Reading with RWC – Recent Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited:

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

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

Languages Publishing House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Kim Jong at KPA Tree Nursery – Image: Rodong Sinmun

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

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

Fungus and Fisheries amidst the Forest of Arms: 2016 New Years’ Address

Pyongyang marks 2016's New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Pyongyang marks 2016’s New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

January 1st, 2016’s New Year’s Address from Kim Jong Un given a couple of weeks perspective has of course been supplanted somewhat by the phenomenal challenge and narrative bluster of the 6th’s nuclear test. Whether the core material of the device tested by Pyongyang at Punggye-ri was made of Uranium or Lithium, its success or failure and the geopolitical impact of it all will no doubt be discussed and dissected for some time. It is doubtful that the same fate will befall Kim Jong Un’s longer statement of North Korea’s intentions for the coming year.

While North Korea’s New Year’s Addresses under Kim Jong Un have generally followed a familiar pattern and are full of the linguistic repetition and bluster familiar to any who follow its media or published output, occasionally an interesting developmental phrase can be turned. The demand of 2015’s New Years’ Address to generate mountains and “seas of gold” so far as its fisheries and forestry sectors were concerned was a particular favourite of this author. Equally 2015’s favoured revolutionary speed “the blizzards of Paektu” speed, brought to mind the charismatic and theatric struggles of Pyongyang’s guerrilla nationalism in an easier, more piquant and less clumsy linguistic form. The extraordinary focus on fishing institutions and infrastructures in the second half of 2014 of course will remind any reader of the real connections between North Korea’s set pieces of narrative and message production and its institutional and developmental agendas. Kim Jong Un in fact made five visits to offshore and onshore facilities devoted to aquaculture in the months of October and November, 2015 combined, a schedule of institutional activity surely not that far removed from visits to military installations. 2016’s Address from a week or so ago however is not blessed with quite the same level of articulacy so far as development is concerned.

 Encountering 'blizzards of paektu', August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Encountering ‘blizzards of paektu’, August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

For the reader it may in fact be that the non-military, developmental aspect to 2016’s New Years Address is very hard to discern at all. Kim Jong Un this year and presumably North Korea’s institutions appear very concerned to memorialise the events of the 70th anniversary of Liberation on August 15th and the institutional and governmental achievements that were underwritten by the events memorial themes of acute nationalism and imagined victory. The Address in a sense then undertakes an exercise in charismatic projection, using the carrier signal of Liberation’s authority and legitimacy to underpin the importance and potential of May’s coming Seventh Workers Party of Korea Congress. In this way the Address allows the charisma of the revolutionary and pre-institutional past to potentially be revivified in the institutional present of the Workers Party of Korea.


Obviously the reader will discern no developmental or environmental impact within this political sleight of hand, a form of which will be familiar to any considered analyst of North Korean ideological or presentational practice. We all would do well however to consider for a moment the past history of Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea, especially the last such event, which concluded its Plenary sessions on the 14th of October, 1980, some 36 years and a political epoch ago. Bearing in mind the fact that North Korean Party Congresses are more than the public set piece event we might be familiar with from meetings of the People’s Republic of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference, or in fact from modern Party Congresses or Conferences in democratic nations such as the United States or United Kingdom. Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea are in fact multi stranded, yearlong events, which yes, emerge above the political surface for a week of plenary and public sessions, but which then submerge again into the political and institutional substrata. Deeper down in the lower levels of committee and subcommittee the articulations and aspirations expressed at large and out loud in the public events are reconfigured and reframed for institutional and developmental function and incorporation. North Korea’s political and elite and no doubt in May, Kim Jong Un’s grand and dramatic words will be incorporated into institutional and infrastructural agendas that could well drive its frameworks for years or decades to come.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

How do we know this? Because that was precisely, when it came to development the role played by the Sixth Party Congress of 1980. While previous events in the 1960s and 1970s had sought to maintain the notion of Socialist progression and development, the connection between central planning and goal setting and economic and social success, 1980s Congress sought to abandon much of that very deterministic developmental framework. Whereas forestry, agriculture, mining or coastal reclamation had previously been set enormously ambitious, dramatic, charismatic production and development goals (the 1970s were the era of the 300,000 hectares of reclamation for example), the Sixth Party Congress dispensed with specific goals, which had both never been reached by North Korea’s institutions and in attempting and failing to do so had seriously disrupted economic and infrastructural production, for looser, more aspirational targets. Five Great Nature Remaking Tasks and their attendant complicated goals, became the Four Tasks for Remaking Nature. The output of the era of the Sixth Congress of course was not entirely without success, the Nampo Lockgate and some of the sporting and stadium infrastructure of Pyongyang exist to attest to that, but it was the end of North Korea’s most aspirational period so far as its developmental potential was concerned, and in a sense veiled acknowledgement of the impossibility of a number of its past ambitions.


2016’s New Years’ Address which heralds most of all, all that is to be achieved and desired by the Seventh Party Congress in a few months’ time, similarly aims in developmental terms for the abstract and the undefined. In-spite of both Kim Jong Un’s many and varied appearances at fish farms, or even his occasional visit to tree nurseries and forestry projects, no specific goals are set for these sectors. The very best the Address can muster is that the “fishing sectors…should ramp up production as soon as possible and see to it that the fish farms…built across the country pay off…”

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

2016 it seems is to have no mountains or “seas of gold” and the only forest mentioned by North Korean institutions since the turn of the year, is its now Hydrogen fuelled  “forest of arms.” However perhaps we should all stop to ponder the potential viability or veracity of a more generalised, ad-hoc approach by Pyongyang to nutritional or other development. 2016’s Address, along with the fishing industries and infrastructures, also at that moment of focus references “vegetable greenhouses” and “mushroom production bases,” both developmental sectors to which Pyongyang has turned in the past and both of which both focused on last year within its political narratives and with which it has had some level of success in the past. Incorporating fungus production rooms into school and training infrastructure as well as generating the research institutions and communities to do so, and the combination of the human capital and resources provided by the Korean People’s Army and the fishing and aquaculture industries are key vectors to support more easily accessibly nutritional resources. While no doubt the elites of Pyongyang eat well amongst the newly lit tower blocks, 2016 New Year’s Address almost steels itself to admit the utility of such generalised sources of food resource when it ends its brief moment of developmental connection with the acceptance that these “contribute to enriching the people’s diet.”

Less ambitious, dramatic or charismatic in developmental terms, perhaps by necessity as much as design, 2016’s New Years’ Address appears for agriculture, environment and non-industrial or military infrastructure a call to carry on with the general, the non-specific, with what works. Perhaps the impending Seventh Party Congress and its reconsideration and reconfiguration of political, economic, social and ideological agendas demands a moment of pause, a breath in North Korea’s developmental echo chamber. Perhaps history and the Sixth Party Congress will be our guide. Perhaps, as on the 6th of January, Pyongyang will surprise or wrong foot as all again, but in developmental terms, so far as the New Years’ Address is concerned, developmental agendas will be more about past practice and carrying on, than the shock of the new.

Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft

This paper is currently in draft format. It has as yet not been published in any form by a peer reviewed journal, but the author hopes it to become part of a future publication project.

Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft


National mythologies, connected topographies and commemorations are often inseparably connected to political narrative. North Koreas’ historical narrative for instance, contains frequent resistive encounters with the imposed legacies of Japanese colonial development, including an extensive programme of dam building and hydrological engineering. In-spite of this difficult developmental inheritance, post 1945, North Korea’s government has frequently asserted political authority derived in part from that legacy, even while formulating its own vision of ‘revolutionary’ statecraft.

This paper, therefore with Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s reconfiguration of Weberian analysis addressing North Korea’s ‘Theatric/Charismatic’ politics Cosgrove and Castree’s articulations of constructed, extrinsic notions of Nature(s), Karl Wittfogel’s assertions of water’s place in ‘Oriental’ state formation and Erik Swyngedouw’s conception of Hydrosocial Landscape and technonature in mind examines the role of hydrological engineering and coastal reclamation in North Korea’s development. The paper reviews foundational moments in this historical and developmental narrative such as 1946’s Potong River Improvement project, recent mega-projects such as the Taegyedo Reclamation Area and the contemporary importance of water resources to Pyongyang’s institutions and politics. With theoretical frame and historical narrative in mind the paper considers the possibility that both control of hydrological resources and the ability of the state to recover new and useful land from bodies of water are framed within North Korea’s politics as fundamental to its local notion of national construction, Hydraulic and Theatric political sensibilities therefore rescale amidst Charismatic or Hydrosocial Landscapes.


North Korean Politics, Hydrology and the Korean Peninsula, North Korean Hydrology, Wittfogel, Swyngedouw

 Political Charisma and Hydrosocial Landscapes: North Korean Hydrological Engineering, Development and Statecraft

“The Potong River shoring-up work is the first project the Pyongyang citizens contribute to the building of a new, democratic Korea with their patriotic labour, and it is a great nature-remaking work our liberated people undertake for the first time. By finishing this project successfully we should make it the first beacon to the transformation of nature for the construction of an independent, sovereign democratic state, rich and strong.” (Kim Il-sung, 1946: 203)

North Korean historical narrative holds that Kim Il-sung’s words marked the end of the first day, May 21 1946 of the construction of the Potong River Improvement Project on the banks of the River Taedong, which flows through its capital Pyongyang. Contemporary historiography of course also holds that by this point the division of the peninsula between north and south was not even yet a year old and the official declaration of North Korean statehood and Kim Il-sung’s assumption of its leadership was still some two years away. This is North Korea in an infant state, emerging from the aftermath of unexpected liberation, Japanese colonial imperatives and the partition of the peninsula between forces loyal to the Soviet Union and to the United States of America. Yet event at this moment of infancy, the Potong project is today a vital moment in North Korea’s own historiography and developmental narratives and used frequently as a benchmark for local institutions under Pyongyang’s authority in their communication of new developments.

The Potong River Improvement project and other early developmental undertakings by North Korea are representative of an approach to the creation and re-creation of landscape and space that has shifted in approach over time, spurred on by and reflective of external influences upon North Korea. The central focus of this paper is the apparent importance of hydrology and hydrological engineering to the construction and maintenance of statehood in North Korea, as manifest at its outset by the Potong River Project in 1946. It considers the function of such engineering and construction practices throughout the historical narrative of North Korea, right to the present day, questioning to what degree this aspect of development contributes to Pyongyang’s current political form. The paper considers North Korean politics through the conceptual framework provided by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung’s notion of Charismatic Politics, which itself builds upon the work of Clifford Geertz on theatre states and Max Weber on political charisma. Given this local political frame it moves to consider the historical academic analysis of water control and management in Asia provided by the controversial theorist Karl Wittfogel and his notion of ‘Oriental Despotism’ underpinned by ‘Hydraulic Economy.’ While Wittfogel’s notion that power over hydraulic aspects of production and development was harnessed and deployed within historic Asian statecraft as some sort of charismatic power is certainly potentially attractive in such an apparently mystical and opaque autocracy as North Korea. However given the Korean Peninsula’s hydrological history and topography it is apparent to the paper that Wittfogel’s analysis is not satisfactory in explanatory terms, even considering his ‘hydro-agricultural distinction’ (used by Wittfogel to consider Japanese hydrology), in the case of North Korea. Methodologically therefore the paper seeks to connect Kwon and Chung’s notion of Charismatic Politics with more contemporary analysis sourced from Human Geography which considers generally constructed, political and social natures in the work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree (as well as their deployment and diffusion in North Korea in a political sense through the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri on de and re-territorialisations), and specifically the importance of scale and politics when it comes to water management and hydrological control in the work of Eric Swyngedouw and…

The paper finds that water management, as might be suggested by the apparent importance of the Potong River Improvement Project in 1946 is a key element to North Korea’s historical development and infrastructural agenda prior to 1992. While specific projects, as opposed to general aspiration are at first uncommon given the difficulty of post liberation national construction and the Korean War, hydrological engineering later becomes part of the wider of the framework of central planning in North Korea and specific goals for water management and control are set. These manifest in the 1970s and 1980s at sites such as Taegyedo, the narrative of which this paper explores at length. In more recent history of course North Korea has been beset by geo-political, economic, social and environmental crises and its development and potential has been significantly curtailed. Even in the difficult times however, North Korea has continued to use hydrological and water management themes and projects to underpin its political authority and legitimacy and the paper considers the completion of the Taegyedo project and other recent developments within this context.

The paper first introduces its theoretical framework and conceptual approach by considering the work of Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung on Charismatic Politics in North Korea, outlining the conceptual inheritance from Clifford Geertz, Max Weber and others on which and through which their analysis of North Korea functions. This theoretical review then encounters Karl Wittfogel and his conception of ‘Oriental Despotism’ and ‘Hydraulic Economy.’ The paper at this point considers not only the structure and content of Wittfogel’s analysis but also its deployment in the context of East Asia and its utility in the specific case of the Korean Peninsula. The review then concludes with a consideration of more contemporary theoretical approaches and methodologies from the academic world of Human Geography and elsewhere. This includes the work of Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree, but also that of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (which is helpful given the politics of historiography and memory in North Korea) and specifically in the case of water management and its connection with political power and governance, that of Erik Swyngedouw.

  1. Charismatic Politics, Oriental Despotism or Hydrosocial Landscapes: Theoretical and Analytic Frameworks

Given popular and academic conceptions of North Korea as curious, unique and confusing it is important for this paper to underpin its consideration of the importance of hydrological engineering within that nation, with a theoretical framing which serves to deconstruct and explain Pyongyang’s politics to the external or unfamiliar analyst. While there have been a number of conceptual analyses of North Korea’s politics in that past this section will consider and discuss how the notion of ‘theatre politics’ or charismatic politics is deployed within North Korean ideology and political forms to underpin not only its legitimacy and authority, but also practical forms of governance and development. This charisma and theatre can them become associated, as I will assert in a later section with what the paper will term ‘charismatic landscape’, specifically in this case of this paper the landscape of water management and hydrology.

