From the Sino-NK Archives (35) – 25.08.2015 – Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

Kim Jong-suk and the azaleas

Kim Jong-suk: Indomitable Revolutionary | Image: Women of Korea

Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

“Wreaths were laid before the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery on Mt. Taesong on Saturday, the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation…The participants paid silent tribute to the revolutionary martyrs who laid down their lives for the liberation, reunification and independence of the country and accomplishment of the revolutionary cause of Juche…They laid bouquets before the bust of anti-Japanese war hero Kim Jong Suk and observed a moment’s silence.”((“Wreaths Laid before Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong,” Rodong Sinmun, August 17, 2015))

The overt singling out of Kim Jong-suk amongst all the other revered residents of the cemetery on Mount Taesong at this utterly vital moment in North Korea’s political calendar suggests that the once humble share-cropper from Hoeryong certainly has assumed a uniquely important place in the narrative pantheon of Pyongyang’s political legends. Kim Jong-suk appears in 2015 alongside North Korea’s Great, Dear and Young leaders in a way unlike any other of its citizens. Within the narratology and historiography of North Korea, Kim Jong-suk now, alongside Kim Il-sung, overwhelms all other participants in these struggles and amongst this topography.

Pyongyang’s institutions urge North Korean citizens to re-temporalize and re-territorialize events from the period in contemporary time. This is done for the purposes of ideological reiteration or the transmission of political charisma — as we saw last year with the march of the school children and recently in the Red Flag Relay. ((“Red Flag Relay Groups of Service Personnel Arrive in Panmunjon,” Rodong Sinmun, August, 17, 2015.)) At the center of such drives are the experiences and encounters of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk and Kim Jong-il — but rarely are any other revolutionary Koreans singled out as exemplary.

It was, as one might suspect, not ever thus; there is a substantial fluidity and transmutability of North Korea historiography and narrative. Kim Jong-suk’s own biography makes repeated reference to other participants in the revolutionary struggles, describing her companions and fellow travellers as “other female guerrillas.” These women play a role at the moment of conceptual consummation of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk’s relationship: (“Leaning on a birch tree on which spring tints were emerging, he [Kim Il-sung] posed with the commanding officers…One of them suggested to him that he should have his photo taken with Kim Jong-suk. Hearing this, Kim Jong-suk grew shy and hid behind the backs of the women guerrillas. They pushed her forward to his side. In order not to miss the moment, the “cameraman” clicked the shutter. For Kim Jong-suk, it was as good as a wedding photo.”((Biography of Kim Jong-suk (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 132.)) However, they are rarely, if ever, mentioned by name and their stories are not described in any useful level of detail in the texts of Biographies or core publications directly focused on Kim Jong-suk.

So where might we travel as readers and scholars to encounter or uncover the stories of other woman, a supporting cast if you like, who supported and fought with Kim Jong-suk and Kim Il-sung during the period from which North Korea derives so much of its charismatic political authority?

Women of Korea: North Korean “Herstory” | Archival research by this author in the libraries and institutions of South Korea and the Captured Documents collection of the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration in College Park, Maryland has uncovered a fascinating publication, Women of Korea. One of North Korea’s extraordinary collection of semi-academic, semi-populist English language publications produced for an audience in the wider world between the 1970s and 1980s, Women of Korea seeks to address in detail the experiences of women in many different fields of business and life in the North Korea of this time. Women of Korea also sought to be educative so far as North Korea’s political and historical narratives were concerned at their intersections with women’s lives and what has been called by critical feminist historians “herstory.”((Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful (New York City, NY, Random House), 1970))

While such an approach to historiography perhaps unsurprisingly revolves around those most important to North Korean politics, such as Kim Il-sung and his “love and care” for women, the magazine includes narratives which are occasionally contradictory to its current political mainstream. A key example is the intriguing interplay of importance and centrality focused on Kang Ban-sok, Kim Il-sung’s mother, on the pages of Women of Korea throughout the 1980s. Kim Jong-suk does not appear in the magazine prior to 1981. Between then and 1984, Kim Jong-suk and Kang Ban-sok have an uneasy coexistence on its pages, and then Kang Ban-sok disappears from the narrative, seemingly not to appear again. It seems rather clear that the emergence and emphasis of Kim Jong-suk within North Korean history and myth is was connected to the succession campaign of her son, Kim Jong-il in the early 1980s, but this is not our focus here.

