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

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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