Fungus and Fisheries amidst the Forest of Arms: 2016 New Years’ Address

Pyongyang marks 2016's New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Pyongyang marks 2016’s New Years Address | Image: Rodong Sinmun

January 1st, 2016’s New Year’s Address from Kim Jong Un given a couple of weeks perspective has of course been supplanted somewhat by the phenomenal challenge and narrative bluster of the 6th’s nuclear test. Whether the core material of the device tested by Pyongyang at Punggye-ri was made of Uranium or Lithium, its success or failure and the geopolitical impact of it all will no doubt be discussed and dissected for some time. It is doubtful that the same fate will befall Kim Jong Un’s longer statement of North Korea’s intentions for the coming year.

While North Korea’s New Year’s Addresses under Kim Jong Un have generally followed a familiar pattern and are full of the linguistic repetition and bluster familiar to any who follow its media or published output, occasionally an interesting developmental phrase can be turned. The demand of 2015’s New Years’ Address to generate mountains and “seas of gold” so far as its fisheries and forestry sectors were concerned was a particular favourite of this author. Equally 2015’s favoured revolutionary speed “the blizzards of Paektu” speed, brought to mind the charismatic and theatric struggles of Pyongyang’s guerrilla nationalism in an easier, more piquant and less clumsy linguistic form. The extraordinary focus on fishing institutions and infrastructures in the second half of 2014 of course will remind any reader of the real connections between North Korea’s set pieces of narrative and message production and its institutional and developmental agendas. Kim Jong Un in fact made five visits to offshore and onshore facilities devoted to aquaculture in the months of October and November, 2015 combined, a schedule of institutional activity surely not that far removed from visits to military installations. 2016’s Address from a week or so ago however is not blessed with quite the same level of articulacy so far as development is concerned.

 Encountering 'blizzards of paektu', August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Encountering ‘blizzards of paektu’, August 29th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

For the reader it may in fact be that the non-military, developmental aspect to 2016’s New Years Address is very hard to discern at all. Kim Jong Un this year and presumably North Korea’s institutions appear very concerned to memorialise the events of the 70th anniversary of Liberation on August 15th and the institutional and governmental achievements that were underwritten by the events memorial themes of acute nationalism and imagined victory. The Address in a sense then undertakes an exercise in charismatic projection, using the carrier signal of Liberation’s authority and legitimacy to underpin the importance and potential of May’s coming Seventh Workers Party of Korea Congress. In this way the Address allows the charisma of the revolutionary and pre-institutional past to potentially be revivified in the institutional present of the Workers Party of Korea.

 

Obviously the reader will discern no developmental or environmental impact within this political sleight of hand, a form of which will be familiar to any considered analyst of North Korean ideological or presentational practice. We all would do well however to consider for a moment the past history of Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea, especially the last such event, which concluded its Plenary sessions on the 14th of October, 1980, some 36 years and a political epoch ago. Bearing in mind the fact that North Korean Party Congresses are more than the public set piece event we might be familiar with from meetings of the People’s Republic of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference, or in fact from modern Party Congresses or Conferences in democratic nations such as the United States or United Kingdom. Congresses of the Workers Party of Korea are in fact multi stranded, yearlong events, which yes, emerge above the political surface for a week of plenary and public sessions, but which then submerge again into the political and institutional substrata. Deeper down in the lower levels of committee and subcommittee the articulations and aspirations expressed at large and out loud in the public events are reconfigured and reframed for institutional and developmental function and incorporation. North Korea’s political and elite and no doubt in May, Kim Jong Un’s grand and dramatic words will be incorporated into institutional and infrastructural agendas that could well drive its frameworks for years or decades to come.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Sixth Workers Party Congress, 1980 | Image: Wikipedia/PD