Between 1981 and 1992, Women of Korea featured an extraordinary monthly series focusing on a woman who accompanied or who was known by Kim Jong-suk during her guerrilla period. The series contains biographical details expounded about the women and their place within the wider charismatic political narratives. These articles form an important and extension corpus through which both the individual lives of these women can be glimpsed and in which perhaps familiar generic narratological tropes of the North Korean historical canon can be seen.

There is extensive focus, for example, on the similar backgrounds these women shared with Kim Jong-suk, whose childhood as an impoverished share cropper harassed by landlords and Japanese colonialists at the margins of Korean and diaspora life and the impact this had on her rapidly developing sense of nationalism is intricately detailed as a vector of her transformation in her many biographies. Choe Hui-suk, for instance, is described as having been “bereaved of her mother at the age of three. She and her father, a farmhand, barely got along under all kinds of exploitation, contempt and poverty.”(( Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) Pak Rok-gum was born into a ‘poor peasant family in Kyongsong County, North Hamgyong Province,((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) similar to Li Gye-sun.((“The Brilliant Last: Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter Li Gye Sun, Women of Korea 1 (1987): 27.)) Pak Su-hwan was even born in the same county, Hoeryong as Kim Jong-suk and grew up “undergoing all sufferings and sadness of a ruined nation.”((“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.))

Pak Rok-gum

Pak Rok-gum “brave as a lion in battles” | Image: Women of Korea

These women, similar to Kim Jong-suk utilize education as a transformational vector in their transformation from obscurity in the mass of Korean peasantry into politically inspired, committed revolutionaries. Choe Hui-suk, for example, “trained herself to be a woman revolutionary under the guidance of the great leader,”((“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) and Li Sun-hui was one of a “large number of women who were educated in the revolutionary idea” ((“Liberty, then Life Counts,” Women of Korea, 3, 1991, 29.)). Similar to Kim Jong-suk’s own experience, these women, having been bestowed with and transfigured by charismatic revolutionary consciousness, project this charisma through educative and agitative activities. Pak Rok-gun for instance apparently “concentrated her strength on bringing many women to class awakening and rallying them around the revolutionary organizations,”((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) and Chon Hui is recounted as “having exerted herself to train the children to become fighters possessed of iron will, perseverance, courage and boldness.”((“Chon Hui, Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Martyr,” Women of Korea 4 (1988): 20.))

Crackshots and Angry Tigresses | Perhaps unsurprisingly this group of attendant female guerrilla fighters beyond their perhaps more positive educational contributions are equally adept at acts of combat and violence. Kim Hwak-sil, apparently called “woman commander” by her colleagues and comrades was a “crackshot” who “could hold a rifle by the barrel in each hand and lift them overhead.”((“A Guerrilla Amazon: on Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.)) Kim Il-sung himself presented her with a golden ring for “mowing down the enemy with a sharp-edged bayonet like an angry tigress, shouting out ‘Enemies, Come on! I’m avenging my comrades with this bayonet.’”((“A Guerrilla Amazon,” 25.)) Pak Rok-gun was “as brave as a lion in battles…. She walked more than 15km a day with a machine gun on her shoulders,”((“Eternity,” Women of Korea 2 (1990): 25.)) and Pak Su-hwan “fought bravely in many battles including those at Chechangzi and Naitoushan.”((“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.))

