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.

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New from RWC -Forests of Gold: Forests of Patriotic Socialism

The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should, as they carried out rehabilitation after the war, turn out in the campaign to restore the mountains of the country so as to turn them into “mountains of gold” thickly wooded with trees. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

The seemingly acute developmental concern of the Young Leader, Kim Jong-un has been fairly, if intriguingly clear since his accession to the throne of charismatic Kimism on the death of his father at Christmas 2012. While of course much theatrics have since ensued, enrapturing a great many a Pyongyangologist and sports fan, the pedagogy and education of his later youth in Switzerland surely cannot amongst the Michael Jordan DVDs have included much in the way of environmental training. But developmentally focused, Kim Jong-un has rather oddly been. In between those Dennis Rodman visits and the requisite number of appearances next to military hardware and sites of commemoration for his grandfather and father, he has found the time and inspiration to write a number of narratologically at least informative texts on such matters. From his first “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country” delivered in April 2012, to his instructive tome on institutional and bureaucratic matters to a group of Agricultural ‘subteam’ workers in 2013 to the New Years Messages of 2014 and 2015 focused respectively on recounting the anniversary of 1964’s Rural Theses and the topography of nationalist, foundational struggle at Paektusan, Kim Jong-un as ploughed a very individual and distinct developmentalist furrow.

This author unpacked the messages focused on environmental and topographical hymnal and paean in this year’s message early in the year for Sino-NK. The reader will have traced the themes and flows of narrative, as much as the aspiration to build and better utilize, what Kim termed “mountains and seas of gold”. It will not surprise the reader of course to hear therefore of Kim Jong-un’s return to the field of developmental publication with a new text entitled “Let the Entire Party, the Whole Army and All the People Conduct a Vigorous Forest Restoration Campaign to Cover the Mountains of the Country with Green Woods”

Kim Jong-un’s latest piece of apparently long form authorship will also not surprise the reader given the political and bureaucratic commemorative calendar of North Korea and the fact that National Tree Planting Day arrives early on March 4th followed by the highly important Spring Land Management Campaigns. This author has also covered this aspect of the yearly cycle of institutional impetus and charismatic connection before, as the period is marked and remarked upon nearly every year. However while the moment is indeed frequently noted, it is still rare for such an extensive statement to be made.

This author’s overarching reading of Kim Jong-un’s text is that is no less a rebuke and critique than Kim Il-sung’s dressing down of unheeding or unresponsive provincial authorities in Chagang Province during the 1960s. Echoing language used by his grandfather in the foundational 1964 text “Let Us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers”, Kim Jong-un asserts that “Forests are precious resources of the country and a wealth to be handed down to posterity. Our country has been called a land of golden tapestry for the mountains thick with forests and the fields covered with beautiful flowers” and following “Japanese imperialist colonial rule” Kim Il-sung had “…unfolded a far-reaching plan to turn all the mountains into thickly wooded places of people’s resort by having trees planted in large numbers…”

Surely positive words to the ears of provincial administrators everywhere, these opening remarks in the text are alas, for that audience, the last of reassurance and charismatic comfort. Kim Jong-un goes on to complain that “…people have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent…” These claims, that on the face of it sound akin to critiques of Korean approach to forest and timber resource from both the days of the Government General of Chosen and a disappointed Park Chung-hee on his return from a verdant Japanese mainland come finally complete with a denunciation of bureaucratic efforts and focus on aboreal matters.

“As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountains”

Considering of course the importance of environmental and developmental elements to North Korea’s narrative of political charisma and superiority, this does not sound like the terrain and topography called for in the many drives for the embedding and rebroadcast of Pyongyang’s patriotic sense in its landscapes and spaces. Kim Jong-un even presents for the reader, Kim Jong-il’s own pain and annoyance at the situation during his time, remembering that he “…grieved for the decreasing forests of the country…” that the deforestation was also an aftermath of the Arduous March” and it was institutional necessity “…to turn the misfortune into a blessing and hand down to the coming generations beautiful mountains thick with forests…”

