Spaces of Leisure: The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play

By | November 09, 2014 | No Comments

Munsu Water Park

Munsu Water Park | Image: Rodong Sinmun

When Rodong Sinmun informs us of Kim Jong-un’s latest onsite inspection, be it to a waterpark, skating rink, horseriding club, dolphinarium or simply a vast, refurbished stadium, our instinct is often a rather simple one: To assume that what we are seeing is further evidence that Pyongyang is little more than a Potemkin village, shielding outside eyes from the wasteland of the post-famine state while providing grist to the mill of tourist income extraction and the occasional reminder that foreigners, too, must bow to statues of Kim Jong-un’s predecessors. Maybe, indeed, these are the primary intentions behind North Korean amusement projects in Pyongyang.

Or maybe not. Certainly, the global history of self-consciously modern leisure forms is short, and that of cultivating viable spaces for the active enjoyment of free time is shorter still. That is why, as Robert Winstanley-Chesters discusses in this essay, the perspective may change when regime-legitimating projects are situated with reference to spaces of “frivolous frippery and ephemeral practice” in North Korea’s international counterparts and competitors, as well as the country’s own painful history. — Christopher Green, Co-editor. 

Spaces of Leisure: The Socialist Modern at Rest and Play

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In this, the final essay in the Spaces of Leisure series, we shall move through the difficulty and strife of the 1990s, and into the contemporary urban and semi-urban spaces of today’s North Korea. We will see many threads and themes from earlier, more urgent days. Yet, this essay will also examine other, unexpected manifestations of physical culture, those marked out by their playful nature and co-option amid North Korea’s apparently austere past and political forms. I will examine the development of these “spaces of leisure,” which can be seen as new expressions of physical endeavor and entertainment, and consider the varied philosophical feedback loops between social and cultural practice in these terrains. In so doing, we shall tread a new analytical path through the maintenance of political norms and ideological framework in North Korea, a place that is rarely considered capable of ephemera or jocularity.

My first essay located the geographic and spatial birth of sporting leisure in the YMCA offices in Keijo (Seoul) during the Japanese colonial period. However, to move into the current period, we must seek connected terrain elsewhere. Social and personal practices we would now categorize as frivolous and/or ephemeral–essentially those of a physical nature that do not have self-improvement or betterment as their ultimate goal–demand more than geographic terrain and space. Temporality is also key to the manifestation of such “practices of leisure.” In order to investigate further, we need to begin not in Pyongyang’s wide avenues, but in the dense transportation corridors of Great Britain.

Making the Trains Run on Time: Walking for Fun | Plenty has been written on the impact of railway timetabling on notions of “customary time” in the United Kingdom. The requirements of industrial modernity demanded that clocks should read the same time at all stations in all towns. This sounded the death knell for seasonal, cyclical time, and popular connections to primitive forms of social and economic being, but at the same time provided a spur to the development and consolidation of leisure and consumption as a socio-economic repertoire of practices. This new capitalistic, linear timeframe was deployed to support the development of working and industrial environments, but could equally be deployed to support the partitioning of time for activities not connected to work.

The first manifestations of this included peculiar logistical festivals in the north of England known as “wake weeks,” where the entire populations of newly industrializing towns would be given a fixed week off and decamp en-masse to a particular seaside resort like Whitby or Brighton. Such activities thus supported leisure and, at the same time, the repair and maintenance of factory equipment while the workers were not at their machines. Similarly, “promenading,” or walking for a leisurely purpose, has a much longer history rooted in the development of formal gardens and parks in 17th-18th century Britain and their use by aristocrats for politics, diplomacy, or simply wooing. But in the 19th century, as working and life time became linear rather than cyclical, partitioned into working week/non-working weekend, promenading entered the repertoire of leisurely possibilities by which to fill non-productive periods within capitalistic, consumptive temporality.

