Charisma in a Watery Frame: Narrative Topographies, Re and De-Territorialization and North Korea’s Northern Rivers

This is a pre-publication, pre-final edit and pre-copy setting and type setting version of this paper and is substantially different from the published version. Interested readers can find the final published version as an article in the Asian Perspective journal, Volume 40 (3): 393-414
Charisma in a Watery Frame: North Korean Narrative Topographies and the Tumen River

Dr Robert Winstanley-Chesters


This paper is concerned with both a North Korea in its latent, nascent stage and in echoes and re-framings of those early political narratives to support the function and authority of its current governmental manifestation. While nations and their politics are in a sense in a constant process of becoming, North Korea in the late 1920s and 1930’s was a nation only inadvertently in that process. It is unlikely that those who made up its later institutional elite and bureaucracy would have considered that in their struggle they were not struggling for anything other than a unified Korea. Kim Il-sung and his accompanying guerrilla forces were fighting for the independence of a nation that in their perception spanned the entirety of the peninsula, from Mt Paektu and the rivers in the North to Jeju island in the south. It is an act of post-facto narratological construction that when we now examine their accounts of this time, it is generally held to be part of the pre-history of North Korea.
Later re-constructed into the thick charismatic mythos of the Pyongyang we know today, the narratives of struggle expand across geographic bounds and boundaries familiar to those with a keen ear and eye for the pre-history of Korea itself. These are stories of defiantly concrete landscapes, but diffuse forms of politics and nationhood, from Parhae and the Northern Han Commanderies to Manchuria and colonial Manchukuo. Human intervention and institutional development may have an element of liminality about its form, but the spatial topography certainly does not. This paper therefore examines these narratives of political charisma as they extend into the realm of the geographic and the natural, topography itself becoming the carrier signal for charismatic authority. Topographies of course do not simply take concrete forms, but in their riverine forms can be conceived more as spaces of liminality and diffusion. In light of these charismatics, the paper thus analyses the place of the Tumen River within North Korean narratives of struggle and overcoming during two eras. It secondarily considers such watery spaces reframing within the terrain of its current politics, and recent examples of processes of de-territorializing and re-territorializing of historical and politically important crossings of North Korea’s northern rivers. Together these analytic elements suggest the rivers’ key position in both the bounding and unbounding of North Korean politics, ideology and nationhood.

Charisma in a Watery Frame: Narrative Topographies, Re and De-Territorialization and North Korea’s Northern Rivers 


       This paper is concerned with both a North Korea in its latent, nascent stage and in the echoes and re-framings of political narratives derived from those early days to support the function and authority of its current governmental manifestation. While nations and their politics are in a sense in a constant process of becoming, North Korea in the late 1920s and 1930’s was a nation only inadvertently in that process. It is unlikely that those who made up its later institutional elite and bureaucracy would have considered that in their struggle they were not struggling for anything other than a unified Korea. Kim Il-sung and his accompanying guerrilla forces were fighting for the independence of a nation that in their perception spanned the entirety of the peninsula, from Mt Paektu and the rivers in the North to Jeju island in the south. It is an act of post-facto narratological construction that when we now examine their accounts of this time, it is generally held to be part of the pre-history of North Korea.
Later re-constructed into the thick charismatic mythos of the Pyongyang we know today, the narratives of struggle expand across geographic bounds and boundaries familiar to those with a keen ear and eye for the pre-history of Korea itself. These are stories of defiantly concrete landscapes, but diffuse forms of politics and nationhood, from Parhae and the Northern Han Commanderies to Manchuria and colonial Manchukuo. Human intervention and institutional development may have an element of liminality about its form, but the spatial topography certainly does not. While North Korea’s current political form may certainly take on slippery, liminal forms, as a distinctly ‘thick’ ideological and institutional ecosystem (Geertz, 1973),it is certainly not in its charismatic form, diffuse, even as it is widely diffused throughout its body, cultural and social politic.
Charismatic Landscapes and Landschaft
Much has of course been written in recent years following the publication of Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho-Chung’s landmark work “Beyond Charismatic Politics” (2012), on the theatricality of current North Korean political forms and on the hinterland of their supportive mythology. This author has utilised Kwon and Chung’s thesis in conjunction with the socio- Geographic work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree analysing landscape and landscape development from a constructivist perspective, that landscapes and nature themselves are constructed and built by the societies and political forms that inhabit them (Cosgrove, 1984 and Castree, 2000). Using this theoretic frame I have asserted that not only in North Korea is there a charismatic politics, but that this perhaps necessarily begets a charismatic landscape. Further to this I have sought to, in North Korea’s case examine how these constructions, this theatricality and mythos might impact upon this landscape, and how they might transform it?
Landscape as a word in the English  language of course comes to us somewhat denuded of both politics and content, a denudation that makes its connection to such a rich and content filled conception as Charisma and the Charismatic difficult to say the least. Landscape is not currently therefore an ideal word or conception to twin with Charisma in any realm of “thick” politics (Geertz, 1973), let alone in North Korea. I instead intend to use (or mis-use), a more ancient piece of terminology, the German word “Landschaft”.
Denis Cosgrove himself engaged with the Landschaft conception and for him its utility lies in its original usage in defining spatial organisation in political or social terms “Custom and culture defined a Land, not physical geographical characteristics – it was a social entity that found physical expression in the area under its law…” (Cosgrove, 2004). This author would claim that North Korea can be seen as just such a social or political entity, a space in which particular customs, culture and political manifestations interact with physical or topographical features within the remit and utilisability of its sovereignty and law. Cosgrove determines that Landschaft “….points to a particular spatiality in which a geographical area and its material appearance are constituted through social practice…” (Cosgrove, 2004) In North Korea’s case I would claim that its Landschaft is instead constituted through political practice and the mode of that practice is the Charismatic as outlined by Kwon and Chung.
If of course landscape is to be conceived of as Charismatic or as a Landschaft, a key feature of both of these is the activation or undertaking of social, cultural or political construction within them (for this is what imbues them with charisma), then it is not surprising perhaps that these activations will adopt different forms and that these differing forms my reflect the topography of the landscape. I have identified three core forms which I have talked about in past work as typologies. Along with a later landscape type I categorised as “monolithic” and which is not yet possible in the pre-Kimist, pre-North Korea time frame I engage with here, the primary category I term “spaces of struggle”. I also identify a category which could well be twinned in this era which I conceive as “participant.” (Winstanley-Chesters, 2013)
In order to support this participant form of landscape and its connection with North Korea’s charismatic politics, I have also considered another methodological substructure derived from the academic terrain of political or human geography, namely its use of scale or scaling (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Originally deriving in terminological terms from Geography’s interaction with Cartography and its graphical representations of spatiality and physical relation, scholars have built on from Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that space and spatiality themselves are products, social products or political products (Lefebvre, 1991). Eric Swyngedouw’s for example suggests that places represented or experienced through scales are “the embodiment of social relations of empowerment and disempowerment and the arena through and in which they operate” (Swyngedouw, 1997, p.167.), and Marston has asserted that “…scale making is not only a rhetorical practice; its consequences are inscribed in and are the outcome of, both everyday life and macro-level social structures…” (Marston, 2000, p.221.).
Given the charismatic political construction manifest in North Korea, and this author’s research which identifies as one of the core elements of its authority and legitimacy a physical engagement in the terrains and spaces within historical memory, would it not stand to reason, that such as social and politically constructed space could be iterated and transmitted by the processes of scale and scaling? Accordingly this paper will consider the notion that terrains and spaces useful to this conjunction, might be re-scaled across wide gulfs of temporality, in a process which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri have namber in their investigation of other political fields, ‘de-territorialization’ and ‘re-territorialization.’ The reader will, it is hoped follow these re-scalings and de-territorializings as they alight elsewhere in the historical narratives of North Korea and its politics, far to the north and prior to its initial moment of sovereignty (Deleuze and Guatarri, 1988).

