn images of Kim Jong Un sat at his desk, cigarette in hand as a projectile flies skywards. Still as final negotiations have not even been contemplated, let alone planned or begun, no doubt such possibilities are available if required. 2019’s New Year Address cannot be said to be effusive or friendly towards the great enemy, but it is at least optimistic in tone as Kim Jong Un wants ‘to believe’ that relations will ‘bear good fruit’ in the next 12 months. The address is more positive on relations with the South, with progress over the previous year framed as being very much a product of inter-Korean energies and any problems or disruptions emerging or deriving from external actors or agencies. Of particular interest on this point is what appears to be near sympathy for industrialists, entrepreneurs and investors in the Kaesong industrial complex and in the Mt Kumgang tourist area (both in their own ways products of Hyundai Asan), who have been subjected to ‘hard conditions.’ The Address suggests that North Korea is minded in 2019 to resume collaboration at both locations without preconditions, a statement which of course any North Korea watcher would treat with caution.


Wonsan in 1933 before the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone

2019’s New Year Address does communicate using the conceptual frame of Byungjin, North Korea and Kim Jong Un amidst the complexities of 2018 having essentially failed to develop a coherent new theoretical line, but does so without one of its foundational parallels. Developmentally Kim Jong Un follows a classical and familiar set of priorities for North Korean watchers in 2019, though with a heavy emphasis on training and personnel development. Party institutions and organisations must function well, ideology and ideological development must be emphasised and streamlined, social organisations must play a role. There is space in the address for cultural and social development and creativity must not be forgotten, indeed “the sector of art and literature should create splendid works including films and songs that reflect the times and reality and touch the people’s heartstrings,” for this is seen as part of continually building a socialist civilisation.

The address does not forget the various developmental sectors this particular author is for the most part concerned with. Agriculture, Chemicals, Metallurgy, Light Industry, Heavy Industry, Transport and Railways and finally Fishing all receive a mention. Little is said on maritime matters this year following several years of more detailed focus, though stock breeding of various sorts and poultry farming and development receive more specific mentions. Larger construction projects such as those ongoing in Samjiyon County and the Kalma-Wonsan Coastal Tourist Area are name checked, and these sorts of tourist infrastructures seems to be of real concern. While Samjiyon for the most part appears focused on domestic tourism and the requirements of North Korea’s ideological visits and study tours to Samjiyon and the Paektu area, Kalma-Wonsan appears a new category of ambition for North Korea. 2018’s UK TV broadcast for instance of ex Monty Python Michael Palin’s visit to Wonsan showed the city’s new airport terminal complete with a departure lounge whose signage was almost entirely in Chinese. While Air Koryo currently, as Palin encountered flies infrequently to Wonsan, North Korea’s ambitions for the area appear focused on providing tourists from Liaodong and the northeast of China a budget alternative to the beaches of Sanya and Hainan, rapidly becoming more expensive.

North Korea’s ambitious touristic dreams at Wonsan require a number of complicated and until now intractable problems to be solved, one of which of course is the current restrictive sanctions regime imposed upon Pyongyang, which is not mentioned at length in the New Year Address. However electricity and power generation certainly is at the forefront of Kim Jong Un’s thoughts in the address. While power generation in Pyongyang and its new gleaming sets of Singapore-style apartment buildings has developed in recent years following work on nearby hydroelectric plants, electricity provision has always and continues to be a problem for North Korea. Current restrictions on the amount of coal, gas and oil that can be legally be shipped to the nation under UNSC sanctions, whether they are mitigated at the edges by noncompliance, creativity and the needs of Chinese business will always present a problem. Nuclear energy would be one such solution, and this is mentioned in the New Years Address (though developing its nuclear energy capacity will no doubt prove a complicated point in any diplomatic negotiations in the future), however in tandem with calls within it to increase development in the metallurgical industry is a much more simple solution.

cop24 - dprk

North Korea’s not entirely extensive delegation to UNFCCC COP24 in Katowice, Poland

This solution however runs counter to a great deal of other priorities and ambitions in North Korea’s developmental mind, yet one which is currently in vogue across the Pacific with the administration in Washington DC. While Pyongyang has long sought to play a role in the UNFCCC process and increase its own resilience against the impact of climate change and environmental crises, it has seldom committed a great deal of its own energy, materiel or capital to engaging in that process (sending only three delegates to UNFCCC COP 24 in Katowice, Poland last December). This New Year Address however suggests that in the future North Korea will have similar problems to the current administrations in Warsaw and Canberra when it comes to energy choices. Just as Poland and Australia have governments captured by the coal industry and the imperatives of the carbon and fossil fuel industry, 2019’s New Year Address shows Pyongyang stuck in a developmental quandary, though in its case not through the lobbying of industrial and business interests. In tandem with its own often repeated and by now very familiar desires for self-reliance, for North Korea and Kim Jong Un, in 2019, the future is local natural and fuel resources, to offset at least some of the energy supply difficulties presented by the current sanctions system. For this years New Year Address, aside from other possibilities, and potentialities which given the events of 2018 appear far more positive than in past years, the future for North Korea is coal.

German Studies of Koreans in Manchuria: Gustav Fochler-Hauke and the Influence of Karl Haushofer’s National Socialist Geopolitics – Robert Winstanley-Chesters and Adam Cathcart – European Journal of Korean Studies 18.1



Gustav Fochler-Hauke was one of the more productive German geographers active in northeast Asia in the 1930s and early 1940s. His fieldwork in, and analysis of, Manchuria and the border regions between then-Manchukuo and Japanese-occupied Korea included extensive discussion of ethnic Koreans, settlement politics around the Tumen River, and geographical exposition of the areas around Mount Paektu or Changbaishan. Although his work was flawed by a lack of Korean or Chinese fluency and reliance on questionable conceptual frameworks, the fieldwork and the writing of Gustav Fochler-Hauke both before and after World War II allows contemporary readers with opportunities for greater engagement and a slightly new perspective on Koreans in Manchuria and the border region. Critical revisiting of analysis by Fochler-Hauke and his associates working on northeast Asia can also feed into growing areas of study today, spanning from the transnational history of German-Korean relations, to the relationship between German geographers and fascist Japan and its colonies in the Second World War era, to the influence of Karl Haushofer on the study of geography both of and within East Asia, including Korea.[1]


Fochler-Hauke’s work on Japanese colonialism in Manchuria and his interface with the Koreans grew out of three separate trips to the region. The first trip took place in 1927-28, and was undertaken when he was about 20 years old, and thus prior to his formal doctoral studies. Having been orphaned at a young age, Fochler-Hauke had been working as a bookseller in his teenage years and undertook his journey to Asia without much by way of financial backing. His first trip to Manchuria was largely confined to the Liaodong peninsula; he did not move into Sinuiju or Andong, much less navigate into the Korean-populated areas of Kando/Jiandao. Instead, he busied himself with making money in a textile factory in Mukden (present-day Shenyang), working on a foreign language which would allow him to communicate with the floating population of White Russians that so captivated him in the city that cold winter.[2]


Fochler-Hauke’s first sustained engagement with Korean isses and Koreans in Manchuria came in 1932-33, as part of his second trip around Manchuria. This journey was far more extensive, and this was because it had been arranged at least in part by his new mentor, Dr. Karl Haushofer in Munich.[3] This journey was a significant one for Fochler-Hauke’s research plans, but it did not result in great notoriety for the scholar or outputs about Koreans, and it seems that most of 1933 and 1934 were taken up with completing his Ph.D.[4]  He spent much of 1935 on a research trip around Manchukuo which went well beyond the well-known urban trunk of the region and got into all the peripheral corners of the new puppet state, collecting data for what would be his magnum opus, a huge prize winning book on Manchuria.[5] After some further travel in northern China in 1936, Fochler-Hauke returned to Germany and quickly became prominent, publishing multiple journalistic and fieldwork reports on his travels in the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik and other journals, all in 1936.[6]  He also completed a short book on the geopolitics of East Asia which was revised and republished three times during World War II, cementing himself amid a public debate over German policy toward East Asia that was constantly shifting.[7]  In 1937, he became still more prominent by co-editing a popular book on global current affairs with the already-famous doyen of German geopolitics, Karl Haushofer, a book which concluded with an orgy of photos and propaganda praising Hitler and the ability of the German people to thrive under fascist conditions. Fochler-Hauke also turned his Asian expertise on colonization and border areas toward a volume on ethnic Germans in border regions with Czechoslovakia, a work which clearly had Haushofer’s imprint on it.[8]


In 1938, as war swept across East Asia and Korea and Manchuria were mobilised in support of the Japanese war effort, Fochler-Hauke busied himself with bureaucratic moves in Germany, joining the Nazi Party in December of that year and continuing to consolidate his position as the General Secretary of the German Academy, which he had begun the prior year.[9]  Consequently, his publication output dipped significantly, managing only short articles in the period from 1939-1941 on Japanese colonial policy and state-building in Manchukuo, respectively, while still preparing his major monograph on Manchuria.[10]


Like his more Korea-focussed counterpart Hermann Lautensach, Gustav Fochler-Hauke both benefitted and was misled by Japanese rule over the region he studied.[11]  As Owen Lattimore argued in his review of Fochler-Hauke’s 1941 book, Die Mandschurei, during the period prior to and during the Second World War, German scholars benefited extensively from access to areas of Japanese control in Korea and Manchuria.[12] However, access itself did not lead to outstanding prognostications and these scholars were uniformly wrong in foreseeing no end to Japanese dominance. As Keith Howard assessed in his overview of Lautensach’s geography of Korea, German scholars active in northeast Asia during the height of Japanese colonial control were misled by their hosts into  ‘seeing a welcome and increasing assimilation likely to lead to Korea’s incorporation into the Japanese nation.’[13]  Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule was perceived by a few German observers at the time, but as a whole only a vague and generally Chinese mantle of ‘banditry’ was put over the whole work of opposition.[14] Fochler-Hauke was therefore part of a larger group of journalists and geographers who had access to Manchuria in this period and colonial Korea, and whose work on these subjects was tied up intimately with Japanese colonial politics. Some of their work dealt intensively with Koreans, others (most in fact) did not, being overly focused on economic development, transport, mineralogical investigation rather than on areas where Koreans were prominent such as agriculture or migration. There was a tendency in the work, likely stemming from the example of Karl Haushofer, to treat Korea largely within a much longer history of Japanese engagement with the outside world, meaning that the Imjin War and Tokugawa era often received more attention than the actual annexation of Korea in 1910 or the governance of the peninsula since.[15]  Rarely were individual Koreans given a voice in this scholarship and journalism. Nevertheless Fochler-Hauke was intensely concerned with settler politics and borders, and this reflects the influence of his mentor Karl Haushofer.


Koreans in the writings of Fochler-Hauke in the late 1930s and early 1940s appear a transitional ethnicity between Chinese industry and Japanese modernity. In his 1941 magnum opus Die Mandschurei, Fochler-Hauke regards them with a little curiosity, but certainly not distain. He does not regard the Koreans engaged in the diffuse settlement project of Manchukuo as unwelcome or unexpected guests, nor as a glitch in the prospects for colonial success. Koreans demonstrated some initiative in crossing the Tumen to take advantage of new spaces brought about by Qing and Manchu weakness, the dissipating energy of the Russian Empire and the disruptive power of the Japanese.[16] While he is very concerned with industrial and mineralogical efforts, Fochler-Hauke considers in some detail the agricultural efforts of Koreans, particularly the dry and wet rice cultures and the declining impetus for slash and burn agriculture in more peripheral places in the territory[17]. Koreans appear a little old fashioned with their “mud houses” and “thatched roofs,” but certainly not in the same league as actual Manchu, who in his writing appear rich with Orientalist flavour.[18] While not as at the forefront of modernity as the Japanese, Koreans are on a par with the Han Chinese in the book, muscular and capable, if, this side of the Tumen at least demonstrating a preference for white clothing.[19]


After the publication of his major monograph in 1941, Fochler-Hauke’s outputs changed distinctively. Like other geographers of his generation, he became more involved in the general war effort. According to one short biography, he was enlisted in the Wehrmacht in 1940 and returned from captivity in 1946, severely wounded.[20]  His other outputs make clear that he was not enlisted into Germany’s effort to sustain the alliance with Tokyo, nor necessarily producing intelligence about East Asia for the Wehrmacht.[21]  In any event, as the Geography Carl Troll demonstrated soon after the war ended, there was little debate among German scholars concerned with East Asia, and rarely would they criticize or even cite one another’s work.[22]  So Fochler-Hauke’s writings on Koreans in Manchuria were, to an extent, the standard for German scholars of that era, and they enabled him to write further about Korea as an authority even after he had concluded a period of exile in Argentina from 1948-1954 and, presumably, left the shadow of his mentor Dr. Haushofer behind.[23]


In 1951, Gustav Fochler-Hauke returned to the publishing scene in Germany along with his old collaborator, Kurt Vorwinkel, who had published many books during the 1930s and 40s out of Haushofer’s geopolitical school. Fochler-Hauke had chosen to write reminiscences of his journeys to East Asia, and some other world travel, in the years from 1926-1933, years which had the advantage of avoiding any discussion of his early life or his period of embrace with the Nazi Party as well as scholars associated with it.[24]  In some respects, however, this memoir was rather frank. Fochler-Hauke never backed away from his empathy for Japanese colonial settlers in Korea and Manchuria, and in both his 1951 book and his 1970 book chapter on Korea, he notes the difficulty that the end of the war caused for those settlers.[25]


He also described his relationship with the Japanese high command in Manchukuo, which had allowed him to get into the border areas and meet Koreans under one particularly important introduction or personal link. Relaying his conversation with a Japanese general in Xinjing (present-day Changchun), then the capital of Manchukuo in 1932, he states the following:


[The general] also did not hide the fact that especially in the remote mountain areas, the “danger from bandits” was still very great, although the number of armed “enemies of the state” of half a million in 1932 had already declined to about a tenth of its former size thanks to the “mopping up” campaign. I explained to him that I was not afraid of the irregular forces (Freischärlern), because as a neutral scientist I would only deal with research tasks, and that on the other hand interesting tasks have to be solved, especially in the borderlands on the Amur and across from Outer Mongolia. With a heavy heart, the General finally consented to help me in accordance with my wishes.


In an elegant car of the Japanese General Staff, I was led first to the Japanese Embassy, ​​because, in truth, that is where all the power threads (Machtfäden) were gathered together. In lengthy negotiations it was necessary to explain to the responsible officials in detail the reasons for my travels, while I was quite aware that it was impossible to dispel the extraordinary mistrust of all these Japanese posts. By a hundred seemingly well-meant warnings they tried to keep me away from this or that area; again and again it was emphasized that when taking the trains or on the streets, there could be no guarantee for my safety, and again and again I pointed out emphatically that I did not expect such at all and would of course take all the risk upon myself.


Had not the General absolute confidence in his friend Karl Haushofer, one of my teachers, who had recommended me, all my efforts would have been in vain from the outset; I would have had to content myself with a visit to the generally accessible to strangers areas and have had just to do without the peripheral landscapes which are important for me (für mich wichtigen Randlandschaften).


Fochler-Hauke on Kando


In Die Mandschurei Fochler-Hauke goes into great detail on the ethnic and cultural flux at play in the Manchuria he has visited. Focusing in particular on what was known as Kando (present day Yanbian area), Fochler-Hauke goes into extraordinary detail on the cultural and physical geographies of the territory. Satisfied with the displacement of the power of the Manchu themselves by Han Chinese and many others, Fochler-Hauke explores the settlement of not only Han and Koreans, but also Japanese, Russians and Muslims in the area. He traces the geospatial and agricultural development of Manchuria under colonisation as well as under new forms of rural practice, slash and burn agriculture and wet and dry rice farming. Equally he considers the impact on urban expansion and reconfiguration given the incoming of quite so many immigrants and the differing patterns of land ownership, management and development of the main ethnic groups. Although very clear on the point of historicity and the past,[26] Fochler-Hauke does have a sense of terra-nullis about Manchukuo, as if the entire territorial space was up for grabs at the fall of the Qing and that intense settler activity was only right and proper for each of the incoming ethnic groups.


Following the events of 1932 Fochler-Hauke parses the territorial disputes on Kando/Kanto and the displeasure of the Koreans at Japanese efforts to co-opt prior to Manchukuo the debateable lands north of the Tumen. Bringing the pages of Nianshen Song’s recent important work Making Borders in Modern East Asia to life,[27] Fochler-Hauke in particular retells the deliberate and accidental confusions following Mukedeng’s unfortunate 1712 effort at demarcating the boundary between Qing and Chosŏn – confusions which were useful to Japanese Imperialism’s narrative some two hundred years later.[28] He is quite concerned also to give detailed accounts of the coal fields, other mining landscapes and timber extraction enterprises and the impact of railways on the whole process of colonisation, as well as on both cultural diffusion and displacement. Fochler-Hauke in Die Mandschurei is also intriguing in his description of ethnic and difference, though without being offensive or racist. There is of course a touch of Orientalism in his imagery, but Koreans and Chinese are seen as industrious and hard working, the latter frugal and perhaps the former a little old fashioned. If anything it is the Manchu themselves that come off worst in this aspect, depicted as puffs of exotic smoke seldom glimpsed in the market, a native lady with “exotic hair ornaments” as he puts it.[29] As a geographer the landscape itself, as much as the geo-politics or cultural geography of colonisation, is the star, and Fochler-Hauke generally reads as awed by the mountains at Manchuria/Manchukuo’s edges, by the larches, birches, bears and tigers. As much as modernity and coloniality are embedded in this new Imperial project, the physical materiality of the area seems to challenge whatever modern project the Japanese seek to build.


