Recovering a Verdant Topographic-Self: Forests, Colonialism and the Re-Construction of Developmental Modernity in North Korea (Excerpt)

“The Mountain Ranges in Korea cover more than half the total area of the country. Owing to indiscriminate felling of trees without public supervision, which was practiced for a long time past, most of the mountain slopes…have become denuded of trees…” (HIJMRG, 1907)

This the opening paragraph to the forestry section of the first “Annual Report on Reforms and Progress in Korea”, published in 1907 by His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Residency General (Japanese governmental authorities seemingly were not bold enough to assert their role as a Government General until the year of annexation in 1910), in Seoul is an essential summation of the Japanese few on Korean forestry management. Coupled with later statements that Korea has “no forestry law to speak of” speak of great conceptual difference between the classical, bureaucratic legalistic approach of Imperial Japan and that of the Choson dynasty.

It is of course difficult in a sense to assess the fairness or otherwise of Japanese claims so far as Korea’s ineffectual and uncoordinated approach to forest and timber resource and management, difficult as the chaos of the later Yi dynasty meant that whatever institutional systems and records that had been undertaken in the later years within Korea’s forest sector are essentially lost to us now, if they were ever accessible and obtainable to foreigners and externally interested parties. Equally as has been asserted many times and many scholars Choson Korea and the institutions of the Yi dynasty were simply not that sort of institutional or developmental state. While Yi dynasty Korea had a highly developed and deeply organised bureaucracy and civil service (which of course was intricately embedded with social stratification), in the Yangban classes and the Civil Examination process, it was not that sort of bureaucracy, focused primarily as it was on the maintenance of the Royal House, specific and general structures of social order and the difficult tenuous relationships this Korea had with its favoured partner China and the outside world.

As we have seen in the previous section, the institutional structures of Korean forestry were not the intricate works of bureaucratic organisation of Japanese history, but neither were they subject to amateurish neglect of the colonial imagination. Whatever the reality of this past however, its present manifestation did not suit the needs and requirements of the colonial administration and it was keen to make radical changes tailored to its agenda.

At the earliest moment of colonialism, even while it was still in the infancy of the Residency General, Japan sought to capitalise and reconstruct Korean forestry resource:

“There exist rich forests along the banks of the Yalu and the Tumen Rivers, but they were never properly exploited, except in a temporary manner by the Russians prior to the recent war…Proper exploitation with adequate capital should undoubtedly yield a considerable revenue to the Treasury…” (HIJMG, 1908)

Accordingly the Residency General negotiated and undertook what it describes as a ‘joint’ enterprise with the Korean Government in building a new forestry coordination and trans-shipment centre at Antung (present day Chinese Dandong), opposite the Korean town of Sinuiji (which the document describes as Wiju), on the mouth of the Yalu. This served to coordinate and develop timber shipments along the Yalu River from the deep northern interior forests of North Pyongan and Chagang provinces. The annual report notes the extent of the timbers journey: “…The distance from the place where the timber is felled to the main station at Antung is 150 ri (375 miles) and the rafts take 40 days to make the journey…” (HIJMG, 1908). This project in total extracted some 71006 cubic ‘shaku’[1] of timber from these ancient forests.

Further to this simple extractive project the Japanese Residency General sought in these early, initial days to reorganise the wider strategy and approach of Korea’s forestry institutions. In a section of the 1908 Annual Report marked as ‘Agricultural and Industrial Encouragement’ the Resident General asserts that “The Korean Government, appreciating the urgent advice of the Resident General, established, in 1906, three modal forests in the mountains near Seoul, Pingyang (sic) and Taiku…” (HIJMRG, 1908) These new forest, colonially guided projects were to be the locus and fulcrum of a new approach to timber and forest management. They were to cover 83,300 acres and include a number of new species imported directly from Japan. Along with these projects focusing on more mature forest stock, deeper research had begun to be framed and undertaken: “In 1907, three Nursery Gardens were established in the vicinity of the Model Forests near Pyingyang and Taiku, and also at Suwon. In these Gardens seeds of various trees were sowed in the spring of 1907, and promising results were obtained…” (HIJMRG, 1908)

Beyond these site and location specific developments the Residency General suggested educational improvements and changes (“In a school attached to the…model station at Suwon, a short course in forestry was added to the curriculum, and the first graduates, 12 in number, are now actively engaging in forest administration under the Government and at the Model Stations…” (HIJMRG, 1908), as well institutional changes moving forest administration responsibilities from the agricultural section of the Department of Agriculture to a new Forest Bureau – itself employing “several Japanese experts in forestry”. Finally the legal structures and frameworks were to be reworked to support the impending arrival of ‘modern’ practice, the text claiming that “…the Government is now preparing comprehensive laws which will provide, among other things, that certain mountains and forests, both public and private shall be preserved as protections against landslides, floods and drought.” (HIJMRG, 1908)

