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.

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

Kim Jong Un Clangers

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

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play: Children’s Spaces and Places of Refuge in North Korea (Excerpt)

Places of Refuge, Elderly Terrains

…Having considered North Korea’s leisure history in order to contextualise both the notion of non-productive or leisurely space under Pyongyang’s remit and to consider some of the political and ideological imperatives which underpin the production and development of such spaces the paper’s narrative arrived at what is essentially a space for families and children. While this paper does in fact address some elements of childhood experience in North Korea and will examine them in the light of these leisurely spaces by the Taedong, it is not the spaces of family that are of interest to this author, but to what might be regarded as the potentially more hidden spaces of the disabled and the orphaned.

North Korea has not been known for its kind treatment of those who do not fit within its social and ethical model. Hazel Smith in her recent book ‘North Korea: Markets and Military Rule” for instance expressed astonishment at North Korean census figures from 2010 which at least suggested that teenage or non-normative pregnancy might be a fact in North Korea (recording some 156 births to mothers under the age of 16 in 2010), having never done so before (Smith, 2015, p.231). London’s Paralympic Games in 2012 was the first recorded instance of a disabled athlete competing in public for North Korea and research by this author (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015a), has sought to unpick the connections between this fact and work focused on institutional capacity building between the North Korean Ministry of Health and the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Other nations (both autocratic and democratic) in history have sought to eradicate those who are differently or dis-abled, Nazi Germany of course seeking to exterminate the unfit and the unwell, and Sweden having a long standing policy of forced sterilisation of those with Learning Difficulties and Difference, only ending in the early 1980s being simply two disparate examples. Whether North Korea ever sought by policy means to do so is unknown, but there has been much speculation as to the fate of those who by their physical or mental natures could not hope to be as productive as the general citizenry under Pyongyang’s sovereignty.

Of course there is nearly always one category of disabled or differently abled citizens who are not regarded as burdensome by nations or territories, quite the opposite in fact their support and rehabilitation is often seen as a focus of national commitment and social duty, soldiers and people of uniform. There is a huge body of research focused on the functionality and suitability of veterans and service people’s support post combat in a number of sovereignties and nations, but absolutely none it seems addressing North Korean veterans and service people and the provision of services to them. While this paper cannot hope to cover their experience holistically or comprehensively it can at least, with a Geographer’s eye begin to present some of the political and physical terrain of these services and their experience.

“You disabled soldiers fought heroically against the US imperialist aggressors and shed your blood to defend the motherland during the last war. It is really admirable that, although seriously disabled, you are taking an active part in the building of socialism” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.214).

Kim Il-sung’s statement, recorded in the Works series for 1958 as “We must take good care of disabled soldiers who shed their blood in the fight for the country and the people”, and apparently given at a workshop for disabled soldiers is the foundation statement so far as North Korean ideological conceptions of disabled ex-employees and service people is concerned. While a tremendous debt is acknowledged to those who have become disabled through military combat for their nation (“We must scrupulously look after the disabled soldiers in every respect so that they will not suffer any inconveniences both in life and in work” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.214), the individuals themselves are not absolved from commitments to the national cause, nor the strictures of revolutionary fervour. Disabled soldiers should, even in this space and place of refuge, work and be as productive as possible: “…you should do some work. Yet, you should never overwork yourselves. It will be good to work as much as necessary to keep yourselves fit.” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.216). Given this apparent focus on productivity and as an example to be followed, those who were resident in this particular workshop were to be amply supplied to enable their work; “The disabled soldiers here want more fruit gardens. So it will be a good thing to give them the state orchard in the vicinity of the workshop…The disabled soldiers should be supplied with both fuel for production and firewood for home use” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.2014). As with other citizens of North Korea, the disabled should be supported further in their education and personal development, and prejudice which might be problematic to that end be resisted: “Now a comrade claimed that once he went to a school for disabled soldiers, only to be rejected and returned back because he had arms missing. The cadres at the school did the wrong thing. Could it be that one who has no arms cannot study?” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.216). Disabled ex-service people within the text are widely anticipated to engage in education at all levels and within all institutional structures provided.