This landscape would one day awe others and be deeply engrained in the political and cultural geographies of the North Korean present. The tigers and bears would become for both Korea’s cyphers for lost ecologies of historical nationalisms and nationhood – North Korea insists that they are even still present now. The larches, birches and pines would become part of the visual language of modern Korean nationalism, displayed at moments of political authority and inter-Korean engagements. Fochler-Hauke hardly seems to countenance the possibility of Koreans regaining their independence south of the Tumen/Amnok or unpicking themselves from the mix of colonial and Imperial projects and settlements found in Die Mandschurei. He even only briefly mentions a communist movement among Koreans in the area and does so in the past tense, but these borders would become contested once again by Koreans, not only in his time, but in the historical memory and invented traditions of Pyongyang. In this the border region and its politics is activated and energised again, a space of insurrection and struggle against the forces of Capitalist modernity and Imperialism. The landscape of the area would in this conceptual reconfiguration become even more dramatic than that encountered by Fochler-Hauke. It would not only be the bears, basalt, trees and tigers he was so enamoured of, but the place of many altercations between Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla band and the institutions of both Manchukuo and Chosen (such as its border control force comprised of Koreans and Japanese). During the Korean War this border would also be the victory line in the minds of both assertive and aspirational Americans and rollbackers and anti-communist ROK forces. Dipping a toe in the Yalu would no longer be an exercise for the settler colonialist on their way to greater things in Chientao, but a physical manifestation of the defeat of the Communists. Of course this was not to be but the mines and timber enterprises of Die Mandschurei are still vital to North Korean developmental structures and in 1950 were vital to the US Air Forces 19th Operations Group and Far East Bomber Command as they sought to defenestrate North Korea’s industrial and military capabilities and futures.


While Fochler-Hauke’s border space was at the time of writing one of the most active and activated places on the planet, a territory of un-bordering, re-bordering and all the many boundings in between, it would become frozen and quiet following the events of 1953. However Die Mandschurei’s edges are it seems always active and energetic in the minds of those seeking a reconfiguration of the geo-politics in our own time. Those settler colonialists of Yanbian and what would become Yanji are equally echoed in our times by the colonising power of Chinese speculative capital and the energies which force North Koreas to cross the Tumen once more to join the new categories of settler, becoming trans-national economic migrants in South Korea and elsewhere, forming new bonds, connections and disruptions as they do so. It is unlikely that Mandschuria as Fochler-Hauke would know it, will rise again from underneath its now many patterned ethnic and political quilt. Manchu as a language is confined to villages in Aihui district on the bank of the Amur river, an infinitesimally small fragment of the cultural territory once occupied by its people, the strange hair ornaments of the mysterious Manchu woman glimpsed for a moment in the marketplace crowd will not be seen again. The space which Korean Manchuria occupied, however, now known as the expansive eastern counties of Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces will always be a contested, conflicted space at the edge of geo-politics.






Fochler-Hauke, Gustav, Die Mandschurei: Eine Geographisch-Geopolitische Landeskunde, (Heidelberg/Berlin: Kurt Vorwinkel, 1941).


Fochler-Hauke, Gustav, …Nach Asien! Vom Abenteuer zur Wissenschaft, (Heidelberg: Kurt Vorwinckel, 1951).


Fochler-Hauke, Gustav, Deutscher Volksboden und deutsches Volkstum in der Tschechoslowakei: eine geographisch-geopolitische Zusammenschau,

Heidelberg & Berlin: K. Vowinckel, 1937. Series: Bücher der Grenzlande; 2.


Fochler-Hauke, Gustav, 1936. “Geopolitische und Wehrgeographische Eindrücke aus der Mandschurei I,” Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, 01/01/1936 Volume: 13, 378.


Fochler-Hauke, Gustav. “Chinesische Kolonisation und Kolonialpolitik,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 06/01/1933, Issue: 3, 108.




Karl Haushofer, Grenzen in ihrer geographischen und politischen Bedeutung, (Heidelberg, 2nd edition: Kurt Vowinckel Verlag, 1939).


Haushofer, Karl, Japan Baut Sein Reich, (Berlin:Zeitgeschichte Verlag, 1941).


Herwig, Holger H, “Geopolitik: Haushofer, Hitler and lebensraum,” Journal of Strategic Studies (1999) vol. 22, 218-241.


Norton, Donald H, “Karl Haushofer and the German Academy, 1925-1945,” Central European History, Vol. 1 (1968), 80-99.


Schnitzer, Ewald W, “German Geopolitics Revived.” The Journal of Politics 17, no. 3 (1955): 407-23.


Song, Nianshen, “Imagined territory: Paektusan in late Chosŏn maps and Writings,” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes. Vol. 37. No. 2 (2017), 157-173.


Song Nianshen. Making Borders in Modern East Asia: The Tumen River Demarcation, 1881-1919, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).


Spang, Christian. Karl Haushofer und Japan: Die Rezeption seiner Geopolitischen Theorien in der Deutschen und Japanischen Politik, Monographien aus dem Deutschen Institut für Japanstudien (Tokyo: Iudicium, 2013).


Suleski, Ronald.  “Salvaging Memories: Former Japanese Colonists in Manchuria and the Shimoina Project, 2001-2012,” in Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, ed. Norman Smith (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017), 197-221.


Troll, Carl and Eric Fisher, “Geographic science in Germany during the period 1933-1945: a critique and justification,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 39 (1949), 99-137.


Zischka, Anton. Japan in der Welt: Die Japanische Expansion seit 1854 (Leipzig: Wilhelm Goldman Verlag, December 1937).



[1] Christian Spang, Karl Haushofer und Japan: Die Rezeption seiner Geopolitischen Theorien in der Deutschen und Japanischen Politik, Monographien aus dem Deutschen Institut für Japanstudien (Tokyo: Iudicium, 2013): Eun-jeung Lee and Hannes Mossler, Facetten deutsch-koreanischer Beziehungen: 130 Jahre Gemeinsame Geschichte, (Frankfurt: Peter Lang Verlag, 2017).

[2]Gustav Fochler-Hauke, …Nach Asien! Vom Abenteuer zur Wissenschaft (Heidelberg: Kurt Vorwinckel, 1951), 146-152.

[3] Popular literature and CIA files from the early 1940’s interpreted such journeys as exercises in pure German espionage by Haushofer’s students. See entries for Haushofer in Central Intelligence Agency, “OSS Note Cards,” circa 1943, CIA-RDP82-00038R001000160005-0,16-25.

[4] For articles yielded from this trip, see Gustav Fochler-Hauke, “Chinesische Kolonisation und Kolonialpolitik,” in Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde, Berlin 1933, 108-122; Gustav Fochler-Hauke, “Deutschland und China” Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, Vol. 11 (1934), 275-280.  He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Munich, where he worked under the formal supervision of Erich Dagobert von Drygalski, the famous and rather aged polar explorer; Fochler-Hauke would later take up a teaching post at the same university from 1954 until his retirement in 1971.

[5] Gustav Fochler-Hauke won the Silver Carl Ritter Medallion in 1953 for his research on Manchuria and Argentina. “Die 125-Jahrferier der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin vol 1. Bis 3. Mai 1953,” Die Erde 1953, 319.

[6] Gustav Fochler-Hauke, “Die Mandschurei als Wirtschaftliches und Politisches Kraftfeld,” Schweizer Monatshefte: Zeitschrift für Politik, Wirtschaft, Kultur, Vol. 16 (1936-1937), 35-43. For a listing of other articles published in 1936, see Gustav Fochler-Haucke, Die Mandschurei, 390-391.

[7] Gustav Fochler-Hauke, Der Ferne Osten: Macht- und Wirtschaftskampf in Ostasien, Macht und Erde series, Vol. 3 (Berlin: B.G. Teubner, second edition, 1938, first published in 1936, third edition in 1942. Korea and the role of Koreans in China paid almost no role in this book, 56.

[8] Karl Haushofer and Gustav Fochler-Hauke, Welt in Gärung: Zeitberichte deutscher Geopolitiker (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag für Politik und Wirtschaft / Breitkopf und Härtel, 1937); Gustav Fochler-Hauke, Gustav Fochler-Hauke, Deutscher Volksboden und Deutsches Volkstum in der Tschechoslowakei: eine geographisch-geopolitische Zusammenschau Heidelberg & Berlin: K. Vowinckel, 1937. Series: Bücher der Grenzlande, vol 2. Fochler-Hauke may also have had a personal interest in the subject having been born in Troppau, a German area in the Sudetenland (present-day Opava, in the eastern Czech Republic).

[9] Donald H. Norton, “Karl Haushofer and the German Academy, 1925-1945,” Central European History, Vol. 1 (1968), 92-93.

[10] Gustav Fochler-Hauke, “Japanische Kolonisation und koloniale Politik,” Koloniale Rundschau, Vol. 27, No 6 (1939), pp. 453-460; Gustav Fochler-Hauke, ‘Staatsidee und Nationalitätenpolitik in Mandschutiko, Volksforschung, vol. 5, no. 1 (1941).

[11] In the Korean section of his 1967 monograph on ‘divided nations,’ Fochler-Hauke cites Lautensach as ‘the best German expert on Korea’ and meditates on the ‘alienating effect’ that Japanese rule had with respect to Koreans’ own sense of themselves as a nation (‘Volksbewusstsein’). Gustav Fochler-Hauke, Die geteilten Länder: Krisenherde der Weltpolitik (Munich: Rütten and Loening Verlag, 1967), 15-16).

[12] Owen Lattimore, Review of Gustav Fochler-Hauke’s “Die Mandschurei: Eine Geographisch-Geopolitische Landeskunde” in Pacific Affairs (Summer 1948), 303-304.

[13] Keith Howard, review of Herman Lautensach, Korea: A Geography Based on the Author’s Travels and Literature, translated by Eckart and Katherine Dege (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1988), in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Volume 55, Issue 1 (February 1992), 176.

[14] One exception exists in the work of the generalist journalist and world traveller, Anton Zischka, who described the deep currents of underlying opposition to colonial rule he felt whilst in Korea, and traced some of it back to Koreans operating in Vladivostok under Soviet auspices. See Anton Zischka, Japan in der Welt: Die Japanische Expansion seit 1854 (Leipzig: Wilhelm Goldman Verlag, December 1937), 265-266.

[15] Ernst Schultze, Japan als Weltindustriemacht, vol. 1, 111-114; Karl Haushofer, Japan baut sein Reich (Berlin: Zeitgeschichte-Verlag, 1941), 53-61.

[16] Gustav Fochler-Haucke, Die Mandschurei,

[17] Ibid. 193.

[18] Ibid. 199.

[19] Ibid. 200.

[20] Josef-Walter Koenig, ‘Gustav Fochler-Hauke: Geograph, Schriftsteller,’ Kulturportal West-Ost,

[21] Instead, during the German war with the Soviet Union from June 1941, he published a couple of edited volumes on German identity and editing an illustrated memoir from a German officer involved in a ski unit during the winter war with Soviet troops. The University of Hokkaido holds a 1944/45 Festschrift, the scholar’s final output of the war years, which lauds the career of one Dr. Karl Haushofer. See Christian Spang,

[22]  Carl Troll, “Geographic Science in Germany during the Period 1933-1945: A Critique and Justification,” translated and annotated by Eric Fischer, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 39, No. 2 (June 1949), 129-130.

[23] See Gustav Fochler-Hauke, “Korea,” in Die Machtblöcke des Ostens: China, Japan, Sowjetunion, Macht und Wirtschaft zwischen Ostsee und Pazifik (Berlin: Safari-Verlag, 1970), 147-160: Christian Spang, Karl Haushofer und Japan: Die Rezeption seiner Geopolitischen Theorien in der Deutschen und Japanischen Politik, Monographien aus dem Deutschen Institut für Japanstudien (Tokyo: Iudicium, 2013).

[24] Gustav Fochler-Hauke, …Nach Asien! Vom Abenteuer zur Wissenschaft (Heidelberg: Kurt Vorwinckel, 1951).

[25] Fochler-Hauke, 1951, 192, 193 and 1970, 147-160. See also Ronald Suleski’s extraordinary account of such a moment in “Salvaging Memories: Former Japanese Colonists in Manchuria and the Shimoina Project, 2001-2012,” in Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, ed. Norman Smith (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017), 197-221.

[26] Fochler-Hauke was familiar with the Japanese research (Hamada Kosaku) on the Koguryo Kingdom and the Koguryo tombs in Jian. Like Haushofer, Fochler-Hauke was attuned, if sporadically, to the longer-durée.

[27] Recounted in Nianshen Song, Making Borders in Modern East Asia: The Tumen River Demarcation, 1881-1919 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018), 1-15. and Nianshen Song. “Imagined territory: Paektusan in late Chosŏn maps and writings,” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes. Vol. 37. No. 2 (2017), 157-173.

[28] Gustav Fochler-Haucke, Die Mandschurei, 191.

[29] Ibid, 199.


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


“Whan that Apriil with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

So priketh hem nature in hir corages;

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…”

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

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

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

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

Theoretical Frames

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

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

The Deterritorialization of Pyongyang’s Sun

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


충격 여단 chungkyŏkyŏdan “shock brigades”

병사 건축업자pyŏngsa kŏnch’ukŏpja “soldier builders.”


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

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

Fish, Subterfuge and Security in North Korean and Soviet Institutional Interactions in the 1970s

North Korea is one of the most political spaces on the globe. Its historical narratives are equally riven by political ideology and have been reconstructed anew throughout the last seven decades. North Korea’s politics often generates intense geo-political response and feedback and political ecosystems and industries are generated around its containment, restriction and hypothecated eventual destruction. Since the collapse of the world communist bloc and the fracture of the Cold War status quo North Korea as a nation and its citizens have been forced to adopt many new strategies to underpin their own survival including attempting greater levels of mobility through migration, developing practical elements of enterprise and exchange, many of which make environmental connection or impact on local or regional ecosystems. New patterns of social and economic organisation at both formal and informal levels and at intersections with nature and environment have emerged with accompanying frameworks of practice and interaction.

North Korean histories are therefore interactions with these frameworks and complex relations between a politics of possession and dispossession. In contemporary political and media culture, Pyongyang’s rule is marked as a repertoire of dispossession; dispossession of material goods, of intellectual mores, of freedom and liberty themselves. Absence or lack is certainly a key feature of North Korean history, through war, colonial occupation and the frozen conflicts of the Cold War and the Post-Cold War (only in North Korea has the Cold War continued past 1992 in such an acute and concrete fashion), its citizens lack peace and security. However they also lack material possessions, stores of value and stores of calories. In a manner familiar to South Koreans for much of the twentieth century North Koreans have been dispossessed by politics, history and nature. Even in the acts of development and production North Korea and North Koreans experience dispossession. This is of course historically common to much of the globe dominated by Capital and Capitalism, surplus values extraction, the co-option and appropriation of property, nature and abstract goods. However in North Korea this appropriation has been more dramatic in form and has historically been much more significant. Ostensibly the work of my research and this paper address histories and geographies of fishing, a developmental sector directly focused on the appropriation of commons. While engaging with a waterscape once thought infinite fishing and fishermen have been busy in the 20th and 21st century manufacturing the collapse of a global ecosystem through appropriation and dispossession. This feeds back on North Korea absolutely, but the nation has not itself been excluded from this history, often seeking desperately to be a dispossessor and appropriator itself. This paper will encounter this in the institutional relationships between the Soviet Union and North Korea. North Korea certainly sought to dispossess resources belonging to the Soviet Union as much as in return the Soviet Union attempted to co-opt North Korean institutional and research organisations into its wider framework of socialist solidarities and fraternity, as well as to prevent North Korea from taking more than or too much of the fishing commons in its sphere of influence and waters in the Pacific. In spite of these connectivities born of the world socialist or communist system, both sides were determined to maintain their own security.

This paper recounts some of the practices of subterfuge North Korea utilised in order to negate the security practices of the Soviet Union and to gain advantage in fishing and other matters. Fishing practices are not rooted in North Korea or the Soviet Union’s contemporary ideological frameworks, but in the presuppositions, presumptions and predilections of modernism and colonialism. Fishing technologies and science which now scours the seas for the last vestiges of maritime life were born in the Japanese Empire and the Cold War military industrial complex of the United States, in the research centres designed to bring forth total power on behalf of the modern capitalist. As committed to Socialism or Communism as the Soviet Union was, its fishing technologies and strategies were similarly sourced from these extractive imperatives and predicated on the fishing science of maximum sustainable yield and other statistical sleights of hand. Whether Japanese, American or Soviet, all fishing institutions of this period were focused on an inexhaustible maritime commons and never ending growth in catches. North Korea in this sense is a bit player in a highly destructive historical, economic, technological enterprise already underway.

North Korean fishing histories are thus not unique or exceptional, sui generis in space and place. While much media, academic and popular narrative asserts that North Korea is a place out of time, history and space, it is as connected to the themes of global development and politics as anywhere else, as riven by future crises and struggles as any other territory. Its fishing histories therefore have much in common with others in neighbouring nations, who have been subjected to similar attempts at and processes of dispossession. Small South Korean fishing communities have been dispossessed by the exploitative modes of capital and debt bondage represented by the Kaekchu middlemen at the same time as the larger industrial complex of that nation’s fisheries was busy engaging in the global dispossession and despoliation of the deep sea that was the trawling revolution. Chinese communities focused on fishing and sea products were dispossessed by European adventurism in the 19th century and are now crowded out by both the appropriation of space and place by speculative urbanism and rampant vulture and venture Capital and by the environmental disaster generated by both global and local developmental agendas.


Literature and Theoretical Frames

Before moving to interactions between North Korean and Soviet fishing institutions, an outline of the non-historical theoretical terrain through which these narratives are considered is necessary. North Korea’s politics and culture is regarded as an extraordinary, aberrant conceptual landscape, one which in academic analysis is layered with a multitude of theoretical approaches. This author, despite being a Geographer engages with theory derived from political anthropology, holding that North Korea’s politics is a culture of charisma and theatre.

When this paper’s author utilises the notion of charisma or charismatic politics he is doing so in the wake of much past research and analysis. This particular author holds to Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s influential channelling of Max Weber and Clifford Geertz in their assertion that North Korea has all the hallmarks of a theatre state[1], in which performativity is vital to the function of politics. Pyongyang’s theatric sensibilities are powered by a Weberian sense of political charisma deployed on a national scale, breaking temporal boundaries and embedding itself within the nation’s historical memory and institutional practice. The author of the paper is by academic discipline a human geographer so for him space, scale, boundaries and bounding are all vital elements within analysis. While performance and memory are important for North Korea’s theatric or charismatic politic, the space and place for their performative practice and content is equally vital. Theatric politics will necessarily require a stage for the performance or re-performance of its charisma, and that stage is the physical bounded landscapes of the nation itself. This author therefore twins theories and concepts from anthropology (Benedict Anderson, Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung), with work from geography on the construction of symbolic, political or social landscapes[2].

