From the Sino-NK Archives (34) – 27.07.2015 – Returning to the Courtyard: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea

Ri Song-ryong and patriotic family in 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Ri Song-ryong and patriotic family in 2013 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Returning to the Courtyard: Rescaling Charismatic Landscapes in North Korea

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Following on from my 2013 article “Patriotism begins with a love of courtyard,” which focused on a particular extraordinary campaign of political narrative from North Korea revolving around the patriotism of one family unit in Pyongyang and their embedding of current charismatic political forms within the space of their own house, the author now further considers the utility of that campaign and the political methodologies and strategies which it might represent. Deploying in particular a conceptual framework derived originally from Cartography and recently reconfigured to support the empirical goals of human or political Geography, namely Scales and Scaling, this piece moves beyond and around the initial campaign, considering other campaigns and narrative projections. Ultimately it conceives of the process, in the context of North Korea’s political articulation as a carrier signal for its charisma. This article is a shortened version of a full length academic article published in Tiempo Devorado, the Journal of Consumed Time, published by the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

So before we turn to Ri Song-ryong and his family around their courtyard perhaps addressing the more general nature of patriotism might be helpful. When we do so in the more conventional social and political productions of the contemporary wider world there appears a particular texture and tone to the conception. Having been rehabilitated from enlightenment critiques, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s co-option of nationalistic fervor to underpin the modern nation-state and its democratic ideals (so under threat according to Rousseau as to require constant patriotic buffering), patriotism now serves generally the nation-state and its governmental-political-industrial complexes. Citizens are patriotic when they celebrate their nation’s success in war, defend it from defeat and subjection, resist the oppressor, commemorate the hero, and successfully marry their own personal commitments to wider repertoires of social and politically acceptable practice and praxis.

North Koreans, therefore, in an age of what has been termed Songun (military first politics)[1], can easily be imagined would be considered appropriately patriotic if they celebrated their nation’s military altercations with its enemies, they would be patriotic if they expressed loyalty to their political and scientific leadership when they developed new technologies of resistance or defense and they would patriotic when they commemorated the historical narratives of struggle against past colonizers and subjugators, in particular the Japanese. Of course, in a sense, this is very much so, especially in the presentation given by North Korean media output and official publications and as readers will know Pyongyang has an elaborate and extensive socio-cultural system of commemoration of national heroes and liberators. The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Sinchon Massacre Museum, and innumerable memorials, statues, and pilgrimage sites scattered around the country make sure that the citizenry of North Korea do not lose focus on the nature and importance of their nation’s military and liberation struggles[2]. An equally extensive temporal repertoire of commemorative events, days, programs, and festivals embeds these spaces of commemoration within a calendar of patriotism, which impacts deeply on North Korean’s social and political lives.

Kim Jong-un and Sinchon3

Kim Jong-un’s rescaling is underway at the Sinchon Museum. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Utilizing an intriguing deployment of the tools of revolutionary modeling originally masterfully used by the institutions of the People’s Republic of China under Mao’s Great Leap Forward[3], North Korea has focused the revolutionary energy of the mass upon its leadership characters. Thus Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un are transformed within this framework of commemoration and veneration into revolutionary models, in spite perhaps of their distance (in the case of the two later Kim’s), from the actual topography and temporality of that revolution. What then is done, enacted, and iterated by the Kim’s is almost intrinsically patriotic. The quotation that begins this section attests to the necessity of embodying that patriotism within institutional practice, in particular in its case, the service personnel of the Korean People’s Army. The text goes on to suggest connections between the defense of the territorial boundaries of the nation itself, Kim Jong-il’s patriotism, and its internalization or embodiment: “The history of his ceaseless inspections of outposts standing guard over the country in the death-defying spirit was cherished deep in the mind of the service personnel.”[4] And finally the connection of this patriotism, commemorative will, and science and technical capability is apparently manifest in North Korea’s space program: “The intense loyalty of the scientists to implement without fail the patriotic behest of him to glorify the country as a space power brought about such a miracle as the successful launch of Kwangmyongsong 3-2….”[5]