Unlike Kim Jong-suk, however, these women are not always successful in battle nor in evading arrest and capture by the forces of Imperial Japan. Whereas Kim Jong-suk appears capable of resistingany threat to Kim Il-sung’s life and avoiding any threat to her own mortality in battle, Kim Jong-suk’s supporting female guerrillas are regularly dismembered, annihilated and eviscerated. Sometimes their deaths are portrayed and memorialized as acts of military significance. Such was the case for Kim Hwak-sil, who in March, 1938 encountered an attacking Japanese force having walked through “a field of shoulder-high purple eulalia.” Hiding behind a rock, she was wounded in the chest and then ran out of ammunition. Women of Korea describes her next move in some detail: “She disassembled the lock of her rifle and buried it under the snow so that the enemy could not deprive her of the rifle permeated with the blood and soul of her comrades in arms. Then she dashed into the enemy with hand grenades in her arms. An explosion shook the forest and the enemy was wiped out.”((“A Guerrilla Amazon: On Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.))

Women’s bodies as topographies of violence | Kim Hwak-sil’s self immolation in resistance is by no means an isolated occurrence. The violence enacted by Hwak-sil on her own body and the bodies of her enemies (who no doubt died both agonizing and instant deaths), in fact becomes a key narrative and political device. The disfigurement and destruction of these women’s bodies at the hands of their Japanese enemies perhaps serves to illustrate for North Korean readers the potential violence to be enacted on themselves in the event of a future enemy victory. In some sense, it also echoes both the real and imagined violences of instances such as the Sinchon massacre during the later Korean War (an event very much in the mind of the commemorative authorities of North Korea at the moment).The brutality enacted upon fighters such as Pak Rok-gum whose “torture was extremely cruel,”((“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.)) and who was apparently thrown in a room where “those with epidemic diseases were kept” and thus “died of illness on October 16, 1940 at the age of 25″((Ibid., 25.)) is extraordinary and savage.

Yet the acts and actions of these women’s deaths and tortures are presented in such a way that serves to transform them from simply gory testimonies which deny the victims of any agency. Instead they are rendered quite powerful moments of witness in which the dying women themselves testify to future revolutionary generations as to the charismatic nature and political, nationalist legitimacy of their cause. Pak Rok-gum while dying in prison coined a song with the verse “the red flag of the masses/covers the corpse of the fighter/the blood dyes the flag/before the corpse cools,”((Ibid.)) suggesting the transfer and rescaling of charismatic and nationalist power through violent death and narrative transfiguration.

This essay ends with the most extraordinary and violent narrative of them all, which really illustrates the intertwining of these women’s lives and deaths with North Korea’s political charisma and the potentially vital message for its future citizens. Through the story, the state argues the immolation and immersion of the needs and lives of the individual is sometimes an important and necessary process for the eventual success or utility of the collective.

Choe Hui-suk

“I have no eyes now, yet I can still see the revolution.” | Image: Women of Korea

Choe Hui-suk died on March 12, 1941. As rendered in Women of Korea, her death serves as the ultimate testifier at the altar of North Korea’s revolutionary period and its nascent political charisma, one whose political presence colours much of the later narrative focused on Kim Jong-suk. It is a telling absence in today’s North Korea that Hui-suk and these other women, having died horrendous deaths for the North Korean revolution, have been left behind by its narratives. Kim Jong-suk, as positioned by those who control her position in the histories, has subsumed the tropes of their narratives, effectively absorbing and embodying the political power generated by their deaths. Perhaps the urgency and pain of their annihilations perhaps is no longer necessary in the age of the Young Generallismo. Yet an encounter with the texts of Women of Korea and this charismatic supporting cast can revivify their presence in the mind of any reader.