Banks of the Taedong

Perambulating on the banks of the Taedong. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

In Britain, Europe, and the United States, natural spaces were harnessed as the spatial terrain in which promenading, perambulating and picnicking could be performed. Rivers such as the Thames, the Seine, and the Neva were reconfigured, their banks and flows directly reconstructed and re-conceptualized. New and rebuilt parklands were not spaces within which aristocrats could shoot deer and game, as Richmond Park and the ancient Royal Forests had been; rather, they were artificial social landscapes of intriguing topography for the performance of promenade and perambulation.

Small-p, Big-P: Promenade, Perambulate, Picnic, Politics | By embedding productive socioeconomic mores and temporality, these spaces were inherently “small-p “political, but were also co-opted at times to become assertively Political. North Korea, in common with many of the countries of the former Soviet sphere, still makes extensive use of concrete forms of military and political parading. It has become commonplace to witness North Korea placing its military hardware, infrastructure and personnel on show for annual celebrations in which political, ideological, and state power are theatrically paraded across specially built squares for charismatic effect. In these grand militaristic events and in trips to centers of ideological meaning outside of the capitol, the population are not merely spectators; they are encouraged to perform within politically imagined topographic spaces in acts of charismatic and ideologic tourism. Visits to the revolutionary spaces of Baekdu and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, as well as connecting weddings and the broader social repertoire directly to political monuments, all therefore serve to co-opt, coral and co-create leisure and non-productive time, energy and opportunity within the structures and landscapes of political charisma.

The rivers and riverbanks of Pyongyang have long been part of the political narrative. For instance, the Potong River Improvement Project of 1946 was “ground zero” for post-liberation hydrological development. Once neglected, the Taedong River has also been reconfigured by Benjamin Joinau’s charismatic axes of power and architecture into a participant in the topographic theatrics of modern Pyongyang. The river connects the demonstration space of Kim Il-sung Square to the ideological monolith of the Juche tower. Beyond asserting the requirement that the citizenry perform theatrical supplication to Kimism, recent years have seen alternate forms of occupation and activity on the banks of the Taedong.

As far back as 1997, at the end of the most acute phase of the North Korean famine, social and temporal relations on the Taedong were being conceived of in a different fashion. According to KCNA reports, this reconfiguration was entirely due to Kim Jong-il’s publication in September 1992 of the text “Let Us Improve City Management to Meet the Demand of the Developing Situation.” In the light of Kim’s theoretics, waxed KCNA, “The past five years witnessed great changes in the nation’s city management.”

Intriguingly, while the text primarily focuses on technical issues of sewerage and water supply management, the author also has time to note that “streets and villages take on a new appearance… [and] [b]oating sites have been built on the River Taedong and River Potong pleasure grounds.” The following year, the urban architecture of the recently redeveloped Tongil St. was discussed, including the fact that among the local attractions was “a 300-metre-wide promenade” that “stretches out to the riverside of the Taedong.”

By the turn of the millennium, North Korean reportage on the topography of the Taedong only paid momentary homage to the infrastructural events of 1946, instead noting that: “Many people of all ages and both sexes are having a pleasant time on promenades and parks.” This is an urban topography that would have been unfamiliar to the urgent revolutionary narratives of previous years; a topography of pleasure rather than conflict. While the river bank still saw vestiges of contest, such as the hulk of the USS Pueblo and its commemoration of American subjugation and defeat, pleasure rather than violence would seemingly be key to Pyongyang’s urban planning in the contemporary era.

It is unclear if changes to urban planning, design and amenity in the North Korean institutional mind were accompanied by changes in Pyongyang’s philosophical approach to the delicate relationship between various modes of human existence; whether leisure had become a key goal of the nascent Songun politics. Just as in previous manifestations, North Korea’s ideological structure is light on conventional theoretical principles, but extremely dense and demonstrative in practical terms. Urban planning and the embedding of leisure practices in the socio-political everyday seemed to support the restructuring of goals within the Pyongyang elite. The era of creating “a strong and prosperous nation” towards the end of Kim Jong-il’s reign, in particular, matched political and developmental goals to an expansion of leisure activity and space.