Unha 3-2 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Rescaling beyond the stratosphere: Image Rodong Sinmun

Unha 3-2 and Kwangmyongsong-3 Rescaling beyond the stratosphere. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Such cases and their articulation of a patriotic sensibility are, of course, singularly aggressive and combative. They are also in a sense exclusionary and cannot hope to include the entirety of North Korea’s population within their repertoire of practice and action, as not everyone can currently be a member of the service personnel (even in such a highly militarized state as North Korea during the reign of Kim Jong-il). But North Korean political narratives demand universality of applicability and connection, and ultimately patriotism must have a mode in which it can be diffused beyond the scope and spaces of military and service personnel. This paper wishes to assert that just such a diffusion was undertaken within Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard.

What the campaign within this familial space permits is a scalar shift in ideological and narrative manifestation from the grand, national, and institutional level to more approachable, local, and familial levels, through the construction of social-political relations at that level. At this scale patriotism and their enactment and construction into nature and the environment are translated to a more social level, the political and Party thematic, embedded within personal interactions and relationships. As Swyngedouw[6] and other social or critical geographers[7] might see it, here the state is empowering itself through enacting and re-embodying social processes within the landscapes of personal and familial life.

Revolutionary Modeling and Rescaling | It must be apparent that in some senses Ri Song-ryong and his family are classical and typical revolutionary models, in the Maoist or Stakhanovite sense.[8] Embodying correct socio-political practice through a rescaling of political narratives and processes from the grander scope of national and historical scale (in which legendary or slightly abstracted individuals or communities accomplish something apparently unlikely or near impossible), to the local, contemporary scale (in which you, the reader, the participant, must interact and accomplish those practices within your own life), revolutionary modeling in North Korea in general has manifested around the personages of the Kim family, or those groups of politically committed revolutionary pioneers that forged either the initial institutions and structures of North Korea or fought for the eventual liberation of Korea during the pre-colonial times.[9] Ri and his patriotic family however represent the re-scaling of the notion of the revolutionary model into a different landscape.

Leaving behind Ri, his family and their courtyard for socio-cultural spaces elsewhere in North Korea, but spaces nonetheless that are re-scaled through the process of revolutionary modeling to become socially and ideologically exemplary in such a way as to privilege processes over rather more dramatic outcomes. It is something of a cliché to declare that Pyongyang’s roads have rather less traffic than is usual for an East Asian city. In recent years North Korea’s Party and institutional elite appear to have bought many more vehicles and its roads have much more traffic.[10] This has not so far encouraged Pyongyang’s city authorities to invest in more traffic lights and other organizational infrastructure, accordingly drivers at its intersections and junctions are still directed by a group of fashionably uniformed police women known as the Traffic Command Corps. These woman have been the subject of the academic and touristic gaze in the past,[11] and the focus of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s interests[12], but 2014 saw an extraordinary moment of focus in which a member of their team gained international prominence.[13]

Ri Kyong Sim

Ri Kyong-sim: Rescaling personified. | Image: KCTV

Ri Kyong-sim, district traffic controller within Pyongyang City People’s Security Bureau’s Traffic Command Corps, one of those responsible for organizing and directing the city’s traffic, suddenly became a feature on North Korea’s main news channels. On May 5, Ri was granted a number of the most prestigious awards in North Korea’s gift. She was made a “DPRK Hero,” granted a “Gold Star Medal,” and made a member of the “Order of National Flag First Class,” all granted by one of the most senior institutions in the government The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Why should such a person, in a fairly low position, undertaking a job which, in the North Korean institutional hierarchical pyramid in Pyongyang is fairly close to the bottom be according such extraordinary treatment? The original KCNA coverage reported that “Ri dedicated herself to ensuring the traffic order in the capital city and displaying the heroic self-sacrificing spirit of safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance….”[14]