Hui-suk, like many of her kind was captured by a Japanese “punitive force” while taking a message to Kim Il-sung and was badly wounded in the initial raid. After asserting to her captors that “A communist is also a human being. There is nothing to look down on!” she was spared nothing in her torture, the text recounting that “The enemy desperately inflicted atrocious tortures on her every day. They cried, “Reveal the secret of the partisan!” searing her body with a red-hot spit.”((“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.)) Eventually after entirely failing to break her will, Japanese army doctors “gouged out her eyes” and “scooped out her heart,” Hui-suk’s final words of testimony bequeathed to North Korea’s historiography and politics, and whose intent and power are surely transmitted to support its charismatic form, even at the most unlikely and desperate moments being, “I have no eyes now. But I can see the victory of the revolution.”((Ibid., 26.))

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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

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From the Sino-NK Archives (32) – 07.05.2015 – The Legendary Women of Baekdu: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

kIm Jong-suk warrior

A recent state-produced rendering of Kim Jong-suk | Image: KCNA

The Legendary Women of Baekdu: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Wonderful Natural Fortress: Theater of Struggle | Kim Jong-suk was semi-mythic even before she became intrinsically connected to the territory at the place of her eventual immortalization. Kim and the guerrillas did not reach the terrain of Mt. Baekdu until the summer of 1936, having crossed “boundless primeval forest” and (once more) the narrow span of the upper Yalu River. Her official biography, published in 2002, announces the moment in portentous, dramatic terms, evoking “[t]he grand spectacle of the snow-capped ancestral mountain, the symbol of the long history of Korea.” Naturally Kim Il-sung is there to set the narrative terrain in conversation with his future wife, explaining that this “wonderful natural fortress stretching from the summit of Mt. Baekdu… will provide us with a theater of our sacred future struggle.”[1]

Kim Jong-suk, in response, appears to already consider the physicality of the recent past as a topography of difficulty for the guerrilla revolutionaries. It is a space which she sees as being ripe for transformation and future territorializations, deterritorializings, and charismatic theatric presentations.

Bearing his teachings in mind, she looked back upon the road the Korean revolution had traversed to Mt. Paektu. It was indeed a course of a bloody struggle, which had to break through a forest of bayonets.[2]

Having made an assortment of physical and conceptual crossings to arrive at the sacred Mt. Baekdu terrain, Kim embeds her revolutionary femininity and political commitment through performative acts in interaction with what would later become “the secret guerrilla camp.” The camp and the physical manifestation of her interaction with its “constructed remains” are key to the contemporary North Korean touristic experience of revolutionary space at Mt. Baekdu, and provide further evidence for Kwon and Chung’s charismatic political thesis:[3]

When the construction [of the camp] was complete, Kim Jong-suk peeled bark from trees in the surrounding area and wrote meaningful slogans on them: “A General Star has risen on Mt. Paektu,” [and] “Oppose the predominance of men over women. Long live the emancipation of women! Humiliated Korean women, wise up in the struggle against the Japanese!”[4]

Dualistic Femininity: Becoming a Human Fortress | Kim Jong-suk’s behaviour and personal interaction in the “natural fortress” exhibit a dualism of feminine and militaristic qualities, sometimes merging the two to construct an image of “militaristic femininity.” One key example is her maternal support for the guerrilla Ma Tong-hui. Described in semi-comic tone, Ma apparently “had flat feet… [which] made it difficult for him to act in concert with the other guerrillas…. [H]e was too exhausted to notice that his trousers were falling down.”[5]

In-spite of this obvious lack of utility to a band of revolutionary guerrillas, Kim Jong-suk seems determined to nurse the inept soldier to usefulness: “Kim Jong-suk walked together with him on marches, to encourage him, and helped improve his marksmanship.”[6] In addition to helping him learn to shoot straight, she also mended his clothes.[7] Such maternal support is fundamental to the narrative of Baekdu, and of primarily importance to her contemporary transformation into a militaristic saint. In engaging in pedagogical practice toward the unlikely young soldier, encouraging and teaching him to fight and providing him with a role model, Kim functions as father and mother. In this sense, she shows androgynous qualities of both female and male.