The Dawn of a New Era? Leisure at the Death of Kim Jong-il | During the final years of Kim Jong-il reign, those river banks on the Taedong were presented as much more complex spaces of consumption than they had been only a few years previously. Rungra Island, a small islet in the middle of the river, was a key site in the development of a leisure strategy which included a much larger repertoire of possibilities. “Rungra,” it was asserted, “has turned into a pleasure ground. There are boating site, swimming pool, football field, tennis court, roller-skating rink and other sports, amusement and welfare service facilities, a small zoo and a large flower garden.” A pleasure ground at Konyu was built in 2007, granting options for those who demanded more physical leisure, with facilities for “playing sport and folk amusement games including basketball, volleyball, Korean wrestling, Korean chess and yut and a boating ground.”

Rungna Slide

Rungra’s new water slide. | Image : Rodong Sinmun

In ideological terms, the transfer of power to Kim Jong-un has made little difference to the country’s core political philosophical and military strategies. The Byungjin line’s combination of a long held aspiration to “scientificization” (a term often employed by the North Koreans) and technological-rationalist approach with an urgent commitment to nuclear capability, though dramatic in its impact on North Korea’s geo-political situation, has not stemmed the flow of changes in socio-spatial relations.

While I am neither interested in nor capable of analyzing the Kim Jong-un era from a psychoanalytic perspective, changes in presentational tone from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un are obvious. The austere, tense, diffident tone of the previous era has been replaced with an almost jocular, frivolous optimism. Accordingly, structures, institutions and projects concerning leisure and consumptive space have been key to recent presentational narratives. Rungra itself has been narratologically reconfigured; necessary homage is made to the previous leader before connection is made to the ambitions of Kim Jong-un and wider North Korean governmental priorities: “It is one of the projects that leader Kim Jong Il was specially interested in. It is a product of loving care for people of Marshal Kim Jong-un as well as a socialist wealth to hand down for all ages.” Equally, the site has been practically redeveloped early in the era of Kim Jong-un, now containing a “Dolphinarium, wading pool, fun fair and mini golf course…” as well as “a very high water slide and… beach volleyball, basketball and volleyball courts.”

Socially Acceptable Leisure: A Revolution in Socialist Modernity | Sino-NK has covered developments at sites such as Masik Pass, which appear to harness older themes of physically grounded leisure practice to a developmental repertoire, at least in Masik’s case serving the leisure life and times of others, a touristic form. While these of course do contribute to my conception of leisure and consumptive spaces (especially true in the case of the Mirim Riding Club), it is clear that within the sites and spaces of Rungra and the banks of the Taedong River, leisure praxis and practices of consumption appear to have become both practically embedded within North Korean developmental repertoires–inasmuch as they have become socially and culturally acceptable. While previously it would have been possible to assert that these spaces were spaces of elite peculiarity and exceptionalism, resident only in Pyongyang, Rodong Sinmun recently announced the construction of a 45,000 meters squared waterpark in Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province, perhaps evidencing the spread of such spaces into the provinces of North Korea.

Modernity reaches the Taedong. | Image: Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Modernity reaches the Taedong. | Image: Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The space, practice and socio-political manifestation of leisure, entertainment and consumption has of course come an enormously long way from Son Ki-jong and his sporting endeavour during the Japanese colonial period. Social and political relations in the North Korean institutional and ideological mind have equally come some distance from their initial assertion and desire to embed and bestow conceptions of “authentic,” raw socialist modernity on socio-cultural praxis. Ridding social relations of frivolous intent, frippery and ephemeral practice is no longer a key goal of Kimism or any of Pyongyang’s ideologic forms. Hints abound of disconnections between previous modalities of social practice and relation in the field of leisure, disconnections which might one day feed back into the wider praxis of politics. A painted young woman with a fashionable haircut and Kim badge, smiling privately at the text message on her Koryolink mobile phone in the park, young lovers holding hands on the Taedong promenade, children splashing wildly in Munsu or Rungra Water Parks, all with a sense of the leisurely informality that surely cannot be reconfigured into the rigor of the ideologically austere.