This conception of theatric or charismatic politics, terms which the paper uses interchangeably, is source from the work Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung. Kwon and Chung’s landmark work Beyond Charismatic Politics (2012), brought an analysis of the theatricality of current North Korean political forms to the foreground, identifying what they termed North Korea’s “theatric politics. When Kwon and Chung utilise the notion of charisma or charismatic politics they do so in the wake of Max Weber’s articulation of the routinisation of political action and intent and its utility within the articulation and structures of politics, both historical and contemporary (Weber, 1967). Aside from Weber’s conception of charisma, Kwon and Chung triangulate their analysis with that of anthropologist Clifford Geertz on the place of theatre and performance within the process of sovereign and political activity in 19th Century Negara-era Bali (Geertz, 1990)..” Kwon and Chung hold that the theatre of politics in North Korea is driven by contemporary and current connections to a mythologised set of actions and charismatic moments in its past, especially those of its early leadership during the Guerrilla campaigns against the Japanese in the 1930s. These events including Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk (his first wife), become mythologised both in general and at moments of specificity. These specific moments then become moments of commemoration and performance, their performativity establishing connection with the charismatic past from which authority and political power can flow into the present.

The Potong River Improvement Project in 1946 is just one such moment in North Korean politics. Kwon and Chung would conceive of it as a moment in which the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung performs his aspirational authority in act of development. The memorialisation and later re-performance of that act through events and practices which commemorate it serve to connect the charisma of the past with the development projects of the present, especially those within the hydrological sector. Given the importance of politics and the performance of governance and authority to water management projects in North Korea’s developmental past, might there be other conceptual frameworks through which this paper could consider North Korean hydrology and its historical narrative?

Control over water resources in the historiographies of state development have of course been the focus of much analysis and intellectual consideration in recent history, offering the opportunity to consider the differences between developmental approach around the globe. Karl Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism – a Comparative Study of Total Power (1957) was an academic benchmark in developmental studies. Bailey and Llobera describe it as the “Wittfogel Watershed” in their 1981 book The Asiatic Mode of Production. Within Oriental Despotism. Wittfogel suggests that the nature of government and society develop, not as a by-product of a dialectical relationship between differing classes as Marx and Marxists would have it, but as result of the historical development of property holding and ownership within a nation or region. The development of property is, for Wittfogel, dependent on the local population and its environmental situation, the key factor in this development being the relationship between human politics and the supply and utilisation of water resources.

For this paper, it is Wittfogel’s controversial identification of what he terms a Hydraulic Society within an Asian context that is the most relevant. It was the cultural space with which he was most familiar, and in which his analysis was the most radical. Wittfogel identifies the existence in Asia of a hydraulic mode he names ‘Oriental’, within which institutions of the state assert a level of leadership and organisational capacity which cannot be countered by the actions or wishes of the population. Power in the Oriental 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.” (Wittfogel, 1957:30) Earlier in Wittfogel’s career in 1929’s Geopolitics, Geographic Materialism and Marxism he had identified three distinct types of relation between state formation and hydrological capability and control: the Egyptian, in which the state was capable of exercising total power, the Japanese in which power was manifest locally and the Indian in which control was fragmented and impermanent (Wittfogel, 1929: 36).

By 1957, in Oriental Despotism, Wittfogel had developed these three types into two distinctions: the “hydraulic” and the “hydro-agricultural.” Wittfogel suggests Japan as the prime example of the “hydro-agricultural” model (Wittfogel, 1957: 197). Institutional hydrological control in classical Japan could only be exercised on a local level, and therefore institutional control over the development of property, and bureaucratic control over the wider nation could not be fully exercised. Therefore, a true “oriental despotism” could not be achieved. Wittfogel does say that authorities in Japan attempted periodically to achieve reorganisation of bureaucratic and institutional frameworks in order to institute a centralised “Oriental” state, giving as examples the Taikwa reform of 646 CE and episodes during the Tokugawa period, 1603 to 1867. However, Wittfogel does not regard either of these examples as has having been a complete success: “The hydraulic innovations suggested in the Reform lacked the dynamism that characterized similar attempts in early hydraulic societies” (Wittfogel, 1957: 198).

While Wittfogel was certainly concerned with considering the development of state and hydrological sensibilities in Japan he never sought to apply his analysis of either Hydraulic Economy nor his hydrological distinction to the Korean Peninsula. This paper does not mean to conflate the historical narrative and development of Japan with the Korean Peninsula of course. Simply being in the geographic region of East Asia is certainly not enough to assert any such similarity, even discounting the complicated and difficult relationship between Japan and Korea. What is clear from the history of the different manifestations of Korean history in the field of hydrology or engineering is that little of what was built functions or was conceived of as being, on a monumental scale. There was no Grand Canal in any of the dynasties or kingdoms that have existed on the Korean Peninsula, and no radical reconfigurations of water courses. What was achieved, and exists in the sparse historical record of the Peninsula’s development, is the coordination through corvée labour of the constructive capacity of the peasantry. This was in order to harness the hydrological possibility of their local area, to achieve local agricultural production. For example Kang asserts that one of the most famous examples of hydrological engineering in Korea, the ancient reservoir at Yeongcheon, now in North Gyeongsang Province, “is independent and is not connected to any other irrigation system (Kang, 2006). This appears to sum up in the main the hydrological development of the Korean peninsula. Essentially, it focused on local needs, was sourced locally and constructed locally. The topography of the Korean Peninsula, it seems, has made grand hydraulic schemes unachievable and the localised and regional sources of political authority that exercised authority and control in the context of Japan were for the most part much weaker in the Korean instance.

Given the weakness of historical hydrological sensibility and practice in the case of the Korean Peninsula, yet the apparent utility in the North Korean present of projects focused on water management such as the Potong River project this paper will need to explore a different set of analytical literatures. It is clear from the work of Kwon and Chung on North Korean political form and process that the narratives derived or generated from or within North Korean historical narrative that elements of the charismatic or theatric politics spill out beyond the realm of conventional political interaction, marking the topography of both everyday life and the historical narrative. Given this interaction between politics and landscape, both it seems generally in North Korean history and specifically in the case of its hydrological development this paper will consider the theoretical frameworks provided firstly by Geographers such as Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree who analyse landscape and landscape development from a constructivist perspective, asserting that landscapes and nature themselves are constructed and built by the societies and political forms that inhabit them (Cosgrove, 1984 and Castree, 2000). Given Cosgrove and Castree’s analysis and the possibility of such construction we might assert that not only in North Korea is there constructed a charismatic politics, but that this construction perhaps necessarily begets a charismatic landscape.

But how might this charisma embed itself within the constructed or reconstructed landscape of North Korea? To explore and consider this embedding this paper holds in mind another theoretical contribution from political or human geography, namely scale or scaling (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015). Originally deriving from Geography’s interaction with Cartography and its graphical representations of spatiality and physical relation, scholars have built on Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that space and spatiality themselves are products, social products or political products (Lefebvre, 1991). 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: 167). 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: 221).   As well as however, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri conceptions of ‘de-territorialisation’ and ‘re-territorialisation’(Deleuze and Guatarri, 1984) also suggest vectors which might allow the rescaling of political experiences and aspirations in connected physical terrains.

