Mountains and Seas of Gold: 2015 New Year’s Message
by Robert Winstanley-Chesters
Forecasting the genuinely new in an annual message from North Korea’s Supreme Leader is to anticipate category failure and disappointment. Novelty by definition requires the potential for change or difference… and contemporary North Korea has never been marked by either. It seems that no matter how much it is wished for and conceptualized, Pyongyang has deflected, co-opted, negativized or outright ignored potential challenges to the core of its system. Nevertheless, that does not mean that the New Year’s Address can be discounted.
The 2014 New Year’s Address was acutely demonstrative of the genre’s form as a ‘directional beacon’ highlighting the narrative and developmental direction of the state for the coming year. Where 2013 had been a year of multiple revolutionary speeds, Masik Pass and other megaprojects, so 2014 focused on a key text from Pyongyang’s developmental history: 1964’s Rural Theses on the Solution to the Socialist Rural Question, a conceptual linchpin of practical and ideological progress in agriculture during a more governmentally coherent (though no less difficult) period in North Korean history. The return of the Rural Theses in 2014 suggested a structural cohesiveness to the developmental strategy of the Kim Jong-un government that, of course, may not really be present (a fantasy on the part of Pyongyang agricultural institutions); but, vitally, it politically underpinned the developmental goals of the Address.
Like most North Korea watchers, I was caught unawares by the prominence of the Rural Theses in the 2014 speech, in-spite of having written a considerable portion of my recent monograph on their structure and impact. The anniversary had not seemed significant. The 2014 Address sought to move on from the construction of dramatic megaprojects such as the Masik Pass Ski Resort, applying the Theses’ charismatic impetus to programs that had seemed fairly esoteric and diffuse, such as the Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project. Doing so appeared to be an exercise in reinforcement of their potential, which had hitherto appeared tenuous at best. The North Korean media continued to make reference to the Theses and their place in the New Year’s Address for much of the year, with mentions in Rodong Sinmun as late as the end of October.
Caught between the Tides: Predicting 2015 | In the lead up to January 1 this year, I racked my brain and delved deep into Kim Il-sung’s Works in search of agricultural/developmental focal points around which Kim Jong-un’s statement could coalesce. Of course, environmental historians of North Korea will be aware that the next significant developmental publication following the publication of the Rural Theses in 1964 was 1968’s ‘For the Large-scale Reclamation of Tidelands’. Therefore, lacking an obvious textual anniversary for 2015, the potential of the coming January remained a mystery.
Kim Jong-un’s message of January 1, 2015 heavily focuses on narrative, legitimacy and authority. It makes deep connection (as ever) with the historical narratives of Korean liberation in 1945 and the pre-history of that moment; one embedded deep within the Mt. Baekdu discourse of guerrilla struggle. Mt. Baekdu as a historical revolutionary terrain and physical topography has been a focal point of recent North Korean narratological themes, connected where possible to historical figures and anniversaries (such as Kim Jong-suk’s 97th birthday commemorations in December 2014), and contemporary institutional agendas and processes (the use of Baekdu revolutionary architecture, monuments and sites as epistemic space for the ideological training of Pyongyang bureaucrats early in 2014). Of course Mt. Baekdu has long been a vitally important political stage for the authority of the family Kim; but further than this, the 2015 Address makes great play at the coagulation of as many themes as ideologically and linguistically possible in a single text, on the physical site and within the metaphysical remembered space of Mt. Baekdu.
The biography of Kim Jong-suk recounts similar connections between the geography of Mt. Baekdu and contemporary North Korean political and institutional need, as well as, usefully for his revolutionary and political legitimacy, the physical and metaphysical characteristics shared by Kim Jong-il and the topography of Mt. Baekdu itself.
A saying has it that a man resembles his birthplace; it’s true to say that Kim Jong-il resembled Mt. Baekdu. The mountain fascinates people with its majestic appearance – the enormous lake at its summit and its chain of high peaks – and its mysterious natural phenomena, all these are symbolic of the traits and mettle of Kim Jong-il, who possesses a far-reaching ambition, outstanding wisdom, firm courage, strong willpower, great magnanimity and perfect leadership ability… (Kim Jong-suk Biography, 2005, p.2)
Further to this, and extending the connection beyond the personhood of Kim Jong-Il and other members of the Kim dynasty, this year’s Address bestows the authority and charisma of Mt. Baekdu’s revolutionary topography upon the entire nation, its army, developmental approach and technological output.