However, along with work itself, disabled soldiers and service people who have essentially fought for the North Korean revolution (within this text, the fighting which disabled them would have been during the 1950-1953 war against United Nations and Republic of Korea forces), should not neglect or forget that revolution. The Disabled must be as good and as ideologically sound North Koreans as any other, as committed and as respectful of its revolutionary traditions as they were during their combat: “Disabled soldiers should always love the people and hate only the enemy. As you fought well and courageously for the motherland and the people on the battlefields in the past, you should today continue to have the same revolutionary spirit…” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.217). With this revolutionary spirit and commitment comes an ethical framework familiar surely to all North Korean political and Party appointees: “Our disabled soldiers should lead a simple life and always live in a revolutionary way. Under no circumstances should they drink alcohol and say things under its influence…” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.217).

Such spaces of refuge and support for the once militarily committed are of course therefore not to be spaces of refuge from the politics of North Korea and the demands of revolutionary ideology. In a sense past examples such as Kiluiju Disabled Soldiers Production Workshop are a reflection and a projection of this into the contemporary era and into the impetus and imperatives which underpin North Korean healthcare more generally. ‘On Making Good Preparations for Universal, Free Medical Care’ for instance a 1952 instruction from Kim Il-sung, and one of a number focused on the post Korean War rehabilitation of a devastated if optimistic North Korean bureaucracy and the form of state and infrastructure anticipated in the post War era, contains a pre-figuring of the sort of support and impetus behind such projects for the disabled. “Nothing is more precious to us than the lives of the people. At present our people are struggling both at the font and in the rear dedicating all they have to final victory in the war. What is it that we cannot spare people who fight selflessly, displaying noble patriotism and mass heroism” (Kim Il-sung, 1952, p.19).

While the terrain of Kiluiju Disabled Solders Production Unit of course is now in the distant historical past of North Korea and either photos nor contemporary reportage other than that recorded in Kim Il-sung’s Works and Selected Works are very difficult to access, North Korea’s ideological course as only consolidated institutional focus around the needs of military infrastructure and personnel in recent years. Kim Jong-il’s development of a Songun or Military First politics following the death of his father in 1994 entailed the wholescale revision of Party and governmental policy as well as institutional capacity. Food distribution, rationing and health infrastructure were heavily focused on supplying and supporting North Korea’s military. The infrastructure focused on the refuge of the elderly and the disabled has similarly developed, though with definite connections to the past calls for those resident to live productive and revolutionary lives, well emplaced within the wider superstructures of North Korean politics and ideology. Pyongyang’s newly built ‘Home for the Aged’ is just such a piece of infrastructure.

Amongst the pleasure and leisure spaces introduced earlier in the paper on the banks of the Taedong River, the Home for the Aged was completed and opened in early August 2015 (KCNA 2015a). While the images presented in the Rodong Sinmun (Rodong Sinmun 2015b) and KCNA (KCNA 2015a), undoubtedly present the home as part of Pyongyang and North Korea’s modern urban infrastructure and development and very much an element of governmental bequest in the age of Kim Jong-un, the reportage leading up to its opening makes very sure to connect to earlier eras and the revolutionary authority (Kwon and Chung, 2012), present within the historical narrative. Kim Jong-un for instance on visiting the still under construction building in March of 2015 is recounted as having; “…recalled with deep emotion that President Kim Il-sung, together with leader Kim Jong-il, visited an old service people’s home in Manal-ri, Sungho County in May 1948 when he was busy paving an untrodden path for nation-building and showed deep emotion for the inmates living conditions…saying that the state would take warm care of the aged…” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a). The home and its construction is also firmly fixed in the governmental and bureaucratic ecosystem of North Korea, reportage and documentation focused on the process paying both homage and careful articulation to/for the respective positions of both the Workers Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong-un remarked for instance during his March visit that “to build the home for the aged well is a very important work in correctly implementing the Worker’s Party of Korea’s policy for the care of the elderly and fully displaying its validity and vitality” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a) and also, in a nod to the military’s role in its construction “expressed belief that the soldier-builders would successfully complete the construction of the home by late June, true to the intention of the Party Central Committee” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a).