Spaces of Struggle, Spaces of Participation 

With this paper’s methodological and theoretical considerations in mind we can move from the field of academic narrative, to that of politics and historical authority. Attendant within that narrative are those physical places I have termed previously spaces of struggle. These feature in core elements of North Korean political narrative and historiography, namely the import and impact of the pre-Liberation guerrilla struggle against the forces of colonial Japan and that struggles place within the long history of Korean nationalism and national development. Kim Il-sung and the other members of the guerrilla group known as the United North East Anti-Japanese army during the years of its activity in Manchuria did (Armstrong, 1995), there is little doubt, engage in combat, harassment and struggle against Japanese forces. It may also of course be that at times they had some success in that struggle, however this period has become a nationalistic prismatic through which later manifestations of politics and the political are required to look and to be examined through. This has been much analysed by scholars, has as the struggle of these forces (or otherwise) themselves (Buzo, 1999). What has been little researched and subject to little commentary however is the place of the environment and terrain itself within this struggle, and the contribution made by this landscape to this wider narrative of national rebirth and overcoming. As the site of much of this struggle was necessarily wilderness or partially wild spaces, such natural space has become endowed with the charismatic nationalist content of that struggle.
Perhaps the vast majority of examples of landscape’s co-option within political or social frames are not directly about struggle but while they may be ubiquitous or all-encompassing generally they are quiet and not overt, part of the everyday, part of the furniture. In North Korea also such moments of quiet politics are carefully utilised to construct narratives of supportive participation where citizens plant trees in their own courtyards full of apparent quiet pride (Rodong Sinmun, 2013), where scientists in the agricultural institute go about the uncelebrated business of experiment and development (Rodong Sinmun, 2014), where traffic ladies become national heroines for unspoken action involving traffic management (KCNA, 2013).
In North Korea these moments and periods of struggle also I suggest support the enacting of landscapes as Landschaft in the process of participation in commemorative process of past struggles and conflicts, such as the example of a group of silver birch trees by Lake Samji quietly representative of and participating in one of the more diffuse elements of national and commemorative narrative characterised by Rodong Sinmun as “undying revolutionary exploits of the great persons of Mt Paektu” (Rodong Sinmun, 2012) (presumably Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk) through a process of de and re-territorialization, ultimately rescaling their charisma in the current time. Such landscapes are deeply impacted by the struggles in which they participate or which occur through, around or within them. In a sense they are both built and rebuilt by it. Rebuilt and re-temporalized in the current social and political mind according to the needs and rational of current political needs and forms.
While the topography of North Korea and specifically its northern border with the People’s Republic of China is not in the least bit diffuse, and in fact both Rivers the Amnok/Yalu and the Tuman/Tumen and the Mt Paektu/Baekdu massif form a very distinct border space, the historical narratives of the political entity which they bound has been at times. Accordingly North Korea’s charismatic political narrative has sought to embed and root itself with the spaces and terrains of this landscape, to draw strength from them and to more firmly assert its legitimacy, specifically in the case of its northern rivers such as the Tumen/Tuman and Amnok/Yalu.

Contemporary Spaces of Struggle

Before focusing on those northern rivers themselves, some further explanation may well be necessary in order for the reader to best grasp the current praxis of charismatic incorporation and its rescaling and re-territorializing.  For a key example of contemporary embedding of these charismatic themes we might turn to the mourning and funereal period following the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. Such events in North Korea are renowned for their overt theatricality. While this of course true of many similar moments in other nation’s history’s (for example the outpouring of emotion in the UK following the death of Princess Diana in 1997), the response of North Korean population and institutions appear on a different category of scale and adopts a radically different tone. Huge crowds of people are seen to gather and erupt in emotional outpouring, waves of grief and tears spreading throughout the nation. External commentators have commented on the acute quality of the expressed grief which appears to illustrate a deep personal emotional connection between the general populace and its now passed leader.
It could also be, and has been asserted to be by many commentators that this all- encompassing tidal wave of sorrow, that essentially such enormous public demonstrations of sadness are simply that, demonstrations. In effect such grief is the collective expression of a private and considered bargain by its population at such times that is necessary and expected to undergo such demonstrations, in fact they are part of the supportive system of politics in the North, part of its commemorative theatre and their now accepted non-participants.
Given the all-encompassing nature of the political and emotional imperative at such a time, would it be at all surprising if a wider repertoire of grieving related behaviour and participants were deployed at such a moment? This author would suggest that, of course not. Given North Korea’s extensive, in fact all-inclusive interpretation of the realm of politics and the political itself I would suggest that just as it is necessary for the human population to participate, it would be entirely expected and even necessary for other elements of North Korea’s terrain and domain to participate as well. Accordingly during the mourning period at the death of Kim Jong-il and the subsequent accession of Kim Jong-un environmental actors were deployed within the wider theatric and charismatic process.
Key examples of environmental incorporation within the wider political body during this commemorative period include North Korea’s news agency, KCNA reportage that focused on the inscription commemorating the place of Mt Paektu, a sacred mountain for Koreans, in North Korean revolutionary history, suddenly glowing red (“Kim Jong Il’s autographic writings “Mt. Paektu, holy mountain of revolution. Kim Jong Il.” carved on the mountain, in particular, were bright with glow. This phenomenon lasted till 5:00 pm.”, (KCNA,2012a), as well as the ice on the lake at the top of the mountain, Lake Chon cracking despite freezing temperatures and from across Pyongyang there were also reports of cranes and other birds adopting distinct postures of reverence or mourning.
While the mourning cranes of course are a fine example of nature and the environmental as participant in the grieving process, participant in the narrative, participant in the theatricality, perhaps the most exemplary of all these instances were the mourning Asiatic Black Bears of Taehung:
“At around 12:00 December 23, 2011, workers of the Taehung Youth Hero Mine saw three bears on a road when they were coming back from a mourning site after expressing deep condolences over the demise of leader Kim Jong Il.  The bears, believed to be a mother and cubs, were staying on the road, crying woefully.  Bears usually have a deep sleep in cave or under fallen tree in thick forest in winter days. So it was unusual that they came out to a road in the daytime. Moreover, the road was what the leader had taken for his field guidance tour. The witnesses said it was as if the animals were wailing over his death.” (KCNA, 2012b)

Narratologies pre-history 

If we step back from these extraordinary instances, to the process and structures involved in the mourning period for Kim Jong-il, and I fact if we step back further along narrative chronologies of North Korea are there other examples of a conjunction of political imperative, historical narrative and institutional charisma? Beyond the Kim dynasty and the personhood of the Kims’ themselves what are the other key narrative strands from which institutional and governmental legitimacy is drawn in North Korea? This author would suggest the elements of North Korean historiography or even national hagiography that place Pyongyang with a liberationist, anti-colonial frame are key to contextualising the self- perception of its political sub-conscious as a realm of struggle and overcoming.
Just as during the Kim Jong-il commemorative period it was necessary for the emotional realm of sadness and mourning to become more than hypothetically or metaphysically extant and to crystallise and be rescaled within natural spaces and non-human participants, so it is similar with the eras of struggle at the core of North Korean historical narrative. Here to, physical topography and natural elements can stand in or serve as participant elements with more conventional narratological structures, such as the white birch grove serving as both participant and memorial for military campaigning during the Korean War. For a more fully developed and in charismatic and theatric terms, more vital example we must go further back into North Korea’s historical narrative.
Ultimately we must return to a period before North Korean existed, before the Liberation from Imperial Japan, to the pre-North Korea, the aforementioned “ur-North Korea”, the Korea of guerrilla bands, righteous armies and a restive angry diaspora beyond the Peninsula itself including Kim Il-sung’s United North East Anti-Japanese Army. Within this period, communists and leftists made common cause with the enemies of imperial Japan to harass and frustrate their forces. The mythology surrounding Kim Il-sung’s derives most extensively of course from this period. While those involved in the guerrilla struggle and much of the then diaspora were beyond the landscapes and topography of the peninsula itself, mentally and culturally their bounding to it in memory at least if not reality was key to their self and group conception as Koreans. Accordingly any articulation of Korean national mythology would have to directly refer, if not include the landscapes of the peninsula themselves.
These landscapes, as experienced by those involved in the struggle against the Japanese were not however the spaces of urban Korea, nor even suburban or agricultural Korea, but the “edgelands” of wilderness and wild country bounding not only Korea proper, but the spaces inhabited by its early diaspora. These were transient, fluid spaces, places and terrains through which a guerrilla band could easily reign, but which could also be utilised to serve a wider revolutionary purpose “…the warriors of the Korean people started to fight…under the guidance of the great Leader Kim Il Sung…they marched on and on in the biting wind, crossing over steep mountains and pushing their way through unbeaten forests…” (Kim Il- sung, 1992a, p 8). While much of the fighting is untaken through, over and between mountainous areas, equally important narratologically are the peninsula’s northern river boundaries.

Watery Charismas
“On the first of March in the 19th year
I crossed the River Amnok
The day will come round every year
I’ll return when my work is done.

Blue waters of Amnok, my homeland
When the day I return to you.
I crossed to attain our dearest wish
I’ll return when we have won.” (Kim Il-sung, 1992a,p.100)
In a structural narrative trope that will become familiar to North Korea analysts, Kim Il- sung within this text connects multiple strands of extant and imagined myth and narrative to root these important themes within North Korean political mythos. Incorporating a diffuse folk mythology surrounding these watercourses with his own work and assertions and with the literary reflection of authors later connected to movements supportive of North Korea, the importance of this moment is amplified and reflected upon the spaces themselves, rescaled for a current reader, unable to connect physically to the temporal terrain in which these mythologies took place.
The River Amnok/Yalu of course is not the watercourse and topographic space with which this paper is most concerned. The Amnok/Yalu bounds North Korea to the north east, but coupled with the Tuman/Tumen which we are most interested in, both watercourses form the physical bounding of the Korean nation as it most coherently and extensively conceived. As with the Tuman/Tumen the crossing of the Amnok in these early days appears both traumatic and fortifying within the context of Kim Il-sung’s early narrative. Exiting familiar and local space, crossing the river breaks the connection with the local, Korean every day and announces the arrival of alien, foreign space. It also serves, Rubicon like to amplify the importance of Kim Il-sung’s mission and purpose at both this time and in the future. Those engaged in the process are themselves de-temporalized and de-territorialized from the imperial spaces of their present. While in a sense not at all uncommon as a large number of diasporic Korean’s in both China and Russia of the time would have left Korea proper this way, Kim Il-sung’s wandering semi-messianic nature is confirmed by the process of becoming unbounded and de-territorialized, by crossing the river into lands and topographies of difference and unfamiliarity.