Before this new forestry legislation was brought into force, Korea’s total forestry stock under the control of the state was reviewed and assessed (“With the object of protecting as well as utilizing the States forests…” (GGC, 1909), and the outlines of extensive surveying of private forest resource were unveiled. This surveying took the form of cadastral surveying carried out during the spring and summer of 1910. By August the peninsula’s entire forest stock (other than on Jeju Island), had been surveyed and was found to stand at some 16,000,000 Cho[2]. This wider stock was found to be in similarly denuded and degraded conditions as the initial State Forest stock and thus wider strategies of afforestation were to be carried out. By this year of course the Government General had assumed political sovereignty on the Peninsula and the need for “model afforestation” centers under the control of Japanese experimental institutions was no longer necessary. Forestry management was thus devolved back to the Provincial administrations now coordinated by the Government General, and afforestation strategy undertaken by the propagation of a number of ‘seedling bed’s in different Provincial territories. The Government General also sought to encourage other, private sector based stake-holders to begin afforestation projects and asserted that “…In order to encourage afforestation on the part of the general public the Government General (selected)…April 3rd, 1911, the anniversary of the accession of the First Emperor of Japan, as a memorial day for a universal plantation…” (GGC, 1911).

Having gained institutional and sovereign control of the Korean Peninsula, its institutions and forest resources, reviewed those resources and begun a series of afforestation projects, the aforementioned legal revisions came with Serei (Imperial Decree number 10), issued through the Govenor-General in July of 1911. Its stipulations came into force at the end of the year and both asserted the Government General’s overall control of natural and forest resources at the same time as opening up State Forests to both preservation and exploitation by private or non-state actors. Ultimately the Annual Report for 1912 suggests that “…the vital object of the revised forestry law aims not only as a continuance of the government undertakings to afforestation, but also at stimulating the people in general to undertake afforestation as far as possible on their own initiative…” (GGC, 1912).

This transfer of responsibilities in a sense sought to break the bounds of reverence for local communities and their sacred or customary forests, as much as colonial Japanese administration would seek to break the bounds between the Korea and Koreans of the present and the Korean’s of the historical past and the historical Korea. Forestry management and resource was to be brought into modernity by a quasi-free market in forest management (be that for exploitative or regenerative purposes), one that could allow for deep inroads to be made by the institutions and organisations of Japanese colonial modernity. Dramatic developments were made in terms of experimental and exploitative forestry projects in this early colonial period, developments that would point ahead to later manifestations of colonial industrial denudations and exploitations…for example the Government General Annual Report for 1912 already reports some 1649 Cho of seedling beds within ten years for future exploitation.

Of course these reports from the colonial Government General are subject to some disputation on statistical grounds, as well as we will later on see on conceptual or ideological grounds. Andrew Grajdanzev for example in 1944 utilising a later set of data points provided by the Government General of Chosen asserts that comparisons and reportage made by the Annual Report of 1938 “…are of doubtful value…” (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.123), owing to their failure to correctly combine and account for different methods of forest stock assessment in the later years of the colonial government. Further to this Grajdanzev asserts that in later years the Government General undertook large scale privatisation of forest resources, utilizing the tools of modern, Liberal legal frameworks into the hands of companies such as the ‘Chosen Ringyo Kaihatsu Kabushiki Kaishi’ or ‘Corporation for the Development of Forest Exploitation in Korea’. In fact Grajdanzev notes that this particular organisation was granted for no charge some 500,000 cho of forests in Korea (equating to a quarter of the remaining ‘good’ forest) (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.126). This was not to engage in its afforestation or protection, for its whole scale deforestation. Accordingly Grajdanzev and the Government General itself (in reports not directly accessible to the author), recount the increase in cubic meterage of timber felled across the peninsula from some 700,000 in 1910 to 2.8 million in 1939 (Grajdanzev, 1944,p.124).

While the reports continue to recount in meticulous detail the modernisation of Korean forestry stock and practice, producing what …refers to as the colonial modern. In the later period of the colonisation the nature of what is meant by forestry practice following Grajdanzev’s analysis, radically alters. Perhaps this is to take into account the needs of Japanese military build-up and the eventual undertaking of the conflict in the Pacific and South East Asia. Whatever the impetus or drivers behind this process it seems from 1933 developmental paradigms and practices changed to one’s of deforestation and extraction. While this of course denuded forest stock to a much greater extent than the earlier period (in which there was an expansion in resource levels as shown by Grajdanzev), the later impact on North Korean conceptions of Japanese impact on the environment in general in North Korea was much greater.

[1] Shaku is a Japanese measurement of length formulated in its modern form in 1891. A Shaku corresponds to 10/33 of a metre

[2] Cho is a Japanese measurement of area. A Cho is equivalent to .9917 of a hectare.

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References

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Kim Il Sung. (1973) – “Let us Expedite the Introduction of a Supply of Running Water in the Rural Communities and Press Ahead with Afforestation”, Works 28, Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House

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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.