Treasured Swords: Environment under the Byungjin Line

By | June 03, 2013 | No Comments

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A Party apparatchik informs workers of the key tenets of the Byungjin line | Image: Rodong Sinmun

At a momentous meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee earlier this year, the “Byungjin line (병진로선)” replaced the “Military-first line (선군로선)” as the main strategic and political organizing principle of the DPRK. As a result of this paradigmatic shift in priorities, the state ceased to be one in which all economic and political affairs were to be subordinate to the needs of the Korean People’s Army as a matter of course. Instead, thanks to complete and irreversible victory in the battle to acquire nuclear arms, it became one able to reduce military expenditure and concomitantly increase the percentage of GDP devoted to cultivating the broader People’s Economy (인민경제).

Or at least, that is what optimism asks that we believe. However, a history of unfulfilled propaganda rhetoric speaks to an alternative hypothesis: that the Byungjin line is little more than another tired, and ultimately tiring, trope in the politics of the DPRK: a foggy notion, vague enough at its core to inspire confusion at home and abroad but ultimately distinct enough to persuade international donors that the Kim government is serious about chasing down economic growth and food self-sufficiency at last.

One thing is clear, however: both these visions of a future DPRK require, nay outright demand, environmental narratology. It won’t have escaped the notice of analyst Robert Winstanley-Chesters that, when he visited the site of a new ski resort being built in Gangwon Province just last week, Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un took time out to emphasize strongly that “마식령스키장을 건설하면서 생태환경을 보존하고 오염시키지 말아야 한다고 강조하시였다,” or, “While you are building the Masik Pass Ski Resort, you must preserve the ecological environment and prevent pollution.”

Here, then, in the first part of a major new research project for Sino-NK, Winstanley-Chesters turns to look in greater detail at “the environment under the Byungjin line.” Forward! – Christopher Green, Co-editor.

Treasured Swords: Environment under the Byungjin Line

Part 1: Filial Inheritance

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The “Byungjin line,” not to mention its accompanying “minaturized, lightened, diversified, and precise nukes,” is everywhere these days. And with good reason: ”Byungjin” surely merits examination and reportage, for it marks a vitally important, even definitive, change of emphasis at the dawn of the Kim Jong-un era.

Over the next month I plan to delve deeper into this new strategic line, building a systematic framework for understanding the place of the environment in the new theorization, and the new theorization itself. It is already clear that one key aspect of this is the Sepho Grassland reclamation project. Emblematic of a shift in developmental paradigms of land reclamation and rehabilitation in North Korea, Sepho is essential to the environmental narrative of the byungjinist state. Comprehending and rendering Sepho will be one key to constructing a framework for broader analysis.

But there is work to do beforehand. Just as North Korean narratives are often cohesive and encapsulatory, they can also be  utterly incomprehensible without contextualization. It would surely be impossible to engage with Sepho and the strategies of land use it may represent without this contextualizing effort. Therefore, this opening essay establishes the context for the framing of the Byungjin developmental and environmental paradigm, the better to understand the place of Sepho in modern byungjinist North Korea later on.

The Rural Theses: Kim Il-sung Prepares the Soil | The arrival on April 27, 2012 of Kim Jong-un’s first published work, “On Effecting a Drastic Turn in Land Management to Meet the Requirements for Building a Thriving Socialist Nation,” brought with it the intriguing notion that a youthful leader would see land management as the ideal focus for his first theoretical output. However, commentators could initially do little more than note the fact of its arrival and their interest in its existence. Writing at NK Economy Watch, Curtis Melvin commented that the text “was not posted[,] but will no doubt be offered for sale to Pyongyang tourists before too long….”

However, this has since changed. It is rare for a full version of such a text to emerge in an accessible way, especially in English translation, but that is the case with this one, courtesy of Dermot Hudson’s Association for the Study of Songun Politics UK. (When KCNA features an article entitled “British organization heralds the publication of Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-il/Kim Jong-un’s work,” there is no need to read it to establish which organization is responsible.) This allows for something not often possible within analysis of environmental or developmental matters in North Korea: an exercise in comparative review of foundational statements by all three Kims.