Crossing the Amnok
“I crossed the Amnok-gang River when I was 13, firmly determined not to return until Korea became independent. Young as I was, I could not repress my sorrow as I sang the “Song of the Amnok-gang River” someone had written and I wondered when I would be able to tread this land again and when I would return to this land where I had grown up and which held our forefathers’ graves” (Kim Il Sung,1992a,p.50)
The River Amnok of course is merely the first important riverine topographic element to be crossed by Kim Il-sung and his guerrillas, and while important political and narrative themes are established in the crossing, that river will not be the location of the key narratives which is this paper is concerned by. On the opposite side of Mt Paektu massif lies the watercourse of the River Tuman/Tumen. Bounding the north western border of North Korea and separating it from now both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, at the time of our interest the Tuman/Tumen divided Colonial Chosen from newly Soviet Russia and for the most part the Imperial Japanese territory of Manchukuo/Manchuria. This newly colonised Japanese territory, once replete with diasporic Koreans was to be the site of the guerrilla and revolutionary activity from which Kim Il-sung and the political elite allied to him grew legitimacy and authority.
Whereas the Amnok was the river crossed when the young Kim Il-sung left his homeland full, apparently of revolutionary fervour it would be the crossing of the River Tuman/Tumen that signalled the emergence of his guerrilla campaign in its mature stage, and that which the narrative currently articulated by North Korea judges to be one of the key moments in the development of North Korea itself. This re-territorialization and return to the forefathers land and temporal present obviously occurs at a moment, when contrary to Kim Il-sung’s original conception and hopes, Korea is not yet independent or freed from the yolk of colonialism, but for Kim it cannot be far away in mythic if not practical terms.

Crossing the Tuman

“We quietly crossed the River Tuman by boat at night. O Jung Song rowed the boat quickly and well. As I looked at the fields and mountains veiled in darkness, I could not repress my beating heart at my deep emotions at returning to my homeland after five years” (Kim Il- sung, 1992b,p.142)
While the breaking of imperial power at the hands and bombs of the United States is some years away, Kim Il-sung and the United North East Anti-Japanese Army would from the domain beyond the Tuman/Tumen and the Amnok/Yalu harness the liminality of both wilderness and riverine spaces to harass Japanese forces. Kim recounts numerous moments of transgression against the colonial forces, made possible and effective by the diffuse terrain of sovereignty within the rivers sphere of influence (“After crossing the River Tuman by boat from the Shijianping ferry we visited the beans selection ground of the Tonggwanjin Measuring Corporation…we disguised ourselves as day labourers from Jiandao and talked to the workers there, while giving them a helping hand…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992b,p.243).

Theatric Narratives
As time moved on in the guerrilla struggle however, the landscapes of the Amnok/Yalu and Tuman/Tumen basins are presented as more than simply a diffusive or disruptive element in Japanese colonial governmentality in the region, but instead becomes a key vector in Kim Il-sung’s defensive and offensive military strategy: “The form of the liberated area, the area where the enemy’s rule cannot reach, had to be the main form of the base and we had to establish that base without fail in the mountainous areas along the River Tuman which were convenient for us both in conducting our operations into the homeland and in getting support from the people there…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992b, 254). Charismatic elements begin to enter the developmental narratives, even theatric literary forms, and the topography supporting active and activating mythological content. In one key example historical narratives of previous eras are combined and connected with other elements of sacred Korean mythos in a poetic outburst:
“Grinding my sword wears down Mt Paektu’s rock:
My horse gulps and dries the Tuman River:
Should a man at twenty fail to subdue the land,
Who will in later years call him a man of calibre?” (Kim Il-sung, 1992b,p. 44
The geography and topography of the area in which Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla’s fought and harassed the Japanese is also reviewed in song, for example “Comrade Kang’s” articulation of revolutionary fervour and purpose through a reworking of the “Ten Point Song”:
“What is first?
Realizing the allied front
Even though the heavens collapse
This is the first.

What is the second?
Expanding our unique guerrilla zone, the citadel,
To the Soviet-Manchurian border,
This is the second,
What is third?
Clearing the passage to the Soviet Union
Which is welcoming even in chilly weather,
This is third.
(Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p.189)

In a similar theatric moment, and one which also involving the singing of songs, the narrative deploys developing geographic knowledge and particularly of rivers and topographic features of the real, authentic Korea of the guerrilla zone as a symbol of an individuals’ developing sense of their Korean nationality and of their commitment to the cause:
“…don’t ask me where I come from. Don’t think I’m putting on airs. I don’t know where I was born. I only know that I was born in a coastal village in Korea. I arrived in Jindao, crossing the river on my parent’s back. I don’t know whether it was the Tuman River or the Amnok River. I am such a dunce.” (Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p.383)

Environmental Theaters of War

While all of these theatric elements of course are not conventional elements of historical narrative or historiography, they are deployed to support the wider narratives of struggle, overcoming and the development of Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary legitimacy. The Tuman/Tumen river is recounted much as the wider landscape of the space within this narrative as a supportive or helpful element within it, contributory to the frustration and harassment of the Japanese. Ultimately this supports the building or reconfiguration of the river and its surrounding landscape into what I earlier termed a Landschaft, both of struggle and participation.
Kim Il-sung’s conception of a guerrilla base, “the citadel” is apparently more than simply the physical infrastructure of asymmetric war fighting and the locale for the storage, mustering or repair of its materiel and material, but a space of such of supportive topography, an environmental “theatre” of war, a Landschaft of both struggle and overcoming. Within such a space, not only can the theatric elements be later deployed in its memorialization, but the physical actions of campaigning and war fighting can take place.
The Tuman/Tumen and its surrounding mountainous and wild topographies are for example the perfect place for reconnaissance of the enemy and for conference with fellow guerrillas: “We crossed the Tuman River, and then guided by the advance party, climbed Mt Wangjae at about four or five o’clock one afternoon. The heads of the revolutionary organizations in the region of the six towns and political workers, who had been in hiding among the larches on the ridge, came out to meet us…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p. 43). Equally though the topography is also good for the combat and defeat of the enemy: “The Fiercest of the battles was fought on Mt Ppyojok and the outpost in the Ssukpatgol on Mt Mopan…The third company and the Anti-Japanese Self-Defence Corps manning these mountains mowed down the attackers with a surprise barrage of gunfire, grenades and rocks…The defenders on Mt Mopan destroyed the enemy’s highly mobile cavalry that was outflanking the defence at a bend of the River Tuman…” (Kim Il-sung, 1992c, p.243).

Watery re-territorializings and re-scalings in the contemporary era

For this theatric space or Landschaft to function elsewhere than simply on the charismatic page of North Korea’s political narrative but to coherently and realistically connect with its citizen’s contemporary everyday other methodologies and strategies must be deployed to support charismatic and narrative coherence in the present. This final section considers the utilisation of those practices I have described as scalings and re-scalings, or in Guatarri and Deleuze’s conception de and re-territorializtion (Deleuze and Guatarri, 1988).
Kim Il-sung’s crossing according to current North Korea narrative and historiography, in the January 1925 of the frozen waters of the Amnok/Yalu River and thus beginning the period of guerrilla exile and struggle we have encountered extensively elsewhere in this paper as it encounter the nations watery north edge, is already subject to much memorialization. Its ninetieth anniversary in light of the important role anniversaries and commemorative moments play in North Korea was an important moment for political and ideological reiteration. The national newspaper of North Korea, Rodong Sinmun reported on the 23rd of January, 2015 that “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) and asserted that:
“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)
Even Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father’s efforts to utilise this key source of nationalist power in 1975, through a commemorative march on its fiftieth anniversary is addressed in the text and space is made for Kim Jong-un’s current Mt Paektu 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” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a)
But how would these school youth and children hold this “sacred tradition” in esteem? Through the singing of songs and poems dedicated to the nationalist moment of urgency? By appearing supportive if concerned, next to Kim Jong-un during a moment of on-the spot guidance? It would be none of these, Instead of abstraction and narrative opacity, North Korea’s state media would engage in a period of acute reterritorialization focused for a time at least on the streets and paths of South Pyongan Province, undertaken by a group of school children who would essentially follow in Kim Il-sung’s footsteps renacting his journey up to the point of his river crossing and de-territorialization into rebellious, anti-Imperial space.
While the process for the schoolchildren’s selection, the nature of the institutions from which they came, or their ages, elements which might support a really coherent, cogent and convincing re-enactment process are never stated within the Rodong Sinmun or any other text recounting their journey, its physicality and currently temporality is clear and important to the narrative. This physicality, common to pilgrimages elsewhere, in which breaks, pauses and stops must be taken, presumably to rest the tired legs of the children after having ‘crossed one steep pass after another’, is obvious to the reader (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). These are presented as real children of North Korea in 2015, not cyphers or semiotic symbols for the pre-Liberation, nationalist past.
Conceiving of this journey or pilgrimage as yet another theatric moment in North Korea’s narratological flow however perhaps, in spite of the schoolchildren’s journey’s invariable charismatic content, does not do justice its deeper levels of meaning and utility for this paper. The commemorative journey of the children’s theatric potential is clear; the children pass through a well prepared and well-trodden list of places and spaces of charisma, a list that is no doubt ideologically and narratologically sound.  Having left Mangyongdae, Kim Il-sung’s home village according to North Korea’s conventional narrative, they passed Kaechon, Kujang, Hyangsan, Huichon and Kangyye, ‘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)
Returning to the utility of scaling within this context (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015) as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s own notion of deterritorialization earlier in this piece (Deleuze and Guatarri, 1988), the spaces of relation and the practices of relation within the frame of this journey are equally as important as its starting point. Though these children walk the route of the commemoration of North Korean revolution and Liberation in 2015, the relational praxis encountered upon it is that of 1925. Whatever these 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. The charismatic political theatre of the time is re-territorialized by the process, all the way from their departing from Pyongyang on the 22nd of January to their arrival at Phophyong in Ryanggang Province around the 4th of February (Rodong Sinmun, 2015c). Phophyong according to current North Korean historiography is the site of Kim Il-sung’s crossing of the Amnok River and his de-territorializing from Chosen and its relational and political frame of colonisation, to the spaces of resistance in the wild edges of Manchukuo and a new personal and political frame of personal liberation and struggle. The river crossing ultimately stands for the political journeys of subjectivity of these North Koreans to be, from imperial subject to revolutionary. North Korea’s charismatic ideological framework making it possible to rescale and re-temporalize these historical watery topographies into the contemporary theatre of its politics.