But those thick forests and beautiful timber covered mountains would never come in Kim Jong-il’s time it seems, and now the Young Generalissimo feels a sense of acute urgency towards the matter. “The forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads–whether to perish for ever or to be restored”, he asserts “We can no longer back off from the issue related with the forests. As long as the forests are left as they are, no one can claim that he is a master of the country nor can he speak about patriotism”

The achievement of this patriotic developmental outcome, of course given all of that apparent stasis and stagnation will be no mean feat. One would imagine it would require complete institutional revision and dramatic reconfiguration of the approach and structures of its forestry sector….Imagination of course predicated on the social and cultural context of the imaginer, and North Korea’s particular weltanschaung is, if not unique, certainly distinct. This Kim Jong-un’s outlined solutions and framework appear a smorgasbord of derivations and tendencies sourced from throughout its political, sovereign and developmental history.

Naturally it will be an all-encompassing effort, involving the effort of the entire North Korean national body: “The entire Party, the whole army and all the people should conduct a vigorous forest restoration campaign to make the mountains of the country thick with forests” It will be revolutionary and combative in tone “…Forest restoration is a challenging and complex undertaking of raising young trees, transplanting them and then cultivating them year in, year out in the face of harsh challenges of nature…The forest restoration campaign is a war to ameliorate nature…” Equally it will be urgent and necessary in a form only held in common with previous modes and examples of revolutionary speed, such as those from Maoist China “What is important in conducting this campaign is to push ahead with forest planting and conservation simultaneously. We should bring about a sweeping revolution in forest planting…”

Held in common with a great many other elements of North Korean politics and ideology however, and which is now commonly understood by analysts and scholars focusing on such matters it will essentially also be whatever and what if what is required, not just in developmental or functional terms, but will also need to address narrative and commemorative purposes.

Forestry development in Kim Jong-un’s eyes therefore will need to be grounded in science and the institutions of science. Kim suggests that for example, “…success of the forest restoration campaign depends on how nurseries provide young trees…”, that there should continue to be a central nursery which, importantly in commemorative and legitimacy terms, having been founded by Kim Il-sung (“with a far sighted plan…bequeathed to us as part of his legacy…”) should “raise the level of scientification, industrialization and intensification in growing young trees”. While these nursery institutions are vital to the conceived process of afforestation and scientific endeavour, research should be led at an elite level by an Academy of Forest Science, which according to Kim Jong-un should be refurbished “into a world-class academy”

This mention of the rest of the world, surprisingly perhaps for a text so defiantly local and North Korean, leads Kim Jong-un to again echo the past, but this time it is an echo with its origins in the colonial period’s efforts to transplant a forestry of modernity into the post-annexation Peninsula. “We should take measures to introduce and widely disseminate the global achievements of the advanced science and technology related to forest planting and conservation….we should bring in…trees from foreign countries and widely proliferate them” Further to this call to global connection and to this author even more surprising is Kim Jong-un’s demand for the embedding of these externally sourced conceptions within local institutions and frameworks: “…a brisk drive for disseminating forest science and technology should be waged to keep people abreast of the world trend of development of forest science and technology.”

In a sense if it were to be followed, Kim Jong-un’s suggestions of increased developmental knowledge exchange with the wider world, more focus on empirical rigour within the sector, and better organised, nationally aware but locally focused institutions and bureaucracies might make a real difference to the functionality and viability of forest resource in North Korea, as such an approach would in any nation. However of course within Pyongyang’s sovereign realm there are other forces and agendas at play, so these fairly rational scientific platitudes must be matched to commemorative and legitimatory narratives and practices.

Just as urgency is deployed in the scientific realm, so it will be utilised within the charismatic. Kim Jong-un within later sections of the document reverts to what we might term the revolutionary mean. Here politics and functional development are undertaken by ‘the mass’ as Chairman Mao would have understood it, one homogenous, energetic, powerful yet not necessarily functional assemblage of co-opted, coerced and perhaps the enthusiastic publics. Kim Jong-un suggests for instance that “It is our Party’s traditional method of work to propel the revolution and construction by means of mass-based movements”, before comparing whatever projects must be undertaken to redevelop and regenerate North Korea’s forestry stock to projects and campaigns such as the Ch’ollima movement, projects whose difficulties this author has considered at some length.