How do we know this? Because that was precisely, when it came to development the role played by the Sixth Party Congress of 1980. While previous events in the 1960s and 1970s had sought to maintain the notion of Socialist progression and development, the connection between central planning and goal setting and economic and social success, 1980s Congress sought to abandon much of that very deterministic developmental framework. Whereas forestry, agriculture, mining or coastal reclamation had previously been set enormously ambitious, dramatic, charismatic production and development goals (the 1970s were the era of the 300,000 hectares of reclamation for example), the Sixth Party Congress dispensed with specific goals, which had both never been reached by North Korea’s institutions and in attempting and failing to do so had seriously disrupted economic and infrastructural production, for looser, more aspirational targets. Five Great Nature Remaking Tasks and their attendant complicated goals, became the Four Tasks for Remaking Nature. The output of the era of the Sixth Congress of course was not entirely without success, the Nampo Lockgate and some of the sporting and stadium infrastructure of Pyongyang exist to attest to that, but it was the end of North Korea’s most aspirational period so far as its developmental potential was concerned, and in a sense veiled acknowledgement of the impossibility of a number of its past ambitions.

 

2016’s New Years’ Address which heralds most of all, all that is to be achieved and desired by the Seventh Party Congress in a few months’ time, similarly aims in developmental terms for the abstract and the undefined. In-spite of both Kim Jong Un’s many and varied appearances at fish farms, or even his occasional visit to tree nurseries and forestry projects, no specific goals are set for these sectors. The very best the Address can muster is that the “fishing sectors…should ramp up production as soon as possible and see to it that the fish farms…built across the country pay off…”

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim Jong Un visits Samchong Catfish Farm, December, 6th, 2015 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

2016 it seems is to have no mountains or “seas of gold” and the only forest mentioned by North Korean institutions since the turn of the year, is its now Hydrogen fuelled  “forest of arms.” However perhaps we should all stop to ponder the potential viability or veracity of a more generalised, ad-hoc approach by Pyongyang to nutritional or other development. 2016’s Address, along with the fishing industries and infrastructures, also at that moment of focus references “vegetable greenhouses” and “mushroom production bases,” both developmental sectors to which Pyongyang has turned in the past and both of which both focused on last year within its political narratives and with which it has had some level of success in the past. Incorporating fungus production rooms into school and training infrastructure as well as generating the research institutions and communities to do so, and the combination of the human capital and resources provided by the Korean People’s Army and the fishing and aquaculture industries are key vectors to support more easily accessibly nutritional resources. While no doubt the elites of Pyongyang eat well amongst the newly lit tower blocks, 2016 New Year’s Address almost steels itself to admit the utility of such generalised sources of food resource when it ends its brief moment of developmental connection with the acceptance that these “contribute to enriching the people’s diet.”

Less ambitious, dramatic or charismatic in developmental terms, perhaps by necessity as much as design, 2016’s New Years’ Address appears for agriculture, environment and non-industrial or military infrastructure a call to carry on with the general, the non-specific, with what works. Perhaps the impending Seventh Party Congress and its reconsideration and reconfiguration of political, economic, social and ideological agendas demands a moment of pause, a breath in North Korea’s developmental echo chamber. Perhaps history and the Sixth Party Congress will be our guide. Perhaps, as on the 6th of January, Pyongyang will surprise or wrong foot as all again, but in developmental terms, so far as the New Years’ Address is concerned, developmental agendas will be more about past practice and carrying on, than the shock of the new.

New from RWC -Forests of Gold: Forests of Patriotic Socialism

The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should, as they carried out rehabilitation after the war, turn out in the campaign to restore the mountains of the country so as to turn them into “mountains of gold” thickly wooded with trees. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)

The seemingly acute developmental concern of the Young Leader, Kim Jong-un has been fairly, if intriguingly clear since his accession to the throne of charismatic Kimism on the death of his father at Christmas 2012. While of course much theatrics have since ensued, enrapturing a great many a Pyongyangologist and sports fan, the pedagogy and education of his later youth in Switzerland surely cannot amongst the Michael Jordan DVDs have included much in the way of environmental training. But developmentally focused, Kim Jong-un has rather oddly been. In between those Dennis Rodman visits and the requisite number of appearances next to military hardware and sites of commemoration for his grandfather and father, he has found the time and inspiration to write a number of narratologically at least informative texts on such matters. From his first “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country” delivered in April 2012, to his instructive tome on institutional and bureaucratic matters to a group of Agricultural ‘subteam’ workers in 2013 to the New Years Messages of 2014 and 2015 focused respectively on recounting the anniversary of 1964’s Rural Theses and the topography of nationalist, foundational struggle at Paektusan, Kim Jong-un as ploughed a very individual and distinct developmentalist furrow.