Finally in this paper’s theoretical outline, it returns to Swyngedouw to consider development of his theoretical conception of scale within the framework of a another form and moment of utopian and charismatic politics harnessing of water management and development for the purposes of both ideological development and national construction. Swyngedouw, both in his own work and in collaboration explores the history of Spanish national modernisation and development through a reconfiguration and harnessing of its water sources. While this process has a long historical narrative, it is the later encounter between Spanish hydrological development under Franco and Spanish fascism and his analysis of the scalar processes and productions behind it that is most relevant to this paper and which might generate connective or extrapolatory possibilities for the space and charismatic politics of North Korea. Swyngedouw writes under Franco, the reconfiguration of what he calls Spains’ “hydrosocial landscape”, “was part of an effort to create a socio- culturally, politically and physically integrated national territorial scale and to obliterate earlier regionalist desire…” (Swngedouw, 2007: 11). Given what we will encounter in the historical narrative of North Korea, these concerns to generate a unified political, physical and social space around a singular notion of national identity which buries or replaces past historical alternatives appear certainly theoretically useful. Further to this however, and in some way echoing Wittfogel’s terminology, Swyngedouw terms this hydrological production a ‘Hydraulic Politics’. A combination of this Hydraulic Politics, autocratic charisma from Franco and his government, a complicated harnessing of resident and regenerated ‘networks of interest’ would enable the rescaling of political will and desire out into both pre-existing and newly created waterscapes in Spain. This process of production and political scaling ultimately generating what Swyngedouw refers to as a ‘technonature’ in which the political and social relations of power within the Francoist state become embedded within the physicality of the water and landscape themselves.

Swyngedouw and his analysis of the example of Francoist Spain conclude this review of this paper’s theoretical approach. From this point the paper engages the hydrological narrative of North Korea holding in mind all of these conceptual frames as it does so and exploring the processes by which political charisma and ideological structures are embedded, re-territorialised or re-scaled within the land and waterscapes of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

  1. Hydrological Narratives of North Korea

2.1 Configuring the developmental nation: The early years of North Korean hydrology

The second half of this paper reviews the historical narratives of North Korean hydrology, beginning with a review of the early development approach in Pyongyang following its liberation from the Japanese colonial period and the disastrous and destructive Korean War. It considers the interplay with geo-politics faced by North Korea, similar to that recounted by Swyngedouw in Spain’s relationship with external partners such as the United States (Swyngedouw, 2007), in its relationship with the necessary technical partners for hydrological development, such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The paper then reviews the development of one particular hydrological project, at Taegyedo on Korea’s West Sea coast and the journey to its completion through the differing phases of North Korean politics and ideology. Finally the paper addresses before its conclusion, more recent projects in North Korean hydrological development in the era of Kim Jong-un.

The development of political and bureaucratic policy directed at the engineering of water courses and resources appears very early in North Korea’s history. Indeed, the regime was in its infancy when the Potong River Improvement Project, the foundation event for the hydrological sector, was initiated in May 1946. This was primarily a project to rebuild and support the banks of the river within Pyongyang and to create a series of weirs and discharge pools better to control its stream-flow. It is apparent, however, that Kim Il-sung envisaged the project in developmental terms which have been regularly applied to subsequent hydrological schemes and which might familiar to Swyngedouw and other theoreticians of ‘technonature’ (Swyngedouw, 2007) or landscapes marked by politics (Shapiro, 2001). The “worthwhile nature-remaking project” was declared by Kim to form part of North Korea’s struggle both in its liberation from the forces of “Japanese imperialism” and in building “a new, democratic Korea”. The project would help those taking part to form a “firm unity around the democratic national united front”, so that it would become “the first beacon to the transformation of nature for the construction of an independent, sovereign democratic state, rich and strong” (Kim Il-sung, 1946: 202). These themes of a multi-focused struggle, binding together those involved in a self-actualising process of 0national creation will be encountered many times in the history of environmental policy and practice of North Korea.

In the immediate aftermath of the war of 1949 to 1953, agricultural policy in North Korea focused primarily upon the return of farmland to productivity. As in the south conflict had damaged enormous areas of land, covering them in rubble and chemical by-products of war, such as napalm and white phosphorus (Cumings, 1997). Pyongyang had also inherited the least agriculturally productive half of the Korean peninsula, thanks mainly to its natural topography, and there was an acute need to increase food production. Much of North Korea’s initial post-war policy focus reflected the urgent need to increase output, with hopes being pinned on the productive potential of hydrological and irrigation, greater production and use of agro-chemicals and agricultural mechanisation. The theme of capacity increase also resulted in attention being paid to the scope for increasing the area of the nation’s cultivable land.

During the period of the first Three-Year Plan (1953-56) efforts to bring previously unproductive areas and wilderness into agricultural production were particularly concentrated on increasing the altitude at which agricultural production could be achieved in mountainous areas (Prybyla, 1964). But the post-war availability of credit and other forms of support provided by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (Prybyla, 1964), for infrastructure development allowed the initiation of a range of projects designed to transform areas not previously subject to agricultural development. Many such projects were exercises in hydrological reclamation, demonstrating the initial prevalence of an impositional, hydraulic approach to environmental matters, perhaps familiar to readers of Swyngedouw and other spaces of national reconstruction (Swyngedouw, 2007). Kuark (1963), recording that from total state investment of some 120 million dollars between 1954 and 1956, nearly 80 million dollars (4,200 million “old” won) “went on irrigation and river dyke projects”. Such investment was “a decisive factor in increasing grain production”. This reclamation and irrigation capacity building led to a rapid increase in agricultural capacity; and by 1957, some 301,350 extra acres of arable land and 940,800 extra acres of irrigated land had been put into a serviceable condition. Ultimately, such projects contributed to the generation of an acutely goal-oriented, impositional agricultural strategy, perhaps best described by Kim Il-sung’s statement of 1956: “Rice is immediately socialism.”

The early period during which North Korea’s hydrological strategy was simply impositional in character did not, however, last long. This reflected the influence of the more radical transformative environmental strategies undertaken in Maoist China during the “Great Leap Forward” (Atkins, 1985). In consequence North Korea’s own environmental and agricultural approaches became determinedly transformational. This, too, proved to be a relatively short period of ideological interjection, and a fairly rapid retreat was made by North Korea towards a arguably more practical approach, as the failures of the Great Leap Forward became apparent, and Chinese influence waned.

During this era of transition, the first small shifts in developmental strategy within the hydrological sector in favour of tideland reclamation, away from what Wittfogel might have understood as conventionally despotic control over the nations’ water resources, towards the generation of a constructed or ‘technonature’, became evident. Kim Il-sung’s On Some Problems for Future Development of Agriculture in 1957, contained the first commitment to the practical implementation of tideland reclamation projects, with its declaration that “tideland, wasteland or rain-dependant farmland should be reclaimed” (Kim Il-sung, 1957: 7). Yet during the early 1960s, few such reclamation projects materialised or were developed and, as evidenced by reports from the central committee during the Fourth Korean Workers Party Congress in September 1961 (Kim Il-sung, 1961), the political commitment to their execution remained weak.