Rodong Sinmun and KCTV were, even given their initial reporting of such an apparently important moment, not entirely clear as to what had actually occurred. But it became apparent that Ri Kyong Sim had in the midst of a traffic accident rescued or protected a pair of images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Images of the leaders (and of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s first wife, and Kim Jong-il’s mother) are protected by law in North Korea, revered objects which serve to remind citizens of their position at the base of the revolutionary pyramid, to assert and reinforce the regimes assertion of “fatherly love” and to transmit its perceived charisma and authority. There are a number of examples during the guerrilla period in which Kim Il-sung and his fellow supporters fought and harassed Japanese forces on the borders of Korean and Manchuria and from during the Korean War, when representations of important figures and physical relics of moments in those key struggles in the construction of North Korean national identity and mythology become vital to current political commemoration.[15]

Ri Kyong-sim, it seems, was to be a new defender of such revolutionary narrative and imagery, her act of defense a rescaling of more urgent narratives of both national construction and defense, in line with Swyngedouw and others[16] conception of this process’ production of embodied social and political relations. Ultimately this was made even more explicit by the KCNA’s assertion later in the month that Ri “devotedly defended the security of the headquarters of the revolution in the unexpected situation and rescued portraits of the great men of Mt Paektu.”[17] The process of social and political production rescaled in the contemporary North Korean present right back to the semi-mythic period of the resistance to colonial power and subjectivity.

Charisma in the Biotechnology Branch Laboratory: Image KCNA

Charisma in the Biotechnology Branch Laboratory | Image: KCNA

While Ri is by no means the only individual or group of individuals whose contemporary experience or interaction with a landscape impacted or embedded within North Korea’s charismatic political narrative is rescaled through this process of revolutionary modelling so as to support the transfer of that narrative and its charismatic content from one scale of socio-political relations to another. In 2014 and 2015 for instance, scientific endeavour and academic research has been a key element of North Korea’s developmental agenda. Rodong Sinmun in particular has carried a number of picture articles focused on institutions such as the Academy of Koryo Medicine,[18] the State Academy of Sciences,[19] and Biotechnology Branch Academy.[20] In all of these articles groups of scientists are shown engaging in their particular specialism surrounded by the landscape determined by their empirical methodologies, such as research greenhouses, clinics with medical facilities and laboratories replete with autoclaves and other technical paraphernalia. These are scientists and researchers from our contemporary time, entwined with the landscapes of North Korea and the context of its socio-political relations: as they currently manifest. However Rodong Sinmun also editorialises their activity in language such as “our scientists and technicians serve in advance units in the decisive battle for the defense, system and life…. For them there is no fortress invulnerable. They are revolutionaries….”[21] Just as Ri Kyong Sim’s contemporary encounter with the landscape of charisma is rescaled, these anonymous scientists and academics find their everyday research terrain transmogrified into a revolutionary space, a landscape akin to the de-temporalized and de-territorialized truly charismatic landscapes of North Korea’s nationalist mythologies.

Sui generis descriptions of North Korean politics are, as we have made clear many times on Sino-NK, neither analytically useful nor empirically valid. North Korea’s politics is not unique and plenty of other nations have sought to maintain political and social infrastructures and approaches similar to it. Other nations have also acted diplomatically or militarily in ways the roots, ambitions, interests, and outcomes of which were hard to discern. Other nations have even sought to utilize extensive cults of personality. That is not, however, to say that politics and the articulation and manifestation of political narratives in North Korea does not do interesting, sometimes extraordinary things that are worthy of study.

This piece’s framing of the impact and outcomes of North Korean political campaigns, their embeddings, enactments and articulations through the lenses of Kwon and Chung’s charismatic and theatrical politics,[22] Castree,[23] and Cosgrove’s symbolic, socially, and politically constructed landscapes,[24] and Smith and Swyngedouw’s reconfiguration of the nature of scaling, from one of pure cartography to one of social and political analysis and comment, has, it is hoped, allowed the reader to encounter such political interactions in a new light–in a sense for them to have been rescaled themselves.