Even of course while focusing on bureaucratic and institutional niceties and the process of the Home for the Aged’s construction, North Korean reporting makes clear to assert the wider framework for the care of the disabled, elderly and combat injured service people as of 2015 in North Korea: “Under the paternal love of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the ‘DPRK Law on the Protection for the Aged’ was adopted in the country and the Central Committee of the Federation for the Care of the Elderly of Korea organized and the Party and the state have wholly taken charge of aged and disabled people’s health and life…” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a). The Home itself will it seems also serve to drive further and future developments in the care and service provision so far as spaces of refuge for the elderly and disabled are concerned: “The Pyongyang City Home for the Aged should be built as a prototype equipped with all conditions for its inmates to lead a happy life free from any cares and worries so that such homes can be constructed in localities with it as a model…” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a)

As a space of refuge and care for the disabled, elderly and disabled service people, Pyongyang’s new Home for the Aged is in summary presented as a space of comfort and refuge meant it seems to be in tune with some of the more comforting and less rigorous elements perhaps seen in Nursing Homes and accommodation or refuge spaces for the elderly in the United Kingdom and elsewhere (particularly the Netherlands developing network of Alzheimer’s Villages, in which the environment residents are placed is designed to reflect their own social constructs and life experience (Henley, 2012)). Kim Jong-un notes for example on its opening that “the home was successfully build to suit national character and flavour…dining rooms were constructed to create homelike atmosphere” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). However the terrain of the Home of the Aged is also presented as one of acute and definite modernity, in tune with many of the governmental priorities and agendas of the day. Kim Jong-un himself remarks that “the longer one watches, the more fashionable it looks” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b) and that in common with the infrastructure created in the 1950s to support not only the physical rehabilitation, but the political and social rehabilitation of disabled and injured service people, the home’s residents will not be allowed or afforded the opportunity to neglect their personal development. Kim Jong-un’s opening speech includes the assertion that “…service and healthcare establishments including barber’s, beauty parlor, bath and treatment rooms look impeccable and library, sporting room and amusement hall were also successfully built for the cultural and emotional life and physical training of health seekers” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). While their social and revolutionary health will be maintained, it will of course be done so in a structure that is environmentally friendly and ecologically sound in the manner that North Korea presents much of its infrastructural development in recent years; “an air conditioning system by use of geotherm is introduced into the home…and greening is it environment done very well” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b).

While the Home for the Aged is a distinct piece of architecture by itself therefore it is meant to be encountered within the wider terrain of development and infrastructure of its time. This is even more assertively established by the fact of its position, “built on the bank of the River Taedong in the wake of the Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015c). This terrain includes this connection with the afore named neighbouring facility, which allows the author and the paper to move to the opposite end of life’s spectrum, but in North Korea’s governmental mind-set adjoined in continuing efforts to demonstrate “vividly President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il’s love for the people” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b)…


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Recovering a Verdant Topographic-Self: Forests, Colonialism and the Re-Construction of Developmental Modernity in North Korea (Excerpt)

“The Mountain Ranges in Korea cover more than half the total area of the country. Owing to indiscriminate felling of trees without public supervision, which was practiced for a long time past, most of the mountain slopes…have become denuded of trees…” (HIJMRG, 1907)

This the opening paragraph to the forestry section of the first “Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea”, published in 1907 by His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General (Japanese governmental authorities seemingly were not bold enough to assert their role as a Government General until the year of annexation in 1910), in Seoul is an essential summation of the Japanese few on Korean forestry management. Coupled with later statements that Korea has “no forestry law to speak of” speak of great conceptual difference between the classical, bureaucratic legalistic approach of Imperial Japan and that of the Choson dynasty.

It is of course difficult in a sense to assess the fairness or otherwise of Japanese claims so far as Korea’s ineffectual and uncoordinated approach to forest and timber resource and management, difficult as the chaos of the later Yi dynasty meant that whatever institutional systems and records that had been undertaken in the later years within Korea’s forest sector are essentially lost to us now, if they were ever accessible and obtainable to foreigners and externally interested parties. Equally as has been asserted many times and many scholars Choson Korea and the institutions of the Yi dynasty were simply not that sort of institutional or developmental state. While Yi dynasty Korea had a highly developed and deeply organised bureaucracy and civil service (which of course was intricately embedded with social stratification), in the Yangban classes and the Civil Examination process, it was not that sort of bureaucracy, focused primarily as it was on the maintenance of the Royal House, specific and general structures of social order and the difficult tenuous relationships this Korea had with its favoured partner China and the outside world.

