Hydrological Engineering,Coastal Land Reclamation and the Multifunctional Paradigm in the DPRK

By | May 06, 2012 | No Comments

As any student of ancient Chinese history can tell you, historically speaking, there is nothing more fundamental to political legitimacy in East Asia than the ability of a regime to harness, control, and regulate water both as agricultural resource and danger. In both guises — sustainer and potential destroyer — water politics appear repeatedly in Sino-North Korean interactions today. Matthew Bates provided an important translation this week regarding Chinese fears of North Korea’s total inability to protect any investment in its new Yalu River Special Economic Zones from flooding. Yesterday, Chinese television reports delved into the literally explosive question of pollution off of Dalian harbor and toxicity for local harvesters of seaweed.  When China guts itself of oil and spills it into the Bohai Gulf, even were the DPRK armed with the most recent low-budget oil collection devices prototyped by the French-Japanese innovator Cesar Harada, there would be little escape from horrific consequences. There is more to life, in other words, than nuclear weapons and water, no less than the atom, promises regeneration for the North Korean regime. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Kim Jong Un Focusing on Water on May 2, 2012, with Retinue in Pyongyang | Rodong Sinmun

Hydrological Engineering,Coastal Land Reclamation and the Multifunctional Paradigm in the DPRK

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Recent rocket related events in the DPRK perhaps serve as demonstration of the apparent truism that very little is simple in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. This is as much true for projects within the realm of environmental management as it is for those within either space exploration or the development of military hardware.

Events in the year 2010 proved equally devoid of simplicity for the DPRK. 2010 was of course the year that followed the North’s first nuclear test (damp squib or deadly threat?  You decide), and brought the sinking of the Cheonan, the bombing of Yeonpyeong island, and — not to forget — the DPRK’s embarrassing performance at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Within a different economic sector, however, the DPRK found itself overcoming events of quite imperious difficulty to finally bring positive resolution to a project that will surely serve as foundational in its field within the DPRK’s future presentational narrative. Further to this, the apparently successful completion of this project has served as a spur to the DPRK in pressing on with the development of policy and approach within its sector. 2010 was surely a “red-letter year” for the DPRK in the field of coastal reclamation.

Wittfogel on the Potong |  Hydrological reconstruction and engineering in the DPRK possesses a historical background that would engender a smile on the face of Karl Wittfogel. The DPRK’s historical narrative gives some prominence in the immediate aftermath of liberation to the Potong River Improvement Project of 1946, Kim Il Sung apparently declaring that its completion would “make it the first beacon to the transformation of nature for the construction of an independent, sovereign democratic state, rich and strong” (Kim Il Sung,1946).

Although the DPRK at one time may have utilised a tendency towards the hydrologically reconstructive to form a usefully positive comparison with a revolutionarily urgent Maoist China, its development within this field has never tended towards the radically utopian. That is to say, rather than taking an outlook summarized by the phrase “from the rivers, grain,” the DPRK has kept at least one ideological foot in the realm of the practical.

One such example of a practical idea is the DPRK’s approach to hydrological reconstruction, which serves as a connection between both the DPRK’s predilection for engaging in projects involving some degree of difficulty and potential struggle, and its desire to utilise such projects as springboards for ideological, practical and policy development.

A Massive Reclamation Project |  The Taegyedo Tidal Reclamation Area is a project that will seem a blast from the past for any readers who have been following environmental development in the DPRK over the last thirty years. Construction having started at some point in either 1982 or 1983 it is a dinosaur of a hydrological project deriving as it does from the era of the “Four Great Nature Remaking Projects”, in which the DPRK had a plan for the reclamation of some 300,000 hectares of coastal land.

Perhaps unsurprisingly to any DPRK watcher that wider goal was never reached and Taegyedo’s own period of construction has been tortuous to say the least. Having made very slow progress through the 1980s, construction virtually ground to a halt during the years of famine and crisis. Then, total disaster struck on August 21st 1997 when a storm system-driven tidal wave apparently destroyed some four sections of the already constructed breakwaters totalling 5800 meters. The KCNA reports that the wave left a 57 meter wide hole in the breakwater and allowed 250 million tonnes of tidal water to flow through into the draining area behind it (KCNA,1998).

The project had however declined in importance to a moribund and neglected state, and this disaster in fact served as impetus to focus the institutional mind of the DPRK in achieving its completion.  After another ten years or so of development the Taegyedo project has been “finished” (I use quotation marks, as any glimpse of the project on Google Earth will reveal that the drainage of land behind the breakwater system still has some way to go. It is at 39.47N 124.26E), having been declared complete on the 15th of July, 2010 with a visit from Kim Jong Il.