As Kwon and Chung make clear in their analysis of North Korean political interactions, it is not enough for a political figure, element, narrative or instance to simply be charismatic, its charisma cannot simply be innate, it is must be actioned and actualized through an enacting and performance in theatrics. Thus these campaigns as they are experienced on paper or as they are interacted with on the ground by North Korean citizens are not simply static moments of assertion, but through the act of rescaling become re-territorialized and re-temporalized in the experiential present. Rescaling allows the witness or viewer to experience something of the content of their charisma. Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard would simply be a picture of Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard on the page or on the screen, were its articulation not ultimately an act of rescaling.

The transfer of one thematic or element of political charismatics from one scale to another, whether temporal or topographic (national to local, historical to contemporary for example), transmits and transforms the social-political process and its interaction with those landscapes and terrains involved, one to another, the act of transmission itself serving as a carrier-signal for the transformation. In this way rescaling itself becomes an actor in the social-political process of North Korea’s charismatic politics, as much as those landscapes or participants who are themselves rescaled. Through such carrier signals, the spatial reality of Ri Song-ryong’s courtyard in Sowon-ri can be transformed into any courtyard and Ri Song-ryong’s expression of patriotism through enactment on his own landscape can become any citizen’s patriotic expression.


[1] Alexey Vorontsov, “North Korea’s Military First Politics: A Curse or a Blessing,” Brookings Institute, May 26, 2006 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[2] Suzy Kim, “Specters of War in Pyongyang: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in North Korea,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 14 (2015): 124-151 and Adam Cathcart, “Museum Pieces: Kim Jong-un, the Korean War and the shadow of Maoism,” Sino-NK, August 5, 2014 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[3] Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[4] “Thoroughly Embody Kim Jong-il’s Patriotism,” Rodong Sinmun, December 11, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[5]Ibid.

[6] Erik Swyngedouw, “Excluding the other: the production of scale and scaled politics,” in Geographies of economies, Roger Lee and Jane Wills (eds.) (London: Arnold, 1997), 167-176.

[7] Neil Smith, “Geography, difference and the politics of scale,” in Postmodernism and the social sciences, Joe Doherty, Elspeth Graham, and Mo Malek (eds.) (London: Macmillan, 1994), 57-79.

[8] Mitch Meisner, “Dazhai, The Mass Line in Practice,” Modern China 1 no. 4 (1978): 27–62 and Xin An Lu, Dazhai: Imagistic Rhetoric as a Cultural Instrument,” American Communication Journal 5 no. 1 (2001): 1–26.

[9] Robert Winstanley-Chesters,  Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Press, 2015).

[10] Charles Armstrong, “The view from Pyongyang,” The New York Times, August 15, 2012 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[11] Gareth Mizrahi, “The North Korea Traffic Girls,” The North Korea Blog, May 22, 2013, (accessed July 24, 2015).

[12] Tania Branigan, “What we know about North Korea,” The Guardian, August 6, 2009 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[13] “North Korean traffic cop may have saved Kim Jong-un’s life,” The Daily Telegraph, May 9, 2013 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[14] “DPRK Hero title awarded to traffic controller,” KCNA, May 5, 2013 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[15] “At Academy of Koryo Medicine,” Rodong Sinmun, May 5, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[16] Swyngedouw, “Excluding the other” and Neil Smith, Uneven development: nature, capital and the production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).

[17] “Many models in new era produced in DPRK,” KCNA, May 31, 2014 (accessed July 24, 2015).

[18] “At Academy of Koryo Medicine,” Rodong Sinmun, May 5, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[19] “At State Academy of Sciences,” Rodong Sinmun, February 10, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[20] “At Biotechnology Branch Academy of the State Academy of Science,” Rodong Sinmun, March 15, 2014 (accessed March 29, 2015).