Castree’s conception of political landscapes in particular[3], dovetails with Eric Swyngedouw’s writing on scale as political practice within landscape[4], and the author’s own on the application of such ideas within North Korean spaces[5]. In tandem with this political conception of scale and scaling, this paper is also particularly interested in the agency, action and politics of fishing terrain itself. To consider this agency the author utilises the enormously important work of Jane Bennett[6] and Sarah Whatmore[7] on the generation and existence of what they have termed ‘vibrant’ matter or political matter. However Bennett and Whatmore’s work on the specifics of non-human or non-sentient vibrancy must be read in tandem with the equally vital work of Jason Moore[8]. Moore’s interpretation of the ‘web of life’ holds that there can be no externalised Capitalism (or any other ism), acting upon Nature or natures for both are intrinsically within and around politics and political forms. Nature and natures run through economic, political, cultural and social imperatives, entwining, enmeshing, influencing and reordering them, and are inseparable from the many functions of human life. Of course this must therefore be true of non-Capitalist polities and non-Capitalist Nature or nature. North Korea’s politics, institutions, cultures, social frameworks and topography must necessarily as much an assemblage of Nature, natures and human endeavours and practice as any other manifestation of sovereignty. Capitalism is in Nature as much as Nature is Capitalism in Moore’s reading, could be reconfigured for the North Korean case to read that Juché or Songun is in Nature and vice versa.

Notions of vibrant materiality and lively non-human actors can also connect to previous conceptions of political charisma, themselves of course very active in North Korea. Jamie Lorimer for instance has used Bennett’s conceptions to theorise a politics of non-human charisma[9], which he uses primarily within the field of environmental and species conservation, but which underpins this author’s examination of the role of topography within North Korea’s politics, history and culture. The reader should perhaps also consider the work of Thongchai Winichikaul, especially addressing Thai state development on notions of the eco-body, in which topographic features, and a sense of local natural sensibilities become entwined and enveloped by the processes of nation building and state formation[10].

Concepts of a North Korean ‘eco-body’ were particularly important following the end of the Japanese colonial period. The reader can certainly consider the fish, fishing ecosystems and perhaps even fishing infrastructures of North Korea in this light, as vibrant, lively participants with their own intrinsic charisma, active in the theatric politics and history of the nation. In tandem with the theories of space, place and vibrant matter through which North Korea’s fishing histories will be encountered, it is vital to touch on the histories or sparsity of histories of fishing in the Asian context.

The paucity of history or historiography has been one of the most surprising findings of the author’s exploration of fishing communities and fishing cultures. The majority of histories that exist focus on whaling practices and histories and fishing in the North Atlantic. While it might be expected that colonial or post-colonial histories would seek out and uncover the stories of fishing communities, this generally has not been the case. This may be because the object of these communities’ enterprise and interest and often the communities themselves are remarkably transient and temporary. Fish and maritime resources often disappear or reappear with little rhyme or reason, the communities that seek them then being forced to move or reconfigure their life practices and home lives in order to catch up. In our age of industrial exploitation, climate change and environmental crisis this has become common and with rising sea temperatures can only become more so. Histories with a wide geographic or temporal span addressing the Pacific include Carmel Finley’s important work on fishing history and technological development in the Pacific framed by the power of American and Japanese interests following the end of the war in the Pacific in 1945[11].

On the other side of the ocean is Ryan Tucker Jones’ work on Russian efforts at sealing, fishing and whaling in the far north prior to the creation of Soviet Union[12]. Micah Muscolino’s work on the development of fishing technologies and commodification of commons and resources in the Zhoushan archipelago, what he terms ‘fishing wars’ is also vital for work closer to East Asia[13]. Aside from theoretical material this paper also encounters North Korea through archival material from the various Fisheries Commissions in the Pacific held by Australian National University, CSIRO (Black Mountain), the Australian National Library and the University of Hull. Archival material has also been sourced from the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Fisheries Archive held within the Russian Federation State Archive of the Economy. North Korean material has been sourced from collections at the University of Leeds, Australian National University and the National Library of Australia.


Political Fishing Histories of North Korea

This paper will not go extensively or at length into the history of North Korean fishing. This author has already published a fairly comprehensive account of the strategies, processes and themes of North Korea’s approach to the sector[14]. It will not surprise the reader to hear the suggestion that fishing for North Korea was deeply connected both to the various periods of its political and ideological development, and as a developmental sector essentially aimed at a resource of the commons and therefore for the most part free, vital to its developmental strategies. It must be said categorically any efforts focused on the construction of a coherent periodization of North Korean fishing and fishing practices can only be termed political fishing histories. In North Korea all aspects of life, development, social practice, invention and governmentality are imbued and enmeshed with politics and ideology, there is virtually no escape from this for North Koreans living in North Korea and in this historical process, for the fishing sector this is also the case.

Fishing was vital to Kim Il Sung’s ambitions from very early on in North Korea’s history, in part to both build a new economy and to deconstruct Japanese efforts to Japanize Korean fisheries during the colonial era[15] [16]. Fishing development was delayed by the chaos and destruction of the Korean War, but soon after the war institutional focus returned to the sector, in close relation to North Korea’s close ally in its early years and technical supporter even in more complicated diplomatic times. Kim Il Sung even remarked on North Korean-Soviet interactions in 1957 “We invited Soviet scientists who were engaged on maritime research in the Far East. They came to our country under an agreement reached when our Government delegation visited Moscow last year.”[17] While the Soviet Union may have influenced North Korea’s initial efforts on the seas and some of its first efforts at planning extractive goals, Stalin’s death in 1953 drove a geo-political turn towards Maoism and the People’s Republic of China.[18] The implications of this for the wider strategies in North Korea’s development have been also noted by analysts from the period.[19] The Chollima movement, North Korea’s developmental movement and response to Maoist urgency would generate statements on fishing such as; “We must intensify ideological education among the fishery officials and eradicate mysticism, empiricism and all other outdated ideas so that they will improve the fishing method zealously with the attitude of masters,”[20] and “Fish culture is a not a difficult job. A little effort and everyone will be able to,” suggest that it was so in these acute, urgent times.[21] This was not a time for fishing ‘experts’.

North Korea more generally quickly attempted to avoid the collapse of the Great Leap Forward and the famine period following it in the PRC, reconnecting more fully with partners in the Soviet Union, while exploring further afield for new contacts in non-aligned nations. In the fishing sector North Korea’s strategy focused on reconfiguring its goal setting and institutional structures in a more coherent manner, especially focusing on technical capacity.[22] The size, tonnage and capabilities of fishing boats and other fishing technology for North Korea has always been problematic. Pyongyang has always found it hard to manage the development of larger or more complicated boats, as well as the infrastructure required to produce such boats. For many years North Korea sought to obtain these from before, but in the late 1960s this to became problematic: “The 450-ton trawler we are now producing has many shortcomings. [For example,] it can be used for fishing only in the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea… [and] it cannot be used in the Pacific Ocean where the waves are moderate.”[23] By the early 1970s North Korea was engaged in reconfiguring its institutional framework and trying to carefully manage a few centers of maritime industrial excellence—for example, the Ryukdae Shipyard in the Komdok Island area. This shipyard was to serve as such a center for the industry in the East Sea.[24] The primary site for this renewal of North Korea’s fishing fleet and accompanying infrastructure was located at Chongjin’s historically important port, where apart from Ryukdae’s efforts to build mid-range ships of some 600–1,000 tons, North Korea sought to construct much larger vessels of between 3,000 and 10,000 tons.[25] From the perspective of 2018 it is possible to say that in fact North Korea never managed to reach these heights of boat and infrastructure production. Even in contemporary times of the Great Fish Hauls as announced in 2015’s New Year’s Address, fishing boats and processing technology is still a huge problem for North Korea.


North Korea Fishing Interactions in Soviet Institutional Archives and Memory

The previous section has addressed the political histories of North Korean fishing up to the early 1970s as can be gleaned from the extensive documents and publications of Pyongyang itself. It has been to this point nigh on impossible to get a coherent sense of the reality of North Korea’s historiography or the aspirations within it for development and success in the sector. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) fisheries statistics are notoriously complicated and troublesome from this period, methodologies being reconfigured every few years anyway[26]. When it comes to North Korea, the FAO received one set of statistics in 1957 which were so outlandish that from that point til now the organization simply estimated and extrapolated the nation’s statistics. Looking elsewhere to the statistics of the various commissions which manage the pelagic and anadromous fishing stocks of the Pacific, such as the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC), North Korean boats make no appearance, not even as illegal fishers (Taiwanese boats being the prime concern of the authorities of Japan, the United States and Canada). Thus while boats from the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and the People’s Republic of Poland are all accounted within the documents by the NPFC, Pyongyang’s boats are nowhere to be found[27].  Fish for North Korea were important, lively matter, but perhaps Pyongyang was not successful at all in connecting with their vibrancy. This paper however recounts for the first time (that is known) in English, an encounter with the fisheries archives of the Soviet Union, which most certainly has a place for the North Korea of the 1970s within their historical narrative.

The author’s interest on Soviet archives was first piqued a couple of years ago when Rodong Sinmun reported on the meeting of the Joint Fisheries Commission of the Russian Federation and North Korea. A reading of past North Korean media reports suggested this commission had met for many years, but its publications and minutes were never publicly available and certainly not made available by North Korea.  North Korea and the Soviet Union in fact set up the predecessor to the currently constituted Commission in the late 1960s following some twenty years of attempts at engagement on Moscow’s part. This author had in fact never seen any of the reports issued by these committees, however recent visits to the Russian State Archive of the Economy has allowed access to all of the committees’ previous reports and the documents that surround them. These certainly give an external, Soviet perspective on North Korea’s fishing history and especially is success or otherwise in Moscow’s institutional eyes.

Interestingly Soviet efforts towards conservation and the management of fisheries stocks were, counter to the imperatives of Socialist or Communist rationalism not designed simply to extract resources from the sea at this time (though of course they may have been in the past), so cannot be classified as seeking to dispossess the great treasury or commons of the ocean. The Soviet Union it seems had been very concerned to support North Korea’s own efforts to develop its capabilities and capacities, perhaps to mitigate the cost of the various loans, credits and exchanges offered to Pyongyang by Moscow following the Korean War and to support relations between the two during the difficult politics following the death of Stalin and North Korea’s dalliance with Beijing. Reports from the Ministry of Fisheries and VNIRO (Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography) suggest that the Soviet Union had sought to connect with North Korean fisheries throughout most of the 1960s, especially to engage in researcher swaps and exchanges on each other’s boats and ships[28]. But contrary to Kim Il Sung’s assertions in previous decades, they had never happened. Vladivostok’s branch of VNIRO and the Russian Academy of Sciences Fisheries Section especially were concerned to develop joint projects in the Sea of Okhotsk, knowing that North Korea sought snow and other crabs for their value and for local markets and that stocks had declined within its territorial waters[29]. There were it seems also a number of instances of illegal and dangerous fishing practices by North Korean boats in or near Soviet declared or territorial waters. After much negotiation and many false starts North Korea and the Soviet Union signed a protocol on the September 5, 1969 which established the joint Soviet-North Korea Fisheries Commission[30]. The first meeting of the commission was delayed by Pyongyang’s preparations for a Workers Party of Korea Congress (the 5th, eventually held in November 1970), but was held between February, 26 and March,10 1970[31].

Soviet reports on the commission’s meetings give a fairly thorough if frustrated view of what sounds like a complicated and difficult series of exchanges. North Korea’s representatives are described as intransigent, setting the agenda ended up taking an entire day and that the Korean’s were extremely reluctant to discuss procedure[32]. The Soviet Union on the other hand had wanted to discuss the granular details of fish stocks and the North Koreans perception of their own stocks and the framework of management and administrative principles governing joint exercises whereas the North Koreans were determined to discuss potential joint collaboration and interactions as soon as possible[33]. The Soviet Union it seemed already a careful and complicated network of restrictions and management around Kamchatka, the Sea of Okhotsk and Sakhalin and even joint agreements on stock capacity with Japan (with whom, even in spite of very difficult relations given the post war status quo on Sakhalin and the Kuriles, the Soviet Union had a joint fisheries commission), which North Korea was keen to avoid being constrained by[34]. After much discussion the North Korean side agreed to abide by the wider restrictions on salmon fishing across the western Pacific which the Soviet Union subscribed to in collaboration with the Japanese (also quite possibly to avoid complicating relations with the United States and Canada on the subject of fishing for migratory species in the Pacific), as well as restrictions on crab fishing around Kamchatka, trawling the mid sea on the west coast of Kamchatka and herring fishing in the Gulf of Shelikov between mid-April and mid-July (herring fry season)[35]. In exchange the Soviet Union allowed Pyongyang to access the inshore waters of the Commander Islands, fish for flatfish around Kamchatka and Sakhalin and access the herring fisheries of the Soviet area of the Bering Sea[36].

In exchange for these supplementary rights North Korea supplied the Soviet side with the details of its fleet and catch. According to the Korean side, its fishing fleet in 1969 had been some 35 boats, half medium sized trawlers and some purse seine boats[37]. North Korea also claimed to have four mother ships and four transport ships (having even bought two mother ships from the Netherlands) and had plans to two large trawlers with refrigeration capacity[38]. These boats had caught in 1969 according to the North Korean fishing experts, some 11000 tons of flatfish and 25000 tons of herring in the Sea of Okhotsk. In the Sea of Japan, North Korea claimed to have caught 1000 tons of pink salmon, 400000 tons of pollack, up to 60000 tons of squid and 15000 tons of crab (both hairy crab and snow crab)[39]. The Soviet side thought these figures an understatement and that North Korea, in spite of its consent to restrictions sought to exploit Pacific salmon resources as much as possible and to exploit the highly endangered fur seal populations on Tyuleny Island off Sakhalin[40].

Despite their own concerns and lack of trust in the North Koreans, the Soviet Union in the joint commissions sought to negotiate joint research collaborations between fishing experts of both countries in 1970. While this seemed very difficult to set up in 1970 owing to the demands of the forthcoming Workers Party Congress on North Korea’s scientific bureaucracy, the commission managed to come to arrangement[41]. Many complex challenges were overcome when it came to matters of responsibility and lines of control and even the issue raised by the North Koreans, that Soviet ships in the Pacific were subject to mandatory boarding rights in certain areas by foreign powers and Pyongyang was absolutely keen to avoid any circumstance where hostile or unfriendly agencies might have access to North Korean workers and operatives on board Soviet ships far from its control. These joint exercises were to begin in late September 1970, the culmination of many years of effort on the part of the bureaucrats, diplomats and scientists from the various Soviet institutions[42].

These efforts were to be severely challenged on September 28, 1970 when a highly urgent telegram found its way onto many desks across the Soviet Union. In the week that research cooperation efforts were supposed to begin on ships of both the USSR and North Korea, the telegram reported that a North Korean purse seine boat with its identifying marks illegally disguised had attempted to set its own nets across and above the nets of the Soviet Union’s chief research ship, damaging the them and the Soviet boat’s floats beyond repair[43]. Responses to the initial telegram revealed that this was not an isolated incident and that in fact North Korean boats had been repeatedly disguising their identification marks and using incorrect or impossible to decipher marks on their nets and floats in the Sea of Okhotsk[44]. Further telegrams from ‘Far East Fish’ the ‘Fishing Cooperative of Kamchatka’ reported near collisions and other dangerous interactions between North Korean boats and tugboats, an ocean-going barge, the Dagystanka and a fishing trawler, the Kammeniy. Unsurprisingly interactions between the research institutions of the Soviet Union and North Korea which had been very carefully organized and negotiated earlier in the year were for the moment curtailed while authorities in Moscow reconsidered how to approach and engage a partner like Pyongyang[45].

While activities at sea were restricted in 1970 the Soviet Union decided to allow North Korean researchers to engage on land with the Ministry of Fisheries institutions near Vladivostok in Nakhodka. North Korean researchers were in the Soviet Union between the December 15, 1970 and the January, 16 1971 for what was a fact finding mission for the Koreans and an exercise in epistemological training from the Soviets – according to the accounts it was an extremely difficult month[46]. The events of the previous year, which the Soviet institutions had essentially put down to some form of industrial sabotage, coupled with the complication of the discussions surrounding the joint research efforts had soured the mood between the two nations. The Soviet side considered the reasons for some of the more difficult moments in the discussions, such as North Korea’s lack of willingness to allow any reciprocity in contract arrangement and complex negotiation over the legal framework and responsibilities for any of that nation’s citizens on Soviet boats as exposing its institutions to moral hazard[47]. It appeared that there was a high security risk in engagements with North Korean institutions and that under the guise of interest in fishing, Pyongyang could send intelligence operatives and engage primarily in industrial espionage on Soviet infrastructure and factories in the far east, but also to extract knowledge not available to it on fishing stocks and fishing areas in the Sea of Okhotsk and in the wider Pacific.

The exchange in 1970/1971 certainly did not begin in the most comfortable manner. In order to avoid issues of subterfuge, espionage and security threat the Soviet Union stipulated that none of the researchers or technicians sent by North Korea should have visited the area before or been involved in the institutions on the Soviet side in the past. Certainly none should have security or intelligence background and essentially all should have fishing and fishing research experience. Of course North Korea claimed that none of its researchers had ever been in the Soviet Union before and all were trained and experienced fishing experts, but Soviet intelligence soon reported that one had been to college in the USSR and two had worked in their consulate in Vladivostok – a fourth member of the Korean team it was decided actually had nothing to do with the fishing industry and knew nothing about fishing at all[48]. The Ministry of Fisheries efforts to entertain the North Koreans continued to be combined with a concern for security and the obvious dangers of their potential efforts at subterfuge and espionage, concern which only grew when the Koreans appeared to be fairly consumed by the technological aspects of their visit to the extent that when they demanded the blueprints and layouts for the machinery in the various canning and preparation facilities they visited, the Soviet side actually restricted access[49]. Eventually a reasonable negotiation of the problems was done by the Soviet side, with extensive reports in the documents of the North Korean’s being refused visits to irrelevant infrastructure and careful management of their visits to technical or research institutions, so that they could not extract data or spend too long with technology that was delicate when it came to security matters. Of course the documents also report a number of moments of push back from the North Koreans and frequent returns to their hotel rooms after difficult moments with their hosts, to review material at length or to communicate with North Korea[50]. Finally in scenes familiar to watchers of North Korea in the present, the researchers aside from their focus on machinery and technology, were fascinated by shopping opportunities in the fishing towns they visited – The Soviet Union’s Ministry of Fishing even sent the North Koreans back to their own country with an extensive supply of Soviet Crab, Caviar, Shrimp and Herring[51].