There are of course innumerable other moments of re-scaling, re-territorialization and other intriguing methodological devices within the topographic narrative framework recounted by the North Korea’s historiography and its current political narratives, but this watery crossing and re-crossing of the Amnok/Yalu is where this paper intends to end. North Korea’s historical narrative is of course subject to intense debate and contestation, and the empirical reality of any elements of this period is at best diffuse (as much as its landscape is not). The physical location of Kim Il-sung at various times is hard to establish beyond doubt and many of the later stories, especially those focusing on his and those surrounding his arrival into Pyongyang following Liberation to take up power are curiously difficult to determine the reality of. However what is not disputed is the fact of Kim Il-sung’s participation within the guerrilla campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s.
It may be also that the outlines of the guerrilla campaigning are also diffuse, but in a sense the exact historiography of these campaigns and generality of their struggles are not important. What is important is the particularity of individual events and the representation of the terrain in which these events occurred. Within this paper I have sought to examine the outworking and impact of both the narrative historiography and its accompanying political framing on the landscape of the Tuman/Tumen river basin, for that is where much of the military campaigning took place, and on the representation of that basin and its river in particular, as well as the current place of these rivers within current North Korean political articulation and narrative/
In North Korean historiography and political narrative, Mt Paektu reigns supreme as the fulcrum and locus of political authority and legitimacy, it is where the Kim dynasty and its political form derives large elements of its power for instance. Paektu also serves as the mythic genesis of the Korean nation as a whole and its slopes were also participant in the era this paper describes. However, while mountainous topographies are highly important within these charismatic narratives of struggle, they are not only the only geographic spaces in which such narratives can occur.
The Amnok/Yalu and Tuman/Tumen basins and the river within them serve key roles within these narratives of pre-Liberation, pre-revolutionary charisma. In part as we have seen the rivers serve as a mythic and metaphysical crossing point for individual narratives, such as Kim Il-sungs departure across the Amnok/Yalu and revolutionary return across the Tuman/Tumen. Just as they serve as the spaces of national bounding, they serve on the individual level as the place and moment of individual re-bounding or un-bounding., through the processes of de and re-territorializing and re-scalings. Equally crossing the rivers has signalled the beginning of a charismatic period in an individual or group’s life, a time of “kairos” when significant activity will take place, bestowing charismatic authority upon them as much as upon the landscape and topography.
We have seen the Tuman/Tumen deployed in theatric and creative terms within the narrative, a narrative recounted in many linguistic and literary forms, from poetry to song. This theatric approach serves as described by Kwon and Chung as the vector by which politics is transferred and translated across thematic categories, from the literary to the political from the political to the environmental. This is the process by which charisma itself is embedded within landscapes and topographies, its re-territorialization the process by which it is incorporated functionally into the present.
Just as charisma and theatricality are in a sense, diffuse, liminal forms, riverine topographic systems are equally diffuse and liminal. Tenuous and temporary and in form, they nevertheless serve to geographically bound areas and to serve as boundaries for crystallised and distinct political forms. Their inclusion and utility within the North Korean narratives of charismatic struggle here serves a dual purpose. In their liminality they create a space of combat in which the asymmetrically organised and equipped guerrilla force can overcome a more conventionally powerful foe, namely the Japanese. Equally though their inclusion as charismatic participants in the charismatic struggle and elements within this combat diminishes to a degree their division, crystallising their form into something more distinct. Intriguingly therefore perhaps it is at narrative charisma’s most watery and diffuse of edges that politics and political advantage in this instance can concretise into a more direct form of political authority, underpinning later themes of authority and legitimacy.

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From Dialectic of Nature to the Asian Mode a Pre-History of North Korean Environmental Approach

This is the submission version of this paper. The final published version for Capitalism Nature Socialism can be found at and will eventually form part of Capitalism Nature Socialism 27 (3)

Robert Winstanley-Chesters[1]**

From Dialectic of Nature to the Asian Mode a Pre-History of North Korean Environmental Approach


North Korea is not a nation or field that attracts a great deal of critically minded analysis which addresses the processes and moments of its ideological history. This is especially true when it comes to matters of North Korea’s relationship with nature and the environment, and the ideologies which underpin developmental and productive strategies within that nation. The routes which Marxist analysis in general took to connect to the Korean Peninsula are themselves fairly obscure and rarely considered.

This paper therefore seeks an examination of the generation of Marxist analysis of nature and of those modes of production which encounter, transform and interact with natural and environmental forms. It considers the work of both Engels and Marx on the subject before tracing the journey those theorisations took into the practices and articulations of later Marxists, Communists and Socialists tasked with applying Marxist principles more widely in the processes of nation building and governance. It analyses in particular notions of an Asian Mode of Production and the debate in Marxist circles as to that mode’s veracity and utility. It also encounters briefly the work of counter-Marxist theoretician, Karl Wittfogel and his notion of Hydraulic Economy. Finally the paper traces the journey made by these theoretical structures into the intellectual world of the Korean Peninsula, navigating the debates it generated amongst early Korean Marxist intellectuals and their embedding or otherwise within the ideological structures and processes of North Korea.

Keywords: North Korea, Dialectic of Nature, Asian Mode of Production, Hydraulic Economy, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Karl Wittfogel.

[1] Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters is a Research Fellow of the Australian National University, College of Asia and the Pacific, School of Culture History and Language and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, School of Geography.

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 Dr Robert Winstanley-Chesters Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the Beyond the Korean War Project (University of Cambridge).

From Dialectic of Nature to the Asian Mode a Pre-History of North Korean Environmental Approach

“The basis of the Juché idea is that man is the master of all things and the decisive factor in everything” (Kim Il Sung[1] 1964, 258).

North Korea is not a nation renowned for its environmental focus or commitment, neither does writing and scholarship focused upon it address in analytical terms the history or context for its developmental strategy. Contemporary geo-politics of course has a great deal to say about North Korean politics and ideology, as does the great phalanx of Liberal consensus which is committed to its isolation and de-legitimisation. Writing that is critically minded to both North Korea and of the Cold War and post-Cold War structures of politics deployed in opposition to it and tasked with maintaining the quasi-colonial relationships of power and control that beset East Asian politics is much rarer. Even more rarely seen however is writing which considers the ideological frame from which North Korea draws its approach to the more practical elements of its development. A quick reading of media and political narratives produced by Pyongyang’s institutions will demonstrate the key place played by projects and plans which impact directly upon environmental matters and natural spaces. Such an intense focus on forestry and hydrological matters can surprise readers who anticipate an encounter primarily with North Korea’s undoubted concern for military capacities and capabilities. Accordingly this paper seeks a consideration of the philosophical and ideological background for Korean and North Korean relationships with nature and environmental connection, a background which has roots relevant to the focus of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. The paper will trace the connections between early analyses of environmental issues by writers important to the wider ideological frameworks of Socialism, the advent and development of a local Korean Marxism and the later strictures and structures of North Korean developmental practice.

Engels and the Dialectic of Nature

“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place, and even the plants and animals themselves, that the consequences of his activity can disappear only with the general extinction of the terrestrial globe…” (Engels 1883, 211)

Aside from the unexpected echoes of the currently fashionable Geographic notion of the Anthropocene, it is this paper’s contention that it is initially through the work of Friedrich Engels that philosophical terrain of Marxism and dialectics first interacts with the realm of nature. It is Engels’ re-envisioning of Marx’s dialectical approach to the passage of historical time that generates the development of an approach to the environment recognisable later on within the practical policy outcomes of those nations inspired and governed by principles derived from Marxism.