[21] “Scientists must discharge their mission with honour,” Rodong Sinmun, April 8, 2014 (accessed March 25, 2015).

[22] Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[23] Noel Castree, Social Nature (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2001)

[24] Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).

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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 (31) – 09.04.2015 -The Crossings and Encounters of Kim Jong-suk: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

The house in Hoeryong said to be the birthplace of Kim Jong-suk. | Image: Foreign Languages Publishing House

The house in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province that is said to be the birthplace of Kim Jong-suk. | Image: Foreign Languages Publishing House

The Crossings and Encounters of Kim Jong-suk: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The official resting place of Kim Jong-suk at the culmination of the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The official resting place of Kim Jong-suk at the culmination of the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

In early 2015, political pilgrimage assumed a prominent position in North Korean state media with the celebration of a “250-mile schoolchildren’s journey” undertaken to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s crossing of the Yalu River at Phophyong in North Pyongan Province in 1925. In my most recent essay, I looked at this process as a form of deterritorialization of modes of relation and interaction in North Korean historical narrative, and then considered reterritorialization via symbolic and ritualistic re-enactment.

In concluding, I asserted that one of the most interesting elements of the reterritorialization was the fact that it did not conclude with re-enactment of the crossing undertaken by the person it commemorates. Whereas Kim Il-sung broke the bounds of Chosun colonial territory and embraced new subjectivities of resistance from which he would re-emerge years later as the founding leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the school children ended their journey on the banks of the river, their subjectivity returned to a contemporary mode.

This essay explores other processes of territory, boundary and crossing in North Korean historical narrative, those undertaken by persons capable of such territorializations and reterritorialized in commemorative and political culture ever since. Though the main protagonist is–as ever–Kim Il-sung himself, the process of crossing is common currency in the stories of a great many figures in North Korean political history.

Resistance: A Family of Border-Crossers | Early in the 1920s, Kim Il-sung’s father Kim Hyong-jik is said to have made a river crossing of sorts during the process of his resistance to Japanese colonial power. Kim Chun-san, the father of Kim Il-sung’s first wife, Kim Jong-suk, is also recounted as “having engaged in the independence movement against the Japanese for many years, crossing and recrossing the Tumen River.”[1] Their motivations for moving across a national territorial boundary–in the words of Park Hyun-ok, the “osmosis” of Koreans as imperial subjects–may have been economically motivated, but in the retelling it is statements of resistance that loom largest.

Here we are primarily concerned with the early crossings, reterritorializations, and deterritorializations of Kim Jong-suk, one of the key narrative figures from early anti-colonialist, “heroic” era North Korean politics. Kim is now reterritorialized in monolithic commemorative form throughout North Korea, but in particular at her grave site in the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang. Her journey from narrative obscurity to the status of ‘anti-Japanese war hero’  has been a long one; indeed, her charismatic reterritorializations are almost as dramatic as the deterritorializations and border crossings upon which the narrative itself is built.

Kim Jong-suk at Samji. | Image: Kim Il-sung, With the Century, Vol. 3

The entire story of Kim’s life has taken on the kind of epic proportions which would readily spill over the boundaries of this limited essay, so engagement with her encounters with the topographies of the guerrilla struggle and Kim Il-sung will have to wait. For the time being, I focus simply on the crossings, territorializings, and becomings of her childhood and early adult life, which created the personhood of political charisma through which contemporary North Korean politics seeks to reterritorialize and extract charismatic subjectivity.

Bonds of Blood: Family and Finance | Kim Jong-suk’s father’s commitment to the early independence movement and contesting of Japanese imperialism brought the family disruption and financial difficulties. It is intriguing to note the impact of this resistance upon their territorial position:

… the family, unable to pay back its debits, lost its share cropping land and its thatched cottage was pulled down. They had to live in a room in another family’s house on Osan Hill….