Perhaps ultimately the charismatic and commemorative inclination of the mass is what prevents Kim Jong-un from moving on to pastures or timbers new within this key text. As much as it would make sense to leave forest development up to the nurseries, to the Forest Academy to the local bureaucracies tasked with increasing stock in their domain, North Korean politics is nothing without its key institutional base of Party, Army and a perceptual (if not perhaps real) popular mass. When Kim Jong-un begins to make assertions that “Only when the whole country and all the people are involved, can the forest restoration campaign bear fruit…” It cannot be surprising that the phrase “…as they conducted reconstruction after the war” should follow.

Ultimately and in conclusion it seems that however far Kim Jong-un might want to reach in systematic arboreal terms, in this text he proves himself trapped by the weight of history and its necessary recantations and representations. Developmentally trapped by the weight of fighting eternal theoretical and metaphorical war as the Young Leader can only conclude that “…nurseries are to a forest restoration campaign what munitions factories are to a war…” we must conclude that in this instance of forestry and timber resource, developmentally Pyongyang finds itself trapped by a Patriotism of its own perception.

New from RWC – From East, From West, The Red Flag Relay Comes

Red Flag Relay Starts at Samjiyon

The Red Flag Relay Begins at Samjiyon : Image KCNA

In a series of pieces for Sino-NK known as “…and did those feed in ancient times…” during 2015, this author examined in detail the narratological and political content and technique generated and suggested by what North Korea had described as the “250 Mile Schoolchildren’s march”. For more than a week a group of schoolchildren re-enacted Kim Il-sung’s journey which would lead him out of colonial Chosen to the terrain in which he was later to become a General of Paektusan and Eternal President of North Korea. It was an extraordinary event rich in connection and intriguing in its presentation of its participant children as worthy inheritors of the charismatic revolutionary flame and vessels for its contemporary re-territorialisation. It was always fascinating for its skirting of the obvious and significant fact that unlike Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk or in fact any of those revolutionary progenitors of Pyongyang’s contemporary charismatic, theatric politics, none of the school children on the march nor any its’ of current inhabitants could be useful or legitimately be allowed the chance to cross the rivers of the Amnok. Instead this contemporary manifestation of political charisma were to be innately and impossibly bound by their temporality and geography, their journey and its power limited and restricted by the current remit of Pyongyang’s sovereignty.

The 250 Mile Schoolchildren’s march however was an intriguing and seemingly new tool in Pyongyang’s armoury and repertoire of theatric and commemorative practice, one replete with possibility given the extent of North Korea’s potential and predilection from and for the generation and exploitation of powerful narrative (imagined, constructed or otherwise). It would not of course have been surprising if North Korea’s propagandist or presentational authorities were to have put the practice to further, more developed use or in order better to extract further charismatic power and reflection from its utility. As 2015 is a year rich in moments of commemoration and memory those interested and focused on such matters would surely not have long to wait, and indeed so it was to be.

On August 4th, 2015, Rodong Sinmun announced the “Red Flag Relay of the Servicepersons of the Korean People’s Army (KPA)”. From the opening description it was clear that this project was a clear effort to connect the ideological and narrative dots between past, present and commemorative future. It was of course primarily to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, but the report focusing on its beginning also made sure to overtly connect the revolutionary legitimacy earned by North Korea’s past charismatic leadership to both the new leadership and to continue older preoccupations and concepts. Through a demonstrative act of will and as the report puts it “iron faith” undertaken by those undertaking the relay, appropriate commemorative connection might be made under the rule of Kim Jong-un through “fluttering the red flag of the revolution associated with the whole life of President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il.”

