Trees and a Trinity: Environmental Narratives Revised at the Accession of Kim Jong-il

By | March 27, 2012 | No Comments


Icons of Legitimacy | Image courtesy Robert Winstanley-Chesters

“Trees and a Trinity: Environmental Narratives Revised at the Accession of Kim Jong-il”

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The shenanigans surrounding “the freeze/not the freeze” and controversy connected to the DPRK’s intention for a new satellite launch are an object lesson for anyone still sticking to the maxim of calling a spade, a spade. The DPRK, for instance, may no longer be in the habit of calling a spade a spade, but instead may have re-imagined/revisioned the term or even invented a more “Juche-orientated” tool for earth/soil realignment. Apart from being a diplomatic and political mess, the regime’s approach to what constitutes a missile or weapon will serve as a useful exemplar of the flexibility and interpretative elasticity of narrative possibility in the case of the DPRK.

My last post surrounded the development of an environmental aspect to regime-legitimative narrative in the DPRK’s external political/media presentation at the virtually simultaneous death of Kim Jong-il and accession of Kim Jong-un. The DPRK’s pronouncements of the time demonstrated many examples of such “a spade is no longer a spade” strategy: one need only reference the various tales of mourning animals and birds (particularly one a resting magpie which is no longer a resting magpie; instead it it appears as a distraught and faithful mourner of Generalissimo Kim Jong-Il). Such narrative revision within the field of the environment is relatively new when applied to the legitimation of the regime in the external field. However, internally it is a different story all together.

The Problem of Textual Analysis | Text-based environmental narrative within the DPRK is, for those seeking to follow it, notoriously problematic. In one sense, the difficulties arise out of the tendency toward myopic detail of the authors of such work. In DPRK propaganda narratives, the particulars of the story tend to be so intricate and heavily defined as to resemble convoluted Biblical genealogical texts (see Genesis, 4:8). On the other hand, it might be acknowledged that, as readers alien to the thought world of the ideologically-sound citizenry of the DPRK, we are not subject to the ebb and flow of ideological revision that is required in order to fully engage with the narrative as it is meant to be understood. In other words, the narrative itself is often rewritten to attend to the particular needs of either regime or ideological development and such re-writing is rarely as acknowledged as its purpose is obvious.

Weathering the Storm and Stress of Succession |  Within the environmental field, such narrative revisions have long served as legitimator for either the system as a whole or for key participants within the regime, especially at times of crisis. Just as the unexpected death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un created the possibility of severe stress within the regime’s legitimative narrative — and thus required the support of the environment to bolster it – so, too, the previous switch of dynastic power. I hardly need to describe the period of famine and economic disaster between 1992 and 1997 in great detail here, nor to evoke the total impact of the death of “The Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, in 1994. Suffice it to say that in both cases, the institution of the DPRK’s regime found itself with what might be termed a “legitimative deficit”. Unlike the recent handover of dynastic power, which was a remarkably slick and trouble-free affair for the DPRK, the transfer from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il was difficult and convoluted. Kim Jong Un rose with remarkable rapidity and virtually no public signs of internal disapproval, whereas more than three years elapsed between Kim Il Sung’s death and adoption of the title “General Secretary of the Korean Workers Party” on the part of Kim Jong-il. At the end of the period of mourning/accession it was apparently felt that such a “legitimative deficit” still existed, so the environmental narrative was turned to in order to extract more legitimative value in order to better embed Kim Jong-il’s position.

Listening to the Forest  | Perhaps the best example of the North Korean need for nature as legitimator is found within narratives surrounding the forestry sector. While the DPRK is not externally renowned for its success in the field of forestry, internally the management of forests and timber resource appears to be held in high regard and importance (Kim Il-Sung, 1964). Within the historical presentational narrative that addresses the realm of forestry, the foundational event had always been (at least prior to 1999) the climbing on April 6th, 1947 of Munsu Hill by Kim Il Sung in order to plant trees in the wake of liberation from the Japanese. The patriotic action of this youth is often recounted by texts relating to the forestry sector as an exemplar of a successful and revolutionary action. It was also the reason why the DPRK’s “National Tree Planting Day” was on April 6th. In 1999 however, “National Tree Planting Day”, without warning or explanation, moved to March 2nd. The date no longer commemorated Kim Il Sung’s foray up Munsu Hill, but instead an event of a year earlier.

The Eco-Theology of Succession |  This revision of environmental narrative served to bolster the legitimacy of Kim Jong-il’s accession to power and the continuation of the revolutionary dynasty. The text itself refers to a historical event which (with some imagination and for those theologically minded), bears a little similarity with the Transfiguration of Jesus, as Kim Jong-il (aged possibly four years old), is seen to ascend Moran Hill in Pyongyang along with Kim Il-sung and his mother Kim Jong-suk in order to plant trees. In this way Kim Jong-il’s premiership and position as successor to the Great Leader was bolstered through his identification as a member of the revolutionary trinity.

As we can see, the slightly fanciful accounts of nature in mourning that accompanied the death of Kim Jong-il and accession to power of Kim Jong-un cannot be regarded as rhetorical or narrative aberration or oddity, but instead as part of a tradition within the environmental narratives of the DPRK.  The state’s tradition thus puts environmental development and the natural world itself to the use of developing themes of national and regime legitimacy, and creates a tradition that, at least within the environmental field, has an extensive history of usage and development as part of the DPRK’s canon of literature. In future postings, I will examine examples of this from both the internal and external environmental narrative, and in both the realm of contemporary policy development and that of historical undertaking. It is a history which transforms one date into another, Munsu Hill into Moran Hill, failure into success, destruction into transformation and for want of a better example, “spades into not spades.”

Reference List

Book of Genesis – Chapter 4, 8

KCNA (1999) – Kim Jong Il’s re-election observed” – accessed from

KCNA (1999) – “Spring Tree Planting Begins in Korea”– accessed from

KCNA (2011) – “Birds Hover over Mourning Site in Pyongyang”- accessed from

Kim Il Sung (1964) – Let us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers, May 2,1964 – Works, vol 18, Foreign Languages Publishing House , Pyongyang

Kim Il Sung (1947) – Let Us Launch a Vigorous Tree Planting Movement Involving All the Masses, April 6th, 1947 – Works, vol 3, Foreign Languages Publishing House , Pyongyang


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