As we have seen in the previous section, the institutional structures of Korean forestry were not the intricate works of bureaucratic organisation of Japanese history, but neither were they subject to amateurish neglect of the colonial imagination. Whatever the reality of this past however, its present manifestation did not suit the needs and requirements of the colonial administration and it was keen to make radical changes tailored to its agenda.

At the earliest moment of colonialism, even while it was still in the infancy of the Residency General, Japan sought to capitalise and reconstruct Korean forestry resource:

“There exist rich forests along the banks of the Yalu and the Tumen Rivers, but they were never properly exploited, except in a temporary manner by the Russians prior to the recent war…Proper exploitation with adequate capital should undoubtedly yield a considerable revenue to the Treasury…” (HIJMG, 1908)

Accordingly the Residency General negotiated and undertook what it describes as a ‘joint’ enterprise with the Korean Government in building a new forestry coordination and trans-shipment centre at Antung (present day Chinese Dandong), opposite the Korean town of Sinuiji (which the document describes as Wiju), on the mouth of the Yalu. This served to coordinate and develop timber shipments along the Yalu River from the deep northern interior forests of North Pyongan and Chagang provinces. The annual report notes the extent of the timbers journey: “…The distance from the place where the timber is felled to the main station at Antung is 150 ri (375 miles) and the rafts take 40 days to make the journey…” (HIJMG, 1908). This project in total extracted some 71006 cubic ‘shaku’[1] of timber from these ancient forests.

Further to this simple extractive project the Japanese Residency General sought in these early, initial days to reorganise the wider strategy and approach of Korea’s forestry institutions. In a section of the 1908 Annual Report marked as ‘Agricultural and Industrial Encouragement’ the Resident General asserts that “The Korean Government, appreciating the urgent advice of the Resident General, established, in 1906, three modal forests in the mountains near Seoul, Pingyang (sic) and Taiku…” (HIJMRG, 1908) These new forest, colonially guided projects were to be the locus and fulcrum of a new approach to timber and forest management. They were to cover 83,300 acres and include a number of new species imported directly from Japan. Along with these projects focusing on more mature forest stock, deeper research had begun to be framed and undertaken: “In 1907, three Nursery Gardens were established in the vicinity of the Model Forests near Pyingyang and Taiku, and also at Suwon. In these Gardens seeds of various trees were sowed in the spring of 1907, and promising results were obtained…” (HIJMRG, 1908)

Beyond these site and location specific developments the Residency General suggested educational improvements and changes (“In a school attached to the…model station at Suwon, a short course in forestry was added to the curriculum, and the first graduates, 12 in number, are now actively engaging in forest administration under the Government and at the Model Stations…” (HIJMRG, 1908), as well institutional changes moving forest administration responsibilities from the agricultural section of the Department of Agriculture to a new Forest Bureau – itself employing “several Japanese experts in forestry”. Finally the legal structures and frameworks were to be reworked to support the impending arrival of ‘modern’ practice, the text claiming that “…the Government is now preparing comprehensive laws which will provide, among other things, that certain mountains and forests, both public and private shall be preserved as protections against landslides, floods and drought.” (HIJMRG, 1908)

Before this new forestry legislation was brought into force, Korea’s total forestry stock under the control of the state was reviewed and assessed (“With the object of protecting as well as utilizing the States forests…” (GGC, 1909), and the outlines of extensive surveying of private forest resource were unveiled. This surveying took the form of cadastral surveying carried out during the spring and summer of 1910. By August the peninsula’s entire forest stock (other than on Jeju Island), had been surveyed and was found to stand at some 16,000,000 Cho[2]. This wider stock was found to be in similarly denuded and degraded conditions as the initial State Forest stock and thus wider strategies of afforestation were to be carried out. By this year of course the Government General had assumed political sovereignty on the Peninsula and the need for “model afforestation” centers under the control of Japanese experimental institutions was no longer necessary. Forestry management was thus devolved back to the Provincial administrations now coordinated by the Government General, and afforestation strategy undertaken by the propagation of a number of ‘seedling bed’s in different Provincial territories. The Government General also sought to encourage other, private sector based stake-holders to begin afforestation projects and asserted that “…In order to encourage afforestation on the part of the general public the Government General (selected)…April 3rd, 1911, the anniversary of the accession of the First Emperor of Japan, as a memorial day for a universal plantation…” (GGC, 1911).