Beyond the mountain but in similar topography, North Korea’s narratives recount an important event in March 1940. This moment is categorized in hagiographies of Kim Jong-suk as the moment of “becoming a human fortress and a shield,” echoing the status of Mt. Baekdu as a “natural fortress.”[9] This is another vital moment in her semi-deification, without which moments of deterritorialization and reterritorialization would not be possible. Having, counter to conventional military strategy, attacked uphill and engaged Japanese forces high in the mountains, the guerrilla band was subject to a challenging counter attack.

The narrative describes the events:

Kim Il-sung commanded the battle from a rock on the ridge of the mountain. Mindful of his safety, Kim Jong-suk kept a close watch on the surroundings. Noticing reeds swaying strangely, she turned her eyes and saw half a dozen enemy soldiers hiding in a reed field, taking aim at Kim Il-sung on the ridge… at the hair-raising moment, Kim Jong-suk raced to Kim Il-song, shouting “Comrade Commander!” and shielding him with her body. Then she pulled the trigger of her Mauser. The enemy soldier in the front fell down, dropping his gun. A gunshot followed. Kim Il-sung had shot over her shoulder. In this way they both shot all the enemy soldiers in the reed field dead….[10]

pedagogy and violence

North Korean soldiers living out Kim Jong-suk’s militant legacy. Via KCNA.

Maternal Strength: Pedagogy and Violence | Kim Jong-suk’s selfless moment of sacrificial charismatic intent denotes a moral obligation towards the physical person of the leader, Kim Il-sung; one that goes beyond simple protection. Equally, it co-opts the difficult, fractious terrain of the mountainscape into the realm of Kim Jong-suk’s commitment and obligatory sensibility. North Korean landscapes in which these moral obligations were dramatically put into practice by Kim Jong-suk are now further marked by the institutional utilization of that drama and authority .

The ridge on which Kim Il-sung was nearly killed now forms part of an educational program for civil servants at Mt. Baekdu; these “study tours” of the revolutionary topography are meant to underpin their own ideological commitment. The birch trees at Lake Samji, under which the female guerrillas led by Kim Jong-suk rested, and under which the Kims’ relationship was abstractly confirmed and consummated, are now a site of revolutionary reflection and pilgrimage; a place of reterritorialization.

Leaning on a birch tree on which spring tints were emerging, he [Kim Il-sung] posed with the commanding officers…. One of them suggested to him that he should have his photo taken with Kim Jong-suk. Hearing this, Kim Jong-suk grew shy and hid behind the backs of the women guerrillas. They pushed her forward to his side. In order not to miss the moment, the “cameraman” clicked the shutter. For Kim Jong-suk, it was as good as a wedding photo….[11]

The role of other female guerrillas pushing forward this shy, almost coy Kim Jong-suk echoes another gentle moment in which a fellow female guerrilla and Kim convey a jar of hot water up an icy hill:

One night while the battle was still raging, she [Kim Jong-suk] was climbing a mountain with a woman guerrilla carrying a jar of hot water for the combatants when she slipped on some ice and tumbled down a slope. The woman guerrilla hurried down, and found that though she had lost consciousness, she was holding the water jar tightly. Her affection for her revolutionary comrades and fighting spirit encouraged the guerrillas to endure cold and fatigue in the battle….[12]

While other female protagonists are not frequently mentioned, they play a narrative role as Kim’s “ladies in waiting” and create a background territory upon which Kim’s revolutionary glory shines and can be reterritorialized. Their stories are sometimes directly told. The primary vehicle for female participation in the struggle was a group known as the Anti-Japanese Women’s Association, which served as a logistics and operational support unit for the main guerrilla group. While not directly involved in fighting, they did cross front lines and engage in dangerous activities. Their capture and harassment by Japanese forces is recounted in very distinct terms:

The Japanese aggressors ran amuck in an attempt to hamper the people’s support to the guerrilla army. The bestial aggressors recklessly arrested and slaughtered those people who purveyed provisions and commodities to the guerrilla army….[13]

KIm Jong-suk and statue

A recent artistic depiction of Kim Jong-suk’s post-liberation activities prior to her death include endorsement of Kim Il-sung statuary in Pyongyang. Image via Mansudae Arts Studio.