The records of the Joint Soviet Union North Korean Fisheries Commission which met on average every four years following the initial 1970 meeting record more or less similar interactions between the two countries and their fishing industries for the next two decades. Undoubtedly on the surface Soviet efforts to develop North Korea’s behavior and technical capacity worked to mitigate the security and espionage risks it generate, Pyongyang’s desires to fish illegally and exploit what was not within its property or remit for the 1970s (though it could never seem to diminish Pyongyang’s ambition to extract whatever it could from Japanese stocks), though it cannot be said that efforts from Moscow’s researchers and academics supported much in the way of practical development when it came to North Korean fishing capacity. Nor can it be said that North Korea ever managed to extract by means of subterfuge or espionage any information or technology that would later drive success or development in its fishing industry or its fishing catches.



North Korea as the reader of this paper may know, was never to reach the heights of extraction from the commons of the sea managed by the Soviet Union during its existence. The Soviet Union and perhaps unlikely partners such as the Polish Democratic Republic and the German Democratic Republic would join the United States, Japan, South Korea and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s as a global fishing power, the ships of these nations found across the seas of the earth and at their farthest reaches. North Korea, in spite of efforts made in the 1970s as recounted by this paper and later in its history would never be a great success. However that has never stopped it aspiring to such success as seen in 2015’s New Year’s Address from Kim Jong Un, and in following years, which features seas (and mountains) of gold as developmental imperative[52]. As much as Kim Il Sung wanted, desired and demanded it, North Korean fishing success on a global scale has never happened. The institutional redesign, scientific focus and technological jump required by North Korea’s fishing strategy in the late 1960s and 1970s produced very little. North Korea fishing boats seldom top 1000 tonnes (Whereas South Korea’s are in the tens of thousands. When North Korea finally successfully joined the West and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), (an organisation set up to manage the tuna and migratory fish in the waters around the Federated Republic of Micronesia, Vanuatu, Nauru and the other island archipelago nations of this area of the Pacific), in 2014 after many years of trying and diplomatic push and pull, its first membership of such an organisation it was required to submit useful and legitimate data on its fishing efforts in the area[53]. Extraordinarily this North Korea did, providing what to this date are the only reasonable and functional statistics on its fishing efforts and catch size in the wider Pacific area since its submission to the Soviet Joint Commission in the 1970s. These statistics reveal the miniscule scale of North Korea’s contemporary fishing capabilities and effort in the area, comprising only two small purse seine boats and one long line boat, collecting in total a sum of some 368 tonnes of tuna in 2014[54].

While North Korea’s fishing history it seems therefore has not by any means met any goal it set itself in the 1970s, it has certainly not been for want of trying. Evidence from the Soviet archives revealed here for the first time suggests the efforts Pyongyang made to connect to the Soviet Union’s enormous infrastructure of fishing research and marine technical research, at the same time as blatantly trying to cheat Moscow when it came to protected areas and stocks and to use subterfuge and espionage to extract scientific and technical knowledge. Reports from the very end of the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1990 suggest that North Korea has never given up trying, recording that Pyongyang had engaged in efforts during research exercises in the late 1980s to breach Soviet information security in Nakhodka and Vladivostok[55]. North Korea had also developed an elaborate ruse by buying small trawlers from Japan and crewing them with Japanese fishermen who were instructed to insist that they were working on behalf of Japanese companies and to fish illegally in Soviet waters of Sakhalin and Kamchatka[56]. When this was discovered the Soviet Union fined North Korea millions of US dollars for such an extreme breach of protocol and restricted any further collaborative efforts[57]. Whatever its own lack of capability North Korea placed a huge value on attractive and valuable maritime species such as Snow Crab and Pollack and was willing to engage in all manner of behavior to get them with whatever resources it had to hand. Fish and fishing technologies it seems have always been hugely important to North Korea’s institutional and developmental mind. The Soviet Union on the other hand was extremely patient and determined to bring Pyongyang into its institutional fold when it came to fishing, perhaps because of the challenges presented by illegal North Korean fishing in its waters, perhaps to reduce the concerns of other nation’s focused on the Pacific, perhaps even because of the residual sense of socialist fraternity between the two nations. Even North Korea’s absurd acts of sabotage to long negotiated and organized joint projects, a technique, behavior and practice familiar to those attempting to engage Pyongyang in institutional development the world over throughout its history, and acts of espionage and subterfuge did not completely stop Soviet interest. Moscow’s institutions were instead required to develop new strategies and levels of surveillance and security when working with North Korean boats and institutions. While North Korea is repeatedly dispossessed by circumstance and geo-political positionality, it appears that Pyongyang was certainly not beneath or beyond dispossessing the commons or an ally when it came to fishing stocks and resources in the 1970s. Ultimately Pyongyang’s efforts in the deep sea have been so small as to scarcely register against the extractive and accumulative ambitions of the great nations of the ocean. In the evidential terms necessary for conventional historical narratives, North Korea is normally entirely opaque and corroboration of events is almost impossible. However access to the Soviet archives has certainly challenged this frequently used truism for this author and has provided the evidence for this revealing paper.

[1] Kwon, Heonik and Chung, Byung-ho. North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.

[2] Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984 and Denis Cosgrove.  Landscape and Landschaft, Lecture Given the “Spatial Turn in History” Symposium German Historical Institute, February 19, 2004.


[3] Noel Castree, Social Nature. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

[4] Eric Swyngedouw, ‘Excluding the Other: the Production of Scale and Scaled Politics,’ pp.167-176 in Lee, R and Wills, J ed. Geographies of Economies. London: Arnold, 1997 and Swyngedouw, Eric. Liquid Power. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2015.

[5] R, Winstanley-Chesters, ‘’Patriotism Begins with a Love of Courtyard’: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea.’Tiempo Devorado (Consumed Time) Vol 2, No, 2, 2015, pp.116-138.

[6] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

[7] Sarah Whatmore and Bruce Braun, Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy and Public Life. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2010.

[8] Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso, 2015.


[9] J, Lorimer ‘Nonhuman Charisma.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol 24, No. 5, 2007, pp.911-932.

[10] Winichakul Thongchai, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, HI, 1994.


[11] Carmel Finley, All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2011 and Carmel Finley, All the Boats in the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Over Fishing. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2017.

[12] Ryan Tucker Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[13] Micah Muscolino, Fishing Wars and Environmental Change in Late Imperial and Modern China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University East Asia Centre, 2009.

[14] Robert Winstanley-Chesters, ‘Politics and Pollack: maritime development paradigms under the Kims’ in Change and Continuity in North Korean Politics, eds Winstanley-Chesters, R, Cathcart, A and Green, C, London: Routledge, 2016.

[15] Kim Il Sung, ‘On Developing the Fishing Industry on a New Basis,’ Works, Vol. 4, Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1948, p.304.

[16] Ibid., p.304.

[17] Kim Il Sung, ‘On the Development of the Fishing Industry,’ Works, Vol. 11, Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1957, p.96.

[18]J. S. Prybyla, ‘Soviet and Chinese. Economic Competition within the Communist World,’ Soviet Studies. Vol. 15, No. 4, 1964, pp. 464-473.

[19] Y.T.  Kuark, North Korea’s Agricultural Development during the Post-War Period,’ The China Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1963, pp.82-93.

[20]  Kim Il Sung, ‘On the Tasks of the Party Organizations in South Pyongan Province,’ Works, Vol. 14, Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960, p.38.

[21] Ibid., p.39.

[22] Kim Il Sung. ‘For Bringing About Rapid Progress in the Fishing Industry,’ Works, Vol. 22, Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House, p.261.

[23] Ibid., p.55.

[24] Ibid., p.57.

[25] Ibid.

[26] FAO, Fisheries Statistics Yearbook, United Nations: Geneva, 1972.

[27] North Pacific Fisheries Commission, Annual Report 1972, NPFC, San Francisco, 1972.

[28] ‘The Soviet Union delegation’s account of work on session of Joint Soviet – North Korean Fisheries Commission’ 1970, p.3. Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-20-2323.

[29] Ibid., p.2.

[30] Ibid., p.1.

[31] Ibid., p.4.

[32] Ibid., p.5.

[33] Ibid., p.6.

[34] Ibid., p.8.

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., p.7.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., p.4.

[42] Urgent Telegram from USSR Ministry of Communications ‘Urgent Moscow harbour to Ishkov Dal’ryba (FarEastFish) to Starzinskiy,’ 28th September, 1970, Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-20-2323.

[43] ‘Letter to D. Gafin from Volkov A.A,’ 28th September, 1970, Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-20-2323.

[44] ‘A list of violations committed by DPRK boats fishing in the Sea of Okhotsk regarding the Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and the fisheries regulations,’ October, 1970, Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-20-2323.

[45] Ibid.

[46] ‘A report on the work with Korean delegation during a period of 15 December 1970 until 16 January 1971,’ 29th January, 1971, Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-22-468.

[47] ‘The Soviet Union delegation’s account of work on session of Joint Soviet – North Korean Fisheries Commission’ 1970, p.4. Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-20-2323.

[48] Ibid., p.6

[49] Ibid., p.2.

[50] ‘A report on the work with Korean delegation during a period of 15 December 1970 until 16 January 1971,’ 29th January, 1971, Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-22-468.

[51] S.Y.Hong, ‘Marine Policy in the Republic of Korea,’ Marine Policy, Vol 19, No. 2, 1995, pp.97-113.

[52] Kim Jong Un, ‘New Year’s Address, 2015’, Rodong Sinmun, January 1st, 2015.

[53] Western and Central Fisheries Commission, Report on admission of North Korea, August, 2014, Phonpei, Marianas Islands.

[54] Western and Central Fisheries Commission, Report on admission of North Korea, Letter from Ri Hyok, North Korean Minister of Fisheries, August 5th 2014, Phonpei, Marianas Islands.

[55] “Report on the activities of the [Overseas] Office of the USSR Ministry of fisheries in the DPRK during 1990.” 28th January 1991, p.3. Soviet Union Ministry of Fisheries Archive, Russian State Archive of the Economy, Fondy, 8202-23-1869.


[56] Ibid., p.4.

[57] Ibid., p.6.

Rare Earth Minerals, Technology Metals and Extractive Landscapes in North Koreas’ Web of Political Life

This is a very early pre-production, pre-editing manuscript of an earlier draft and is substantially different from the published and fully edited and peer reviewed version which can be accessed at and will form part of a special issue of the journal Extractive Industries and Society on Rare Earth Minerals and Technology Metals.

2017 has barely lasted three months at the time of writing yet North Korea has already managed to become the centre of global news stories for what it would consider entirely the wrong reasons. While this is not really unusual when it comes to the difficult politics and diplomatic interactions Pyongyang is normally faced with, recent events have a great potential impact on North Korea’s economic and institutional structures. Much in the way of analysis and reportage has been expended in recent years especially from an IR and political science perspective on the relationships and interactions between North Korea and the People’s Republic of China. Western and other analysts have explored almost to destruction the relationship between these two countries, considering their bonds to be almost indestructible. Rooted in the difficult times of both the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War of 1950-1953 when many thousands of Chinese and North Korean soldiers fought and died together in two of the very early Hot wars of the Cold War, even in spite of the difficulties of the collapse of communism across the world, the reorientation of Chinese politics and economics towards the logics and practices of Capital and competition and the irritation of Pyongyang’s efforts at obtaining nuclear capacity and capability relations between the two countries have been more or less maintained throughout.

2017 it seems however has brought this long standing geopolitical status quo nearly to an end. Beijing has provided diplomatic cover and support for Pyongyang through the most difficult of recent times (Rodong Sinmun, 2016), including through the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights (UNCOI). While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has continued increase sanctions on North Korea, Chinese policies appeared to continue to offer Pyongyang routes through the increasingly restrictive international legal and diplomatic frameworks which its institutions and trade were subject to. However UNSC resolution 2321, passed unanimously on the 30th of November 2016 for the first time restricted one of the most vital elements of North Korean export and trade, non-nuclear and non-dual use minerals (United Nations, 2016). UNSC Resolution 2321 prevents North Korea from selling iron, nickel, silver and zinc and a host of other minerals and is restricted in the amount of coal it can export to other nations to 1,000, 866 ,metric tonnes in December 2016 and 7,500,000 metric tonnes per year after that. Considering that Pyongyang’s trade in minerals and particularly coal is a vital contributor to its economy, the fact that China almost immediately banned imports until the 1st of January 2017 was an extraordinary signifier that policy in Beijing had shifted against Pyongyang (SCMP, 2016). Further to events in late 2016, while trade in minerals and coal resumed in the new year of 2017, on February 17th, 2017, the Chinese Commerce Ministry let it be known that no further imports from North Korea would be accepted until the turn of 2017/2018 (O’Carroll, 2017) and a number of North Korean shipments already in Chinese ports were impounded and rejected (O’Carroll, 2017). Analysts of North Korea are waiting to see how lengthy and serious Chinese intentions are, as well as their impact on the already stressed and restricted North Korean economy (Haggard, 2017).

Along with these dramatic events in 2017 the research focus which has driven this paper was also inspired by an earlier mineral interaction between North Korea and an Australian private company called SRE Minerals (, 2013). In 2013 North Korea’s Ministry of Mining and SRE Minerals announced a joint partnership known as Pacific Century Minerals to exploit the Rare Earth capacity of North Korea (Pacific Century, 2013a). In particular this enterprise would focus on extraction and development of what North Korea had termed the Yongju Deposit, a geological structure similar in form to that exploited by China’s famous facility at Bayan Obo (Pacific Century, 2013b). North Korea and SRE Minerals analysis claimed that Yongju was a potentially enormous deposit of Rare Earths and Technology Metals of some 67 Trillion US Dollars in value (Engineering and Mining Journal, 2015). It does not need to be said that such a deposit and resource if it could be financialised would dramatically alter the frame of geo-politics in the region, transforming North Korea into a financially stable actor, capable of a great deal of global impact, far beyond its current position. As it is, in spite of the initial surprise little has been heard of this enterprise since its announcement (and SRE Minerals itself though listed on an Australian Stock Index was always a fairly opaque organisation), and North Korea through its difficult interaction with the Egyptian engineering firm Orascom and its local extremely profitable mobile phone company, Koryolink has further demonstrated its esoteric approach to interacting with foreign investment partners (North Korea Tech, 2015). The SRE Minerals exchange and more recent interactions following UNSC2321 and efforts by the Chinese however demonstrate the really key role which minerals, both common and rare are playing within this particular geo-political space and suggest the deep and vital place of mineral exploration and exploitation within North Korea’s history since its foundation in 1948.


Literatures and Theoretical Frames

This historical depth of connection and importance to North Korean politics and its relationship with both its regional neighbours and the wider world is of course one of the most important drivers for this paper and its author. While the details of the very recent past are of course very interesting, for the most part this paper will be exploring the historical records and narratives of a much earlier moment in the life of North Korea. In spite of the fact that it is apparently quite possible to put a very exact tonnage on North Korean mineral production in recent years, especially when required to restrict that production at the behest of the United Nations Security Council, public and popular conception is that such production along with much else of the details of governance under Pyongyang is entirely opaque. If it were true such a state of affairs would present a real challenge to the author of this paper. However it this the assertion of this paper that when it comes to the exploration and exploitation of North Korea’s mineral and geologic capacity, while documents and evidence underpinning it are hard to come by and complicated to analyse, they certainly do exist and are accessible, so can certainly be accessed. Before framing the material this paper is primarily based on in temporal or historical terms, and undoing some of the imaginary opacity surrounding North Korean mineralogy, this paper turns to the theoretical and methodological themes which underpin its analysis. Just as North Korean politics and ideology has always found its own peculiar route through both history and the wider streams of geo-politics, so this paper frames theoretically the minerals and materials with which it is concerned in particular way in order to better trace their interaction with the politics and culture of that nation.

North Korean politics and political culture is characterised by the analysis of political science scholars generally as an example of extreme autocracy, which is derived from the ideologies of Marxist-Leninism and Stalinism, but with a very large element of Korean nationalism running through it. However recent writing by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung (2012) uses a reconsideration of Clifford Geertz (1980) and Max Weber’s (1967) analysis on the place of charisma and theatre to reframe North Korean politics as a space of political charisma and theatre. Kwon and Chung declare Pyongyang to be a theatre state in which politics is both performative and performed. This performance requires development and exploitation of mineral resources to engage as both actors and stage within North Korea’s politics. Rare Earth and technology metals, as well as coal and their exploration and utilisation are very much part of this performance. This paper also frames its approach through the social and cultural geographic lens provided by Denis Cosgrove (1984 and 2008) and Noel Castree (2001) and their articulation of landscape and terrain as symbolic and socially or politically constructed. North Korean mineral landscapes are certainly part of this construction, and this paper will explore these processes at a particularly generative moment in that process. The paper also deploys important work examining the reconfiguration of nature and natures through the social processes of scale and scaling from the work of Geographers such as Erik Swyngedouw (1997 and 2015). Through the use of distributed process and scale, natures are transformed into ‘techno-natures’ and impacted by and entwined with the imperatives of politics. Methodological transformations provided by analyses of scale in these senses allow for further insight into the local use of scale and scaling in North Korea (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Scale and scale making as transformative reflexive, distributed process allows for the inclusion of other inhabitants and participants within the landscapes marked by them.