Having gained institutional and sovereign control of the Korean Peninsula, its institutions and forest resources, reviewed those resources and begun a series of afforestation projects, the aforementioned legal revisions came with Serei (Imperial Decree number 10), issued through the Govenor-General in July of 1911. Its stipulations came into force at the end of the year and both asserted the Government General’s overall control of natural and forest resources at the same time as opening up State Forests to both preservation and exploitation by private or non-state actors. Ultimately the Annual Report for 1912 suggests that “…the vital object of the revised forestry law aims not only as a continuance of the government undertakings to afforestation, but also at stimulating the people in general to undertake afforestation as far as possible on their own initiative…” (GGC, 1912).

This transfer of responsibilities in a sense sought to break the bounds of reverence for local communities and their sacred or customary forests, as much as colonial Japanese administration would seek to break the bounds between the Korea and Koreans of the present and the Korean’s of the historical past and the historical Korea. Forestry management and resource was to be brought into modernity by a quasi-free market in forest management (be that for exploitative or regenerative purposes), one that could allow for deep inroads to be made by the institutions and organisations of Japanese colonial modernity. Dramatic developments were made in terms of experimental and exploitative forestry projects in this early colonial period, developments that would point ahead to later manifestations of colonial industrial denudations and exploitations…for example the Government General Annual Report for 1912 already reports some 1649 Cho of seedling beds within ten years for future exploitation.

Of course these reports from the colonial Government General are subject to some disputation on statistical grounds, as well as we will later on see on conceptual or ideological grounds. Andrew Grajdanzev for example in 1944 utilising a later set of data points provided by the Government General of Chosen asserts that comparisons and reportage made by the Annual Report of 1938 “…are of doubtful value…” (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.123), owing to their failure to correctly combine and account for different methods of forest stock assessment in the later years of the colonial government. Further to this Grajdanzev asserts that in later years the Government General undertook large scale privatisation of forest resources, utilizing the tools of modern, Liberal legal frameworks into the hands of companies such as the ‘Chosen Ringyo Kaihatsu Kabushiki Kaishi’ or ‘Corporation for the Development of Forest Exploitation in Korea’. In fact Grajdanzev notes that this particular organisation was granted for no charge some 500,000 cho of forests in Korea (equating to a quarter of the remaining ‘good’ forest) (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.126). This was not to engage in its afforestation or protection, for its whole scale deforestation. Accordingly Grajdanzev and the Government General itself (in reports not directly accessible to the author), recount the increase in cubic meterage of timber felled across the peninsula from some 700,000 in 1910 to 2.8 million in 1939 (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.124).

While the reports continue to recount in meticulous detail the modernisation of Korean forestry stock and practice, producing what …refers to as the colonial modern. In the later period of the colonisation the nature of what is meant by forestry practice following Grajdanzev’s analysis, radically alters. Perhaps this is to take into account the needs of Japanese military build-up and the eventual undertaking of the conflict in the Pacific and South East Asia. Whatever the impetus or drivers behind this process it seems from 1933 developmental paradigms and practices changed to one’s of deforestation and extraction. While this of course denuded forest stock to a much greater extent than the earlier period (in which there was an expansion in resource levels as shown by Grajdanzev), the later impact on North Korean conceptions of Japanese impact on the environment in general in North Korea was much greater.

[1] Shaku is a Japanese measurement of length formulated in its modern form in 1891. A Shaku corresponds to 10/33 of a metre

[2] Cho is a Japanese measurement of area. A Cho is equivalent to .9917 of a hectare.



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