This passage describes resistance to torture and sometimes death. Similar instances play a part in the stories of particular female guerrillas. For example, fellow female guerrilla Kim Myong-hwa recounts Kim Jong-suk’s own torture: “The enemy locked her up in the house of a peasant there and put her to severe torture, threatening to kill her.”[14]

While Kim Jong-suk survived this ordeal, the same could not be said for Chang Gil-bu, mother to a number of revolutionaries. Not only was Chang’s son Ma Dong-hui tortured so severely that he “bit off his own tongue” rather than reveal anything and was then killed “viciously in a police station;” also, her daughter and daughter in law, Ma Guk-hwa and Kim Yong-kum, both reportedly died “a heroic death in battle.” Chang is portrayed as also undergoing torture, wherein “clubs and leather whips struck her until she was badly smeared with blood.”[15] Thus we can see that the action on the field of battle and violent deaths of some of the women following Kim Jong-suk are important elements in the story. A narrative element of their own, they are not just a supplement to bolster the fame of Kim Jong-suk.

Kim’s apparently selfless actions in collaboration with the topography allow future generations to access the charisma of her militaristic, transcendental femininity. Within the narrative, Kim Jong-suk emerges as a demiurge, the text of her biography explicitly mentioning that she barely sleeps or eats; indeed, “many times she only had water for her meal.”[16] Through her reported actions, Kim Jong-suk depersonalizes and de-materializes herself into the realm of the saintly, the mythic and the immortal.


[1] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 61.

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung, Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[4] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 62.

[5] Ibid., 65.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Brian Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters (New York City: Melville House, 2012), 48.

[9]Kim Il-Sung, Reminiscences With the Century, Vol. 3 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992).

[10] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 165.

[11] Ibid., p.132.

[12] Ibid., p.49.

[13] “Anti-Japanese Women’s Association and its Assistance to Guerrillas,” Women of Korea 91 no. 3 (1991).

[14] “In Memory of Comrade Kim Jŏng-suk,” Women of Korea 63 no. 3 (1974).

[15] “You Must Follow the Leader with All Devotion,” Women of Korea, Vol. 63 no. 3 (1974).

[16] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 51.

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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

Mountains and Seas of Gold: 2015’s New Years Message

 

Kim Jong-un visited the KPA-run No.18 Fisheries Station in November 2014. | Image: KCNA

 

Mountains and Seas of Gold: 2015 New Year’s Message

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Forecasting the genuinely new in an annual message from North Korea’s Supreme Leader is to anticipate category failure and disappointment. Novelty by definition requires the potential for change or difference… and contemporary North Korea has never been marked by either. It seems that no matter how much it is wished for and conceptualized, Pyongyang has deflected, co-opted, negativized or outright ignored potential challenges to the core of its system. Nevertheless, that does not mean that the New Year’s Address can be discounted.

The 2014 New Year’s Address was acutely demonstrative of the genre’s form as a ‘directional beacon’ highlighting the narrative and developmental direction of the state for the coming year. Where 2013 had been a year of multiple revolutionary speeds, Masik Pass and other megaprojects, so 2014 focused on a key text from Pyongyang’s developmental history: 1964’s Rural Theses on the Solution to the Socialist Rural Question, a conceptual linchpin of practical and ideological progress in agriculture during a more governmentally coherent (though no less difficult) period in North Korean history. The return of the Rural Theses in 2014 suggested a structural cohesiveness to the developmental strategy of the Kim Jong-un government that, of course, may not really be present (a fantasy on the part of Pyongyang agricultural institutions); but, vitally, it politically underpinned the developmental goals of the Address.