This initial report focusing on the setting out of those involved also cites its moment of departure, as might be expected, from one of the most charismatically important terrains in North Korea, the Samjiyon Grand Monument. The politically sacred architecture of this place and others near it geographically, commemorates the mythography of struggle undertaken by Kim Il-sung and his guerrilla band in the hills, mountains and wildernesses to the north of the lake, as well as the coyly expressed moment in which the relationship between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk that would produce Kim Jong-il as its offspring was first denoted in the historiography of North Korea. The statues and commemorative landscapes of this space are extraordinary, even in photographs and the report asserts that “the relay would offer a good occasion for arming the servicepersons with the revolutionary spirit of Paektu.” Of course it would not be the first time in 2015 that the famous mountain holy to the politics and historiography of North Korea has been mentioned by Pyongyang’s political writers and reporters. Most importantly Kim Jong-un’s New Years Message explicitly framed 2015’s North Korea’s institutional and political year within the commemorative space of Paektu, articulating a new revolutionary spirit “the spirit of the blizzards of Paektu.” Accordingly and physically manifesting this spirit, the participants in the relay would re-territioralize its imperatives elsewhere in North Korea, taking two journeys through the nation and eventually arriving at Panmunjom on the DMZ (the better to represent the notion of national reunification to actually physically appear at the division which would need to be overcome in that instance), as the report makes clear “a red flag embroidered with the letters ‘the revolutionary spirit of Paektu, the spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” in hand.

Red Flag Relay visits Musan

Red Flag Relay Visits Musan : Image Rodong Sinmun

Similarly to the reportage which covered the march of the school children a year earlier, the red flag relay and its participants in its journey would reconnect distant and dislocated places within a physical narrative articulated by their urgent footprints. The western half of the relay would take its re-territiorializing imperatives firstly to the battle monuments of Musan and the port city of Chongjin on the 7th of August , Kosanjin and Kumchon revolutionary sites (commemorating the Headquarters of the KPA during the second, less dynamic half of the Korean War) and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong (to pay vital homage to Kim Jong-suk), on the 11th of August. On the same day the eastern division of the relay would also arrive at Mt Taesong having travelled through Hamhung and Wonsan and encountered not simply the “field guidance of the peerlessly great men of Mt Paektu” as one might expect, but rather extraordinarily “a meeting for learning from the spiritual world of the fighters who displayed the self-blasting spirit.”

August 13th’s visit to the hugely expanded Sinchon Museum with its detailed North Korean historiographic account of what is known to Pyongyang as the Sinchon Massacre will no doubt be incorporated by many scholars of the narrative for the report’s extensive photographic detailing of the museum’s exhibits. Whether the feelings of revenge elicited by those within the Relay group were envisaged as a key component of the “spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” earlier this year will of course never be known, but the museum’s dramatic, visceral vision of history absolutely drove the emotional pitch of the relay to new heights. Little re-temporalization of political energy nor imagination is necessary from the reported words of some of those involved, KPA members Kim Jong-su and Choe Kum-sil asserting that “they keenly felt once again [that] the US Imperialisst and class enemies were a group of cannibals regarding massacre of human beings as hobby [and] this made them whet the class sword more and more sharply.”


Red Flag Relay Visits the Sinchon Museum Image: KCNA

Red Flag Relay Visits the Sinchon Museum Image: KCNA

After finally on August 14th, visiting Jikdong Pass, Height 1211, Chol Pass and Mt Osong (reported as being “the mountain of Songun”), met with a group of war veterans and perhaps as a nod to the important activities commemorated in the first march of the schoolchildren in 2014 engaged in a “river crossing”, the relay groups arrived at their destination. Assembling in front of the monument at Panmunjom inscribed with Kim Il-sung’s signature on August 17th, those who had participated in the relay were joined by members from all three of North Korea’s military forces, members of the Workers Party and the Socialist Youth League to reiterate the narrative and philosophical messages of the event. Moments of diplomacy and international connectivity were, it has to be said put to one side in an almost orgiastic outburst of re-territorialization and connection between past and present. Dynamism, final victory, advance, reunification and revolutionary spirit were called upon to legitimize the relays path and arrival here at the physical manifestation of division, both a metaphorical gnashing of teeth and a reminder that with the “spirit of the blizzards of Paektu” in mind, for Pyongyang in 2015 wherever paths, journeys and travels may roamed or taken, whichever elements of charisma, narrative and authority may be deployed, October 10th and its crystallisation of North Korean political sovereignty may be the only destination.

The Red Flag Relay Reaches Panmunjom Image: KCNA

The Red Flag Relay Reaches Panmunjom Image: KCNA

From the Sino-NK Archives (30) – 22.03.2015 – Footsteps and Deterritorializations: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

Whan that Apriil with his shoures soot

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

So priketh hem nature in hir corages;

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages….