In “The Dialectics of Nature” (1883), Engels utilises the dialectical principles of a derived from readings of Marx and Hegel to argue that the history of human development should be seen within a framework of positivism. Engels holds that the struggle between the classes of humanity for the ownership and control of the means and modes of production resembles that found within the natural world, a struggle for simple existence. Plants and animals may exist or relate at different levels of combat, cooperation or symbiosis, but ultimately their struggles and relations surround the simple facts of life and death.

However, Engels asserted that humans had “risen above the animal struggle for existence to the struggle for production” (Engels as quoted in Ziegler 1987, 12). As Engels saw it, production, or control over the mode and means of that production necessarily involves the potential utilisation and exploitation of the environment and nature, including those plants and animals within it. While Marxist analysis asserts that through and with revolution, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the advent of socialism, human existence and enterprise would be free of the irrationality and interference of class dialectics, and free of the inefficient exploitation of natural resources by capitalist and bourgeois actors as a result of adopting the purely rational approach of Socialism, Engels is less positive. Counter to this optimism, in the “Dialectics of Nature” Engels expresses elements of a determinedly realistic pessimism considering humanities position in relation to the wider Earth and the forces of nature to be a more precarious than Marx. For example, Engels sees the natural world as absolutely capable of overcoming ordered and rational humanity, in its efforts to maximise its extractive and productive output. As he says: “Let us not, however, be very hopeful about our human conquest over nature. For each such victory [nature] manages to take her revenge” (Engels as quoted in Ziegler 1987, 12).

Given all of this how therefore is it possible that those processes of development inspired in the later history of nations inspired by Marxist theory have tended towards practical positivistic optimism? Perhaps the fact that Engels’ approach to environmental matters was fated to arrive into the wider frame of Marxist economic and political theory through the interpretation of Marx himself, is part of the reason for the level of dialectical tension between the notions present in Kim Il Sung’s quote which begins this article and Engels’ rather more subtle and pessimistic philosophical position.

Marx and the Asian Mode of Production  

This paper of course does not simply mean to consider the relations between the root source of Socialist notions of nature and its progenitors Engels and Marx, but to trace the routes of those notions into the political and philosophical backgrounds of North Korea. As much as Marxist theory demands that it can be applied universally across the globe, local or regional cultural processes influence its application within different sovereign territories. This section encounters past embedding of that sense of local or regional application within Marx’s own thought on matters of development

Marx himself incorporated some of the structural elements of Engel’s theorisation surrounding nature and environmental relations within his work on modes of production, codifying this within the “Grundrisse” (1858). Within this text Marx wrestled with his theorisation of those modes, especially the articulation of ‘universal’ modes, distinct from regional or local possibilities, common to all civilisations. Marx of course identifies seven different phases of production which should be regarded as universal, moving from ‘Primitive’ through ‘Feudalism’ to ‘Capitalism’ manifest in both its early and late varieties, before arriving ultimately at the ‘Communist’ mode of production. However despite his later theoretical commitment to universality, within “Grundrisse” and important to the later practical philosophically driven manifestations in the context of North Korea Marx holds that the ‘Primitive’ mode of production, in which tribal societies share ownership and consumptive rights over productive capacity, is initially ante-ceded east and south of the Ural mountains by what becomes known as the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’.

Of course the fact that Marx’s analysis within the “Grundrisse” is based on the regional productive histories coloured by the early colonial and colonising periods should be borne in mind. Readers should perhaps also bear in mind that Marx’s commitment to his concept of an Asiatic Mode of Production ebbed and flowed through his theorising and writing career, at times almost vanishing completely. Marx’s personal theoretical development in this instance can also not be disconnected from the context of his collaborative working with Engels. Later analysis of Marx’s body of writing and theory from within those ideological committed to its tenets and structures holds that as far as the Asiatic Mode of Production is concerned, following the publication of the “Grundrisse” Marx lets the conception lapse and does not return to it. The analyst of Marxist theoretical interventions in Asia Melotti (1977), asserts however that it is referenced at a number of moments within the later writing of Marx and of Engels. In particular the Asiatic Mode makes an appearance within the third volume of Capital, in Engel’s preparation of Marx’s notes for the volume left incomplete at his death , and by Engels himself within his work “Origins of the Family” in 1884. Given these facts, Melotti asserts that it cannot therefore realistically be claimed that the Asiatic Mode of Production for Marx and others was a brief or transient phase, but one struggled with for much of his career and by those tasked with forming a later canon of Marxist writing and theory.

Marx’s initial conception of an Asiatic Mode of Production insists that there exists historically within the sovereign polities, cultures and societies of Asia, a form of production, not based on private property but instead on the exploitation and ownership of infrastructural and agricultural property by a small ruling theocratic elite through the means of corvée labour. Such rule and the accompanying relationship between consumers and producers resulted in the creation of massive infrastructural development primarily focussing on hydrological or irrigation projects. As Marx saw it: “This prime necessity of an economical and common use of water … necessitated, in the Orient where civilization was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association, the interference of the centralizing power of Government” (Marx 1853, 125). This need for irrigation and hydrological development in light of problematic climactic conditions, enjoined with the development and power of an organising and demanding central authority, discounts and prevents the development of private property, as such property and attendant relations are often subjected to the negative impacts of such development, such as the need for the inundation of particular areas to prevent flooding or the revitalisation of agricultural areas through the dumping of alluvial material during when fields are flooded.

Setting aside the theoretical validity or otherwise of Marx’s central argument surrounding the Asiatic Mode the concept is subject to dispute simply on the grounds of geographical relevance. Seeking to explain the existence of complex and large infrastructural projects within areas of weak or unexplained institutional development, such as the large and ancient canal network and Great Wall in China, Egypt’s irrigation system or the number of Pyramid’s or Ziggurats in Mesopotamia, Marx may well have included many geographical areas and states within the term Asiatic for whom such a designation may well not be valid. A counter, though no more successful analysis is provided by the highly contested work of Karl Wittfogel. Within the much disputed and critiqued work “Oriental Despotism – a Comparative Study of Total Power” (1957), Wittfogel essentially contests Marx and Engel’s notions that modes of production are rooted in the dialectics of class and economic control, suggesting instead that in Asia the nature of government and society develop as a result of the historical development of property holding and ownership within a nation or region. For Wittfogel, the key factor in the development of such property holding and its influence upon economic modes of production in the framework of states and state sovereignty was the relationship between humans, nature, their political organisation and the supply and utilisation of water resources (Wittfogel 1957).

Accordingly he asserted that the potential and actual use of water resources and their availability has been a crucial factor throughout the history for an innumerable variety of human actors at various levels of societal, political and institutional development; and with a few exceptions such as hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and fisherman, humanity has generally acted in a similar way. When it comes to more generally to Asia or specifically to North Korea Wittfogel identifies in that geography a hydraulic mode he names ‘Oriental’. Institutions in this imagined section of globe, which develop to form a sovereign state assert a level of leadership and organisational capacity which cannot be countered by the actions of the population subjected to their leadership. Unlike the Medieval European context, in which the Church held an important role in the construction and management of society and institutional statehood, in this ‘Oriental’ context, religious institutions did not achieve a level of independent authority. The power of the oriental spiritual or theocratic realm was held and exercised by institutions that also held property and made laws, as well as the responsibility of technological and agricultural development: “As a rule, the operations of time keeping and scientific measuring and counting were performed by official dignitaries or by priestly …specialists attached to the hydraulic regime.” Therefore, “wrapped in a cloak of magic and astrology…these mathematical and astronomical operations became the means both for improving hydraulic production and bulwarking the superior power of the hydraulic leader” (Wittfogel 1957, 30).

Similar to Engels and Marx, Wittfogel is tasked with deploying his analysis across the topographic and political scope of the region he considers to be the ‘Orient.’ Since Wittfogel in fact regards an even wider geographic area than Engels to be ‘Asia’ (including the whole of Russia and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire within that designation), this deployment is much harder and less successful. To cope with the strains within his analysis of such a large and disparate are, Wittfogel even determines there are three distinct types of Oriental and Hydrologic state: the Egyptian, the Japanese and the Indian. It is apparent that even to Wittfogel, the East Asian or Japanese typology is difficult to say the least: “The Japanese type lacks ‘extensive spatial sphere’ of irrigation and drainage construction; the river areas could be handled locally. Thus one finds many isolated centres of production with military superstructures, many classical examples of military-feudal forms” (Wittfogel 1929, 36). Given the difficulty in the East Asian sphere Wittfogel offers a ‘hydro-agricultural distinction’ through which Japanese development might be understood, and which might include Korean or North Korean history. Of course even an extensive review of Korean history suggests that while there may well have been early examples of comprehensive and well-structured bureaucracies on the Peninsula who asserted political and institutional power in the most feudal or concrete of ways, there is little evidence of those bureaucracies manifesting power and control over their population through means of the control of hydrology or technological development (Winstanley-Chesters 2014). As such Korean history and even North Korean historiography has never been required to address or deconstruct the legacies of past tyrannies of a hydrological or productive nature which have impacted on local theorisations either focused on modes of production or on relations between human/developmental and natural worlds.

