From Penn State to Pyongyang: The Trans-Pacific Political Geography of Grass

By | April 22, 2013 | No Comments

Choe Yong-rim gives Sepho the once over | image via KCNA

Choe Yong-rim gives Sepho the once over in March this year | image via KCNA

“If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

In apparent defiance of the cracked and fading rhetoric of 2013 thus far, there are a multitude of ways in which the United States and North Korea keep on interacting. 2011 revelations about a certain vintage Lincoln Continental made the point more loudly, perhaps, but turfgrass proves it just as well, as Robert Winstanley-Chesters notes in his latest essay.- Christopher Green, Co-editor

From Penn State to Pyongyang: The Trans-Pacific Political Geography of Grass

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Last Time on SinoNK: The Tableland | The DPRK’s institutional agenda for environmental management and key legitimating narratives appears to be refocusing away from the more dramatic transformational-literal construction of new geographic space (as represented by the Taegyedo Reclamation Project) toward a ‘subtler’ environmental and developmental paradigm revolving around the reclamation of underutilized  fallow or abandoned spaces. In a previous piece I identified a project to reclaim the ‘Sepho tableland’ as the primary manifestation of this, as it was identified not only in the 2013 New Year’s Editorial but also by the broad range and repertoire of the DPRK’s media and inculcatory apparatus thereafter.

Since then, the agenda of all parties concerned with the DPRK, the Korean Peninsula and the general state of world peace and polity have been otherwise occupied and engaged. The diplomatic, political and military temperature has thrust up and beyond fever pitch, relations have soured poisonously and genuine fears for the future have been expressed.

A Curious Marker: Sepho Goes Forth |And yet, the presentation of environmental issues, most notably the Sepho project, continues unabated. My previous essay referenced the visit of former Premier Choe Yong-rim to Sepho in November 2012 and the arrival of ‘shock brigades’ and other practical and presentational manifestations of the developmental impulse. Since that piece, Choe Yong-rim has paid a second visit (as recounted by KCNA on March 16) and although Kim Jong-un has not handed the project its foundational onsite guidance visit as yet, KCNA did recount how the young Kim “sent lots of vehicles, farming materials and essential goods as gifts to the service personnel and builders active in the project for reclaiming Sepho Tableland, true to the call of the Workers’ Party of Korea, in the wake of showing deep trust and loving care for them.”

Finally, Sepho was also identified on April 1 as a key element in the DPRK Cabinet agenda for 2013, in the same league and apparently as important as the introduction of a new 12-year compulsory education program, an increase in outputs of iron and steel, and greater production of consumer goods (again).

Sepho marks a curious project for such a tendentious and difficult time. What agenda could possibly be served by such a keen focus on this narrative strand relating to the importance of grass given the current state of trans-Korean and Pacific diplomacy?

At moments of acute geopolitical crystallization  the machinations of the DPRK Academy of Sciences “Turf Institute” do not ordinarily garner much comment, yet the words of Kim Ryong-sok (a ‘section chief’ at the Institute) recounted in one article suggest another extant vector in terms of the DPRK’s institutional and developmental approach, one which runs counter to the recent wall of heated hyperbole and rhetoric.

“Public attention for lawn is nowadays running higher in the country…” Kim is recounted as saying, and indeed it must be so given that April is the month of ‘spring tree planting’ in the DPRK; the general beautification of rural and urban spaces always serves as a key string to the KCNA’s bow at this time of year, no matter how tense the geopolitical situation may be. Kim goes on to recount his institute’s scientific development of a variety of grass turf indigenous to the Korean Peninsula (“Golden Turf,” which is said to be appropriate to parks, pleasure grounds, stadiums and golf courses), and the introduction into the Korean context of other Eurasian species.

That 1974 Lincoln Continental at the funeral of Kim Jong-il in December 2011 | image via New York Times

That 1974 Lincoln Continental at the funeral of Kim Jong-il in December 2011 | image via New York Times

Like a Lincoln for a King: North Korea and Penn A-1 | For this author, however, the key was actually the throwaway final line, “Such turf species as Penn A-1, Penn A-4 and Marina are also introduced in the country.” It was a comment akin to the institutional theatricality of a certain 1974 Lincoln Continental.

For the uninitiated, Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences’ ‘ Center for Turfgrass Science’ recounts that its turf development program began in 1928; however, it was the Center’s 1954 release of the ‘Creeping Bent’ variety that really cemented its place in turf and grass history. As it notes, “No other variety of any turfgrass species has had such a profound impact on the world’s turfgrass industry.”

Since 1954, Penn State has continued to develop new species of turf grass (some of which have been borne into space), especially new varieties of ‘Creeping Bent’. Then, however, in 1995, the Center released a number of completely new varieties, including Penn A-1 and Penn A-4.

Where Politics Is Dead, Grass Lives On: Conclusion | Considering the nature of the Sepho project in geographic and topographic terms, it is unlikely that these Pennsylvanian turf grasses could be useful or even feasible on the tableland, and I am not suggesting that Penn State products could play a vital role in the latest environmental development in the DPRK, a role as potentially surprising as it might be diplomatically useful. What I will instead conclude with is simply this: one momentary glimpse into the grassy preferences of DPRK institutions suggests that, even at moments of high rhetorical flourish and politico-military posturing, when it comes to matters environmental the DPRK is no island of self-reliance, instead remaining connected to narratives of developmental progress and transmission common to friends, foes and the wider world.

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