Like most North Korea watchers, I was caught unawares by the prominence of the Rural Theses in the 2014 speech, in-spite of having written a considerable portion of my recent monograph on their structure and impact. The anniversary had not seemed significant. The 2014 Address sought to move on from the construction of dramatic megaprojects such as the Masik Pass Ski Resort, applying the Theses’ charismatic impetus to programs that had seemed fairly esoteric and diffuse, such as the Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project. Doing so appeared to be an exercise in reinforcement of their potential, which had hitherto appeared tenuous at best. The North Korean media continued to make reference to the Theses and their place in the New Year’s Address for much of the year, with mentions in Rodong Sinmun as late as the end of October.

Caught between the Tides: Predicting 2015 | In the lead up to January 1 this year, I racked my brain and delved deep into Kim Il-sung’s Works in search of agricultural/developmental focal points around which Kim Jong-un’s statement could coalesce. Of course, environmental historians of North Korea will be aware that the next significant developmental publication following the publication of the Rural Theses in 1964 was 1968’s ‘For the Large-scale Reclamation of Tidelands’. Therefore, lacking an obvious textual anniversary for 2015, the potential of the coming January remained a mystery.

Kim Jong-un’s message of January 1, 2015 heavily focuses on narrative, legitimacy and authority. It makes deep connection (as ever) with the historical narratives of Korean liberation in 1945 and the pre-history of that moment; one embedded deep within the Mt. Baekdu discourse of guerrilla struggle. Mt. Baekdu as a historical revolutionary terrain and physical topography has been a focal point of recent North Korean narratological themes, connected where possible to historical figures and anniversaries (such as Kim Jong-suk’s 97th birthday commemorations in December 2014), and contemporary institutional agendas and processes (the use of Baekdu revolutionary architecture, monuments and sites as epistemic space for the ideological training of Pyongyang bureaucrats early in 2014). Of course Mt. Baekdu has long been a vitally important political stage for the authority of the family Kim; but further than this, the 2015 Address makes great play at the coagulation of as many themes as ideologically and linguistically possible in a single text, on the physical site and within the metaphysical remembered space of Mt. Baekdu.

Leading Party Officials Visit Battle Sites in the area of Mt Paektu.

The biography of Kim Jong-suk recounts similar connections between the geography of Mt. Baekdu and contemporary North Korean political and institutional need, as well as, usefully for his revolutionary and political legitimacy, the physical and metaphysical characteristics shared by Kim Jong-il and the topography of Mt. Baekdu itself.

A saying has it that a man resembles his birthplace; it’s true to say that Kim Jong-il resembled Mt. Baekdu. The mountain fascinates people with its majestic appearance – the enormous lake at its summit and its chain of high peaks – and its mysterious natural phenomena, all these are symbolic of the traits and mettle of Kim Jong-il, who possesses a far-reaching ambition, outstanding wisdom, firm courage, strong willpower, great magnanimity and perfect leadership ability… (Kim Jong-suk Biography, 2005, p.2)

Further to this, and extending the connection beyond the personhood of Kim Jong-Il and other members of the Kim dynasty, this year’s Address bestows the authority and charisma of Mt. Baekdu’s revolutionary topography upon the entire nation, its army, developmental approach and technological output.

This year we should display the revolutionary spirit and mettle of Baekdu to scathingly thwart the challenges and manoeuvres by hostile forces and score a signal success in the struggle to defend socialism and on all fronts of building a thriving nation…Upholding the slogan “Let us all turn out in the general offensive to hasten final victory in the revolutionary spirit of Baekdu!”…Bearing in mind the soul and mettle of Baekdu, we should become honorable victors in the general offensive to exalt the dignity of our socialist country and promote its prosperity on the strength of ideology, arms and science and technology. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

All Eyes on August? Transcending Liberation | Much of the metaphysical and narratological connectivity in the 2015 Address is aimed squarely at the lead up to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Korean peninsula from the Empire of Japan in August. However, this newly reasserted sense of revolutionary authority is not designed simply to alight on preparations for commemorative events marking the septuagenarian anniversary, but also to connect them to annual Workers’ Party of Korea founding ceremonies, all at “blizzards of Baekdu speed”. Possibly successful developmental strategies (even if only “successful” in a narrative or presentational sense) from recent years are also reconfigured to these aims, redeploying the wind themed narrative structure of early 2014.