This paper leaves Karl Wittfogel at this point, as entirely successful or not, North Korea’s historical narrative dictates that due to the assumption of power in 1945 by Kim Il Sung and those North Korean’s who obtained the support of the Soviet Union and whom conventional historiography records has having been hosted and trained for some years in institutions in the Russian Far East. Thus those structures of government which assumed sovereignty and responsibility for the northern half of the Korean Peninsula were steeped in the ideologies and practices of Marxist-derived analysis. Accordingly aside from the initial development of Marxist conceptions of nature and the place of the non-human within theorisation of modes of production, Korean Marxists and Communists (and later North Korean Marxists) were directly connected to the process of later developments, conflicts and contests within the field. Given the difficulty of both the progenitors of Marxist analysis and those who sought to counter its theoretical productions and later political manifestations in articulating a coherent structure and place for Asiatic or Oriental modes and the role of nature within them, the debate and conflict surrounding them in later Marxist, Socialist or Communist circles should not surprise the reader.

Internal conflicts within Marxist circles surrounding the Asian Mode of Production

   “Five main aspects of relations of production are known to history: primitive commune, slave, feudal, capitalist and socialist…” (Stalin 1951).

Stalin in his pamphlet “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” outlines a classical Marxist model of economic, social and political development, what has been called ‘the uni-linear model’. This model asserts an inevitability to the progression of social construction and development within history from early societal structures ultimately to a Communist society based on the dictatorship of the proletariat, and is very much in evidence in the ideology of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. In Stalin’s analysis Marx’s conception of an Asiatic mode of production and its relationship with the natural world is completely absent. This omission was of course not the result of a sudden ideological whim on the part of Stalin or of other theoreticians within the Soviet Union, but part of a reductive process towards a functional uni-linear model that had been in development since the time of Marx and Engels.

Ultimately the problem for those committed to the development and analysis of Marxist politics was that following the foundation of the Soviet Union in 1917, for the first time a sovereign state had been organised according to its principles, but that state was within the realm of what Marx had once considered the Asiatic. This was problematic when it came to assessing the authenticity and form of the Russian revolution itself, but in also in applying the appropriate ideological structures and approach within the state that was the product of that revolution. Whether historically pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russian state displaying the hallmarks of an Asiatic or Oriental state had been much debated, but the centralisation of its institutions, feudal structures of land ownership and tenure, growth of a bourgeoisie and capitalistic class as well as the emergence of an industrial economy all bear some imprint of what Marx would classify as the Asiatic mode. An example of this imprint might be seen, following the Mongol invasions and period of Tatar control in the development in Russia of the ‘obshchina’ system of agricultural organisation (Pipes 1974). Some of the defining features of Asiatic state governance for Marx focused upon the longevity of governmental systems. The development of this system of land tenure and ownership within Russia for example, can be traced back to the creation of a unified Russia with the defeat of the forces of Novgorod in 1478 by Ivan III and the feudalism this unleashed would not end until the emancipation of serfs in 1861. For those committed to the conception of the Asiatic Mode of Production such a long-lived, centralising and implacable system suggests an Asiatic element.

In the light therefore of Russia’s apparent Asiatic status, how would it be possible to achieve a revolutionary event to which pure socialism was the outcome? Marx had theorised that it was a fundamental necessity for societies and states in their historical development to undertake paradigmatic shifts in the modes of production during revolutionary periods according to a specific historical formula. What is not possible or at the very least difficult is for societies to achieve are revolutions that bypass entire modes of production, or in fact derive from an entirely different and un or under theorised mode, disconnected from European political forms or structures.

Georgi Plekhanov, the Russian theorist later associated with Julius Martov’s ‘Menshevik’ faction during Russia’s revolutionary period, offers a potential solution to Russia’s Asiatic modal issue. Plekhanov’s later work, not concerning the combat of more virulent revolutionary factions within Russia focuses on the extrapolation and interpretation of Marx’s theoretical approach to historical materialism, especially the application of historical materialist notions to the conditions present in Russia itself. Within his work “Fundamental Problems of Marxism” (1907), Plekhanov develops an analysis of the political conditionality of Russia building upon Marx and Engels’ Asiatic Mode of Production and including geography, topography, nature and location as an influence upon the development of modes of production: “The logic of the economic development of China or ancient Egypt, for example, did not at all lead to the appearance of the antique mode of production. In the former instance we are speaking of two phases of development, one of which follows the other, and is engendered by it. The second instance, on the other hand, represents rather two coexisting types of economic development. The society of antiquity took the place of the clan social organisation, the latter also preceding the appearance of the oriental social system. If these two types differed considerably from each other, their chief distinctive features were evolved under the influence of the geographic environment” (Plekhanov 1907, 117-183). With these distinctions in mind Plekhanov asserted the importance, if socialist revolution were to be achieved within Russia, of a paradigmatic shift between modes to be engendered and experience of the ‘Capitalistic’ or bourgeois mode of production gained, before such a revolution could be achieved.

The Asian Mode of Production debate within Asia – ‘Aziatchiki’ vs ‘Pyatchiki’

Plekhanov’s approach to notions of the Asiatic Mode and its influence within Russia on the development of revolutionary principle and strategy was also highly contested. His multi-linear theoretical strategy was not helpful to those revolutionaries such as Lenin, deeply involved in the practical business of revolution in Russia, for whom the prospect of having to agitate first for bourgeois revolution in order to achieve the ultimate goal of socialism was not at all welcome. Nor was it helpful to those involved in the debate within the Comintern as to the direction revolutionary activity in China should take. Fogel for example provides a useful summary of the nature of the debate surrounding China with the statement that, “If Chinese society could be characterised as feudal or semi-feudal (utilising the uni-linear model of development}, then a ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’ was the order of the day… If however, China could be described as Asiatic, that meant China had a weak underdeveloped bourgeoisie on which the revolutionary leadership could not safely rely” (Fogel 1988, 58). Building upon Plekhanov’s analysis of the Russian context, the Hungarian Comintern economist Evgenii Varga (later declared by the Soviet Union to be a “bourgeois economist”) is reported by Fogel to have claimed in 1925 that “power in China was a consequence of control over massive public works… In other words, the Asiatic mode of production had existed” (Fogel 1988, 59). Karl Wittfogel, writing as scholar in his youth inspired by Marxist theory before his later anti-Marxist direction, writing in a paper entitled “The Stages of Development in Chinese Economic and Social History” even developed a sophisticated analysis of the developmental process within Chinese history which claimed that Asiatic Mode actually developed from the ‘Feudal Mode’, and thus was multi-linearity of a different sort: “The original form of the Asiatic system of production in China … had a feudal point of departure which complicates the picture. The bureaucratic centralized state developed in China on the foundation of an agrarian community which disintegrated in proportion to the growth of the new society” (Wittfogel 1935, 121).

Whether directed at the study or application of theory, within the Soviet Union the debate soon polarised. On the one side, the proponents of the multi-linear models of development (including the Asiatic), became known as the ‘Aziatchiki’ and were subject to severe intellectual attacks from the proponents of ‘uni-linearity’ known later as ‘Pyatchiki’. Sergei Dubrovskii’s paper of 1929 “On the Question of the Essence of the ‘Asiatic’ Mode of Production, Feudalism, Serfdom and Trade Capital” is said by Fogel to have “posited ten modes of production through world history, but the Asiatic was not one of them” (Fogel 1988, 60 ). By the early 1930s the polarisation was further crystallised by a series of conferences in Tbilisi, Baku and Leningrad at which it was claimed that “the Asiatic mode of production was dangerous to the Comintern’s efforts to spur revolutionary movements among the world’s colonial peoples, because a geographically distinct mode of production could arguably render Comintern leadership necessary” (Fogel 1988, 61). The conference in Leningrad in 1931 settled the matter with virulent denunciations of the “multi-linearists” present from the Latvian academic Evenegii Iolk; “We consider the struggle against the theory as a deviation from Marxist-Leninist methodology, infused with mistaken political principles, particularly crucial…”(Iolk 1931, 98) and from Godes, an academic reporting on the conference : “The theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production … not only cannot serve as a key to the oriental heavens. Today it has become a serious obstacle to further growth. It destines all who fall under its influence to utter futility. The theory, politically harmful and methodologically incorrect, must be discarded” (Godes, quoted in Iolk, 98). Stalin’s highly restrictive unilinear vision of the ‘Five Historical Phases’ of modal development was asserted in the conclusion of the conference, leading to his 1938 publication “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” and the disappearance within the Soviet realm of the “Asiatic mode of production” as a theory as well as the literal purging of its proponents.