Aside from this terrible impact on the household economy, we are also told that Kim Chun-san died in “a foreign land” in 1929. Meanwhile, Kim’s mother who had “helped her husband in his patriotic struggle” was killed “by Japanese ‘punitive’ troops in 1932.” According to the historical narrative, her suffering did not end there, as elder brother Kim Ki-jun and Kim Ki-song were both killed fighting the Japanese as part of the forces of Kim Il-sung.

This panoply of violence and death within one revolutionary family is shared with the family of Kim Il-sung, as is their crossing, Rubicon-like, of the Tumen. Kim Jong-suk shares her late husband’s tendency for intense retrospective remembrance, conceiving of this crossing as a vital moment in her upbringing and her development, transformative and distinct in its embedding of geographic locality within her consciousness, as demonstrated by the epilogue which begins this essay.

An examination of the utility of each crossing in the narrative demonstrates its use in the development of Kim Jong-suk’s own subjectivity. For while Kim Jong-suk and her family may have broken the bounds of their colonial subjectivity in their crossing of the Tumen and reterritorialization thereafter, they had not escaped their deeper subjectivity as peasants.

In the spring of the year when she reached the age of ten, her elder sister Kim Kwiinnyo was made the servant of a landowner because her family was unable to pay back the debts they owed to him… when the landowner and his sons came to take her…Kim Jong-suk [was] injured trying to protect their sister…. Not satisfied with this, the landowner deprived her family of the rented land… and instigated the police to watch her father and search her home frequently….

This instance of violent relations forced another crossing upon the family; this time to a village in the mountains called Xishanli. However, it is presented as a mental and spiritual crossing, wherein Kim “began to realise, the nature of the contradictions of the exploitative society that brought her misery and sorrow.” Continuing, she is said to have “felt hatred for the Japanese imperialists and her class enemies.”

Kim’s developing sense of nation would later drive her into a multitude of crossings and re-crossings. Alongside the revolutionary groups with which she was affiliated, she would live a migrant’s life of fleeting residence and journey across the boundaries of Chosun and the colonial statelet of Manchukuo. However, before her connection with the Young Communist League at the juncture of young adulthood, her final crossing, in which her subjectivity was transformed beyond the bounds of territory, is recounted as having been neither of geography nor terrain.

Leafleting: A Pedagogy of Revolution | “She herself wished to learn. The stronger her desire to learn the more bitter was the resentment she felt at the heartless world which denied her a decent life….

Kim Jong-suk’s final crossing, her final reterritorialization in this essay, began in 1930. While it appears that the young Kim had always been eager to learn and certainly willing to assert herself, accessing education and agitation was nothing less than revelatory for her. After her first class, Kim “could not sleep. The fact that there were people who were sympathetic to the poor in that cruel world excited her immensely.”

It would ultimately be Kwak Chan-yong, an activist from the Young Communist League who inculcated Kim into revolutionary modalities and who supported her final crossing and the transformation of her subjectivity. Receiving an assignment to disseminate revolutionary literature by night, the “next morning, the whole village found itself in great excitement to see the leaflets scattered all over their yards and the roads; one was even pasted on the gate of the landowners house.”

The die was cast it seems, there would be no further reterritorialization of the young Kim Jong-suk; only escape, transience and journey through resistance and revolution. In the next essay in this series, I explore how in later years Kim Jong-suk’s subjectivity would become acute and distinct, her personhood itself would bestow charisma and energy upon the ground across which she journeyed and fought. Charisma and authoritative energy derived from the crossings, traverses and travails of Kim Jong-suk and Kim Il-sung, that in later years could be re-deployed, transferred and redirected through pilgrimage, commemorative and contemplation, in the contemporary North Korean everyday.


[1] This quote, and all that follow, are taken from an electronic version of Kim Jong-suk: Biography (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2005). The book, unfortunately, is not paginated. Multiple digital copies exist, the best and virtual facsimile of the physical version is located here; this version was used in the production of this essay. Another copy, hosted in the United States, can be found here.

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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

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

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