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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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