Given the monolithic nature of Stalinist ideology and the necessity of adherence to it for those engaged within Marxist revolutionary struggle elsewhere in the world during this time it would be surprising to find divergent views within the Marxist/Communist community. If we examine the situation of Marxist theorists in China or elsewhere in East Asia it may be less surprising. Fogel asserts that the debate within China in some senses followed a similar direction to that in the Soviet Union: “As was the case in Russia, the Chinese debate on the history of society was closely entwined with revolutionary strategy” (Wittfgel as quoted in Fogel 1988, 62). Much of the literature that informed and drove the debate within the Soviet Union, such as that of Varga and Wittfogel was available quickly in Chinese, however its reception was subtly different – particularly in the light of Stalin’s prohibition of the principle of the existence of the Asiatic Mode. Marxist intellectuals and theoreticians within China and East Asia had the benefit of actually having been born within the Asian context and thus had first-hand experience of the social, political and economic historical development that they were analysing. In spite of this fact these theoreticians were compelled by the need for loyalty to their international and specifically Soviet intellectual community to, as Fogel describes it, “pay lip service to the victors of Leningrad” (Fogel 1988, 64).

Chinese scholars of the period thus travel an interesting intellectual line acknowledging the fact that Stalin had decreed there only to be five modes of production, and that the Chinese Communist Party had declared the Asiatic Mode an irrelevance as early as 1928 (Tan,1994), but also attempting a skilful theorisation around this political and intellectual stumbling block. Fogel notes that “Chinese debaters soon proposed elaborate schemes and periodisations for Chinese history” (Fogel 1988, 62). These theorists attempted the reclassification of the Asiatic Mode as a particular sub class or precursor of one or other of the legitimate Stalinist five. Kuo Mo-Jo, one of the Chinese translators of Marx, in 1930 envisaged the Asiatic as part of the ‘primitive’ mode and Hu Ch’iu-yuan in 1932 according to Fogel argued that “if the Asiatic mode of production was anything, it was despotism, and despotism was grounded in feudalism” (Fogel 1988, 63).

The debate within Chinese intellectual circles continued for some time after Stalin’s proclamation in 1938, intriguingly utilising the work of the obscure classical scholar Sergei Kovalev, who while discussing the nature of the development of slavery within a Marxist context apparently inadvertently theorised a loophole through which revolutionaries concerned to avoid the Capitalist mode might journey. Stephen Dunn determined that Kovalev, “seems to be saying … that the … social order as Marx and Engels conceived of it is a specialized phenomenon of limited spatial and temporal distribution, and that particular and quite rare historical and geographical conditions are needed to bring its characteristic contradictions to full expression”(Dunn, 1982). Thus if elements of social ordering such as slavery could develop in the classical era related to their spatial and geographic positionality or conditionality, so within an Asian context, alternative social ordering in the guise of the Asiatic Mode could well develop given a particular geographic or topographic environment. Fogel designates the scholar Lu Chen-Yu as having best made use of Kovalev’s exception, even managing to side step the prohibition of any external Modes of Production through the argument that “since Marx and Engels wrote of the Asiatic mode, it could not lie outside Stalin’s five (even though it clearly was not there)” and that “where Stalin had written ‘slavery’, Lu argues that one should read ‘Asiatic mode of production as a variant of slavery’ in the case of China” (Fogel, 1988,66).

The Asian Mode of Production and Korean Marxists

Given the complicated journey the Asiatic Mode has made through the development and articulation of Marxist theory and political application in the context of both Russia and China the reader can surely imagine that its arrival in the political and cultural context of the Korean Peninsula proved similarly contested. Before describing the landscape of that contestation it is necessary to note the context of the initial contact between Koreans and Korean culture and Marxist ideas. Korea as history records had an extraordinarily difficult encounter with modernity. Having been governed by the Yi dynasty since 1392 according primarily to the tenets of bureaucratic and scholarly Confucianism the Peninsula was overwhelmed by colonial powers in the later 19th century and then annexed by an Imperialistic and Militaristic Japanese Empire in 1910. Korea would not emerge as a sovereign power again until Japan’s defeat at the end of the Pacific War in 1945, although it would emerge as separate nations as a result of the outcome of that defeat. European political theory intriguingly was first encountered by Korean intellectuals at the beginning of ancient Korea’s collapse through the work of Roman Catholic missionaries, both within Korea and in the wide spread diasporic communities in China and Russia (Duus 1995). Marxism was encountered in a similarly diffuse manner during this difficult period by Korean intellectuals, but it proved very challenging to establish intellectual or political groupings founded on Marxist, Socialist or Communist theory both at the death of the Yi dynasty or during the restrictive period of Japanese colonisation (Suh 1988).

In spite of the difficulties and diffusions however a group of Korean intellectuals focused on encountering and engaging with Marxist concepts did emerge and there was debate surrounding structure of modes of production and their connection with the Asiatic Mode and its attendant connections with nature or environmental themes. However it must also be said that the core group of Korean Marxist intellectuals and theoreticians involved in this debate derive their ideas from the debate on the Asian Mode that had occurred within the nation frame of Japanese Marxism (Palais 1995), and thus are not really representative of the grouping that formed the basis for the first government of the North Korea. Within colonial Korea the debate surrounding the efficacy or acceptability of the Asiatic Mode of Production in a sense starts from the opposite position to that within China or Russia. Whereas in those countries the debate had been directed in opposition to those espousing the Asiatic Mode from scholars and theoreticians who owed allegiance to Stalin and the ‘five stages’ theorisation, in Korea however it was the advent of a historiography utilising Stalin’s ‘five stages’ that sparked the debate. Paek Namun’s “Socio-economic History of Choson” from 1933 is identified by Owen Miller as the source of the controversy (Miller 2010). Paek’s work is essentially the first historical analysis of Korean history from a Marxist perspective and was heavily critiqued. Miller notes that “he was accused of being a ‘formalist’ and his application of the ‘universal laws of history’ was seen as ignoring the particularities of Korean history and East Asian societies more generally”(Miller 2010, 3). The ripostes came from scholars such as Yi Ch’ongwon, Yi Pungman, Kim Kwangjin and Moriya Katsumi. Yi seems to incorporate the analysis of Sergei Kovalev in identifying stages within Korean historiography of both slavery and feudalism, both distinctly “Asiatic” in outlook in terms that the slave or “serf” relationship was rooted within a paradigm of centralised state control of land ownership. Yi Pungman, Kim and Moriya on the other hand interpreted Korean historical development as having been devoid of a period of slavery owing to its Asiatic nature. In the words of Moriya Kastumi, “Ancient Korea developed directly from the primitive communist stage to a backward form of feudalism based on ‘oriental despotism’ and small peasant serfdom” (Katsumi quoted in Miller 2010, 5).

The Asian Mode, Development and North Korea: Conclusion

These academic and scholarly debates among Korean Marxists during the Japanese colonial period are of course intriguing in their accessibility to us, in spite of the extraordinary difficulties encountered by Korean political theoreticians and activists during this period. We might presume that such debates occurred amongst those activists and revolutionaries who formed part of the supportive group around Kim Il Sung and the United North East Anti-Japanese Army which fought a low level insurgency against the infrastructures and forces of Japan on the border between Chosen (the colonial name for the Korean Peninsula) and Manchukuo (the briefly existing Japanese proxy state which occupied Manchuria during the 1930s) and who later formed the core founding group around which the first North Korean government was constituted (Suh). However these debates are obscure and made inaccessible by the vagaries of North Korean politics and historiography as well as the destruction wrought by the Korean War. When it comes to form of ideological analysis and theorising under Pyongyang’s sovereignty of course what we do have are the empheralities of Kim Il Sung’s ‘great idea’, Juché thought or Juché thinking.

What actually constitutes the primary articulation of North Korea’s ideology is of course subject to intense levels of contest and dispute and those contests and disputes become ever more heated and assertive as time passes. Western scholars and the wider community of academics from Socialist or Communist nations were once convinced it seems of the depth and individuality of North Korea’s local ideological form. Scholars such as Bruce Cumings, Han S. Park and many other have sought to unpick and translate its tenets for external audiences at length (Cumings 1997 and Park, 2007). However in recent years analysts such BR Myers have asserted that Juche and local North Korean ideology was in fact a myth, a ‘smokescreen’ as Myers puts it to befuddle foreign audiences, and that much of the published work from North Korea addressing the detail of its ideology was in fact only available and directed externally (Myers, 2012). Myers even asserts that the real ideology of North Korea is an ethnic nationalism, heavily xenophobic in tone which owes more to the blood-focused fascism of Japanese Imperialism than anything derived from Marx (Myers, 2015).

The author of this paper while by no means dismissing Myers energetic polemics, would not go that far in negating the ideological content of Kim Il Sung’s publications or their provision of some sort of functional philosophical superstructure. What is clear however, not simply from those publications, but also the actions of North Korea at most points in its history since foundation is both the overt nationalism and fuzziness of its ideology, as the renowned conservative American scholar Robert Scalapino would later comment; “Kim had found the appeal to racial, cultural and national sentiments infinitely more effective during the darkest hours of the war than any exhortation to be good Marxist-Leninists” (Scalapino 1972, 459). Kim Il Sung and North Korean theoreticians were certainly not as concerned with the details of Marxist theory or its later reconfigurations through the work of Lenin, Stalin or other Socialists or Communists, as they were with utilising the narratives of revolution and independence to underpin North Korea’s own claim to political legitimacy and their own political authority.