– From the Middle English version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic, The Canterbury Tales

Footsteps and Deterritorializations: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Chaucer’s narrative of happy, hapless, challenged, and occasionally pious 15th century pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury is temporally, linguistically, and politically a world away from the snow covered Amnok and Tumen river basins of the 1920s. I do not seek to make any connection between the two, for none can be made other than to reconfirm the cultural importance of what was known to Chaucer and those of his age as “pilgrimage.” While pilgrimage, as both concept and action, has not faded from the repertoire of cultural practice (Lourdes, Santiago di Compostella and Uman in the Ukraine being relevant contemporary examples), in recent years some of the energy deployed has dissipated away to the field of secular culture and politics.

Pilgrimage has obvious advantages; it carves out temporal spaces in busy human lives and creates safe, shared groupings with which to journey. But perhaps the key feature of the act as it has been transmitted to secular form lies in its utility as a vessel for the carrying, sustaining, and socialization of memory. In Britain, for example, annual commemoration of the birth of trade unionism in the village of Tolpuddle recalls the Tolpuddle Martyrs, eulogizing their struggle and transportation whilst re-temporalizing and re-territorializing the process, narrative and context of the period.

amnok crossing

Kim Il-sung crosses the Amnok River in “Legendary Hero for All Ages.” | Image: Foreign Languages Publishing House

The Sun of Pyongyang: Deterritorialization | Anyone who focuses on North Korea will be well aware of the political conceptions that surround the country’s founding leadership and its existing state. Kim Il-sung, the first President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is also the last as he holds permanent office. This extra-territorial, post-physical state allows Kim to serve abstract, esoteric functions in the North Korean political structure; as a vessel for memory and a carrier signal for charismatic authority. As Pyongyang’s “Sun,” Kim permanently radiates beneficence, care, and inspiration upon the topography and territory of North Korea, subject to the impact of neither physical nor temporal change.

However, the citizens of Pyongyang, no matter how politically engaged or institutionally connected they may be, live in concrete space and time. They are, therefore, potentially disconnected in vital ways (from a North Korean institutional perspective) from this font of ideological and philosophical inspiration. Addressing this matter requires a multiplicity of tools through which the state re-establishes the connection between Sun and people; by constant exposure to government narrative, the virtual omnipresence of images of the Kims, and studied celebration of waypoints in the narrative of the dynasty.

To all intents and purposes, commemorative days serve as North Korean “Saints Days;” crystallizations of supra-temporal, esoteric streams of narrative charisma.  The nature of Pyongyang’s mythos has been explored many times before; however, it also requires mythography. We have encountered this in other fascinating academic analysis. What has not been addressed is what seems to be a developing tendency to provide opportunities and spaces for North Korean citizens to encounter the charismatic energies produced by these ‘deterritiorializings‘ and ‘de-temporalizings’ for themselves; to walk theatrically in the footsteps of the nationalist past.

Across Frozen Rivers: Pedagogical Charismatic Journey | Far from the “shoores” of April and perhaps closer to the “droght” of March, Kim Il-sung’s crossing, according to current North Korea narratology, occurred in an icy January 1925 over the frozen waters of the Amnok (Yalu) River. It was this crossing which began the period of exile from which so much of Kimist authority and charisma derive. Naturally, this moment is already subject to much memorialization. This year marks the ninetieth anniversary of the act, and as such this obsession with anniversaries and commemoration was bound to be an important moment for political and ideological reiteration.

It was not surprising, therefore, when on January 23 Rodong Sinmun reported, “A national meeting took place at the People’s Palace of Culture Wednesday to mark the 90th anniversary of the 250-mile journey for national liberation made by President Kim Il-sung.” Nor was it surprising that the newspaper continued with the following paragraph of assertions:

On January 22, Juche 14 (1925) Kim Il-sung started the 250-mile journey for national liberation from his native village Mangyongdae to the Northeastern area of China. During the journey he made up the firm will to save the country and the nation deprived by Japanese imperialism. New history of modern Korea began to advance along the unchangeable orbit of independence, Songun and socialism.