We should raise a stronger wind of creating the Korean speed…by completing with credit the major construction projects, including the multi-tier power stations on the Chongchon River, Kosan Fruit Farm and Mirae Scientists Street, we should splendidly adorn the venue of grand October celebrations. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

This reconfiguration is a trope of institutional and ideological focus common to many other periods of North Korean developmental history, moments of urgency and instances of Kimist demand. Fruit production, in particular rising apple production (the key focus of Kosan Fruit Farm), has a long, auspicious history dating all the way back to the agenda of the First Seven-Year Plan (1960-1967) and Kim il-sung’s landmark text, On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement (1961).

We are struggling for the future. We must build a communist society and hand it down to the coming generations. . . . We are creating everything from scratch in our time. . . . This is the only way we can be as well off as other peoples, and hand over a rich and powerful country to the new generation. If we plant many orchards, our people will become happier in seven or eight years. (Kim Il-sung, 1960, p. 21)

Kim Jong Un visits the Central Tree Nursery Image

Five Orchards and Two Fisheries Stations: Mountains of Gold | Of course it remains to be seen (and may never be) whether the citizens of North Korean became happier in seven or eight years due to the planting of orchards, nor whether they were planted with the manner or urgency envisaged by Kim Il-sung. Similarly, a feature shared with President Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Kim Il-sung’s desire to reforest his sovereign domain following the impact of the final extractive, destructive years of Japanese colonialism has long been a key feature of North Korean developmental aspiration. In the lea of 1964’s Rural Theses, Kim Il-sung’s Lets Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers with its assertion, “Using mountains does not mean only living by them. In order to use them fully it is necessary to create good forests of economic value before anything else” (Kim Il Sung, 1964, p. 256), set the stage for extensive focus on timber resources, one which is again echoed in the 2015 New Year’s Message.

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)

Ultimately, the 2015 New Year’s Message reads akin to a hymn or paean to revolutionary stasis, a developmental treading of urgent water in anticipation of imagined new Utopian possibility. The Message’s diplomatic and political vision of trans-peninsular unification and Korean nationalism is configured with virulent aggression through the lens of Mt. Baekdu, anti-colonialism, perceived anti-imperialist victory and the embedding of revolutionary politics. This makes a non-starter out of any movement towards a resolution with those whom Pyongyang sees as the inheritors of colonial collaboration, the new colonizers, the old enemy and the not-so-new imperialist. Equally, 2015’s Message brings a developmental agenda frozen in urgent, assertive aspic. Perhaps KPA Unit 534 will bring in bounteous catches of pollack on the jetties of the January 8th Fisheries Station, revealing, as the New Years Message hopes, “a sea of gold”; however, for the North Korea analyst the counterbalance is the lead weight of history and narrative. Even in developmental terms, this Message required an acute awareness of North Korea’s revolutionary history to negotiate its sloughs and sumps.

References

Biography of Kim Jong-suk. (2005), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1961). “On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement,” Works 15, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1964). “Let us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers,” Works 18, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1964). “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country,” Works 18, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Il-sung. (1968). “For the Large Scale Reclamation of Tidelands,” Works 23, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Rodong Sinmun. (2014). “Kim Jong-un’s 2014 New Years Message”, http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2014-01-01-0001&chAction=L

Rodong Sinmun. (2014). “Kim Jong-un Visits New Aquatic Products Refrigeration Facilities”, http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2014-01-07-0012&chAction=S

Rodong Sinmun (2015). “Kim Jong-un’s 2015 New Year Message” , http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2015-01-02-0002&chAction=L