Although Kim Il-sung frequently spoke on the management of land and environmental resources, this author holds that his truly key texts come from 1964, the year of the “Rural Theses.” “On Strengthening Land Management” and “Let Us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers” mark perhaps the first cohesive and coherent framing of environmental management issues in North Korea.

A close reading of “On Strengthening Land Management” serves to reinforce the unification of purpose, understanding and approach. Indeed, perhaps a better title would have been “On Strengthening Management of The Land.” Kim Il-sung’s theorization includes all aspects of developmental approach, from the stocking of reservoirs with fish on to road construction and then to the planting of mulberry trees.

Within this framework, nature and the environment are subject to conservation and management, but only as elements and modes of economic possibility and productivity: “Forests are valuable resources of the country. Creation of rich forest resources and their effective protection and management are of great significance in developing the national economy….”[1] Kim Il-sung’s vision of environmental conservation does not allow for non-productive, wild spaces, for nature as a participant element by and of its self. “Let Us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers” is the same, envisaging mountain-scapes as places of developmental necessity and economic capacity: “…Using mountains does not mean only living by them. In order to use them fully it is necessary to create forests of economic value before anything else.…”[2]

Passing the Baton: From Daean to the Three Revolutions |  In the era of the Rural Theses, theoretical developments focused on the environmental aspects of institutional strategy and were, aside from this focus on productivity and output, primarily concerned with the incorporation of “authentic” political and ideological activities into the sector. Management strategies such as the “Daean Work Movement” and the “Three Revolutions Teams” sought to embed Korean Workers’ Party policy and theory within all working activities and structures. Kim Il-sung stated: ”… Daean work system is the best system of economic management. It enables the producer masses to fulfill their responsibility and role as masters and to manage the economy in a scientific and rational….”[3]

I will cover “Daean” and “Three Revolutions” and their utilization to support radical institutional shift during this era in more detail in the next part of this research project, but here there is no time: simply, the Daean plea for rationality led directly to the key developmental text of the Kim Jong-il era.

Kim Jong-il: Throwing Livelihoods into the Mix | Kim Jong-il’s output is notable primarily for its focus on cultural product and production, and as a canon of literature is both less coherent and effusive than that of Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il’s assembled works as published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House are missing many volumes in English translation. However, Kim did publish several pamphlets intended to act as key guides to environmental matters: notably, “Land Management” from 1985 and the text which this author regards as the Dear Leader’s fundamental message to the sector: “On Improving Land Management” from 1989.

Although in later years Kim Jong-il would issue utterances that would adopt a more recognisably conservational approach, their deep connection to particular projects casts doubt upon their right to a place within the developing canon. In some ways, “On Improving Land Management” can be regarded as derivative of earlier texts authored by Kim Il-sung, for example “… Forests are a valuable natural resource, and important means of protecting the land…;”[4] however, there are also some new theoretic developments between Father and Son.

In particular, Kim posits raising the general standard of living within the environmental realm, stating: “…management of forests will bring about a steady increase in forest resources… and improve the standard of living of the people…” and expresses the desire for greater institutional control over natural resources and a definite separation of urban and rural spacial forms, “…the master plan [for land management]… should be drawn up in the principles of avoiding encroachment of farmland, refraining from enlarging the cities excessively….” However, the functional and “rational” exploitation of environmental resources continues as well, and appears to be the key philosophical theme within “On Improving Land Management.”

Amplified Legacy: Kim Jong-un as Holistic Environmentalist? | Kim Jong-un’s “On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration with the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country” (“revolutionary” somehow substituted for “drastic” at some point during translation), which was seemingly presented at a meeting of senior Korean Workers Party officials on April 27, 2012, arrived as part of a push to embed the “young Generalissimo’s” authority and authenticity in a framework of posthumous hagiography of both previous leaders. Thus “President Kim Il-sung and General Kim Jong-il, peerless patriots and benevolent fathers of the people, always paid close attention to land administration and devoted painstaking efforts to developing the rivers and mountains of the country in an excellent way.” [5] It is apparent also that key themes from previous developmental eras still guide the text and its underlying approach, as much as the authoritative guidance of the deceased Kims:  ”… Land Administration is a patriotic undertaking of lasting significance for achieving the prosperity of the country and a noble undertaking for creating an excellent base of living for the people….” However, at some 19 pages long the text of Kim Jong-un’s “Land Administration” matches Kim Il-sung’s statements of the 1960s and 1970s for its extent and range, containing space not only for covering purely environmental or agricultural matters such as forest cover or agricultural output, but also reviewing policy direction on diverse issues such as tidal reclamation, road construction and urban planning, railway maintenance and aquatic resources.