Ultimately it was not to be until 1968 that North Korean policy shifted decisively in favour of the reclamation of tideland, with the publication of the key text For the Large-Scale Reclamation of Tidelands. This ideological endorsement of tideland reclamation must, however, be seen within the wider framework of political and institutional action set out in Kim Il-sung’s Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country of 1964. This vital developmental text asserted that the framing of agricultural and development policy must be undertaken within the wider ideological context of the “three revolutions movement”: in which agricultural and environmental policy should be determined by “socialist” revolutions of an ideological, cultural and technical nature. The “Theses” in a sense marked the beginning of what might be termed North Korea’s institutional maturity, a maturity which was to include hydrological development as part of the praxis of its socialist statecraft, and which marked the landscape itself with a rescaled charismatic politics.

As is still common for North Korea, quick or efficient production and bureaucratic structures took some time to develop, in spite of Pyongyang’s efforts at generating focus. Although there is a level of implied urgency in the text of For the Large-Scale Reclamation of Tidelands, institutions found it difficult to reflect this ideological approach in their practice. At the fifth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in November 1970, even Kim Il-sung noted this in his concluding speech: “it is true that we should be able to obtain more land by reclaiming many tidelands. But that is something to be done in the future” (Kim Il-sung, 1970: 319).

It follows that the development of a distinct or cohesive policy framework on the reclamation of coastal land in North Korea would only become apparent with the publication of the Second Seven-Year Plan (covering 1978 to 1984). As had been identified as far back as 1961 (Kim Il-sung, 1961), reclamation activity would necessarily focus on coastal regions bordering the West Sea; in contrast the topography of the east coast of the Korean Peninsula was unsuitable given the lack of shallow coastal waters and large bays or estuaries (RAN, 2010). However, no particular goals or policy framework had been outlined until this new planning period beginning in the mid-1970s. The subsequent change in approach was a product of a wider approach – based on the setting of goals for production and the ideologically-based inclination not only to meet them, but to break them – which formed part of the general culture of revolutionary thinking and planning policy in the communist-influenced world of the time. In North Korea, the Maoist ideological concept of “revolutionary models” and “revolutionary speeds” had been translated into an institutional approach and policy framework invoking concepts such as “Ch’ollima Speed” and the “Taean Work System”. During the development of the Second Seven-Year Plan, general goals for productive capacity development and expansion, as well as those specifically relating to the reclamation of tideland, become part of this paradigm of “revolutionarily urgent” development.

A specific goal for the reclamation of 100,000 hectares of tideland thus became part of the planning process (Kim Il-sung, 1974), and was incorporated in the core plan document and accompanying legal framework for the Seven-Year Plan of 1978 to 1984. Hence, in its final version the Plan declared that “when solid material and technical foundations are laid for the large-scale tideland reclamation, 100,000 hectares of tidal marshes will be reclaimed”(Kim Il-sung,1977: 527). Article 50 of the accompanying “Land Law of the DPRK” stated that “the State shall direct a major effort towards tideland reclamation which will increase the area of arable land and a make a great change to the appearance of the land” (DPRK,1977: 215), embedding the necessity of reconfiguring hydrological landscapes at the behest of politics within the core functions of the state.

2.2 Taegyedo: Hydraulic Development as Political Theatre

This setting of specific goals and the incorporation into the legal and ideological structure of North Korea of such a “revolutionarily urgent” developmental approach focused on the generation of a political nature as much as a technonature, soon created an opportunity for a particular project within the hydrological field. Moreover, the initial aim of reclaiming 100,000 hectares quickly gave way to a declared target of 300,000 hectares for tideland reclamation. At the sixth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in 1980, not only was this up scaling of the aim made public, but the site at which the largest percentage of this land would be reclaimed was also identified. As Kim Il-sung announced to the congress that “if agricultural production is to be increased, the area under cultivation should be expanded steadily by reclaiming tideland and launching a dynamic movement to obtain new land.” (Kim Il-sung, 1980)

This need to manifest Kim Il-sung’s desire for a “dynamic movement” thus created the impetus for the birth and development of the Taegyedo Tideland Reclamation Project. This project is by far the largest reclamation project undertaken in the history of North Korea; and it is possible to track the emergence, development and occasional reimagining of Taegyedo over time, as a reflection of ideological developments within the nation.

Taegyedo is situated in the coastal province of North Pyongyan. It is a combination of four smaller sites, in an area of shallow bays and estuaries. The sites surround Taegye islet, Tasada islet, and Kwaksan islet. The project sited at Taegye islet is particularly large, connecting five islands within an estuary by a network of very large sea dams and breakwaters, which collectively comprise some twenty one miles of coastal damming. The various stages of project’s construction reflect the development and progression of policy and ideology focused on the reclamation of coastal land. It is also possible to identify moments of institutional or governmental action which demonstrate both pragmatism and reflexivity. Lastly, the project’s development also demonstrates a degree of institutional functionality within the hydrological or reclamation sector.

Taegyedo was initially designated as a vital project by Kim Il-sung, during an instance of “on the spot guidance”, a familiar moment of political charisma as part of the wider framework of action in the reclamation sector of its time. Its subsequent development has followed a course that is much less urgent or “revolutionary” than projects within the hydrological field from the 1960s. Developments and projects including Taegyedo were stipulated in the concluding document and report of the 1980 Workers’ Party Congress, and also by texts such as Kim Il-sung’s Four Great Nature Remaking Tasks of 1981 (Kim Il-sung, 1981), and the New Year’s Message of 1982 in which Kim Il-sung declares: “The most important task facing us in the socialist economic construction of the coming year is that of vigorously pushing forward nature remaking projects” (Kim Il-sung, 1982).

The construction of the Taegyedo project continued to be recorded in the literature and publications of North Korea throughout the 1980s and was often used as a specific example of an ideologically-inspired policy approach and developmental progression. For example, North Korea’s Minju Choson newspaper and its ‘tideland reclamation special correspondent’, Sung-Won Kim, recorded the first damming of breakwater three at Taegye islet in 1983. Kim recounted the event as: “fanning the flames of the creation of the “Speed of the Eighties”” and that “the doorway to gaining new land equal in area to one county has been opened” (Kim, 1983). The Minju Choson further reported in 1985 that: “the North Pyongan Province Tideland Development General Workshop…have completed, with a burning enthusiasm for creation under the ‘Speed of the Eighties”’ the construction of seven dikes in less than a few months and are now launching an all-out drive to link the remaining stretch”(Chung, 1985).

The final damming of the outer ring of Taegye was recounted in March 1985 as having extended the reclaimed area by some 8,800 hectares. (KCNA, 1985). In total, Rodong Sinmun recorded that, by October 1985, reclamation throughout the West Sea area, including that at Taegye, had reached some 50,000 hectares. According to the timetable for the development of the Taegyedo area, within the 1981 text Four Great Nature Remaking Projects (Kim Il-sung, 1981), completion of the project was envisaged within five years. Even if motivated by the revolutionary concept of “the speed of the eighties” this would have been a challenging target for any political polity or institution.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that by 1987 work at Taegye had only progressed to the point of building the defensive coastal levees. Nationally, progress towards the projected reclamation of 300,000 hectares had advanced little beyond the 50,000 hectares claimed two years earlier. It was thus increasingly apparent to key state actors that the reality of construction was not fulfilling the principle of revolutionary models and speeds. A reinvigoration and reiteration of the theoretical imperative for such construction was therefore necessary if national hydraulic goals were to be achieved.