Finally this paper is particularly interested in the agency, action and politics of terrain and topography involved within exploration and encounter of and with technology metals and the rarer metals and minerals. To consider this agency the paper considers the enormously important work of Jane Bennett (2010) and Sarah Whatmore (2005) on the generation and existence of what they have termed ‘vibrant’ matter or political matter. Bennett’s work which seeks to deconstruct the boundaries of human privilege over notions of agency and action through considering animals, plants and other non-sentient actors such as bacteria, viruses, metals, and tectonic energy as actors in themselves, possessed of a form of politics. Instead however of a politics controlled or possessed at the level of the individual and the singular, these actors develop a distributed, inter and hyper personal politics which connects, contests and co-produces other forms of politics and agency (Bennett, 2010). Notions of vibrant materiality and lively non-human actors can also connect to previous conceptions of political charisma, themselves very active in North Korea. Jamie Lorimer for instance has used Bennett’s conceptions to theorise a politics of non-human charisma (2007), which he uses primarily within the field of environmental and species conservation, but which underpins this author’s examination of the role of topography within North Korea’s politics and culture. The reader can certainly consider rare metals, minerals and technology metals in North Korea in this light, as vibrant, lively participants with their own intrinsic charisma, active in the theatric politics and history of the nation.

Beyond the theoretical framework that this paper adopts, it is necessary to give a brief sense of the situation and context from which its documentary and evidential base derives. For while surely much of the research into the exploration, exploitation and importance of Rare Earths, other minerals and what are termed technology metals is based on evidence recently collected and analysed by complex webs of technology themselves, this paper travels elsewhere in both temporal and conceptual terms. In particular this paper derives much of its empirical grounding from resources collected from the United States National Archives, (RG242). Record Group 242, or the Captured North Korean Documents Collection is an extraordinary body of material which underpins much interesting analysis focused on North Korea and its history in recent years. Captured by US Army document gatherers during the occupation of Pyongyang in October and November of 1950 the collection provides a unique insight into the narrative and textual basis for North Korean governance and institutional development during its early years as a separate sovereign nation. This paper is concerned with the boxes of documents and cartographic materials contained in the collection which were sourced from Pyongyang’s Ministry of Mining and from other institutions tasked with managing North Korea’s geological development and mineral resources following Liberation from Japanese colonisation in 1945. These boxes contain the blueprints, shaft and face layouts of all the active mines in North Korea in 1950. They also contain an extensive repository of documents from mineral and mining institutions throughout the country, including daily and output logs, longer term planning documents, internal and external contracts and agreements and research papers from academic institutions focused on mining, mineralogy and geology within North Korea (and some in translation from other nations).

Unlike other collections of documents and evidence addressing North Korean or more generally Korean mining and mineral histories, such as the Gottsche collection in Hamburg, and the Government General of Chosen’s series of annual reports which are, while useful for context, partial in their collection and difficult for analysts and academics to use to focus down on specific, local places and spaces within the nation, Record Group 242 allows for a very detailed view of particular locations to be developed. It is the author of this paper’s assertion that through an examination of these materials a fascinating glimpse may be gathered of developmental interaction between Russian and Soviet technicians and North Korean institutions and workers within the mining sector. This examination does not simply cover interactions in the mining of coal and more common minerals, but also allows a view at those cultural and social spaces from which rare minerals, technology metals and the base ores and materials from which Rare Earths would in the future be derived, would be extracted. This paper does not just of course consider the human and social aspects of these spaces and terrains, but also considers the minerals and metals themselves as actors, lively participants within a developing political and social culture, which has been responsible for the production of the North Korea visible in our present. The spaces and terrains conceived of in North Korean mineralogy through collaboration with external partners, and in sense also with topography and geology are demonstrative of more than simply industrial or extractive prerogatives. In the developmental vision presented by the documents through the reader should be able to discern not just the productive spaces of mineral exploration, but the social and lived spaces of an ‘everyday’ which in North Korea’s seeks the production of what might is termed a ‘socialist modernity’. However this space of utopian social and political aspiration is constructed of a wider network or ecosystem of enmeshed actors, a web of life and of political life which can just as easily include the ores of technology metals and rare earths as it can humans.

The notion of ‘socialist modernity’ itself requires definition of course. The author of this papers takes it as read that readers will be satisfactorily familiar with both the terms, ‘socialist’ and ‘modernity.’ These are for the most part settled in their definition in academia (while what is actually socialist is certainly still a matter for debate and dispute in public discourse), but the conflation of the two into ‘socialist modernity’ is not. Rather like that other term I have used in the previous paragraph, utopia, whose original usage in 1516 was in fact a critique of some political aspirations. Thomas More playfully used the Greek roots of οὐτόπος to suggest that a place of political perfection was simply ‘no place’ or ‘not a place’ (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014, p, 17); ‘socialist modernity’ seems to many in the 21st century either an oxymoron or a non-sequitur. How is it even possible that something can be both socialist and modern at the same time, when much of political and ideological thinking in our present holds that modernity is in fact entirely a product of Capital and capitalism. This paper nor its author does not wish to contribute of course to this extremely energetic public debate, but instead derives its utilisation of the notion of ‘socialist modernity’ from elsewhere. While academics rooted in Marxist theory such as Adorno and Bauman (Adorno, 1973 and Bauman, 2000) have expended a great deal of effort in analysis of the modernity produced globally by Capitalism, such analysis was not available in any sense within the public or intellectual sphere in truly socialist or communist countries. Modernism or Modernity in these political geographies has in a sense only become known or theorised in an academic sense in retrospect, after the collapse of most of the political structures of international socialism or communism, and only in relation for the most part, to their physical products (Zarecor, 2011). Thus the architectures and build environments produced by governments and institutional frameworks self-defining as socialist or communist have been described as ‘socialist modernity’ (Zarecor, 2011), as have the artistic, literary and cultural products of such nations (Pence and Betts, 2008). In the case of North Korea there has been far less analysis of the modernity or otherwise of its infrastructure or urban architectures, as for the most part North Korean urban planning and design has produced a landscape which is an assemblage of traditional Korean building design and a Hausmannian approach to the layout of a city or town which is not really considered ‘modern’ in the 21st century, but rather derived from 19th century planning philosophy (Joinau, 2014). Such an approach to the topography of the city dovetails with the political imperatives of North Korea, which tends towards the personality cult and a monolithic or monumental representation or commemoration of its self. ‘Socialist Modernity’ in analysis of North Korean matters and in the mind of this paper’s author instead comes from work by scholars such as Suzy Kim on the social reorientation of the nation following its brief moment of liberation from Japanese Imperial rule and independence between 1945-1948 (Kim, 2014). Kim focuses less on architecture or the built environment of North Korea and much more on the impact of a political sensibility, at the time in flex and motion that promised to reconfigure and rewrite the social norms and practices which were rooted deeply in traditional Korean culture, and had it seems not been challenged by Japanese colonial domination. ‘Socialist Modernity’ for Kim and others, as well as for contemporary North Koreans was represented by the abolition of the rigid social and class structures of the past and the reconfiguring of gender roles, both huge changes which would generate dramatically different new social landscapes and topographies. It is these landscapes and terrains which at their nexus with extraction and production this paper is most concerned with.


In order to engage in an exploration of these landscapes and their place within North Korea’s ‘web of life’ the author and the reader of this paper will have to make a number of journeys, both in the temporal and geographical sense. In particular this paper journeys to the Museum of Ethnology, in Hamburg to the collection of the German Geologist Karl Gottsche (Danish Geological Society, 1909), to the University of Michigan’s Asian Studies Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. All three of these institutions possess material from different periods which reveal some of the landscapes of mineral extraction and exploration at different moments in the history of the Korean Peninsula


Korean mineralogical history in the English language is certainly not extensive before the 19th century, but it appears that extraction of precious metals such as gold has historically been a vital element in Korean, particularly in the maintenance of diplomatic relationships with nations neighbouring it. Edwin Mills’ rare account in English of Korean goldmining history emphasises the huge importance of gold in particular to the relationship with China during the Wei dynasty, King Wang-hyung for example outlawed in 1036 local usage and ownership of Gold in order to maintain supply to the Chinese (Mills, 1916). The Mongol empire and China under the Ming dynasty demanded extensive tribute from Korea and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions between 1592 and 1598 resulted in the loss of the state reserves of gold. Rather more successfully in the later 16th and 17th centuries Korean technologies of mineral extraction whose focus was silver, copper and gold were widely developed. New institutions, bureaucracies and legal structures were also developed around this time and both rights and infrastructures around mineral resource placed under the control of Korea’s Royal Household, with some outsourcing of responsibility to the provinces and regions. Individuals were within this new structure of control forbidden to own the rights to gold resource or extraction (Mills, 1916).

This ecosystem of control, organising Korea’s mineral extraction and exploration within a ‘web of life’ firmly under the control of both scholarly aristocracy and the institutions of royalty were soon subjected, as was Korea more generally to the impact of external colonial imperatives and interests. Taking advantage of the disruption and ruptures created by the nation’s experience of ‘unequal treaties’ and their politics, which began for Korea with the Treaty of Kanghwa in 1874, colonialists soon sought to extract value from Korea’s mineral resources and capacity (Kim, 2004). Ernst Oppert in 1864 made an audacious if unsuccessful attempt to pilfer the graves of the Royal Household and their extensive gold resource, but there were later more successful stories (Kim, 2004). James Morse, a Gold Miner from Nebraska who had participated in the California Gold Rushes of 1848-1855, was granted a highly successful gold concession at Unsan by the Yi dynasty (Swartout, 1996).  American Oriental Mining the company that sprang from Morse’s efforts would prove a very long lived enterprise and was in 1941 the last foreign owned mining company under Japanese rule, being evicted only after Pearl Harbour and the outbreak of the Pacific War (GGC, 1941).

These landscapes of extraction encounter by capitalist adventurers such as Morse were of course in the very last decades of their existence (Bird, 1905). Korea’s web of life and the metals and minerals involved in its developmental life would soon radically change. On the Korean peninsula an entirely chaotic and unsuccessful period of confused, sometimes desperate diplomatic triangulation between Imperial China, Imperial Russia and Imperial Japan by the Yi dynasty and its newly reconfigured governmental institutions were forced to accede to Tokyo’s will (Conroy, 1960). A brief period of protectorateship under the auspices of His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General, was followed by the full and comprehensive annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. The peninsula was to be governed in future by the Government General of Chosen, through whom Japan’s colonial, modernising and exploitative, extractive imperatives could run free (Shin and Robinson, 1999).

The history of Korea’s colonial period and the policies and processes of Tokyo’s rigorous reconfiguration of the peninsula’s society, politics, culture and language are of course heavily researched and academically very well known (Henry, 2015). The Government General of Chosen first sought to suppress Korean desires for nationhood and independence, second to accommodate them, third to subsume them within an extraordinary process of creating a new Imperial subjectivity and then finally in the headlong rush to conflict in the Pacific to transform the Korean Peninsula into a military site of production and labour (Buzo, 2007). It was a tumultuous and difficult period, full of unwanted transformations and reconfigurations. In developmental terms however it has proved an extraordinarily well documented and evidenced period of domination. From 1907 the Imperial Resident General Government and later fully from 1910, the Government General of Chosen published an annual series of reports, “The Reports on Reforms and Progresses in Chosen (Korea).” The reports in both Japanese and English laid out in fairly intricate detail the path and detail the Government General’s activity (GGC, 1910), especially when it came to the reconfiguration and transformation of Korean developmental culture and institutional structures[1].




As might be expected the Reports are highly extensive on the many issues of the colonial period. They recount much in the economic and legal field, but for the purposes of this paper contain an extraordinary level of detail addressing mineral extraction and exploration and the incorporation of new metals and substances into the nation’s material and developmental web of life.  Very much a product of their time and the colonial intellectual and political milieu the reports’ contain the developmental and mineralogical narrative as seen by the Chosen Government General and its institutions in the provincial and local areas of the Korean Peninsula. These include substantial changes to the legal frameworks through which mining and mineralogical research were undertaken and the institutional structures through which this legal framework operated. The Government General sought to transform the entire institutional culture of the field. For example it appears new mining legislation was formulated by the Yi dynasty under heavy Japanese influence, just before annexation in 1906 and replaced with a revision in 1916. These new colonial revisions allowed only Japanese institutions or subjects to access and control mineral rights, replacing the Imperial Household Agency as the sole controller and arbiter of these resources (GGC, 1916).  Equally the revisions also increased the range of minerals and elements subjected to the legal framework from 17 to 29. These minerals included very interestingly rare elements such as bismuth, and even more interestingly and enormously relevant for this paper’s concern Molybdenum and Quartz Sand (GGC, 1916). Quartz Sand, is now better known as Monazite the base material from which, along with Molybdenum, Rare Earths can be extracted from. The Government General of Chosen established a Geological Investigation Office in 1918, and according to Annual Reports it was tasked with a twenty year long programme of analysis (GGC, 1918). The expansion of extraction of such rare materials and metals during the early colonial period is recorded as having increased total tonnage of all minerals from 6,067,952 to 24,204,510 between 1910 and 1920 including 2629 tonnes of wulfenite, one of the ores of Molybdenum (GGC, 1920). Development in the later periods of the colonial period meant that 1933-1934 total tonnage had increased to 48,301468 tonnes (GGC, 1934). The reports also name and describe key infrastructural elements and the key mining sites which included Unsan, still managed by James Morse’s Oriental Consolidated Mining Company, although Unsan was now jointed by others such as Syozyo and Suian both owned and managed by Nippon Kogyo, one of the colonial Government General’s affiliated development and resource management companies (GGC, 1934).

The Government General’s Annual Report series therefore gives a fascinating, if partial glimpse into the developmental culture of mineral resource infrastructure, research, availability and extraction under the period of Japanese occupation and annexation. It is clear that from the focus on Molybdenum extraction, the Chosen government’s developmental focus in this era was beginning to approach what prospectors and geologists working today might be familiar with so far as the landscape of extractive possibility is concerned. Those focused on North Korea’s current mineral Rare Earths capacity, and it and SRE Minerals’ claims focused specifically on the Yongju deposit will surely be aware of the importance of the Molybdenum extraction and extremely interested in the statistics presented in the reports regarding tonnage extracted.


Captured Documents and Unveiled Narratives


As much as history and the Colonial Government General record the deep empiricism of the colonial period’s quest for mineralogical knowledge and resource, the collapse of Japanese power in 1945 and its replacement with altogether different forms of political organisation is also well recorded. The assumption of power of Kim Il Sung and what has been called North Korea’s guerrilla dynasty (Buzo, 1999), whose authority was rooted in their semi-mythic campaigns of harassment against the forces of Imperial Japan in the wildernesses of northern Korean during the 1930s heralded the unexpected arrival of modes of governance ostensibly rooted in socialist principle and Marxist theory to the Peninsula. Building a socialist territory in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula was really one of the central tasks of Pyongyang’s new government and bureaucratic institutions and for its most important foreign partner in its early years the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung and his Soviet advisers had inherited an industrial and mineral landscape that was most determinedly colonial and unpicking that bequest, constructing a new web of life, would be a key focus for the policies of the young North Korea.

As readers of this paper might expect this transformation would need to be as dramatic as Kim Il Sung’s conception of ideology would transform the spaces of its politics. While Pyongyang’s theoretical and narrative articulation was not as coherent or comprehensive as it became in later years; there was no detailed description of the three revolutions process, Taean work system or Ch’ollima method (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014), it was both dramatic and in some senses practical. Unlike in the early Soviet Union, North Korea’s young authorities and their supporters seemingly saw that the radical collectivisation of agricultural landscapes and communities would not be achievable immediately and so while taking care to remove those who had directly supported or collaborated with the Japanese colonial government as landlords or rentiers from that land, Pyongyang supported a mixed agricultural economy and development before 1950 (Armstrong, 2004). When it came to Forestry and timber resources, Pyongyang both adopted the developmental methodologies which had been introduced by the Japanese forestry specialists (Fedman, 2015), and sought to negate their memory and influence through campaigns focused on the notional reconfiguration of the Peninsula’s forests to become somehow more authentically Korean (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014) .  Trees and plants in this effort would become real players, real participants in the construction and reconstruction of national identity. Later in North Korea’s history, cityscapes and urban landscapes, such as Hamhung would be rebuilt from the ground up by architects and planners from ideologically friendly nations such as East Germany (Armstrong, 2009), in more dramatic and determined and comprehensive attempts to literally build a new authentically Socialist Korean urban space. There are a number of other examples in North Korea’s history in which partners from communist or socialist nations collaborated to reconstruct elements of the nation’s economy and terrain for more useful or positivistic ideological purposes (Szalontai, 2008).

Such external interest and support was of course much in evidence when it came to mineral exploration and exploitation, though naturally that interest is both collaborative and destructive. The Ch’olsan Uranium mine in particular would become the most famous site in the minds of opponents of North Korea and the Soviet Union (Weathersby, 2007, p.26). Cumings recounts the interest among American security specialists and lobbyists in the early years of both Korea’s independence (Cumings, 1990, p.150). Mineralogical research done by the Colonial Government General and the geological experience of the OCMC had revealed of course not only copious amounts of Gold, but also the Molybdenum, Wulfenite, Monazite and Tungsten deposits on the Peninsula. Intelligence at the end of the Second World War had focused attention on Japanese efforts to refine Monazite into Thorium in Hungnam in order to produce a crude radioactive weapon. While the area of the mining and research would later become part of North Korea, information on Japan’s wartime activities concerned the United States, as did the Soviet Union’s engagement of the resources and facilities there. When the Korean War did break out in July 1950, reports that the Soviets were mining monazite at around six North Korean mines made the whole infrastructure so militarily significant that the Hungnam complex was destroyed on August 24th, 1950 by United States bombers (Cumings, 1990, p.151). Documents which might reveal some element of the threatening enterprise would be vitally important both to contemporary military affairs and whatever future advantage was to be gained in contest against the Soviet Union, which explains the actions and interests of the gatherers of the set of documents with which this paper is most directly concerned.


