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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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Bird, I. (1905) – Korea and her Neighbours : a Narrative of Travel, with an Account of the Vicissitudes and Position of the Country, London, John Murray

Bobilier, B. (2002) – Environmental Protection and Reforestation in DPR of Korea, Project Evaluation and Feasibility Study, Pyongyang, Triangle Generation Humanitaire

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Conroy,H. (1960) – The Japanese Seizure of Korea:1868 – 1910, Philadelphia, PA, University of Pennsylvania Press

Cosgrove, D. (1984) – Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Madison, WI, The University of Wisconsin Press

Cosgrove, D. (2004) – Landscape and Landschaft, Lecture Given the “Spatial Turn in History” Symposium German Historical Institute, February 19, 2004

Cumings, B. (1981) – The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press

Cumings, B. (2010) – The Korean War. New York City, NY, Modern Library

Elvin, M. (2004) – The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven, CT. Yale University Press

Government General of Chosen. (1909) – Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Chosen (Korea), Keijo (Seoul), GGC

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Government General of Chosen. (1912) – Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Chosen (Korea), Keijo (Seoul), GGC,

Grajdanazev, M. (1944) – Modern Korea, New York City, NY, Institute of Pacific Relations

His Imperial Japanese Majesty Residency General. (1907) – Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea, Seoul, HIJMRG

His Imperial Japanese Majesty Residency General. (1908) – Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea, Seoul, HIJMRG

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

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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