From the Sino-NK Archives (33) – 08.06.2015 – Cultures of Critique: Kim Jong-un on North Korean Deforestation

Kim Jong Un and the Tree Nursery

Kim Jong-un visits the General Tree Nursery in May 2015. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Cultures of Critique: Kim Jong-un on North Korean Deforestation

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

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

The seemingly acute developmental concern of the “Respected Marshall” Kim Jong-un has been fairly, if intriguingly, clear since his accession to the throne of charismatic Kimism on the death of his father in December 2011. Amid the ensuing theatrics, speculation over the pedagogy Kim Jong-un received during his later youth in Switzerland has not been terribly serious, focusing more on the influence of Michael Jordan rather than lingering on any possibility of environmental training. But, rather oddly and nevertheless, Kim Jong-un has been developmentally focused.

In between his now-standard appearances next to military hardware, sites of family commemoration, and the odd visit from Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong-un is now presented as having found the time and inspiration to write a number of texts on developmental matters. While these texts do not betray an in-depth, empirically grounded knowledge of science or environmental process, they are surely informative from a narratological perspective.

Kim Jong-un has ploughed a very individual and distinct developmentalist furrow, starting with his first work delivered in April 2012. Entitled “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country,” the essay sparked speculation outside of North Korea that the young leader had a kind of possibly reformist zeal, while internally, the essay became a touchstone for North Korean officials concerned with land management.  Kim Jong-un then moved on instructively into institutional and bureaucratic matters for a group of agricultural “subteam” workers in 2013. His New Year Messages of 2014 and 2015 then focused, respectively, on celebrating the anniversary of 1964’s Rural Theses and climbing the topography of nationalist, foundational struggle on the volcanic heights of Baekdusan.

Covering the Mountains with Green Woods | The environmental aspects of Kim Jong-un’s messages and their embedded collective hymnal to national topographies will be well known to regular readers , who will have traced the themes and flows of narrative, primarily the North Korean aspiration to build and better utilize what Kim termed “mountains and seas of gold.” Readers thus should not at all be surprised to see Kim Jong-un returning to the field of developmental publication this spring 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.”

This latest piece of long-form apparent authorship comes at a fitting moment during the political and bureaucratic commemorative calendar of North Korea. National Tree Planting Day arrived early on March 4, and has been followed by the highly important Spring Land Management Campaigns. I have in the past considered these aspects of the yearly cycle of institutional impetus and charismatic connection, as the period is marked and remarked upon nearly every year. Yet, although the moment is indeed frequently noted, it is still rare for such an extensive statement to be made.

Apples planted at the Palace of the Sun

Apple planting at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Does the extensiveness or tone of the statement invite us to read it as a rebuke or critique of the status quo? No more so, perhaps, than Kim Il-sung’s dressing down of unresponsive provincial authorities in Chagang Province during the 1960s. And certainly Kim Jong-un is intentionally echoing language used by his grandfather in no less foundational text than the 1964 “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. [Under] 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.

Complaints follow:

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.

On the face of it, such statements sound akin to critiques of Korean approaches to forest and timber resource from the days of the Government General of Chosen. Not only that, but they very much echo the tone set by a disappointed Park Chung-hee on his return from a verdant Japanese mainland, as much as they mirror critical commentary from Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. This denunciation of bureaucratic efforts and focus on arboreal matters clearly has multiple precedents.

Kim continues:

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 mountain.

Considering the importance of developmental narrative elements in North Korea, this statement sounds a discordant note. Propaganda from Pyongyang seeks to embed a patriotic sense in its landscapes, which are associated with the desires of the leadership itself. Kim Jong-un thus presents Kim Jong-il’s own pain at the situation of the 1990s, remembering that the now-departed leader had “grieved for the decreasing forests of the country.” In Kim Jong-un’s reading of his father’s intention, deforestation was also an aftermath of the “Arduous March,” heightening the institutional necessity “to turn the misfortune into a blessing and hand down to the coming generations beautiful mountains thick with forests.”

Planting trees at Central district

Planting trees in Pyongyang Central district. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Forests under the Young Generalissimo | But those thick forests and beautiful timber covered mountains would never come in Kim Jong-il’s time. Accordingly, his successor clearly feels a sense of acute urgency on 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 states rather dramatically. Going further, Kim Jong-un asserts that North Korea “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, given all of the apparent stasis and stagnation that surrounds it, will be no mean feat. One would imagine it would require nothing less than a complete institutional revision and dramatic reconfiguration of the approach and structures of its forestry sector.

Yet imagination is predicated on the social and cultural context of the imaginer, and North Korea’s particular Weltanschauung is, if not unique, certainly distinct. Kim Jong-un’s outlined solutions and framework thus appear as having derived from a smorgasbord of tendencies sourced from throughout North Korea’s political, sovereign, and developmental history. Turning to a favorite military metaphor, Kim notes that the struggle for afforestation will be an all-encompassing effort, requiring nothing short of combat:

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…. 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.

Kim Jong-un thus places himself in a common frame of reference with previous modes of revolutionary speed, such as those from Maoist China. However, it is not simply mass fervor that is needed, but institutional development and a renewed focus on science. Kim calls for the establishment of new central nursery institutions, which will be vital to the conceived process of afforestation and scientific endeavor. This research is to 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.

The reality and rationality of charismatic empiricism | 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. As he puts it, “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 other words, Kim is seeking increased developmental knowledge and exchange with the wider world, more focus on empirical rigor within the sector, and better organized, nationally aware but locally focused institutions and bureaucracies.

If they were to be followed, Kim Jong-un’s suggestions 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 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 legitimating narratives and practices.

Kim Jong un and the pilots - empiricism

Kim Jong-un and charismatic empiricism | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Just as urgency is deployed in the scientific realm, so it will be utilized within the charismatic. Within later sections of the document, Kim Jong-un 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 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;” he then goes on to compare whatever projects must be undertaken to redevelop and regenerate North Korea’s forestry stock to projects and campaigns such as the Chollima Movement.

Perhaps ultimately the charismatic and commemorative inclination of the mass is what prevents Kim Jong-un from moving on to new pastures (or new timbers, as it were) within this key text. As much as it would make sense to leave forest development up to the nurseries, from 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 perhaps not 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. The purpose of the exercise is not merely to reforest the landscape, but to activate and reiterate the mobilizing center, with connections to both Party and Army, centered upon Kimist authority and the embodied narrative of resistive national struggle.

Ultimately 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 history in engaging in North Korea’s recurrent theoretical, narratological and metaphorical hostilities, 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 resources, developmentally Pyongyang finds itself incarcerated by a patriotism of its own perception.


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

Mountains and Seas of Gold: 2015’s New Years Message


Kim Jong-un visited the KPA-run No.18 Fisheries Station in November 2014. | Image: KCNA


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.

Leading Party Officials Visit Battle Sites in the area of Mt Paektu.

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)

Kim Jong Un visits the Central Tree Nursery Image

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”,

Rodong Sinmun. (2014). “Kim Jong-un Visits New Aquatic Products Refrigeration Facilities”,

Rodong Sinmun (2015). “Kim Jong-un’s 2015 New Year Message” ,