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

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

Whan that Apriil with his shoures soot

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

So priketh hem nature in hir corages;

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages….

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

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

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

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

amnok crossing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schoolchildren start the march

Schoolchidren march off on the pilgrimage | Image: Rodong Sinmun

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

The process for the schoolchildren’s selection, the nature of the institutions from which they came or their ages, elements which might support a really coherent, cogent, and convincing re-enactment process, are never stated in Rodong Sinmun reporting of the enterprise. Yet the physicality of their journey is clear and important to the narrative. This physicality, common to pilgrimages elsewhere, in which breaks, pauses, and stops must be taken, one imagines to rest the tired legs of the children after crossing “one steep pass after another,” is clear to the reader. These are presented as real children of North Korea in 2015, not cyphers for the pre-Liberation, nationalist past; they are presumably revitalised by their intersection with ideological energy.

Schoolchildren visit Kangyye

In Kanggye | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Conceiving of this pilgrimage as yet another theatrical moment in North Korea’s never ending narratological flow would be to miss some of its most important elements and fail to draw out the deeper context. The theatrical potential is clear; yes, the children travelled down a well trodden list of places and spaces of charisma, one that appeared ideologically and narratologically sound. Having left Mangyongdae, Kim Il-sung’s home village in conventional narrative, they passed Kaechon, Kujang, Hyangsan, Huichon, and Kangyye, “along the historic road covered by the President with the lofty aim to save the destiny of the country and nation in the dark days when Korea was under the Japanese imperialists’ colonial rule.”

In keeping with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialization, the spaces and practices of relation within the frame of the journey are as important as its starting point, route and destination, a fact in common with earlier narratives of North Korean historiography (which will be encountered in one of the sister pieces to this essay). Though these children walk the route of the commemoration of North Korean revolution and liberation in 2015, the relational praxis encountered is that of 1925. Whatever these children think in the quieter moments of their own particular everyday (perhaps watching South Korean TV dramas on smuggled in USB sticks, helping their parents engage in furtive transactions at semi-legal markets, or just coping with the mixed ennui of resignation, exasperation and desperation produced by interaction with state institutions), the social and personal context of those dark days of the late 1920s is activated by their every footstep. Their breaks would include hearing the “impressions of the reminiscences of anti-Japanese guerrillas,” and beginning their march again they would become, represent, and even channel the aspirations of those same guerrillas.

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

Schoolchildren visit Phophyong

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

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

How are we to fill that void?

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

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This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com