The landscapes of extraction and attendant histories of Korea and North Korean technology metals and the precursors to contemporary Rare Earth minerals seen in earlier documentary collections and the Chosen Government General’s Annual Reports as well as in the minds of those who sought to contest Soviet power and influence on the peninsula takes this paper in temporal terms up to 1945.. However it is still some distance in intellectual and practical terms from that in evidence in North Korea today. It would be helpful if material were available which would support this paper and its author in taking the narrative closer in conceptual and governmental terms to the present.

Of course as the reader will expect, this is a difficult and challenging proposition given the politics and culture of contemporary North Korea. Pyongyang’s developmental culture or those practitioners who form part of it are unavailable, generally for anthropological, ethnological or sociological study. This in part is due to the extreme reluctance of Pyongyang’s institutions to allow foreign, empirical access to them on the grounds of potential political or ideological disruption. Data and analytic material locally sourced is also either entirely unavailable, badly maintained or produced in later years with difficult or contested methodological frameworks. Accordingly in order to get closer to the developmental and political culture of North Korea’s today this paper turns to another vitally important collection of material and documentary evidence. This collection will be familiar to the readers of Suzy Kim’s (Kim, 2013) recent monograph on women in the early politics of North Korea. The Captured North Korean Documents collection of the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration (NARA), (sometimes known by its institutional catalogue number as Record Group 242), in College Park, Maryland is an extraordinary and complicated collection of material gathered in difficult circumstances.

Exploitation and analysis of mineral resource in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, as at least partially evidenced by the narratives of the colonial Government General’s annual reports of course did not come to an end with the territories’ Liberation. The infant North Korea in its efforts to reconfigure the social, economic and political cultures of the spaces now under its control, towards what might be termed a “Socialist Modern,” also sought to reconfigure its mineralogical cultures. Pyongyang, while not bequeathed by the moment and processes of de-colonialisation a particularly useful or viable agricultural inheritance, was gifted more extensive mineral resources (Kim Il Sung, 1946). Accordingly North Korea sought to build upon the Government General’s developmental achievements in the sourcing and extraction of Molybdenum and other rare and valuable minerals and technology metals, especially at sites now classified as being within the Yongju deposit (Kim Il Sung, 1948). These materials, in the absence of more familiar or common elements of development, become a real part of the web of North Korean politics and culture, actors on its theatric ideological stage and narrative players within its historical discourse.

The Captured Documents Collection allows the author and reader some access to the urgency of this early period of North Korean history. Its collection was also a moment of extreme and negative energy. At the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950, North Korea made rapid gains and drove the Republic of Korea’s army and their American supporters far to the south to a small territory known as the Pusan Perimeter. However North Korea’s KPA was soon beaten backwards following the Incheon landings by United Nations forces and the ROK army. Southern and American forces in fact captured and occupied Pyongyang from between the 19th of October 1950 and the 3rd of December 1950 (Cumings, 1990). During this period of occupation United States and United Nations forces sought to extract as much information as possible from Government ministries and sources in Pyongyang. They raided ministries, archives and as many other institutions as possible. The  information and the documents collected were shipped back to the administration of the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (the United States occupying governing power at the time) in Japan and then across the Pacific to Pacific Command in San Francisco. Eventually the extensive original materials and an annotated translation of their contents in brief and at times unhelpful outline, were de-classified and became part of the NARA collection.


Element of the Cartographic Landscape at Kaechon Graphite Mine (RG242, SA 2009 5/154)


The author of this paper discovered this collection within the boxes and shipping advice numbers of the Captured Documents. Having undertaken several archival research visits to the collection and to the boxes in question, the author now has a complete catalogue of their contents and has made a visual/photographic record of the most relevant documents and materials. The author of this paper has identified blueprints specifically covering the topographic and mining terrain of the following mines: Ullryul, Yangdok, Chodong, Chaeryong, Sinpung, Musan, Kaechon, Kumhwa, Ilgon and Tongban (RG242, SA2009, 5/146)[2] Many of these sites are described in later North Korean literature and government documents as being among the most important in the field of mineral development, a number of them are considered by external agencies to be sites of Rare Earths or Technology Metals extraction (Ferenc, S, 1979). Perhaps reiterating the fact that this collection was extracted from Pyongyang’s bureaucratic heart, the materials currently being examined outline the institutional culture to be undertaken by projects focused on mineral extraction and exploration in the North Korea of the time (RG242, SA 2009, 3/68), They also detail both general and particular targets and agendas for the sector as a whole and very specific mines (RG242, SA 2009, 3/68). Representative of the accounting and recording systems of the Mining Ministry there is a very large collection of telegrams sent from individual mine superintendents which record the output of their institution, on both weekly and monthly bases and by specific mineral types and resources (RG242, SA 2010, 11/204). This element also includes the contract with the ministry signed by each extractive or research unit, stipulating the particular materials and elements of focus and the expected output (RG242, SA2010, 11/204). More generally, and in common with material gathered by the US Army’s collection team at other ministry and infrastructural sites, there is an extensive collection of academic and pedagogical material focused on mining theory, practice and geology theory and extractive practice. These documents are perhaps suggestive of the construction of new bodies of knowledge and expertise in North Korea and new cultures of developmental practice that the nation was becoming exposed to and through which practical development was to be undertaken. This would include building upon the research undertaken during the Japanese colonial period into their Molybednum and other rare materials capacity. Finally, and reminding the reader of the very specific local temporal context of the moment of this material’s collection, there are a number of documents within the collection which focus on the bureaucratic and legal framework as well as the institutional processes involved in the nationalisation of once private mineral resources and enterprises in newly liberated terrains of southern Korea.

These blueprints featuring mine infrastructure and shaft layouts are also replete with further non-topographical or Geodesic blueprints which serve as templates for the construction, in kit form of various infrastructural elements to a mining site. However these documents do not simply address those elements which serve the sites extractive prerogatives, but also those that serve social needs. Thus alongside blueprints for the construction of particular models of mine shaft or generators, there are blueprints for the building and maintenance of accommodation blocks, schools, social and community centres and even railway stations and other public infrastructure.

Infrastructure at Musan Mine (RG242 SA 2009, 5/160)

These blueprints featuring elements of construction not focused on productive output are suggestive of an urge on North Korea’s part to transform the landscapes of mineralogical exploitation to fit the creation of a different type of revolutionary landscape. Developmental and institutional culture in these blueprints and documents is put to work in the planning is set to plan and enable what was essentially the future and the physical manifestation of a Socialist Modernity surrounding North Korea’s mines and mining infrastructure. No longer were these mines and similar spaces of extraction to be the resource frontiers of Korean history known to Mills, Oppert and Gottsche, disparate, diffuse and masculine. Neither were these spaces to be governed by the cultures of colonial extraction. Instead these spaces were to be in the future, coherently included into the working, educational and leisure infrastructures of North Korean modernity, places of childhood and family as much as they would be of working men. For example when examining documents focused on sites at Kaechon, Chaeryong, Ullyul and Musan, Item 154 is to be found, recorded as “Blue print file containing distribution diagram of residence, railway for gasoline rail car, ore bin, elementary school, dated 1950, belonging to Kaechon Graphite Mine, P’yongan Pukto, NK.” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/154). Kaechon Mine is not an isolated case when it comes to this sort of social or educational infrastructure amongst the documents. The section in the index relating to Chaeryong Mine in Hwanghae-do includes the following“…draft of residence, bathroom attached to residence, extension of elementary school building…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/154). Documents related to Ullyul Mine also in Hwangdae-do mention a “…bathroom, storehouse, dispensary, elementary school, residence…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/158), those related to Sinpung Mine contain a “…design drawing of residence and elementary school..” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/159) and Musan appears ready to receive a “..telephone plant, system and exchange…” (RG242, SA 2009, 5/160).

Shaft Plans at Ullyul Mine (RG242, SA 2009, 5/158)

Through documents such as these found in the Captured Documents collection not only can these new cultures of exploration, extraction and social organisation be glimpsed, but also elements of the role minerals and metals and the landscapes of their extraction will play in future North Korean history. Mineral spaces and terrains of either common or rare elements will be become real players within a wider framework of social and political practice and praxis under the control of Pyongyang. Later in North Korea’s history as its ideology and political narrative developed its state philosophy would as Han S. Park has theorised, assume an almost transcendental form (Park, 2002). In what Park terms a national ‘fishbowl’ (Park, 2002, p.37) all North Korea’s human residents would supposedly act together as one, their collective will forming almost a ‘hivemind’ through which the nationalist and developmental energies unleashed by its early revolutionary period and the thoughts attributed to members of the family Kim (Park, 2001). Eventually a reader of North Korean literature and narrative would see even the Bears and Storks resident in the nation incorporated as participant actors in the mourning process for Kim Jong Il in 2012 (KCNA, 2012). North Korean politics at this point would not balk from claiming the non-human and the non-sentient as politically active ‘citizens’, distraught and disrupted by the death of their ‘Dear Leader’. While this perhaps appears a more recent manifestation of North Korean politics, delving further back into the mythologies produced over the years by Pyongyang might lead a reader to find moments in which the trees of the forests surrounding Mt. Paektu gave their support to Kim Il Sung and his wife Kim Jong-suk, appeared to consciously protect the communist guerrillas from pursuit and capture by Japanese forces (Winstanley-Chesters, 2016). This would be later echoed by the vital place in national construction and reconstruction following the colonial period, what would be considered authentically ‘Korean’ species of trees and plants would play (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014). The forests and timber of North Korea in these narratives and historiographies are politically ‘lively matter’, players in the development of the nation.

Rare Earths, Technology Metals and other minerals, such as those mined and extracted within the landscapes conceived of within the documents this paper encounters in the Captured Documents collection, play a similar role, not only at the historical moment recorded in them, but in our own. North Korea’s rebuilding and reorientation with Soviet partners in the documents of 1945-1950, places both ‘rare’ and common minerals centre stage in the process of national development. Some of these minerals such as uranium and plutonium had of course been vital players in the end of the war in the Pacific, and would become enormously important in the minds of most humans during the Cold War (Thompson, 1985). Both were certainly important in the minds of the Soviet technicians and engineers supporting their North Korean counterparts in the time of these captured documents, as well as for North Korea for generally. In 2017 North Korean radioactive materials continue to be elements of concern throughout the globe of course, but for Pyongyang and its politics, radio-isotopes and technology metals appear as important as those forests and trees during the moments of the nation’s construction and reconfiguration. These lively matters and vibrant elements play the roles of both North Korea’s first and last line of defence within its contemporary political framework. They allow for Pyongyang’s continued survival in what it considers an extremely hostile geo-political environment, as well as for a potential response to future aggression from external agents. In this framework such metals and minerals form part of the wider networks of North Korean political sensibility and citizenry, agents of support and energy for the survival and continuity of its ideology and government. Rare Earth deposits that may or may not be extractable from the ground at the Yongju deposit would play a similar role, generative of new possibilities and future potential, similar in fact to the social and cultural extractive landscapes found within the Captured Documents this paper has encountered.




This paper has introduced a variety of repositories of Korean mineral and developmental cultural knowledge. The social landscapes and institutional structures which have marked the terrain of both this knowledge and accompanying cultures of exploration and exploitation have transformed as the political and economic processes acting upon the Korean Peninsula have transformed. The material which Gottsche collected in his forays across the land of Korea in 1884 suggests a developmental culture rooted in the deep past; of relationships of suzerainty as much as of sovereignty, of institutions highly centralised around the structures of the ancient Yi dynasty and of social practices closely connected to geomancy and shamanistic notions of land and terrain. The collection of Government General of Chosen reports reveal the complete transformation of these institutions and processes under the remit of Japanese governmental intentions. The reports describe the whole hearted reconfiguration of Korean mineral and developmental culture around the prerogatives of capitalist extraction and accumulation within a governmental framework profoundly concerned to achieve efficiencies and scientifically rational structures of management. Both of these sets of documents in a sense provide a cultural window into the developmental past of North Korea. Of course as is most likely the case with the majority of such previous cultural manifestations within a national history, this historical culture and the landscapes produced or manifest by it will have some relevance and impact on the present. However as readers will know this present is substantially different in all manner of ways not just from Korea’s historical memory, but also from the majority of the developmental cultures and practices of the wider world.

What essentially is encountered then when the author and the reader view the documentary material from the Captured Documents collection? We do not encounter the ancient terrains of Korean mineral extraction, nor do we experience the mineralogical space of colonial exploitation and rationalisation caught up the rush for imperial subjectivity. Instead we encounter a landscape of revolutionary aspiration. North Korea, with its supporters and collaborators from the Soviet Union is in the midst of both unmaking the mineral terrains of the colonial period, just as it has set about the task of generating a new form of landscape, more suited and connected to the needs of what was to be a Socialist present. Suzy Kim’s recent work “Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution” has also sought to unpack the structures and cultural processes of these landscapes, examining the female experience during the brief interlude between Liberation and the Korean War (Kim, 2014). Here in these documents is outlined a developmental and extractive culture which aspires to involve and serve the citizen, the comrade, as much as it does the needs of accumulation and capacity. This new form of cultural landscape was to generate an assemblage of the productive and the social; of mining shafts and medical installations, of winding gear and school buildings. As we have seen elsewhere in this paper and in more recent North Korean history these new cultural and political terrains would also include non-human participants. The minerals, metals and deposits themselves – both real and imagined, for much in North Korean historiography and member is both simultaneously real and imagined – become politically active players in the construction, propagation and continuation of these landscapes. This is true of course as much in 2017 as it was within the documents from 1945-1950. In our present, the uranium, thorium or plutonium possessed by North Korea, as well as a host of other less common minerals the nation may or not possess, are actors not only on the local stages of national politics and ideology, possessed of their own non-human charisma (Lorimer, 2007), participants embedded in both social practice and imagination, but also on the global stage. Minerals and Metals framed within North Korea’s political and social web of life, beguile and terrify, global institutions seeks to prevent their extraction and distribution, Pyongyang’s enemies plan and strategise for their negation. However within the political mind of North Korea, and within the narratives generated by its ideology and philosophy, these vibrant materials bolster national pride and resilience, as much defenders of its territories and terrains as the flesh and bones of the Korean People’s Army.

In conclusion much of North Korea’s political and social landscape could well have remained uncompleted or been swept away in the destructive moments of the Korean War. It of course was not and North Korea continues to exist in our present. The spaces of Rare Earth, Technology Metal and other mineral extraction that were of intense interest to the United States, its intelligence agencies and military during the Cold War have not diminished in the eye and mind of these institutions since. If anything they have increased in important and energy since, becoming yet more vibrant and lively in recent years, to the point in 2017 that North Korean minerals and mineral capacity is one of the key points of geo-political concern.  The author hopes that the reader through this reading of Korean and North Korean mineral histories, as well as some interaction with the documentary resources available which recount them, might have a deeper understanding of the place of the landscapes of these histories within North Korea’s present and history, within the nation’s web of life. Just as the Captured Documents record a political terrain deeply concerned to overturn Thomas More’s supposition that utopia is in fact nowhere, the landscapes of North Korea’s mineral and metal extraction are rooted in a concern to generate a present and continuing territory of utopian possibility. Within this terrain and political frame both human and non-human act and participate together, mineral, metal, flesh and bone active as vibrant, energetic material and materiel.

Acknowledgements, Romanization and Funding

Romanization strategies are considerably different between the two Korean nations. For ease of use and objectivity, the author uses the current North Korean Romanization style when referring to quotations and places sourced from within North Korea. However this paper both makes quotations from documents generated in North Korea between 1945 and 1950, before the current North Korean style was formulated and from documents translated by US Army document gatherers in 1950 and later which may not conform to either North Korean style or contemporary/historical style. For the purposes of authenticity and objectivity the author retains these variations when used in direct quotation

The research for this paper has received generous support from the Australian Research Council project FL120100155 “Informal Life Politics in the Remaking of Northeast Asia: From Cold War to Post-Cold War” and the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2010-DZZ-3104) during the author’s Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the Beyond the Korean War Project (University of Cambridge). Elements of this paper and future elements of the project which underpins it have been supported by translation and inspiration from Dr Adam Cathcart, School of History, University of Leeds and the author wishes to acknowledge Dr Cathcart’s expertise, support and influence in the translation and formulation of this material.

Reference List

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



[1] Copies and collections of the reports in English are not common, many collections having been lost and abandoned over the years, however the author of this paper engaged in archival visits to the sets at the British Library in London (a collection that was sent as a gift from one colonial power to another, to the director of the British Museum), and the University of Michigan’s Asian Studies Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States. These sets include a full run of the reports in their entirety in both English and Japanese from 1907 until 1941.

[2] There is no agreed system for notation so far as Record Group 242’s catalogue and shipping advice numbers is concerned. However for this paper the author adopts Professor Charles Armstrong’s very rational model.

Reading with RWC – Recent Book Reviews

Published in S/N Korean Humanities 3 (1): 125-133.

Go East Young Woman…A Review of “Red Love in Korea: Rethinking Communism, Feminism, Sexuality” in “Red Love Across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century” eds: Ruth Barraclough, Heather Bowen-Struyk and Paula Rabinowitz (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and “Red Love and Betrayal in the Making of North Korea: Comrade Hŏ Jŏng-suk,” Ruth Barraclough, History Workshop Journal Issue (Spring 2014), 77 (1): 86-102

“I have no eyes now, yet I can still see the revolution” (Ch’oi Hŭi-suk, quoted in Chosōn Yŏsŏng 1986, 25)

Ch’oi Hŭi-suk’s plaintive and impassioned final words recounted by North Korea’s journal Chosōn Yŏsŏng (“Women of Korea”), before she was killed by Japanese Army doctors is perhaps a perfect distillation of contemporary or recent North Korean notions of how a perfect female revolutionary should behave. Ch’oi Hŭi-suk, along with her fellow female companions and fighters in the 1920s and 1930s such as Pak Rok’ Gum and Kim Hwak-shil and their leader and mentor (at least in North Korea’s historiography), and eventual wife of Kim Il-sŏng were ‘crackshots’, experts in the brutal killing of those that they sought to contest, as well as generally experts in the act of dying. These women’s passions and energies are for the most part in their sparse biographies and the fragments of their lives recorded within articles in Chosōn Yŏsŏng and elsewhere, directed in moments of conflict and at the moment of their death. A number of their bodies are used as weapons or explosive objects, their own violent annihilation serving to negate in some small way elements of Japanese colonial power. These narratives of self-immolation and destruction make it difficult to think beyond the cultural frame they provide, make it difficult to think of these women at other moments of their lives, perhaps even make it difficult for us to think of North Korean women or women connected to North Korean history in other terms. Even that most central of North Korean historical female figures, Kim Chŏng-suk in the historiography of Pyongyang is predominantly a figure of intense self-sacrifice who determinedly suppressed her emotions in favour of revolutionary politics, who sought to ignore both her desires and pain to support her General (Biography of Kim Chŏng-suk, 2002). Even though Kim Chŏng-suk would ultimately be something of a revolutionary immortal (in a grand and historic Korean cultural tradition), she was never beyond completing the repairs of her male counterparts uniforms, cooking food for an entire camp (having spent the entire day marching and fighting Japanese forces), or enduring brutal and intimate tortures. Even Kim Chŏng-suk’s most important role to North Korean history, as partner to Kim Il-sŏng and mother of Kim Chŏng-il is extracted of any passion and carnal energy, to the point that her biography deliberately and artfully skips over the consummation of her most important relationship.

