Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project

Environmental acover3nd developmental matters have long proved key to North Korea’s “revolutionary” industrial and economic strategies. They have equally been important to Pyongyang’s diplomatic and geo-political efforts both during the Warsaw Pact period and in our contemporary era following the collapse of its supportive and collaborative partners. However, while environmental issues have been very important to North Korea, academic analysis, and commentary addressing this field of governmental and institutional functionality has been almost entirely lacking.

This book fills this analytical void. Taking a narrative view of developmental approach throughout the political and ideological history of North Korea, Winstanley-Chesters first considers its impact on its landscapes and topographies in general throughout the era of the Kim dynasty. Second, in light of recent academic analysis suggesting North Korea as a space of Charismatic politics, the book focuses on the specificity of individual developmental sectors and projects, such as those addressing forestry and hydrology, seeking to trace general trends into these more particular environmental fields.

available from Rowman and Littlefield ,, ,, and physical book shops wherever they still exist and have a penchant for North Korea, Geography, Political Geography, Environmental History (and haven’t filled their North Korean niche with either Victor Cha’s Impossible State or that John Sweeney book.


The nexus between North Korean ideology and development policy in the context of environmental management is an unexplored niche in the academic literature on the DPRK. Given how integral environmental management is for food security and natural disaster adaptation in North Korea, it is astounding that more attention has not been paid to this topic. Winstanley-Chesters’ scholarship in this book is impeccable. The two case studies-tidal reclamation and forest management-provide strong evidence for the coding of revolutionary utopian ideology into the North Korean government’s environmental projects.
Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

Winstanley-Chesters shows that one can understand a great deal about what makes North Korea tick simply by reading its propaganda, especially the canonical texts addressed to its own population. He does so by rereading Kim Il Sung’s 1964 Rural Theses and examining the regime’s writings about massive tidal reclamation projects, and the struggle to reforest the country devastated by Japanese colonialism and war. Many states remade the environment in the image of their leaders: Pharaonic Egypt; post-Stalinist Russia; Maoist China. But few enlisted nature itself as part of their monumentalist legacy, not just imposing vast projects atop of nature, but transforming natural systems wholesale to embody revolution, to demonstrate absolute dominion, or to express radical utopian nationalism. The author shows how the regime recalibrated these vast mass mobilizations at critical junctures, providing technical and institutional forms to lend rationality to these efforts, and using “on-the-spot” guidance to correct deviations or errors of implementation in ways that distinguish the DPRK from neighboring China to which it is often compared. A must-read in the burgeoning literature devoted to how North Korea has achieved the apparently impossible: survival against all odds after the end of the Cold War.

Peter Hayes, Nautilus Institute for Security and Stability

For the late cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove, the environment is not a thing out there but a salient entity that has a constitutive power in human society and politics. Following closely this great disciplinary tradition, this eye-opening book written by a gifted geographer does a great service to the vibrant field of North Korean studies today by tuning its scholarly interest squarely, and uniquely, with what the country’s leadership has long held as its supreme political interest—how to build a sacred, everlasting landscape of power.

Heonik Kwon, University of Cambridge

This book is a unique exploration of North Korean geographic landscape and its ideological construction. Using a wide range of vernacular materials, and deciphering North Korean narratives in a situated approach, Robert Winstanley-Chesters elucidates the great environmental discourses that framed, and still determine, North Korean trajectory towards development. The rigorous focus on tideland reclamation and forestry management, familiar to the author, is particularly powerful in illustrating the logics behind the fabrication of North Korean landscape. Robert Winstanley-Chesters allows us to reconsider the charismatic political structures behind the North Korean landscape and, doing so, sheds new lights on the present North Korean crisis.
This book is a must to anyone interested into North Korea beyond the usual surface of politics, and will trigger fruitful comparative approaches for geographers interested elsewhere in a critical approach of landscapes as political projects.

Valérie Gelézeau, École des hautes études en sciences sociales

Coming Soon…

Change and Continuity in North Korean Politics – co-edited with Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Adam Cathcart and Christopher Green – Routledge Advances in Korean Studies  –

Due for Publication: October 29th, 2016

In the years since the death of Kim Jong-il and the formal acknowledgement of Kim Jong-un as head of state, the North Korean regime has made a series of moves to further augment and consolidate the ideological foundations of Kimisma nd cement the young leader’s legitimacy. Historical narratives have played a critical, if often unnoticed, role in this process. This book seeks to chronicle some of these historical changes and continuities, using theoretical and analytical frameworks to show how and why Kim Jong-un, as the new leader, has been so ubiquitously juxtaposed as an executor of the will of his predecessors. In so doing, the book also explores how ideological retrenchment and conservatism have been at the forefront of Pyongyang’s narrative response to generational change, but also how historical narratives continue to be adapted to suit new and challenging circumstances.

Includes Robert Winstanley-Chesters chapters Politics and Pollack: Maritime Developmental Paradigms Under the Kims and Treasured Swords: Environment Under the Byungjin Line


New Goddesses on Mt Paekdu: Gender, Myth and Transformation in Korean Landscapes – co-authored with Victoria Ten – Rowman and Lexington, Lexington Press

Due for Publication: December 2016

North Korea’s 2015 New Year’s Message is replete with references to Mt. Paektu, the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula. It appears that citizens of Pyongyang are encouraged to work to the speed of ‘the blizzards of Paektu’ throughout the year. The year 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese occupation. 2017 will also see the centennial anniversary of the birth of Kim Chŏng-suk, first wife of Kim Il-sŏng and mother of Kim Chŏng-il. It is perhaps not surprising that at these celebratory moments the landscapes central to Korean mountain cults, ancient and modern, come to the fore. Our book suggests viewing contemporary North-Korean ideology and Kim dynasty worship as having evolved from traditional Korean mountain beliefs and practices, centered on Mt. Paektu.

According to myth, the Korean nation originates at Paektu, one of the most important mountains on the peninsula. Using extensive Korean language and English language materials, this book discusses two particular legends unfolding at Mt. Paektu that continue Korean mountain mythos and tradition. One of these narratives relates to Kim Chŏng-suk of North Korea and the other to the Woman of Heaven of South Korea. We trace the evolution of this mythology within the context of Korean mountain cults and their merging with Chinese Buddhism and more recent nationalistic narrations of anti-Japanese struggle. Our book analyses the dynamics of imagination and authority within these legends of the twentieth century. We also carry out an experiential encounter with the legends and their landscapes through a field work trip to Mt. Paektu.

Mountain worship and Sanshin (Mountain Gods) mythology have been an inherent part of Korean culture since ancient times. Mountains were and still are the background upon which old and new Korean stories and histories manifest in the guise of legends and practices. This book examines the common cultural roots of modern North and South Korean mountain lore, and suggests a certain methodological grid for its analysis. Traditional mountain mythology contains a theoretical structure of a hierarchal ladder connecting the ordinary human to a Mountain God. Mountain cults, mythologies and practices thus involve hard and painful transformative process of a mortal into a mountain immortal. The intermediate stages between these two poles are, for example, a ‘teacher of truth’ and an ‘adept in the techniques of immortality’. Within this transformation the body of the practitioner comes into contact with the body of the mountain, producing a sacralised or symbolic body. An understanding and awareness of this theoretical structure and its application to concrete stories is essential for grasping their meaning. We suggest that the two female protagonists of contemporary mountain legends from North and South Korea represent two different stages of the transformative process from mortality to immortality, culminating in a conversion into a Sanshin.