This author unpacked the messages focused on environmental and topographical hymnal and paean in this year’s message early in the year for Sino-NK. The reader will have traced the themes and flows of narrative, as much as the aspiration to build and better utilize, what Kim termed “mountains and seas of gold”. It will not surprise the reader of course to hear therefore of Kim Jong-un’s return to the field of developmental publication with a new text entitled “Let the Entire Party, the Whole Army and All the People Conduct a Vigorous Forest Restoration Campaign to Cover the Mountains of the Country with Green Woods”

Kim Jong-un’s latest piece of apparently long form authorship will also not surprise the reader given the political and bureaucratic commemorative calendar of North Korea and the fact that National Tree Planting Day arrives early on March 4th followed by the highly important Spring Land Management Campaigns. This author has also covered this aspect of the yearly cycle of institutional impetus and charismatic connection before, as the period is marked and remarked upon nearly every year. However while the moment is indeed frequently noted, it is still rare for such an extensive statement to be made.

This author’s overarching reading of Kim Jong-un’s text is that is no less a rebuke and critique than Kim Il-sung’s dressing down of unheeding or unresponsive provincial authorities in Chagang Province during the 1960s. Echoing language used by his grandfather in the foundational 1964 text “Let Us Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers”, Kim Jong-un asserts that “Forests are precious resources of the country and a wealth to be handed down to posterity. Our country has been called a land of golden tapestry for the mountains thick with forests and the fields covered with beautiful flowers” and following “Japanese imperialist colonial rule” Kim Il-sung had “…unfolded a far-reaching plan to turn all the mountains into thickly wooded places of people’s resort by having trees planted in large numbers…”

Surely positive words to the ears of provincial administrators everywhere, these opening remarks in the text are alas, for that audience, the last of reassurance and charismatic comfort. Kim Jong-un goes on to complain that “…people have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent…” These claims, that on the face of it sound akin to critiques of Korean approach to forest and timber resource from both the days of the Government General of Chosen and a disappointed Park Chung-hee on his return from a verdant Japanese mainland come finally complete with a denunciation of bureaucratic efforts and focus on aboreal matters.

“As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountains”

Considering of course the importance of environmental and developmental elements to North Korea’s narrative of political charisma and superiority, this does not sound like the terrain and topography called for in the many drives for the embedding and rebroadcast of Pyongyang’s patriotic sense in its landscapes and spaces. Kim Jong-un even presents for the reader, Kim Jong-il’s own pain and annoyance at the situation during his time, remembering that he “…grieved for the decreasing forests of the country…” that the deforestation was also an aftermath of the Arduous March” and it was institutional necessity “…to turn the misfortune into a blessing and hand down to the coming generations beautiful mountains thick with forests…”

But those thick forests and beautiful timber covered mountains would never come in Kim Jong-il’s time it seems, and now the Young Generalissimo feels a sense of acute urgency towards the matter. “The forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads–whether to perish for ever or to be restored”, he asserts “We can no longer back off from the issue related with the forests. As long as the forests are left as they are, no one can claim that he is a master of the country nor can he speak about patriotism”

The achievement of this patriotic developmental outcome, of course given all of that apparent stasis and stagnation will be no mean feat. One would imagine it would require complete institutional revision and dramatic reconfiguration of the approach and structures of its forestry sector….Imagination of course predicated on the social and cultural context of the imaginer, and North Korea’s particular weltanschaung is, if not unique, certainly distinct. This Kim Jong-un’s outlined solutions and framework appear a smorgasbord of derivations and tendencies sourced from throughout its political, sovereign and developmental history.