If we then look for details from North Korean literatures and narratives as to a local authentic approach connecting to scholarship on the Asiatic Mode or the engagement of nature or the environment at the behest of revolutionary politics or development we will be sorely disappointed. Kim Il Sung and the institutions of North Korean theory and development could be characterised as functioning very much by what Bakunin might have called ‘the propaganda of the deed’, or later American commentators ‘facts on the ground.’ The quotation which begins this paper outlining a determinedly ‘humanocentric’ relationship between production or development and nature governed North Korean notions of productivity from very early on the nation’s history.

Following a brief period of development between 1945 and 1950 in which Pyongyang engaged actively with technicians and bureaucrats from the Soviet Union in a process of both state building and in the deconstruction of developmental and productive modes undertaken within the framework of colonial capitalism, North Korea’s landscape and natural environment was subjected to enormous level of degradation and destruction during the Korean War of 1950-1953 (Cumings 1987). When the conflict was concluded (though of course the peace was never and has never been formally established), the institutions and bureaucracies surrounding Kim Il Sung sought to consolidate power amongst a single cohesive political and ideological grouping, purging some of the alternative loci of power such as those groups of Korean Communists who had relocated to North Korea from elsewhere in East Asia. The Kim Il Sung group was therefore free to undertake politics and development as it wished from that point on (marked by the purging of the Yenan faction in 1956), to adopt reconfigure North Korea’s productive modes in its own curious image (Suh 1988).

This article could of course continue at this point to give a comprehensive history of North Korean developmental productivity and its relationship with the natural world. In a sense this would mirror the development of other nations following the path of Marxist inspired Socialist or Communist theory and social development. Pyongyang during the Cold War always sought to triangulate its geo-political and diplomatic position between the twin poles of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (Kuark 1963). Thus North Korea’s developmental strategy pitched between paradigms of imposition, transformation and technocracy so far as its productive mode was concerned depending on the political weather (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014). History records North Korea’s apparent success in the construction of monolithic developmental architecture such as dams, river gates and the reconfiguration of mountainscapes (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014). However it also records Pyongyangs’ desire for what is later called the ‘chemicalisation’ of agricultural production, a dramatically unsuccessful strategy which eventually led to the application of some two tonnes of fertiliser per hectare on agricultural land and the near term virtual nutritional death of the nation’s soil (Woo-Cumings 2002).

Whether of course any of Pyongyang’s later strategies could have been envisaged By Engels as he theorised his work on the dialectics of nature, or Marx has he struggled with notions of alternative mode of production which in some way better articulated cultural and social relationships with the natural world in the nations of Asia is of course not at all clear. It is not clear whether any of those committed theoreticians who were to spend many years teasing out the debate surrounding Marx’s brief later work on the subject or even those Koreans who would later become influenced by Marxist analysis while living in colonial Chosen or in the diaspora could ever imagine a nation such as now exists in North Korea. For of course when we read back the nation contemporaneously manifest north of the 38th parallel and the demilitarised zone (paradoxically the most heavily militarised space on earth), into the historical record we are engaging in a counter intuitive work of post-facto narrative reconstruction. None of those theoreticians or revolutionaries, not even Kim Il Sung and his small guerrilla band in the northern forests of the Korean Peninsula envisaged the nation that now exists as North Korea, nor its relations to Marxist analysis of nature or modes of production. While North Korea is neither historical aberration nor a-historical as much of contemporary commentary would hope, it is the creation of a contrary and difficult history, still in motion. Its relationship with Marxist thought on nature and those conceptual modes of production long contested and fought over by later theorists of revolutionary politics which are impacted or generated by human-environmental relations is equally difficult and at times oblique. It is certainly the hope of the author of this paper, that within its pages at least some of the traces of those contests and journeys are a little less opaque, a little less, as much of North Korean historiography can appear like the morning mist, quick to lift at the break of day.












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[1] 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. The author also uses the current South Korean Romanization style when it used in direct quotation by other authors.


From the Sino-NK Archives (06.1) – 14.12.2012 – Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 and Beyond – Narrative and Legitimative Power of the DPRK in the Space Race

Kim Jong Un Clangers

Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 and Beyond – Narrative and Legitimative Power of the DPRK in the Space Race

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Blast Off: The DPRK Goes Non-Terrestrial | I write this less than a day after the DPRK became only the tenth nation on earth to launch an orbital space craft. I accept this event as the launch of an object into space and not simply a test of missile technology, though granted there is surely a dual purpose in the undertaking, on the grounds that NORAD noted the achievement of orbit in such a terse and grumpy manner that it can surely be nothing less than an entirely unwelcome success on the part of a great enemy.

My first thought was that, given the sheer propaganda value presented to the USSR by the possibility that citizens of capitalist and ‘imperialist’ nations who hadn’t managed to achieve low earth orbit as of the 4th October, 1957 could actually listen to the ‘beep beep’ of Sputnik if they tuned their radio receivers to 20 megacycles, why hasn’t the DPRK proffered the radio frequency of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 so that the world might listen keenly to the DPRK’s transmission of patriotic songs? (Editors’ note: according to KCNA, and Kim Hye Jin, a section chief at the ‘General Satellite Command and Control Centre’, “The satellite is now airing ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’ and ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il…”)

I am not here to engage in speculation as to how the launch might impact on the geo-political position of the DPRK. The world is home to plenty of people keen to do that. I will also not engage in detailed consideration of whether, in the lead up to winter, a country with the kind of food and resource supply issues that beset the DPRK should expend such a level of economic materiel on such a costly activity. Neither will I attempt analysis of whether it is sensible to engage in such a potentially provocative act about a week away from a presidential election in the DPRK’s increasingly estranged southern neighbor.

Instead, as my research primarily relates to environmental matters and the interplay between the natural world, the realm of the political and accompanying narratives of supportive or presentational legitimacy, I wish to engage with the possibility that such narratives and approaches might be furthered by the DPRK’s move into non-terrestrial (literally) space.

Agenda-building: Narrative and Presentational Developments | In recent years, the DPRK has attempted to reconfigure its environmental and development approach to fit the agendas and needs of external supporters and funders, and in doing so has begun to harness the legitimative potential behind a narrative presentation in which the northern half of the Korean peninsula is portrayed as a place of eco-friendliness and environmental consideration, conservation and mitigation. Following the launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 on 12/12/2012, many of the classic narrative and presentational tropes developed within the DPRK’s presentation of its approach to the natural were on display, such as ‘spontaneous’ street parties– featuring suitably ‘North Koreanised’ traditional musical instruments (see Keith Howard’s work from 2010 on this), and reflective, retrospective glorification of Kim Jong Il, whereby in one KCNA classic, “The successful launch made me sorely miss leader Kim Jong Il, who had worked heart and soul for the scientific and technological development of the country. Thanks to his devoted efforts, our country has joined a small number of countries capable of manufacturing and even carrier rocket…” said the vice minister of health). Thus, might we assume that the DPRK will continue these narrative and presentational developments into the realm of space?

After all, just as the DPRK is a signatory to a number of international treaties and participates in a number of international bodies (my own forthcoming article on the UNFCCC process here at SinoNK might serve as an example) whose work revolves around the environmental and conservational realm, and includes its activities in the framework of environmental action within its broader presentational and legitimatory narratives, might matters pertaining to the extra-terrestrial not play a similar role? The DPRK is also a signatory to many of the treaties governing the usage and governance of space, especially the 1967 “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” and those treaties from 1971, 1975 and 1992 that deal with the placement of satellites, their orbits and telecommunication technology outside the atmosphere of earth. As the DPRK is so concerned with  matters environmental might it not also develop a position as a partner in the development of legal and bureaucratic approaches to the protection of the outer space environment (a currently much under-regulated area – see the work of Reijnen and de Graaf)?

Regardless, surely the most important element for the DPRK will be the narrative value of its new capabilities in space and the potential for the creation of new objects of legitimative reliquary. The United States of America is a great example of a repeated proponent of the usage of the relics of space exploration to build a narrative of legitimacy. Only recently was the now redundant, obsolete Space Shuttle Endeavour transported through the streets of Los Angeles like an enormous steel and carbon Pieta heading a religious procession. There are also a number of Apollo capsules in American museums; each and every one presented as nothing less than a modern ‘chariot of the gods’ embodying the way in which the American nation achieved moments of true destiny.

Space shuttle Endeavour on the streets of LA | image via NYT

Beyond the Thermosphere: But Not Beyond the DPRK | It must not be beyond the theoreticians and constructors of the DPRK’s narrative to envisage such a presentation, in which Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 serves not only to assert the technical legitimacy of northern politics and ideology, but to connect such approaches with its efforts and endeavours within the environmental field. It will be for the future to see if the current paradigm of apparent presentational (at least), conservation, concern and mitigation within the DPRK’s narrative might extend beyond the Thermosphere.