Kim Jong-il’s attempts to utilize this key source of nationalist power on the fiftieth anniversary of the same in 1975 is addressed in the text. Space is also made for some of the urgent, vociferous Mt. Baekdu-focused themes of Kim Jong-un’s 2015 New Year’s Message:

Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un is wisely leading the work to ensure that the sacred tradition of the Korean revolution started and victoriously advanced by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il is given steady continuity… calling on the school youth and children to hold them in high esteem as the eternal sun of Juche and carry forward the march to Mt. Baekdu to the last.

Schoolchildren start the march

Schoolchidren march off on the pilgrimage | Image: Rodong Sinmun

How would these school children hold this “sacred tradition” in esteem: Passive participation in a Workers’ Party meeting? The singing of songs and poems dedicated to nationalist urgency? Appearing slightly overawed and/or afraid next to the Young Generalissimo during on-the spot guidance? No, it would in fact be none of these, but something far stranger. Instead of abstraction and narrative opacity, there would instead be a period of acute reterritorialization on the pages of Rodong Sinmun, in the output of KCTV and, for a time, on the streets and paths of South Pyongan Province.

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 in Rodong Sinmun reporting of the enterprise. Yet the physicality of their journey is clear and important to the narrative. This physicality, common to pilgrimages elsewhere, in which breaks, pauses, and stops must be taken, one imagines to rest the tired legs of the children after crossing “one steep pass after another,” is clear to the reader. These are presented as real children of North Korea in 2015, not cyphers for the pre-Liberation, nationalist past; they are presumably revitalised by their intersection with ideological energy.

Schoolchildren visit Kangyye

In Kanggye | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Conceiving of this pilgrimage as yet another theatrical moment in North Korea’s never ending narratological flow would be to miss some of its most important elements and fail to draw out the deeper context. The theatrical potential is clear; yes, the children travelled down a well trodden list of places and spaces of charisma, one that appeared ideologically and narratologically sound. Having left Mangyongdae, Kim Il-sung’s home village in 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.”

In keeping with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialization, the spaces and practices of relation within the frame of the journey are as important as its starting point, route and destination, a fact in common with earlier narratives of North Korean historiography (which will be encountered in one of the sister pieces to this essay). Though these children walk the route of the commemoration of North Korean revolution and liberation in 2015, the relational praxis encountered 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 just coping with the mixed ennui of resignation, exasperation and desperation produced by interaction with state institutions), the social and personal context of those dark days of the late 1920s is activated by their every footstep. Their breaks would include hearing the “impressions of the reminiscences of anti-Japanese guerrillas,” and beginning their march again they would become, represent, and even channel the aspirations of those same guerrillas.

It seems that having departed Pyongyang on January 22, the children arrived at their (and both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s) destination, Phophyong in Ryanggang Province around February 4. Phophyong, they say, was the site of Kim Il-sung’s momentous crossing of the Amnok River, the site where the young man would transition from subjugated Chosun with its political frame of colonisation to resistance on the wild fringes of Manchuria and a new frame of personal and political liberation and struggle.

Schoolchildren visit Phophyong

Arriving in Kim Hyong-jik County [김형직군], a border county of Ryanggang Province that was renamed as such in the late 80s in commemoration of Kim Il-sung’s father. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

To Phophyong: And Beyond? | What is most intriguing is the location of this territory at the edge of the state. The school children arrived at Phophyong, a place famous in local history and culture as one of subjective transfer, of existential passage from one mode of relation to another, a place of crossing… and yet they did not cross. Perhaps in these days of strained relations between Beijing and Pyongyang such charismatic commemorations cannot be enacted on both sides of the sovereign boundary. Given the importance of North Korea’s ideological omnipresence, perhaps they could in any case never be undertaken in a different political space. But the acute re-territorializing of the contemporary everyday beyond the shore of the river at Phophyong leaves our narrative, their narrative, in a distinct disconnect, a functional void.

How are we to fill that void?

Leaving the schoolchildren of 2015 and their charismatic footsteps behind, we must return to the relational context of those ensconced in colonial and resistive subjectivity. Tracing their footsteps, pilgrimages and journeys we can, quite unlike the schoolchildren at Phophyong, navigate the bounds of territory and territorialization, and cross the Amnok…

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – 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 sinonk.com