The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play: Children’s Spaces and Places of Refuge in North Korea (Excerpt)

Places of Refuge, Elderly Terrains

…Having considered North Korea’s leisure history in order to contextualise both the notion of non-productive or leisurely space under Pyongyang’s remit and to consider some of the political and ideological imperatives which underpin the production and development of such spaces the paper’s narrative arrived at what is essentially a space for families and children. While this paper does in fact address some elements of childhood experience in North Korea and will examine them in the light of these leisurely spaces by the Taedong, it is not the spaces of family that are of interest to this author, but to what might be regarded as the potentially more hidden spaces of the disabled and the orphaned.

North Korea has not been known for its kind treatment of those who do not fit within its social and ethical model. Hazel Smith in her recent book ‘North Korea: Markets and Military Rule” for instance expressed astonishment at North Korean census figures from 2010 which at least suggested that teenage or non-normative pregnancy might be a fact in North Korea (recording some 156 births to mothers under the age of 16 in 2010), having never done so before (Smith, 2015, p.231). London’s Paralympic Games in 2012 was the first recorded instance of a disabled athlete competing in public for North Korea and research by this author (Winstanley-Chesters, 2015a), has sought to unpick the connections between this fact and work focused on institutional capacity building between the North Korean Ministry of Health and the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Other nations (both autocratic and democratic) in history have sought to eradicate those who are differently or dis-abled, Nazi Germany of course seeking to exterminate the unfit and the unwell, and Sweden having a long standing policy of forced sterilisation of those with Learning Difficulties and Difference, only ending in the early 1980s being simply two disparate examples. Whether North Korea ever sought by policy means to do so is unknown, but there has been much speculation as to the fate of those who by their physical or mental natures could not hope to be as productive as the general citizenry under Pyongyang’s sovereignty.

Of course there is nearly always one category of disabled or differently abled citizens who are not regarded as burdensome by nations or territories, quite the opposite in fact their support and rehabilitation is often seen as a focus of national commitment and social duty, soldiers and people of uniform. There is a huge body of research focused on the functionality and suitability of veterans and service people’s support post combat in a number of sovereignties and nations, but absolutely none it seems addressing North Korean veterans and service people and the provision of services to them. While this paper cannot hope to cover their experience holistically or comprehensively it can at least, with a Geographer’s eye begin to present some of the political and physical terrain of these services and their experience.

“You disabled soldiers fought heroically against the US imperialist aggressors and shed your blood to defend the motherland during the last war. It is really admirable that, although seriously disabled, you are taking an active part in the building of socialism” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.214).

Kim Il-sung’s statement, recorded in the Works series for 1958 as “We must take good care of disabled soldiers who shed their blood in the fight for the country and the people”, and apparently given at a workshop for disabled soldiers is the foundation statement so far as North Korean ideological conceptions of disabled ex-employees and service people is concerned. While a tremendous debt is acknowledged to those who have become disabled through military combat for their nation (“We must scrupulously look after the disabled soldiers in every respect so that they will not suffer any inconveniences both in life and in work” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.214), the individuals themselves are not absolved from commitments to the national cause, nor the strictures of revolutionary fervour. Disabled soldiers should, even in this space and place of refuge, work and be as productive as possible: “…you should do some work. Yet, you should never overwork yourselves. It will be good to work as much as necessary to keep yourselves fit.” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.216). Given this apparent focus on productivity and as an example to be followed, those who were resident in this particular workshop were to be amply supplied to enable their work; “The disabled soldiers here want more fruit gardens. So it will be a good thing to give them the state orchard in the vicinity of the workshop…The disabled soldiers should be supplied with both fuel for production and firewood for home use” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.2014). As with other citizens of North Korea, the disabled should be supported further in their education and personal development, and prejudice which might be problematic to that end be resisted: “Now a comrade claimed that once he went to a school for disabled soldiers, only to be rejected and returned back because he had arms missing. The cadres at the school did the wrong thing. Could it be that one who has no arms cannot study?” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.216). Disabled ex-service people within the text are widely anticipated to engage in education at all levels and within all institutional structures provided.

However, along with work itself, disabled soldiers and service people who have essentially fought for the North Korean revolution (within this text, the fighting which disabled them would have been during the 1950-1953 war against United Nations and Republic of Korea forces), should not neglect or forget that revolution. The Disabled must be as good and as ideologically sound North Koreans as any other, as committed and as respectful of its revolutionary traditions as they were during their combat: “Disabled soldiers should always love the people and hate only the enemy. As you fought well and courageously for the motherland and the people on the battlefields in the past, you should today continue to have the same revolutionary spirit…” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.217). With this revolutionary spirit and commitment comes an ethical framework familiar surely to all North Korean political and Party appointees: “Our disabled soldiers should lead a simple life and always live in a revolutionary way. Under no circumstances should they drink alcohol and say things under its influence…” (Kim Il-sung, 1958, p.217).

Such spaces of refuge and support for the once militarily committed are of course therefore not to be spaces of refuge from the politics of North Korea and the demands of revolutionary ideology. In a sense past examples such as Kiluiju Disabled Soldiers Production Workshop are a reflection and a projection of this into the contemporary era and into the impetus and imperatives which underpin North Korean healthcare more generally. ‘On Making Good Preparations for Universal, Free Medical Care’ for instance a 1952 instruction from Kim Il-sung, and one of a number focused on the post Korean War rehabilitation of a devastated if optimistic North Korean bureaucracy and the form of state and infrastructure anticipated in the post War era, contains a pre-figuring of the sort of support and impetus behind such projects for the disabled. “Nothing is more precious to us than the lives of the people. At present our people are struggling both at the font and in the rear dedicating all they have to final victory in the war. What is it that we cannot spare people who fight selflessly, displaying noble patriotism and mass heroism” (Kim Il-sung, 1952, p.19).