This year we should display the revolutionary spirit and mettle of Baekdu to scathingly thwart the challenges and manoeuvres by hostile forces and score a signal success in the struggle to defend socialism and on all fronts of building a thriving nation…Upholding the slogan “Let us all turn out in the general offensive to hasten final victory in the revolutionary spirit of Baekdu!”…Bearing in mind the soul and mettle of Baekdu, we should become honorable victors in the general offensive to exalt the dignity of our socialist country and promote its prosperity on the strength of ideology, arms and science and technology. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)
All Eyes on August? Transcending Liberation | Much of the metaphysical and narratological connectivity in the 2015 Address is aimed squarely at the lead up to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Korean peninsula from the Empire of Japan in August. However, this newly reasserted sense of revolutionary authority is not designed simply to alight on preparations for commemorative events marking the septuagenarian anniversary, but also to connect them to annual Workers’ Party of Korea founding ceremonies, all at “blizzards of Baekdu speed”. Possibly successful developmental strategies (even if only “successful” in a narrative or presentational sense) from recent years are also reconfigured to these aims, redeploying the wind themed narrative structure of early 2014.
We should raise a stronger wind of creating the Korean speed…by completing with credit the major construction projects, including the multi-tier power stations on the Chongchon River, Kosan Fruit Farm and Mirae Scientists Street, we should splendidly adorn the venue of grand October celebrations. (Rodong Sinmun, 2015)
This reconfiguration is a trope of institutional and ideological focus common to many other periods of North Korean developmental history, moments of urgency and instances of Kimist demand. Fruit production, in particular rising apple production (the key focus of Kosan Fruit Farm), has a long, auspicious history dating all the way back to the agenda of the First Seven-Year Plan (1960-1967) and Kim il-sung’s landmark text, On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement (1961).
We are struggling for the future. We must build a communist society and hand it down to the coming generations. . . . We are creating everything from scratch in our time. . . . This is the only way we can be as well off as other peoples, and hand over a rich and powerful country to the new generation. If we plant many orchards, our people will become happier in seven or eight years. (Kim Il-sung, 1960, p. 21)
Five Orchards and Two Fisheries Stations: Mountains of Gold | Of course it remains to be seen (and may never be) whether the citizens of North Korean became happier in seven or eight years due to the planting of orchards, nor whether they were planted with the manner or urgency envisaged by Kim Il-sung. Similarly, a feature shared with President Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Kim Il-sung’s desire to reforest his sovereign domain following the impact of the final extractive, destructive years of Japanese colonialism has long been a key feature of North Korean developmental aspiration. In the lea of 1964’s Rural Theses, Kim Il-sung’s Lets Make Better Use of Mountains and Rivers with its assertion, “Using mountains does not mean only living by them. In order to use them fully it is necessary to create good forests of economic value before anything else” (Kim Il Sung, 1964, p. 256), set the stage for extensive focus on timber resources, one which is again echoed in the 2015 New Year’s Message.
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)
Ultimately, the 2015 New Year’s Message reads akin to a hymn or paean to revolutionary stasis, a developmental treading of urgent water in anticipation of imagined new Utopian possibility. The Message’s diplomatic and political vision of trans-peninsular unification and Korean nationalism is configured with virulent aggression through the lens of Mt. Baekdu, anti-colonialism, perceived anti-imperialist victory and the embedding of revolutionary politics. This makes a non-starter out of any movement towards a resolution with those whom Pyongyang sees as the inheritors of colonial collaboration, the new colonizers, the old enemy and the not-so-new imperialist. Equally, 2015’s Message brings a developmental agenda frozen in urgent, assertive aspic. Perhaps KPA Unit 534 will bring in bounteous catches of pollack on the jetties of the January 8th Fisheries Station, revealing, as the New Years Message hopes, “a sea of gold”; however, for the North Korea analyst the counterbalance is the lead weight of history and narrative. Even in developmental terms, this Message required an acute awareness of North Korea’s revolutionary history to negotiate its sloughs and sumps.
Biography of Kim Jong-suk. (2005), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang
Kim Il-sung. (1961). “On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement,” Works 15, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang
Kim Il-sung. (1964). “Let us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers,” Works 18, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang
Kim Il-sung. (1964). “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country,” Works 18, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang
Kim Il-sung. (1968). “For the Large Scale Reclamation of Tidelands,” Works 23, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang
Rodong Sinmun. (2014). “Kim Jong-un’s 2014 New Years Message”, http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2014-01-01-0001&chAction=L
Rodong Sinmun. (2014). “Kim Jong-un Visits New Aquatic Products Refrigeration Facilities”, http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2014-01-07-0012&chAction=S
Rodong Sinmun (2015). “Kim Jong-un’s 2015 New Year Message” , http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2015-01-02-0002&chAction=L
This was the final public version of this piece produced for sinonk.com – Thanks to Steven Denney and Christopher Green for editing and production support