The necessary reassertion of the goals, both ideological and developmental, the declaration on “Four Great Nature Remaking Projects” came in the guise of the Rodong Sinmun’s response to the New Year editorial of 1987 entitled Let us Actively Accelerate the Major Construction Projects (Rodong Sinmun, 1987). What was needed according to the editorial bore some similarity to the “Year of Adjustment” in 1977 which had paved the way for the Second Seven-Year Plan (1978 to 1984). At this point institutional improvements and bureaucratic developments to correct the difficulties and disruption caused by the previous planning period were followed by The Four Great Nature Remaking Projects and a new long-term plan. Hence, writing at the time, Koh (1988: 62) regarded the impending “Third Seven-Year plan as key to the future survival of North Korea; noting that, “unless the DPRK can reinvigorate its sagging economy, it will face a legitimacy crisis of monumental proportions at home, as well as a formidable challenge from the South”. Of course Koh perhaps couldn’t have been aware that such a crisis was only a matter of a couple of years away for North Korea and that the Third Seven Year plan would never really be articulated, let alone completed in the chaos of economic and political retrenchment. This work at Taegyedo in the mid-1980s and the Four Great Nature Remaking projects would serve as the final act of North Korea’s previous mode of statecraft. Pyongyang’s claims to hydrological and developmental possibility would never really again be made on the grounds on the functionality or feasibility of its particular approach to development or statecraft. Future projects instead would have to make deeper connection with the core of North Korea’s ideological superstructure and charismatic politics

2.3 Tidal Reclamation in the Arduous March and Hydrological Charisma

As hinted in the previous section of the paper, in practice, the new period of planned industrialisation of agricultural production, hydrological development and tideland reclamation under the “Third Seven- Year Plan” considered by Koh was relatively short lived. Policy was rapidly overtaken by the consequences for North Korea of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. The loss of most of Pyongyang’s trading partners, and financial and technical supporters severely affected North Korean hydrological efforts. More generally, North Korea’s developmental approach was forced to take a new direction, disregarding any previous ideological agendas or progression. Academic and media narratives surrounding this period, including the work of Noland and Eberstadt, regard North Korea as having institutionally and developmentally virtually ceased to function during this period. The regime’s own propaganda also painted a picture of severe struggle, referring to the period as the second “arduous march”.

Progress on hydrological projects during such a period of disruption might be expected to have been limited. However, documentation from the KCNA and the US DTIC sources suggests that work on key tideland reclamation projects, including Taegyedo, was sustained to a surprising extent, providing evidence both of necessary pragmatic shifts in developmental strategy and the use of political charisma at such a time of capacity restrictions. During August 1992, for example, it was reported from the Kumsong tideland reclamation area in Hamgyong province that “soldier builders have laid a dam extending more than 1,400 metres in the last two months to complete the first damming project by introducing advanced construction methods”(KCNA ,1992). This project was soon finished with the KCNA reporting a year later that “3,300 hectares [had been] reclaimed , as part of the wider project for the reclamation of 300,000 hectares, including 110,000 in North Pyongan,110,000 in South Pyongan and 80,000 hectares in South Hwangae” (KCNA, 1993). Further work was also undertaken in 1995 within North Pyongan province, in areas surrounding the Taegyedo project, and there were reports of a new barrage at Cholsan being constructed. Rodong Sinmun (1995) reported that this barrage “makes it possible to water 6,000 ha of reclaimed tideland”.

In the wider field of hydrological engineering, 1992 also saw the completion of a number of large projects connected to the West Sea Barrage. As the KCNA reported: “the excavation of the West Sea Barrage – Unryul – Kwail county waterway extending to 70 km, the Pakchon waterway and the Tongha two-stage pumping station waterway have been completed…. The construction of six reservoir dams and 700 pumping station was brought to completion and a waterway extending 385 km was excavated in North Hwanghae province”(KCNA, 1992).

The continuation of such projects within this difficult period surprisingly is matched by something of a shift within institutional governance and functionality which is seen further developed during recent years. This shift chimes with the Swyngedouw’s identification of Franco’s harnessing of ‘networks of interest’ in order to drive forward political or nationalistic reconfigurations of nature (Swyngedouw, 2007). Previously, the construction and planning of projects that encompassed both general hydrological engineering as well as tideland reclamation had fallen within the remit of local and regional government institutions, and had been carried out by local organisations, as evidenced by the plethora of provincial committees involved in decision making. However the period of geo-political change and instability which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the associated experience of environmental disaster in North Korea itself, saw responsibility for major reclamation projects shift from local and the provincial institutions to the military, which during the most difficult of times both maintained functionality and accumulated a certain level of institutional charisma. The KPA is thus described in contemporary reports as the initiator and planner of such projects reflecting this change in policy. Whilst the KPA had undoubtedly provided support for local projects, Pyongyang’s military forces had not previously assumed direct responsibility for projects which developed industrial, technological, agricultural or hydrological capacity. The shift identified here may thus be seen as a pioneering instance of “Songun Politics”, through which the “military first” concept was subsequently incorporated into most elements of practical policy and institutional structures within North Korea, the military acting as a key actor in North Korean ‘networks of interest,’ through which the political legitimacy and charisma of the Kim family is now projected and through which North Korean political nature is constructed.

Taegyedo and hydrological engineering’s place within this new political and ideological era starts with a disaster for on August 21 1997, a storm-system driven tidal wave apparently destroyed four sections of the breakwater to a total extent of 5,800 metres. KCNA reports suggest that the third section of the dam at Soyondong Islet was the worst damaged, leaving a 57-metre-wide hole in the breakwater, and allowing 250 million tonnes of tidal water to flow through into the draining area behind it (KCNA, 2009). This is presented by the KCNA and the Tideland Reclamation Bureau as “a titanic struggle against the elements”. It took eight years, until 2005, to repair and this reconstruction process gave something of a spur to a project which had previously seemed increasingly moribund. Accordingly development at Taegyedo moved on quickly following the reconstruction and breakwaters two and four were completed in July 2006 (KCNA, 2010).

As it neared completion, Kim Jong-il appeared to have focused upon Taegyedo and the hydrological engineering sector and the final stages of the project’s construction and completion were utilised institutionally to connect with newly developing ideological themes and the notion of a Kim centred charismatic political approach. On June 13 2009, Kim Jong-il visited the Taegyedo project for the second time. In the course of the visit and while praising Kim Il-sung’s “on the spot guidance” there, Kim Jong-il sought to reconfigure the project’s purpose: “it is the fighting trait of our working class to take the lead in pushing forward the cause of our socialism in the spirit of the “arduous march” while firmly adhering to the socialist principle, the principle of the revolution” (KCNA, 2009). In a further visit, we can see the theatric and charismatic elements coming to the fore, as well as possible echoes of BR Myers’ recent assertion of the use of imagery of storms and waves as representative of North Korea’s perceived resistance to modern capitalist, imperialism and the notional threats posed by the United States (Myers, 2010). Kim Jong-il is reported to have remarked on July 5 2009 that the “builders in the tideland reclamation site, fully determined to successfully carry out the behest of President Kim Il-sung, are the brave conquerors of the sea and indomitable fighters expanding the land of the country braving rough waves” (KCNA, 2009). During this visit, moreover, the project was connected with the charismatic ideological manifestation of Songun Politics. According to the KCNA, Kim Jong-il “highly estimated the feats performed by the builders intensely loyal to the party for having built one of the great structures to shine forever with the Songun era, by courageously overcoming difficulties and ordeals, and displaying popular heroism and unparalleled devotion”(KCNA, 2009).