These are the women who interestingly through their pains and tendencies to not physically survive the processes which would produce the politics and nationalism of North Korea, actually conceptually survive not only their moments of combat and the difficulties of the nation’s Liberation, early development and the tumult of the Korean War (and its political aftermaths), but, even if some are obscure, still live in Pyongyang’s political mind today. Ruth Barraclough in the fascinating book chapter and journal article reviewed here recounts the story of a group of women who unlike these vital, energetic characters of North Korean mythology and mythography are very much deceased, remembered only briefly and partially occasionally by countervailing histories, whose narratives are reconstructable in our present at best in fragments and echoes. Perhaps the best way of introducing the possibility of the fascinating female lives Barraclough uncovers is to remember another recent work in which seemingly equally impossible journeys are recounted. Sho Konishi In ‘Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan’ (Konishi 2013), explodes a myth of pre-post-modern hypermobility. Within the pages of Konishi’s work, Mikhail Bakunin (legendary Russian theoriser and practitioner of militant anarchism), escapes his incarceration in Siberia to discover the tumultuous and chaotic possibilities offered by the Meiji revolution and friends in Yokohama, before setting sail for mid-19th century San Francisco and another anarchist safe house before finally travelling across a United States still in formation and across the Atlantic to Europe. Inspired by Bakunin’s revelation of an Asian nation (Japan) in energetic reconfiguration, Lev Mechnikov (younger brother of Ilya Mechnikov father of modern gut biology and pro-biotics), travelled to and lived in Yokohama to it seems consider the nature of Japan’s revolutionary political moment, and to set up (as a sociologist and linguist), the precursor to the current Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (itself eventually partly responsible for producing a burst of Tolstoyan religious commitment in Japan) (Konishi, 2013). At an impossibly difficult moment in political history, and well before technologies such as air travel or intercontinental train travel (the Trans-Siberian only reached Vladivostok in 1916) compressed time and space these unconventional political activists and theorised traversed the globe, human transformative vectors for both their own politics and the political cultures which encountered them. Barraclough’s women make similarly extraordinary journeys, bridge previously insurmountable bounds, develop new cultural and social forms of relation, the type of which would not be seen before.

Just as Mechnikov in the terrain revealed by Konishi would make transformative connections with Japanese activists through the explosive and iconoclastic work of Leo Tolstoy, so those enmeshed within Barraclough’s would find direction and inspiration from that of Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai, at one point the only woman in Lenin’s first cabinet in 1923 produced a novel called ‘Vasilia Malygina.’ According to the introduction to the monograph in which Barraclough’s ‘Red Love in Korea…’ sits, within five years the newly retitled ‘Red Love’ had been translated from Russian into Japanese, then Korean, then Chinese and then in 1932 into English (using the more heated title ‘Free Love’). Kollontai’s story of the impact principles of Bolshevik common holding and cooperation would have on personal, sexual, familial and social relationships and the exploding of both monogamy, patriarchy and the notion of the nuclear family had a seemingly dramatic impact on political subcultures across both North America and the Asia-Pacific region. Barraclough and her fellow editors Heather Bowen-Struyk and Paula Rabinovitz trace the waves of sexual and social energy and reconfiguration throughout the political movements of the period, though mostly as I have already said from the faintest echoes of this buried, repressed and forgotten politics.

Red Love’s translation in 1928 into Korean generated a wave of ‘Pulkŭn Yŏnae’ which was essentially extraordinary to Korean colonial society of the time. Those familiar with social and cultural norms of the later Yi dynasty and its intersection with Japanese colonial times would of course be aware that what might be now termed sexually liberation relationships and social organisation and an overturning of gender hierarchy would have been utterly shocking to both ancient Korean culture and new forms of Imperial Japanese or colonial subjectivity. However this in a sense was a time for shocking and to be shocked. Korean’s had been enormously challenged by cultural elements brought by those who sought to dominate its politics and reconfigure its culture, the famous Queen Min for example is recounted as having been so thoroughly disturbed by the prospect of women engaging in physical activity (namely a game of Tennis), that she refused to continue watching or to return to the part of town in which it had taken place ever again (Gwang Ok, 2007). While many were disgusted, depressed or severely disorientated, others were of course enormously excited. Just as the new is shocking (in the way cultural commentator Robert Hughes would have it), it is also extremely attractive and enticing. While some of course would find new linguistic forms and the domination of Japanese over the Korean language during the colonial period, some politically minded writers found the abandonment of Korean as liberating and the vector through which their writings would find new audiences, freed from the historical shackles of Chosŏn. Equally at the edges of the Japanese Empire, Koreans and those close to them would find cultural liberation in the Japanese vassal state of Manchukuo, rumours abounding of Jazz clubs in Hsinking (Changchung) and Harbin and mythic visits by Josephine Baker (who did it seems actually visit Japan in 1954 (Ara, 2012)). The collapse and eradication of historical forms of Korean social and cultural organisation of course left a great deal of space for those who were not disturbed in a negative way by dramatic changes in social relation, but in fact those for whom such change was imperative and necessary.

Barraclough’s opening sentence “In the 1920s and 1930s, some of Korea’s most famous Communists were young women” (Barraclough, 2015, 23), seems of course impossible and incongruous in the South Korea of today. Being a famous Communist in Seoul, Daegu or Busan is certainly not an ideal occupation for anyone. However in the 1920s and 1930s across the globe being a Communist, a Socialist or a follower of Trotsky was of course in some sense to be modern. Music, film, culture and social organisation were all being deeply impacted and creatively empowered by the politics of the left, unhooked and unleashed by the victory of Russia’s 1917 Revolution, the end of the First World War, the collapse of old certainties and the forging of new possibilities. With the benefit of long hindsight of course we in 2016 or 2017 might see this as a brief moment of flux before another brutal global conflagration, the rise of Japanese Militarism and the disappointments of Stalinism and the later Soviet Union. It did not look or feel like this obviously in 1928, Marxist principles and materialistic dialectics breaking so many bounds and restrictions as to make anything seemingly possible, even female ‘Pulkŭn Yŏnae.’

These fascinating women such as Hŏ Jŏng-suk, Vera Kang, Kang Kyong-ae and Chong Ch’il-song that Barraclough describes would dramatically break the moulds which once bound Korean culture. Some of course would themselves be broken by those new moulds which grew around them and imposed new social boundings under Communism both in the Soviet Union and in an early North Korea. In a sense these stories may be familiar to readers of Janet Poole’s recent work on the first generation of North Korean literary figures, ‘When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea.’ Poole outlines the similarly ground breaking lives of characters such as Im Hwa, Pak T’aweon, So Insik and Choe Myongik, writers who found the allure of the bright possibilities of a field of cultural and political production freed of the strictures of Capital, Empire and the past incredibly tempting (Poole, 2014). However none of these writers appear to survive the disruptive period of the Korean War and the political period following it during which Kim Il-sŏng and his followers purge North Korean politics of factional difference. As excited as these writers might have been by a future of internationalist, futurist Communist utopia, they would never really see it and their writings would scarcely/barely escape the vortex of political correction and cleansing to become known in our present. As bright as these figures of early North Korean literary production might have sought to shine, their histories are dark, shadowy and traceable only by their ruins…a characterisation we might bequeath Barraclough’s most famous Communist young women.

Once part of a powerful network of activist and theorist interaction and exchange, the women Barraclough encounters make extraordinary connections and then are separated equally dramatically by politics, time and fate. Vera Khan and Hŏ Jŏng-suk for instance met in Shanghai, Jŏng-suk recruiting Khan into the Communist movement and forming the Society of Comrades in 1925 (Barraclough, 2015, 26). This first socialist feminist organisation engaged in activating the political minds of working women, just as Vera Khan had done in the early 1920s in the giant industrial enterprises of Chem’ulpo (Inch’ŏn). Novels, newspapers, interviews both Hŏ Jŏng-suk and Vera Khan would become what Barraclough recounts were considered ‘beautiful socialists’ (Barraclough, 2015, 29), both would become equally famous for their relationships which exploded convention, as much as they were ultimately tragic (Hŏ Jŏng-suk engaging in a new love affair, while her current partner was in prison for political insurrection, Vera Khan finding a new husband when Pak Hon-yong, who she had married in Seoul in 1924 before moving to the Soviet Union was arrested and presumed killed by the Japanese (Barraclough, 2015, 28). This new husband, Kim Danya was executed in the Soviet Union in 1938). Vera Khan’s period as one of these ‘beautiful socialists’ would not last until Korea’s Liberation, and she found herself in 1938 expelled like so much of the Korean population of the Soviet Union and eventually sentenced to five years in a prison camp in what is now Kazakhstan. Hŏ Jŏng-suk survived to become the first and founding head of the Democratic Women’s League (as which she secured the passage of Gender Equality legislation into North Korea’s constitution), North Korea’s Minister of Culture and finally between 1957 and 1959 its Minister of Justice (Barraclough, 2015, 28). Barraclough delves even further into the complicated processes through which Hŏ Jŏng-suk’s rose to prominence and temporarily maintained her position in the complimentary article for the History Workshop (Barraclough, 2014).   Eventually the post Korean War purges and cleansing of North Korean politics caught up with her and she was forced to implicate her own former husband in counter-revolutionary plotting.

Barraclough along with more esoteric and liminal characters such as the former kisaeng (royal courtesan), Chong Ch’il-song and still reknowed writer and once member of the Kununhoe feminist movement, Kang Kyong-ae, presents Hŏ Jŏng-suk and Vera Khan within a rich web of actors in a burst of enthusiasm, commitment and experimentation for the practices and principles of Red Love. Barraclough also grounds these stories, experiences and life fragments within the inevitable and inescapable context of what she terms ‘Cold War Gender Politics’ (Barraclough, 2015, 33). While many of the most beautiful and most committed amongst these women would not even survive to see something being called the Cold War being born, nor certainly to see either its death of continuation on the Korean Peninsula their energy and love (and lovers) were almost invariably caught up in the practices, processes and structures of the Cold War. The potential these women saw for personal and gender liberation and transformation through the lens and power of Communism and Materialist dialectics for the most part would be dashed by the reality of autocratic state formation, the misery of Stalinism and the rise to power of a disinterested Kim Il-sŏng clique. Just as North Korea’s literary leading lights encountered by Janet Poole, Barraclough’s ‘beautiful socialists’ would never see their dreams and desires fully realised, the bounds of gender and patriarchy fully broken. Their personal futures were often to be messy, painful, disappointing and desperate of course, however perhaps the most astute an interesting elements of Barraclough’s powerful work has been the citing of some of that messiness and disappointment in the reflexivity of memory. Through the fractures and shards of these women’s lives that she is able to recover and reconstruct, Barraclough also uncovers streams of memory focused on them which are interesting in their distinction and differences between each other. Hŏ Jŏng-suk is apparently seen as an object lesson in the dangers of Communist enthusiasm, while Kang Kyong-ae, like some of Janet Poole’s writers, is still remembered and revered in South Korea, a talented, insightful yet difficult voice from the past. Vera Khan’s memory, it seems following her rehabilitation in 1989 by a dying Soviet Union was even accorded the honour of a posthumous Medal of Patriotic Honour in 2007 for her work with Koreans in the Russian Far East (Barraclough, 2015, 29). In these differences are of course the cracks of memory, opened up by the political processes of both remembering and forgetting, processes common to many of those who were touched by the reality of North Korea’s revolution and the powerful politics of Liberation (in all its forms), during the first half of the 20th century. Ruth Barraclough in this fine work of literary and biographic archaeology allows us a real glimpse into these cracks, the energy of Red Love and its adherents still visible in between.

Works Cited:

Anonymous. 1986. “Daughter of Korea,” Chosōn Yŏsŏng (Women of Korea) 4 (1986): 25

Anonymous. 2012. Kim Chŏng-suk: A Biography.  Pyongyang: Foreign

Languages Publishing House.

Ara, Konomi. 2010. Josephine Baker: A Chanteuse and a Fighter.” The Journal of Transnational American Studies 2 (1): 1-17.

Barraclough, Ruth. 2014. “Red Love and Betrayal in the Making of North Korea: Comrade Hŏ Jŏng-suk.” History Workshop Journal 77 (1): 86-102

Barraclough, Ruth. 2015. “Red Love in Korea: Rethinking Communism, Feminism, Sexuality in Red Love Across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century eds: Ruth Barraclough, Heather Bowen-Struyk and Paula Rabinowitz. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gwang Ok. 2007. The Transformation of Modern Korean Sport: Imperialism, Nationalism, Globalization. Seoul: Hollym.

Konishi, Sho. 2013. Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Poole, Janet. 2014. When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press.

Published in S/N Korean Humanities 1 (2): 121-128.

Review of Shine Choi’s “Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives”

‘Under the Demilitarized Zone…the Beach’: Or reading Choi through Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’

“Separation is the Alpha and the Omega of the Spectacle…” (Guy Debord)

“The International problem of North Korea is that North Korea is a work of fiction…” (Shine Choi)

The Demilitarised Zone in which, within which and across which the contemporary separation and rupture of the Korean Peninsula is most distinctly, concretely and completely manifested is surely the source of much of the eloquent research focused on that painful division. Yet it cannot also be ignored that the Demilitarized Zone as the ultimate physical embodiment of the post Korean War status quo is the division system at its least eloquent. It is a space of bluntness and a space of assertive punctuation, a full stop to the political articulations of either side. In a sense it is a space of acute political theatre as the recent theorists of political ideological forms in the North, Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung would have it, a space of political charisma. Similar this author supposes to the conception of the vast majority of readers of this review of those North Korean political forms, the theatre and charismatic output of the Zone, however is one of only tragedy, deeply unfulfilling and unrequited. It is a tragic theatric space, on and in which neither side really wishes to either perform or spectate, but which both are bound by the vagaries of historical incident and accident to participate.

But is this really the case? Shine Choi in this essentially provocative work “Re-imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives”, suggests perhaps it is not, perhaps we can all permanently exit stage right (or left), perhaps we can all retire or retreat at the interval, perhaps we can all demand the end to the performance. If North Korea and therefore the separation between the two Koreas is a work of theatric fiction, the whole process no matter how physical or concrete in some form is a cultural production. Similarly as provocative as this work is, Choi’s reviewer here, in order to appropriately connect and engage with the terrain conceived of within it wishes to view the text through the lens provided by another provocateur. Guy Debord, a French post-structuralist philosopher, in 1967 wrote a text of complicated, obtuse verse, “The Society of the Spectacle” (“La Societé du Spectacle” in its original French). Debord and his conception of the ‘Spectacle’ paved the intellectual way for the birth of Situationism, the radical cultural movement which underpinned the ruptures and displacements and almost revolution of Paris in 1968. With the assertion “Under the paving stones: the beach”, Debord and others fuelled youthful and academic assertions and conceptions that ultimately all expressions of culture, power, politics, social function etc were ultimately theatric ‘spectacle’ and all could be undone with a turning away, playful reconfiguration, ‘detournément’ and ‘derivation.’ Reading Choi in this dense, neutron star of a book through Debord’s more playful lens, this reviewer suggests might help the reader to better grasp the assertive and acerbic pulsing vigour of her words.

Readers of S/N Humanities, or in fact any reader with an academic or empirical focus upon the issues of either North Korea or the current and historical separation of the Korean Peninsula will be in some way aware of the tropes of the output and production of that focus. North Korean studies in particular revolves primarily paradigms of what Hazel Smith has called “mad, bad or sad”. Such discursive paradigms are temporally bounded by conceptions of Pyongyang’s future longevity, conceptions which Marcus Noland and others have termed paradigms of “collapsism” or “muddle through.” Such a field of analysis has resulted in North Korea and the division system’s capture by agendas of securitisation, threat and risk, the universalist, (Neo)Liberalism of human rights and regime change advocates, and what the reviewer terms the ‘comedy-fication’ of Pyongyang. It cannot be understated that in comparison with other academic fields and subjects/terrains of study, North Korean studies has not benefited empirically or empistemically from these approaches, and the trope of cultural and media production, that matters north of the demilitarized zone are ‘unknowable’ or opaque is partly a production of this unsatisfying combination of strategies. Ultimately and in ways which Debord might well recognise, our analytic vision of North Korea, its politics, people and spaces has become a production, a construction of our own making. Essentially, as academics, analysts and interested parties we achieve through this theatre of confusion, the North Korea that we are comfortable with, an unknowable space or constructed darkness. In this way the North Korea that we encounter and understand becomes more about us, the viewer, the reader the activist, the watcher and our preconceptions, fears, desires and fantasies than it does about the grounded subject that it’s the space of sovereignty governed by Pyongyang and its people.