While the terrain of Kiluiju Disabled Solders Production Unit of course is now in the distant historical past of North Korea and either photos nor contemporary reportage other than that recorded in Kim Il-sung’s Works and Selected Works are very difficult to access, North Korea’s ideological course as only consolidated institutional focus around the needs of military infrastructure and personnel in recent years. Kim Jong-il’s development of a Songun or Military First politics following the death of his father in 1994 entailed the wholescale revision of Party and governmental policy as well as institutional capacity. Food distribution, rationing and health infrastructure were heavily focused on supplying and supporting North Korea’s military. The infrastructure focused on the refuge of the elderly and the disabled has similarly developed, though with definite connections to the past calls for those resident to live productive and revolutionary lives, well emplaced within the wider superstructures of North Korean politics and ideology. Pyongyang’s newly built ‘Home for the Aged’ is just such a piece of infrastructure.

Amongst the pleasure and leisure spaces introduced earlier in the paper on the banks of the Taedong River, the Home for the Aged was completed and opened in early August 2015 (KCNA 2015a). While the images presented in the Rodong Sinmun (Rodong Sinmun 2015b) and KCNA (KCNA 2015a), undoubtedly present the home as part of Pyongyang and North Korea’s modern urban infrastructure and development and very much an element of governmental bequest in the age of Kim Jong-un, the reportage leading up to its opening makes very sure to connect to earlier eras and the revolutionary authority (Kwon and Chung, 2012), present within the historical narrative. Kim Jong-un for instance on visiting the still under construction building in March of 2015 is recounted as having; “…recalled with deep emotion that President Kim Il-sung, together with leader Kim Jong-il, visited an old service people’s home in Manal-ri, Sungho County in May 1948 when he was busy paving an untrodden path for nation-building and showed deep emotion for the inmates living conditions…saying that the state would take warm care of the aged…” (Rodong Sinmun 2015a). The home and its construction is also firmly fixed in the governmental and bureaucratic ecosystem of North Korea, reportage and documentation focused on the process paying both homage and careful articulation to/for the respective positions of both the Workers Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong-un remarked for instance during his March visit that “to build the home for the aged well is a very important work in correctly implementing the Worker’s Party of Korea’s policy for the care of the elderly and fully displaying its validity and vitality” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a) and also, in a nod to the military’s role in its construction “expressed belief that the soldier-builders would successfully complete the construction of the home by late June, true to the intention of the Party Central Committee” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a).

Even of course while focusing on bureaucratic and institutional niceties and the process of the Home for the Aged’s construction, North Korean reporting makes clear to assert the wider framework for the care of the disabled, elderly and combat injured service people as of 2015 in North Korea: “Under the paternal love of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the ‘DPRK Law on the Protection for the Aged’ was adopted in the country and the Central Committee of the Federation for the Care of the Elderly of Korea organized and the Party and the state have wholly taken charge of aged and disabled people’s health and life…” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a). The Home itself will it seems also serve to drive further and future developments in the care and service provision so far as spaces of refuge for the elderly and disabled are concerned: “The Pyongyang City Home for the Aged should be built as a prototype equipped with all conditions for its inmates to lead a happy life free from any cares and worries so that such homes can be constructed in localities with it as a model…” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015a)

As a space of refuge and care for the disabled, elderly and disabled service people, Pyongyang’s new Home for the Aged is in summary presented as a space of comfort and refuge meant it seems to be in tune with some of the more comforting and less rigorous elements perhaps seen in Nursing Homes and accommodation or refuge spaces for the elderly in the United Kingdom and elsewhere (particularly the Netherlands developing network of Alzheimer’s Villages, in which the environment residents are placed is designed to reflect their own social constructs and life experience (Henley, 2012)). Kim Jong-un notes for example on its opening that “the home was successfully build to suit national character and flavour…dining rooms were constructed to create homelike atmosphere” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). However the terrain of the Home of the Aged is also presented as one of acute and definite modernity, in tune with many of the governmental priorities and agendas of the day. Kim Jong-un himself remarks that “the longer one watches, the more fashionable it looks” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b) and that in common with the infrastructure created in the 1950s to support not only the physical rehabilitation, but the political and social rehabilitation of disabled and injured service people, the home’s residents will not be allowed or afforded the opportunity to neglect their personal development. Kim Jong-un’s opening speech includes the assertion that “…service and healthcare establishments including barber’s, beauty parlor, bath and treatment rooms look impeccable and library, sporting room and amusement hall were also successfully built for the cultural and emotional life and physical training of health seekers” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b). While their social and revolutionary health will be maintained, it will of course be done so in a structure that is environmentally friendly and ecologically sound in the manner that North Korea presents much of its infrastructural development in recent years; “an air conditioning system by use of geotherm is introduced into the home…and greening is it environment done very well” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b).

While the Home for the Aged is a distinct piece of architecture by itself therefore it is meant to be encountered within the wider terrain of development and infrastructure of its time. This is even more assertively established by the fact of its position, “built on the bank of the River Taedong in the wake of the Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015c). This terrain includes this connection with the afore named neighbouring facility, which allows the author and the paper to move to the opposite end of life’s spectrum, but in North Korea’s governmental mind-set adjoined in continuing efforts to demonstrate “vividly President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il’s love for the people” (Rodong Sinmun, 2015b)…


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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).


[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).


This post was originally published at – 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

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

kIm Jong-suk warrior

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

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

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The narrative describes the events:

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

pedagogy and violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KIm Jong-suk and statue

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., 61.

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

[4] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 62.

[5] Ibid., 65.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 66.

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

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

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

[11] Ibid., p.132.

[12] Ibid., p.49.

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

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

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

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


This post was originally published at – 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

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.


This post was originally published at – 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