Such reclamative and hydrologically constructive activity has been used to shore up the wider realm of environmental policy and practice during these difficult periods for the DPRK. This apparent constructive and developmental victory against the waves almost as symbolic as the placing of Bill Clinton during his 2009 visit with Kim Jong Il in front of a giant painting of a furiously crashing sea, as noted by Brian Myers at the time.

Bill Clinton, Kim Jong-il and the symbolism of crashing waves | Xinhua/KCNA

Further to this, the apparent success of Taegyedo has allowed for new directions in reclamative practice to be experimented with, it would herald the future of the field, as Kim Jong Il declared at its opening; “…reclamation of the tideland is an important work for the prosperity of the country, and there are highly important tasks to be fulfilled to undertake the project for tideland reclamation in a bigger way in the future…” (Kim Jong Il,2010).

On Scale and Connectivity |  When Kim Jong Il used the word “bigger” at the opening of the Taegyedo project, we must not simply understand it in terms of geographical size, but instead “bigger” in terms of being a better connected, more cohesive and economically useful strategy of land utilisation. Taegyedo itself is indeed a fairly enormous construction project; however, and more importantly, it is a product of its ideological and paradigmatic age: a singularly focused “mega-project” directed primarily at capacity increase.  The 17,000 hectares that it encompasses serving simply to extend available agricultural capacity within North Pyongyan province.

Perhaps the more interesting element to the story is the institutional push this focus on the possibilities of land reclamation has given to other, more contemporary projects within the field.

These more recently founded projects demonstrate a more multi-functional approach to the end-usage of such reclaimed land, one which moves away from the previous “mega-project” centered developmental paradigm. Some elements of this end-usage itself serve even more recent developments within the realms of institutional direction, such as the need to generate hard currency or to engender cooperation with external and useful actors.

Bay Reclamation Area | Image via North Korea Economy Watch

For example, the tidal reclamation area at Punijman (also in North Pyongyan province), initially founded in 1998, is an intriguing example of a reclamative project serving a multiplicity of functions. The area of reclaimed land will provide arable land, areas for aquaculture and also the extraction of sea salt. Such projects may form the nub end of an emerging paradigm of multi-functional development within the sector and not only this tendency towards multi-functionality (KCNA, 2010).

Such a focus upon aquaculture is seen at another project, this time in Ryongmae, South Hwanghae province. This was also founded in 1998, but was seemingly neglected for some time.  It finally held a ground breaking ceremony on December 28th, 2010. The Ryongmae project is now envisaged as a multi-purpose reclamation area incorporating both aquaculture and hydro-electric power and is potentially the largest of newly developing projects at some twelve miles long (KCNA,2012).

On Future Projects and Quests | Could it be that through the strategies of reclamative action demonstrated by these new projects we are seeing the emergence of a new paradigm of practice within the field of developmental environmental engineering, one which relates to the developing environmental sensitivity used by the DPRK within its ideological and political narrative presentation? Punjiman and Ryongmae’s focus on aquaculture in a sense connect with the developing tendency towards multifunctional practice in many different economic and industrial fields of the DPRK, ostensibly serving to extract the maximum possible economic advantage for the DPRK given its current straightened and tenuous economic situation from any project undertaken.

Further to this, we may be able to discern a connection with this focus on aquaculture and other attempts within the agricultural field to produce both conventional and organic food stuffs, both to reduce the DPRK’s reliance on external actors in this field and to generate hard currency through increasing imports. Would it be a surprise if locally farmed salmon or trout emerged as a potential DPRK export in future, an intriguing by-product of such a multi-functional developmental approach?

Reference List

KCNA (1998) – Coastline reshaped – accessed from www.kcna.co.jp

KCNA (2010)  – Project for Reclaiming Punjiman Tideland Completed- accessed from www.kcna.co.jp

KCNA (2012) – Choe Yong Rim Makes Field Survey of Tideland Reclamation on Ryongmae Island – accessed from www.kcna.co.jp

Kim Il Sung (1946)Encouraging address delivered at the ceremony for starting the Potong River Improvement Project, Works, Vol 2,  Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang

Kim Jong Il (2010) – Kim Jong Il Inspects Reclaimed Taegyedo Tideland – accessed from www.kcna.co.jp

Myers, B (2009) – The Korea Trap – accessed from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/the-korea-trap/7628/

Nkeconwatch (2011) – More DPRK efforts to boost food production – accessed from www.nkeconwatch.com

Wittfogel K (1957) – Oriental Despotism – A Comparative Study of Total Power, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT

Projects which focus on organic agriculture for production or export can be found at:

Click to access TOR_Final.pdf

Click to access Agriculture%20-%20OADA.pdf

Celebrating the Completion of the Nampo-Pyongyang Salt Water Pipeline | Rodong Sinmun, May 2, 2012 (in Chinese)

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