Naturally it will be an all-encompassing effort, involving the effort of the entire North Korean national body: “The entire Party, the whole army and all the people should conduct a vigorous forest restoration campaign to make the mountains of the country thick with forests” It will be revolutionary and combative in tone “…Forest restoration is a challenging and complex undertaking of raising young trees, transplanting them and then cultivating them year in, year out in the face of harsh challenges of nature…The forest restoration campaign is a war to ameliorate nature…” Equally it will be urgent and necessary in a form only held in common with previous modes and examples of revolutionary speed, such as those from Maoist China “What is important in conducting this campaign is to push ahead with forest planting and conservation simultaneously. We should bring about a sweeping revolution in forest planting…”

Held in common with a great many other elements of North Korean politics and ideology however, and which is now commonly understood by analysts and scholars focusing on such matters it will essentially also be whatever and what if what is required, not just in developmental or functional terms, but will also need to address narrative and commemorative purposes.

Forestry development in Kim Jong-un’s eyes therefore will need to be grounded in science and the institutions of science. Kim suggests that for example, “…success of the forest restoration campaign depends on how nurseries provide young trees…”, that there should continue to be a central nursery which, importantly in commemorative and legitimacy terms, having been founded by Kim Il-sung (“with a far sighted plan…bequeathed to us as part of his legacy…”) should “raise the level of scientification, industrialization and intensification in growing young trees”. While these nursery institutions are vital to the conceived process of afforestation and scientific endeavour, research should be led at an elite level by an Academy of Forest Science, which according to Kim Jong-un should be refurbished “into a world-class academy”

This mention of the rest of the world, surprisingly perhaps for a text so defiantly local and North Korean, leads Kim Jong-un to again echo the past, but this time it is an echo with its origins in the colonial period’s efforts to transplant a forestry of modernity into the post-annexation Peninsula. “We should take measures to introduce and widely disseminate the global achievements of the advanced science and technology related to forest planting and conservation….we should bring in…trees from foreign countries and widely proliferate them” Further to this call to global connection and to this author even more surprising is Kim Jong-un’s demand for the embedding of these externally sourced conceptions within local institutions and frameworks: “…a brisk drive for disseminating forest science and technology should be waged to keep people abreast of the world trend of development of forest science and technology.”

In a sense if it were to be followed, Kim Jong-un’s suggestions of increased developmental knowledge exchange with the wider world, more focus on empirical rigour within the sector, and better organised, nationally aware but locally focused institutions and bureaucracies might make a real difference to the functionality and viability of forest resource in North Korea, as such an approach would in any nation. However of course within Pyongyang’s sovereign realm there are other forces and agendas at play, so these fairly rational scientific platitudes must be matched to commemorative and legitimatory narratives and practices.

Just as urgency is deployed in the scientific realm, so it will be utilised within the charismatic. Kim Jong-un within later sections of the document reverts to what we might term the revolutionary mean. Here politics and functional development are undertaken by ‘the mass’ as Chairman Mao would have understood it, one homogenous, energetic, powerful yet not necessarily functional assemblage of co-opted, coerced and perhaps the enthusiastic publics. Kim Jong-un suggests for instance that “It is our Party’s traditional method of work to propel the revolution and construction by means of mass-based movements”, before comparing whatever projects must be undertaken to redevelop and regenerate North Korea’s forestry stock to projects and campaigns such as the Ch’ollima movement, projects whose difficulties this author has considered at some length.

Perhaps ultimately the charismatic and commemorative inclination of the mass is what prevents Kim Jong-un from moving on to pastures or timbers new within this key text. As much as it would make sense to leave forest development up to the nurseries, to the Forest Academy to the local bureaucracies tasked with increasing stock in their domain, North Korean politics is nothing without its key institutional base of Party, Army and a perceptual (if not perhaps real) popular mass. When Kim Jong-un begins to make assertions that “Only when the whole country and all the people are involved, can the forest restoration campaign bear fruit…” It cannot be surprising that the phrase “…as they conducted reconstruction after the war” should follow.

Ultimately and in conclusion it seems that however far Kim Jong-un might want to reach in systematic arboreal terms, in this text he proves himself trapped by the weight of history and its necessary recantations and representations. Developmentally trapped by the weight of fighting eternal theoretical and metaphorical war as the Young Leader can only conclude that “…nurseries are to a forest restoration campaign what munitions factories are to a war…” we must conclude that in this instance of forestry and timber resource, developmentally Pyongyang finds itself trapped by a Patriotism of its own perception.