By 24July 2010, the Taegyedo project was finished, having reclaimed in total some 17,000 hectares of tideland. However, its completion demonstrated further elements of the connection between North Korea’s approach to practical environmental policy and its contemporary theatric political nature. Perhaps the older concepts of “revolutionary modelling” are brought to mind when we consider Kim Jong-il’s conferment on the “North Pyongan Provincial Tideland Reclamation Complex”, the local government agency responsible for its completion, of the “Order of Kim Il-sung”, as well as the “Kim Il-sung” prize for the design of the project. It is again potentially revealing to examine Kim Jong-il’s statement at a further and final visit on the 15of July 2010 marking the project’s completion, through the frame of “reclamation of the tideland is an important work for the prosperity of the country” he further declared that “there are highly important tasks to be fulfilled to undertake the project for tideland reclamation in a bigger way in the future” and so “there should be no slackening of the high spirit displayed by the complex to complete the Taegyedo tideland”(KCNA, 2010).

Taegyedo has been an important project, central to the development of practical policy and institutional development within the field of tideland reclamation in North Korea. Taegyedo has also embodied much of the ideological development and institutional progression which occurred during its period of construction. It would of course be quite unnatural if Taegyedo was the end point of tideland reclamation or hydrological development in North Korea. Future projects might be expected to incorporate new approaches to developmental strategy, as well as to maintain the embedding and scaling of political charisma within the physical landscape of the Peninsula. Indeed, since the completion of the Taegyedo project, the intriguing Punijman Tideland in South Hwanghae Province has been completed, the first reclamation project documented explicitly intended to serve multiple functions, rather than simply delivering an extension of agricultural capacity. According to the KCNA, the area of reclamation will provide areas for aquaculture as well as arable land, and also the extraction of sea salt. It is possible that this model of reclaimed tideland serving multiple functions will develop into a wider theme in the field, and will prompt revision of the purpose of older schemes. For example, the Ryongmae project in South Hwanghae province (initiated in 1998, but since neglected) held a ground breaking ceremony on December 28 2010. This project is now envisaged as a multi-purpose reclamation area, including provision for aquaculture and hydro-electric power. It is potentially the largest of the newly developing projects, at some 12 miles long (KCNA, 2010).

  1. Conclusion

This paper has traced North Korea’s rapidly developing sense of political charisma and theatre, deployed within its development strategy. In particular this paper has examined Pyongyang’s policies towards hydrology and hydrological development. It has recounted the development not only of the wider planning framework which supported the sector from very early projects such as the Potong River project in 1946, and subject to the vagaries of geopolitics projects undertaken in later political and ideological frames. Finally the paper has analysed the historical and political narrative focusing on one particular hydrological project, Taegyedo, North Korea’s largest ever tidal reclamation project. Taegyedo spans the geo-political eras in North Korean history, founded in the early 1980s in the last decade of the Warsaw Pact and completed following the famine and crisis period of the 1990s.

Tidal reclamation it seems has been particularly important to North Korean hydrological development. The reconfiguration of coastal and tidal landscapes demanded by these policies allows for the enactment and projection of what, for North Korea must surely be the most radical form of political utopianism, the physical generation of new revolutionary space. Not only does this literally new landscape add to the capacity of Pyongyang’s agricultural or aquacultural sectors, it provides connections between the generations of the Kim family, allowing legitimative charisma to flow between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (and perhaps even Kim Jong-un), through vectors and channels that need not be based back in the guerrilla period of the 1930s and the struggle against Japanese imperialism. We might perceive this as fundamental to North Korean claims to be the governors and progenitors of a new form of sovereign body, a socialist body politic which extends and includes more than simply its political aware and active human population, but the topographic spaces which bound and make up its terrain.

This charismatic re-projection of course is conceptualised by this paper through the theoretical frame so far as North Korea is concerned of Kwon and Chung’s conceptualisation of charismatic or theatric politics. This political theatre of course spreads out into the physical landscape of the nation, in particular in this instance the coastal landscapes of the nation. Such political landscapes are conceptualised by the paper as constructed political, social or cultural spaces and places through the analysis of scholars such as Cosgrove and Castree. Hydrology and hydrological engineering is of course for this paper considered in the light of Karl Wittfogel’s extraordinary notion of both Oriental Despotism and Hydraulic Economy, concepts which specifically address the politics and state development of Asia landscapes. Given the autarkic political form of North Korea, this paper has considered Erik Swyngedouw’s analysis of a hydrological aspiration in a similarly difficult or autocratic political form, namely Francoist Spain.

It is, as may be glimpsed in this paper’s analysis impossible to hold to Wittfogels’ conception of the Hydraulic Economy in the case of the Korean Peninsula (or for that matter, much of the Orient as perceived by that author), owing to local hydrological and topographic conditions and the course of Korea’s historical development. However it is the case that hydrological engineering and more specifically the control of the tidal and coastal edges of North Korea through the processes and efforts of a radical form of politics and governance has been key to North Korean state formation and to its developmental processes. Projects such as Taegyedo can be placed within a coherent historical structure of development, demonstrative of the successes and failures of North Korea’s approach to state craft. The landscape of that state certainly echoes Swyngedouw and others conception of both technonature and perhaps political natures. A brief glimpse at news reports from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper in recent months reveals concrete examples of the physicality of such a technonature in the Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station (Rodong Sinmun, 2016). In conclusion therefore hydrology, hydrological engineering and coastal reclamation projects can be said to have been key to previous modes of Pyongyang’s institutional functionality, real projections of past political authority, they are also as much manifestations of a technonature harnessed for national construction and reconstruction. Given the shift in political forms in North Korea from the simple autocracy of the Kim Il-sung era to theatric present under Kim Jong-un, this paper anticipates North Korea’s hydraulic future as a composite mix of these constructed, rescaled, charismatic processes of continuing construction and reconfiguration.

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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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Peet, R. 1985. “Introduction to the Life and Thought of Karl Wittfogel”, Antipode, 17 (1): 3-21.

Pipes, R. 1974. Russia Under the Old Regime. London: Wiedenfield and Nicolson.

Plekanhov, G. 1907. “Fundamental Problems of Marxism.” Selected Philosophical Works Vol 3 (1976 edition). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Prybyla, J. 1964.Soviet and Chinese Economic Competition within the Communist World.” Soviet Studies, 15 (4): 464-473.

Scalapino, R and Lee, C. 1972. Communism in Korea (Pts 1 and 2). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stalin, I. 1931. “Speech at First Conference of Industrial Managers,” February, 1931. Accessed 29th April, 2016.

