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

By | June 08, 2015 | No Comments

Kim Jong Un and the Tree Nursery

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

 At a recent hearing of the Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., Admiral Samuel Locklear, the departing head of US Pacific Command, gave a gaunt appraisal of North Korea’s weapons programs. The US military, he stated, had to assume that North Korea’s own claims were correct, namely, that the state had been successful in miniaturizing nuclear warheads and was capable of launching ICBMs at the United States.

Was this a shocking admission of personal failure? Or could the new situation be blamed on vague forces external to the Admiral and his office — like sequestration, China, or the “increasing instability” of Kim Jong-un? For men and women in positions of leadership, failure is a difficult thing to admit, particularly when it is of the repetitive variety.

Perhaps more shocking was Locklear’s simple acceptance as truth of what the North Korean state media had offered up as reality. This, after all, is not what we are taught to do practically from the moment of our introduction to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Every claim is to be treated as false, and every success tallied up as illusory. What happens when the North Korean state media publishes something — either metonymic praise or self-criticism — that actually represents the basic facts on the ground?   

In the following essay, Robert Winstanley-Chesters probes at questions of failure, responsibility, and (in)fidelity to difficult truths, but takes an “inside-out” approach, examining the ruling Kim family’s own peculiar matrix of critique and development. Via his interdisciplinary approach, Winstanley-Chesters allows us forget (however momentarily) about missiles and their shields and learn instead about forestry. In this small but critical facet of North Korean state policy, Kim Jong-un has been particularly dyspeptic as he and his ecological warriors face a long uphill climb. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

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 of Sino-NK, 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. At Sino-NK, we have also covered 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.