For a number of considered and careful analysts, more used to the empirical rigour and methodological development of other more distant fields, the myopic, facile tendencies of self-reflection and externalisation generated by much of the output of North Korean studies is truly a disappointment. Choi is undoubtedly one of these number and essentially calls the entire edifice and industry of academic and intellectual procrastination surrounding North Korea, out demanding which she terms an ‘interruption’ to the entire enterprise. Choi’s interruption is in terms which Debord would recognise from his own agitated time, if not a radical, total and in some ways violent, collapse of the empirical and epistemic status quo then at least a pause in self-reverential, circular speculations and assertions from which something else, perhaps something more authentic, grounded and embodied in a reality of sorts might emerge. Choi’s interruption demands that the ‘discipline’ of North Korean studies and its attendant sub-narratives perhaps rather seeing its subject through the distorting lenses of politics, security and desire or wish fulfilment, should do so through the production generated by Debord’s ‘spectacle.’ In this way as viewers, engagers and interactors we might see, hear and think North Korea, as a culturally produced lived space of temporal reality, rather than something from an imagined a-historical zone of de-temporalization.

Choi’s analysis of this produced reality fascinatingly alights on the necessity of seeing and encountering North Korea differently through the moment of this interruption. She identifies the utility and validity of using the work of seemingly disparate authors as Trinh Minh-ha, Rey Chow,  James Church and Guy Delisle (among many), as exemplary eyes through which alternatives to seeing, imagining and considering North Korea might be achieved. Through the act of seeing and through the translation and mediation of that seeing and its production of alternatives to contemporary analytical status quo, Choi asserts that power is bestowed upon the process, not just to the methodological element to physical beings within it, claiming that “Drawing specifically on Rey Chow’s work, I argue that all intercultural contacts require explicit negotiations with this process of mediation and with the questions of how alterations of the process and the bodies involved can occur…” (Choi 2014, 38 – Referencing Chow 1995, 177-179).

Choi’s further seeks to interrogate and disrupt the methodologies and epistemic presumptions of the previously “seeing” community of North Korean scholars utilising the work of Trinh Minh-ha (described as a feminist film maker and political theorist). Trinh it seems seeks to break what sounds like a tyranny of objectivity, taking issue “with science as culture that encompasses all of the practices and processes that use, keep alive and fortify prevailing ideas of facticity and realism.” (Choi 2014, 47) Indeed Choi insists that a reading of Trinh suggests that rather than bringing the scholar closer to the process and temporal realities of a subject’s lives “Facticity and realism are predicated on a desire to bypass inter-subjectivities or relational encounters…” (Choi 2014, 47),

Perhaps similar to Debord’s conception that the key process of breaking or disempowering the spectacle is to both actually see it at all and having done so to see it differently, Choi brings Trinh’s conceptions to bear on the landscapes and visible terrains of science and scientific output (which includes that addressing North Korea). Given that Trinh in language any ‘derevisté’ would be familiar with, claims that the impact of new comprehensions brought on by this would be “…Re-assemblage. From silences to silences, the fragile essence of each fragment speaks…” (Choi 2015, 48 quoting Trinh 1989, 118), Choi through her work is calling for a new framework of enquiry with regards to North Korea, truths and seeing’s surrounding it, one which disrupts the subject-object binary and instead of speaking for or about something, focus on what Trinh calls speaking “nearby or together with” (Choi 2015, 47 quoting Trinh 1986, 33). Essentially Choi is, in the style of Paul Klee ‘taking our subjectivity/objectivity relations and truth for a walk’, a journey to new places and spaces, new vistas and observational positions from which perhaps other things can be seen.

The reader of course by now might be willing to suggest that Choi is suggesting or demanding a collapse into diffusion and the relativist, an artistic escapade in the face of utter tyranny and human degradation. Given Choi’s expert encounters with the productive eyes of James Church and Guy Delisle, authors of a unique series of fiction and a graphic novel (respectively), focused on North Korea, whose work she suggests is representative of just new or different ways of seeing, manifestations of ‘taking the object-subject for a walk’ such criticism itself could be grounded in its own objective truth. However this would be to entirely discount and neglect Choi’s assertive demand that rather than developing these new creative, juxtaposed, to one side (just round the corner), ways of seeing or engaging with this new un-securitised, de-objectified,‘re-subjectified’ reality as entertainment or pure spectacular, the audience is in no way released from the rigours of moral demand or conscience, but instead must encounter them even more greatly, run and fall head long towards them. Similar it seems, though radically different in notions (or otherwise) of the spectacular to Sandra Fahy’s magnificent co-option of the field of the desperate, dark emotional world of North Korean’s who have left its territory and sovereignty (and who are most commonly referred to as ‘North Korean defectors’ or ‘North Korean escapees’) as a functional, if complicated  tool for empirical analysis in her recent book ‘Marching Through Suffering’, Choi utilises this reframing and reconfiguration of the potential and process of our seeing and our viewing to move the spectacular and its production elsewhere.

Instead of the rather quizzical, abstruse, obtuse methodological and theoretical myopia of the academically captured seeing and considering of before, what Choi invites the reader having broken the boundaries and territories of the object/subject, to encounter instead is pure, unadulterated suffering and torment which in a most direct and certainly not diffuse manner, makes definite and determined demands of us and certainly requires an answer. It would be unlikely if the answer after all this was a continuation of separated, objectified present. Intriguingly Choi’s suggestion as to the formation of any answers or assertions is to remove the field of play, seeing and experience entirely from ‘tempo-reality’ and to delve deeper into this realm of the spectacle, following our breaking of boundaries and new ways of seeing and relating. Again Choi connects to the terrains of the spectacle the realm of overt cultural production in order to relocate an empathetic grounded reality, perceivable and encounterable in our new framework of open eyed existence. This necessary grounding, is real experience thrust upon us in our seeing and our encounters, but upon which we can grab in what might be potentially ephemeral waters.

Of course Choi means for these encounters and this seeing to be central, core, rather than ephemeral or peripheral, the heart of the spectacle and the journey rather than the edge or corona. Utilising a further and final very careful and considered set of literary and filmic readings, Choi in the later chapters of the work encounters new possibilities for empathic, real, undivided love for North Korea, love which will ultimately break and fracture division in filmic disruption present in recent Korean productions such as ‘Over the Border’, ‘Typhoon’ and ‘Our Homeland’. This is the radical love of Sonia Ryang’s conception, space for the conceptual threesome between an uncomfortably imagined couple and an attendant member of the Kim dynasty, space for us to love North Korea now that we have embraced and been re-defined the breaking, collapse or disintegration  of the object/subject binary and our rebirth of subjectivity as Choi puts it when referring to Yang, a key character in on ‘Our Homeland’; “…This intimate relationship with her subject gains articulation in all her productions, which crucially mediates how North Korea as an object of love is encountered and imagined” (Choi 2015, 160).

Of course both objectivity and subjectivity in this place of encounter, seeing and engagement through spectacle are themselves reconfigured and productive in their regeneration. In this new world of seeing, empathising and encountering a ‘love-space’ of empathic ‘spectacular’ production, Choi engages Gayatri Spivak’s rather radical writing on re-centered or de-centered selves, understanding them to open up “…the possibility for exploring a greater diversity of in-between spaces and translative transactions…” (Choi 2015, 219). We arrive with Choi at this space of acute hyphenation, barriers broken, defences down, at the Omega of the Spectacle. In Spivak’s ‘simultaenity’ a world with ‘both ends’, subordination and disruption, it is as if our heterogeneous production and encounter themselves become pure mobilization as much as they become actualization. In this spectacular, yet empathetic, grounded re-production, the division of North and South Korea is mobilised by its reproduction into and beyond spectacle, becoming rather than object of stasis, division or rupture, instead part, object and subject of a critical, vital act of detournément.


Choi, Shine. 2015. Re-Imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives. London, Routledge.

Chow, Rey. 1995. Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. New York, Columbia University Press.

Debord, Guy.1983. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, Michigan. Black and Red.

Fahy, Sandra. 2015. Marching Through Suffering. New York, Columbia University Press.

Ryang, Sonia. 1997. North Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology and Identity. Oxford, Westview Press

Spivak. Gayatri. 200. “Translation as Culture.” Parallax, 6 (1):13-24

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. 1986. “Difference: A Special Third World Women Issue.” Discourse, 8:10-35

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. 1989. Women, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press.



White Light, Residual Heat: Kim Jong Un’s 2017 New Years Address


Kim Jong Un at Fishery Station 15 – Image: Rodong Sinmun

North Korea’s New Years Address in a sense is an object lesson in connecting the dots of the nation’s political and ideological messaging, though which dots we are supposed to connect, and the pattern formed by them is not always abundantly or obviously clear. More often than not the shape of the next years priorities are marked out in advance in the previous months of the preceding year by a collection of speeches or moments of on the spot guidance building on the thematics of that year, but with a different direction or sensibility in mind. Often these seemingly carefully constructed sets of narrative connections can be thrown out of kilter by opportunity and surprise, one example of course being January 6th, 2016’s test of an ‘H-Bomb’ by Pyongyang which appeared to overshadow much of last year’s address. So as I write this reflection on Kim Jong Un’s latest statement on the morning of the 3rd of January (AEST), I am acutely aware that whatever direction and balance may appear present within the text may be blasted or reconfigured beyond recognition by the white light and white heat of unexpectedly explosive event in the coming days.

A white heat though, in the sense that Britain’s Labour politician Harold Wilson (and soon to be Prime Minister at the time), meant it in 1963 is a useful metaphor through which to which encounter Kim Jong Un’s desires for 2017. Heat and energy are a vital component of North Korean politics of course, and always have been. The hot energy of military encounter has always been the fuel for Pyongyang’s particular form of charismatic politics, its power diffused since 1945 (and in another manner since the armistice at the end of the Korean War in 1953), into the various materialities and temporalities of the contemporary, and sometimes not so contemporary DPRK. The leaders of North Korea have been attempting to harness the white heat of technological innovation for decades, though often not entirely with productive ends in mind. The Three Revolutions Movement for instance sought to utilise mechanisation and productivity gains in rural areas as the vector to implant new political and social structures outside of Pyongyang. Recent work by ‘Shock Brigades’ and ‘Soldier Builders’ as well as dramatically speeding up work on development projects such as the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station and its dams, surely also provides a transformative heat to those involved own personal political regeneration or development (or at least it aspires to do so). So while I personally had envisaged the coming New Year Address and the agenda for 2017 as one of looking backwards to the energy of the past (Rodong Sinmun’s repeated introduction of preparations for 2017 as the ‘year for praising the peerlessly, great persons of Mt Paektu’ seemed too coherent a theme to ignore), Kim Jong Un and North Korea as always had other ideas.

2017’s New Year Address of course, even if some of its contents are unexpected in tone or character, like all texts of North Korean political narrative sits within a complex web of both aspiration and historical content. 2017 must pay homage to 2016 as much as it must remember 2006 or for that matter 1956. The key political event in North Korea of 2016 (aside from the various nuclear tests and rocket/satellite launches of that year), was the 7th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea, an event which served to reiterate past practice as much as it outlined future intent. 2017’s New Year Address of course remembers the 7th Congress and the five year strategy for national economic development articulated in its reports and documentation. However it also asserts the importance of later events in 2016 such as the Conference of Chairpersons of Primary Committees within the Workers Party of Korea, an important event held in mid-December, whose task appears to have been embedding the priorities of the 7th Congress within the wider ecosystem of Workers Party institutions and sub-bureaucracies. Of course to do so new slogans and new energies must be harnessed.

“Let us accelerate the victorious advance of socialism with the great spirit of self-reliance and self-development as the dynamic force” is certainly not the most succinct slogan the institutions of Pyongyang have ever come up with – and this is from a bureaucracy whose narrative or propaganda sub-structures are renowned for long-windedness. However this is it appears to be the slogan through which the energies of 2017’s New Year Address are to be dissipated and diffused, the slogan through which Kim Jong Un’s new white heat of technological endeavour is to embedded throughout North Korea’s year. The dynamic force of technological capacity perhaps harnessed to the needs of self-reliance, is perhaps suggestive of some of the dynamics Pyongyang now faces, following the passing of UNSC 2321. While the energy needs and resources of North Korea and the strictures placed upon them by this most recent round of UN sanctioning and especially by the apparent cooperation of the People’s Republic of China are not really the direct interest of this author, Kim Jong Un’s assertion in the Address that “The sector of science and technology should concentrate efforts on…ensuring the domestic production of raw materials, fuel and equipment…” really speaks to the fact that without an unfettered access to coked and useful coal as well as other minerals (and market access through which to sell North Korea’s production), Pyongyang will face developmental trouble in the years to come rather than any coherent or cogent ability or capacity to maintain technological development at any temperature.


Kim Jong Un at Kosan Fruit Farm – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Of course the real interest of this geographically and environmentally minded author is focused on North Korea’s topography, its rivers, forests, soils and coasts. These natures and techno-natures in Pyongyang’s ‘web of life’ have been subjected to the heat of both political and developmental energy (as well as to the rather less controlled desperate energies of human’s beset by lack and deprivation on occasion), innumerable times in the historical narrative of North Korea, and have certainly featured in the New Year Address in recent years. 2017’s in this sense is no disappointment for the agronomist, the soil scientist or the fisheries specialist. The heat of both technological innovation and generation and political or developmental self-reliance touches all of these fields within Kim Jong Un’s text. The fishing sector of North Korea’s economy has been subject to a huge level of focus in the last year, much in the way that fungal science and the growing of edible mushrooms was in 2014. The year of great fish hauls and ‘spectacular fish-scenery’ is to be extended into 2017. Kim Jong Un suggests in the address that: “The fishing sector should conduct a dynamic drive for catching fishes and push perseveringly ahead with aquatic farming…It should build modern fishing vessels in a greater number…” North Korea is of course challenged greatly by its maritime borders (especially the Northern Limit Line) and its geo-political position, and these issues when it comes to industrial fishing have of course only become more difficult in recent years. Therefore the development of fish farming and aquaculture that does not rely on the resources and diplomatic or geo-political environment required for deep-sea fishing is certainly an advantage. The availability of fishing vessels of a useful tonnage and capacity has long been an issue for North Korea, Kim Il Sung was certainly concerned with these matters throughout his reign, and any developments in this regard would certainly of enormous benefit to Pyongyang.

When it comes to agricultural production, North Korea has long been challenged by the restrictions of land availability (given its mountainous topography), and more recently by the issues of soil deprivation and degradation. Kim Il Sung’s solution of radical chemicalisation left a post-1992 North Korea with soil that was virtually dead (Pyongyang’s management of its humus is surely an object lesson in what Salvatore Engel Di-Mauro would hold is the politicisation of soil itself), and a fertiliser habit that was simply unsustainable. More recent efforts by North Korea to find new methods of fertilising its soil, organic agriculture and agricultural methods which allow production in new terrains have to a degree been a little successful in mitigating the sense of acute crisis that beset this field for much of the 1990s. Perhaps the heat of 2017’s technological drive will impact positively on this and Kim Jong Un has certainly included the sector within this Address: “The agricultural front, the major thrust in building an economic giant, should raise a strong wind of scientific farming and push forward the movement for increasing crop yield.” This ‘strong wind’ will no doubt be felt at research stations such as Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project (a key site of North Korea’s developmental impetus since late 2013), and other experimental sites, but it will require a huge energy to turn this element of North Korean development in a positive direction – and some degree of luck.


Kim Jong at KPA Tree Nursery – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Luck and fortune are of course key to much of North Korea’s positionality in the early 21st century. It is luck, from a North Korean sense, that the United States in its post-Cold War unipolarity was quickly troubled by the fruits of past interventions and following 2001 was pre-occupied with asymmetric ideological enemies who played by no rules whatsoever, so troubled that much of its military capacity and diplomatic energy was expended in global struggles to counteract unseen or unseeable enemies, rather than in overwhelming North Korea. Luck that Pyongyang was able to navigate its mid-1990s struggles in such a way as to incorporate extensive new practical knowledge and practice from those NGOs and agencies which sought to help it. North Korea has not been in any way lucky however with its climate and weather in recent years, troubles which were seen last year in North Hamgyong Province and which were seen in the mid-1990s to amplify the degradation of soil capacity and the impacts of deforestation. From the early 2000s onwards, forest rehabilitation has been a key vector of North Korean development, or at least aspirations towards afforestation. Just like that composite satellite image of North Korea as the dark ghostly patch between the bright lights of South Korea and the increasingly bright lights of the People’s Republic of China, Pyongyang is well aware of the delegitimising capabilities of visualisations of its terrain. Barren, brown, dusty hills are as much as signifier for the wider world of North Korea’s incapacity and ineptitude as its seeming incapability to keep the lights on anywhere outside of central Pyongyang. Huge efforts have therefore been directed at afforestation in recent years, but these efforts really in a sense merely build upon a longer time frame of interest in North Korean politics that reaches back to the northern forests of the 1930s, the Japanese forestry stations of the colonial period (which sought to implant foreign, Imperial species of tree on the peninsula), and the need to rehabilitate a blasted landscape following the Korean War. Kim Il Sung’s Rural Theses from 1964 and subsequent texts from 1968 and later are deeply committed to harnessing the energy of technology and politics to produce an authentically socialist terrain. Kim Jong Un’s assertion in 2017’s New Year Address that “We should further transform the appearance of the land of our country by building modern tree nurseries in provinces…” is a continuation of that impetus, a continuation of the desire to transform physical materialities under his control as much as political conceptions and commemorative temporalities.

There surely is an enormous amount more I am missing from this review of 2017’s New Year Address on the grounds of personal interest (or disinterest) and expertise (or otherwise). A little should be made by others of the failure by Kim Jong Un to mention the various leadership birthdays and anniversaries of this year, instead recalling the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army. Of course much can be made of, hopefully by other writers, the role of that institution within Kim Jong Un’s many desires and assertions. No doubt many of the blanks, most of the dots will be filled in by future connections made within North Korea’s narrative and through its actions, some of which in this most unstable of years will be confusing and counter-intuitive. As the days and weeks go by Pyongyang’s intent and intentions will become clearer, its thematics for the year less opaque. However at this years very outset, Kim Jong Un has provided a reassertion of the energies which drive North Korean development, past, present and future. Whatever white heat exists in the words of this New Year Address has been present for much of North Korea’s existence, its temperature rising and falling at moments of crisis, moments of comparative success throughout its history. Ultimately it will be the present and residual heat of this powerful political energy that will prove the success or failure (in North Korea’s terms) of 2017.