What is more intriguing and distinctive about the latest document is the embedding of many of the more conservational and mitigational themes developed during the later years of Kim Jong-il’s reign: for example, “We should make good arrangements to plant trees and conserve forests to cover the country with trees and flowers.” While there are, alas, no calls to commit further to the UNFCCC process or other external environmental agendas, the statement also connects North Korean environmental and developmental efforts with those of the wider world: “In the sector of land administration and environment conservation there are many things to be introduced from among the world trends and foreign countries’ advanced technologies….”

But more than simple restatement of these themes, which in embryonic form have appeared elsewhere in North Korean environmental narratives in recent years, within the text there appears greater evidence of a thematic change within Kim Jong-un’s conception of what nature and the environment might possibly represent or manifest in society itself, and what function it might serve in the institutional framework of a political space focused on economic capacity.

One key difference between developmental approach and theoretics between North Korea and other nations in its neighbourhood is its seeming inability to conceive of environmental or natural space as anything other than a conduit for production and capacity increases, discounting its usage within frameworks of leisure or consumption.

Yet Kim Jong-un appears not merely capable but also willing to internalise the conservational paradigm so that shared environmental space might be used and experienced by citizens and residents on its own simple terms, providing abstract value in its amenity: “… environment and nature conservation is an important and responsible undertaking to make mountains and rivers of the country more beautiful, conserve and increase natural resources, protect peoples’ health and provide them with a better living environment….”

Too Early to Say: Waiting for More Data | We need to see more publications from Kim Jong-un on environmental and developmental matters to come to any realistic conclusions, and only the briefest of reviews of his first published text is possible here. The reader will also be deprived, for the moment, of knowledge of Kim Jong-un’s thoughts on issues of moment such as railway construction or ventilation devices. However, from this brief review of Kim’s potential foundational document in the field of environmental development, I believe it is possible to discern an outline of the Byungjin line developmental-theoretic approach.

Of course, this is in some way an exercise in homage to the strategies of leaders Dear and Great, incorporating many of their principles and conceptions. But at the same time, Kim Jong-un’s text incorporates developments from the conservational paradigm and connects environmental developments in North Korea with those of the wider world. Both of these elements ultimately allow for the conception of environmental or natural resource as a supportive “sword” of state to combine with a mitigative or environmentally protective tendency that it is possible to categorise as a “treasure.”

Will it be institutional capability and practice that ultimately allow for a Byungjin era combination in the environmental/developmental field, beginning a vital disconnection and reconnection of spatial form and relation from the simply productive and exploitive to one determined by experience and incorporation? Is the Sepho Grassland reclamation project the literal geographic space in which such a combination will be physically enacted? To look forward, one must always look back.

To be continued…

Next Post:

“Treasured Swords” Environment under the Byungjin Line, Pt 2: (Re)Construction Time Again–Institutions and the “Rural Theses” of 1964.  The pair of postings which follow will provide the context for developments at Sepho through reviewing institutional approach in the environmental sector at similar moments of strategic shift, the first in 1964 following the presentation and articulation by Kim Il-sung of the ‘Rural Theses on the Solution to the Socialist Rural Question’, and the second in 1980 following the new environmental line articulated by the Fifth Party Congress.


[1] Kim Il-sung, “On Strengthening Land Management,” in Works 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964).

[2] Kim Il-sung, Let Us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers, in Works 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964).

[3] Kim Il-sung, “On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement”, in Works 15 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964).

[4] Kim Jong-il, On Improving Land Management (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1989).

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