Stalin, I. 1947. Problems of Leninism. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Stalin, I. 1951. Dialectical and Historical Materialism (September 1938), Moscow,:Foreign Languages Publishing House

Suh, D. 1988. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader. New York City: Columbia University Press

Wittfogel, K. 1929. “Geopolitics, Geographical Materialism and Marxism”, translated by Ulmen, G. (2006). Antipode, 17(1): 21-71.

Wittfogel, K. 1935. “The Stages of Development in Chinese Economic and Social History,” In The Asiatic Mode of Production: Science and Politics, edited by Bailey, A and Llobera, J, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wittfogel, K. 1957. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Winstanley-Chesters, R, 2014. Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project. Lanham MD: Lexington Press.

Woo-Cumings, M. 2002. “The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lesson”, ADB Research Institute, Research Paper 31

Ziegler, C. 1982. “Soviet Environmental Policy Parameters: The Macro-Value Framework”, Studies in Eastern European Thought, 23, (3): 124-134.

Ziegler, C. 1987. Environmental Policy in the USSR, London: Frances Pinter.

[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 (28) – 09.11.2014 – Spaces of Leisure: The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play

Munsu Water Park

Munsu Water Park | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Spaces of Leisure: The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

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

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

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

Banks of the Taedong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rungna Slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Spaces of Leisure: From Cinematic Birth to Physical Culture 

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim jong-il man with a movie camera

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

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

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

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

13 world festival of youth and students

Worlds of sporting possibility | Image: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Ibid., 315.

[14] Ibid., 317.


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

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


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

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

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

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

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

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

Son Ki-jong

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

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

YMCA Keijo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

[5] Ibid., 310.

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

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

[8] Ibid., 251.


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

New from RWC – From Paris to Pyongyang: of Kwangmyongsong and Climate Change



Ri Su Yong at COP 21

Ri Su Yong speaks at COP 21, Paris, Monday December 7th 2015 – Image : IISD Reporting Services

“At present, climate change is causing serious impact on human civilization and sustainable development together with socio-economic challenges such as dwindling natural resources, rapid increase of population and inequality” – Ri Su Yong, North Korean Minister for Foreign Affairs, December 7th, 2015

Perhaps there isn’t much space in our own narratives for other stories surrounding North Korean or North Korean policy at the moment than nuclear tests, missile or satellite threats and further moments of tension, distrust and apprehension on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang’s capacity to, even at moment of misdirected or confused pique launch a short range weapon at its neighbours certainly concentrates the mind and the priorities of policy makers the world over. A collapse in notions of security and narratological status quo however is not unique to matters simply inter-Korean.

As readers and analysts the world over have witnessed the collapse of the Sykes-Picot settlement in Syria in recent years, along with through American indecision the notion of uni-polarity. When it comes to environmental matters, last December apparently saw the coalition of interested parties coming to agreement on a new settlement focused on climate change at Paris, COP21 meeting. While the paucity of what was actually agreed has, in the mind of this analyst at least, not been fairly or comprehensively enough critiqued, the agreement reached in Paris was framed positively at least. As this agreement was dramatically undermined by the United States Supreme Court decision on the possibilities for local ratification, it seemed to this author an interesting moment to stop and think about its implications elsewhere, in a terrain more of interest to those interested in North Korean matters.

Pak Pong Ju’s visit to the site of an apparently frozen and wintery Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station, number 3 in February 2016 did not for many illustrate any great international connections or aspirations of North Korea. Pak’s visit perhaps was envisaged as one of a multiplicity of reiterative moments in Pyongyang’s developmental narratives of the early part of the year in which the themes of Kim Jong Un’s New Years Address and the intensive focus on the institutional and ideological frameworks surrounding the Seventh Workers Party Congress are projected and re-projected. The fact that the power station is one of a number in the same geographical area which form part of a Clean Development Mechanism project under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) might not jump immediately to the viewers mind.

Pak Pong Ju at Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station

Pak Pong Ju Visits Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station no. 3. – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station, 3’s developmental sibling, Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station, number 2, is just that though. CDM project number 5889 to be exact, part of the post Kyoto institutional and bureaucratic framework that sought at a more ambitious moment to concretise a collective sense that the time was now, to resist or mitigate environmental crisis and global climate change. While analysis from Benjamin Habib and this author has reiterated time and time again that it is an overstatement to ever claim that North Korea saw itself a vanguard nation in the resistance to climate change, it was at least once interested.

Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station, and presumably the other hydro-electric infrastructure of Samjiyon County surely attests to that interest. A quick reading of the documentation hosted on the UNFCCC archive which underpins the official approvals for the project and which is required by the Clean Developmental Mechanism (CDM) process suggests a real commitment to not only the aspirations behind the project, but the bureaucratic and conceptual linguistics of the process. While the certification documents’ assertion that local stakeholders were consulted through a series of questionnaires as to their concerns about the environmental impact of the power station may bring a wry smile to the face of many a North Korea watcher, this is Pyongyang rapidly learning the language and form of international engagement.

While North Korean efforts to gain accreditation for its CDM projects were certainly contested through the forums of the UNFCCC (though not as heavily contested as Iran’s projects, the last of which only gained accreditation in October, 2015), Pyongyang was of course eventually successful. As readers will know the process that began with North Korean ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, finally ended on the 23rd of October 2012. CDM project 6949 or Ryesonggang Hydropower Plant No.3, brought Pyongyang’s final total to six CDM projects, around a third of those accredited to the Dominican Republic.

Pak Pong Ju at Paektusan Songun Youth Hero Power Station

Pak Pong Ju and the Paektusan Songun Youth Hero Power Station – Image: Rodong Sinmun

Credits due under the CDM process in general will bring in a paltry and declining sum as the system and process tasked with the marketisation of credits for Carbon reduction ossifies and atrophies amidst post-Paris disinterest. This system in reality was never likely to bring enormous value to credit holders as might have once been envisaged, but North Korea’s interest never seemed to be entirely about this. Just as Pyongyang’s Nuclear testing and rocket launches (whether for the aims of ballistic testing or space exploration), are never really entirely about practical development, as much as they are about wider themes of legitimacy and functionality, so North Korean engagement with the CDM process and the Kyoto protocol was about Pyongyang being a global citizen.

This author therefore wonders what it does say that, Ryesonggang was the last project in the process of accreditation and that all six finally accredited CDM projects began their bureaucratic process in 2009 under Kim Jong Il. While they were completed in the era of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang’s under the current Kim has in fact offered little in terms of practical engagement with the process, as determined as Ri Su Yong’s words may appear.

Perhaps there is something to be said for institutional focus on the finer details of processes such as the UNFCCC and CDM. While North Korea has been concerned to speak the same institutional language as other nations, even for minimal or elusive gains, Pyongyang may have felt more constrained so far as other more apocalyptic, dramatic or dangerous projections of power were concerned. No doubt it can be proved that just as was articulated by Kim Jong Un as the Byungjin line or parallel approach in 2014, North Korea was engaged in the intricacies of the CDM accreditation at the same time as it was sourcing centrifuges, a twin track of developmental approach. However when even the functioning of the Green Climate Fund can be conceptualised by North Korea as yet another vector for insult and slight, the application of Pyongyang’s bureaucratic and nationalist energies on more positive, if labyrinthine processes would surely be welcomed once more.