Forests as Spaces of Revolution and Resistance : Thoughts on Arboreal Comradeship on a Divided Peninsula

By | June 28, 2012 | No Comments

Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and fellow revolutionary comrades of the arboreal variety | Image courtesy Joseph Ferris / Flickr  hjhy

Forests as Spaces of Revolution and Resistance : Thoughts on Arboreal Comradeship on a Divided Peninsula

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The last eighteen months or so have seen some fascinating explosions of “revolutionary” fervour around our world. Much of the protest, combat and resistive activity of these times has, per expectations occurred within urban environments. “Revolution” and resistive activity came to the streets of Cairo, Athens, Madrid and Tunis much as it has always done, and onlookers of the global televisual fraternity will have witnessed “revolutionary” set pieces, and “set-to’s” that would have not looked out of place on the distressed squares of Moscow or St Petersburg circa 1917. But this period of ferment and upheaval provided other, perhaps more interesting spaces and places for revolutionary activity.

During the Libyan civil war, the coastal highway through the deserts of the Maghreb became the ribbon along which the forces pressing for the downfall of Muammar Gadaffi ebbed and flowed, revolution pressed into being by the whine of dozens of hastily modified Toyota pick-up trucks rushing into and out of the fray. Witnesses to the on-going crisis in Europe may have watched seemingly endless footage of angry agricultural workers blockading the Greek motorway system with their tractors, as if the overthrow of Euro-capitalism could be achieved at the Axios Interchange of the A1/E75 by preventing access to Thessaloniki. Spaces of revolution come apparently in all different shapes and sizes these days and are possessed of a myriad of topographic possibilities.

Was it not ever thus though, and especially so in the case of the Korean Peninsula.

Arboreal Fervour and the Guerilla Mythos |  In my previous posting “Trees and the Trinity…”, I asserted the importance of incorporating the realm of the environment into the narratives of regime legitimation followed by the government of the DPRK. I used the example of “National Tree Planting Day” and its place within presentational narrative to illustrate this. Forestry and the realm of trees are of course a valuable resource to many countries, and important economically. Important enough I am sure for there to be days celebrating trees in other countries (The United States for example celebrates “Arbor Day” on April 10th, but the DPRK as with much else seems to commemorate its connection to the arboreal with a different level of fervour.

There is an almost comradely relationship between the realm of trees and the forest in the presentational and legitimative narratives of the DPRK. This comradeship was forged in difficult times on the peninsula. The Forests giving some shelter to the resistive factions of the Chosen-era bureaucracy and military at the moment of colonisation in 1910, yet also being the site of the defeat and destruction of the “righteous armies” within a very few years (Lee, 1965). Forests continued to serve as the place of revolutionary struggle during the deepest years of the colonial period, although their geographic locale was displaced somewhat in the travails of the “Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army” (from which the mythology of Kim Il Sung’s military prowess derives), from the Korean peninsula proper to the forests of Manchuria and the Russian Maritime Province (Armstrong, 1985). These echoes of memory in which the forest plays the role as place of revolutionary action and strife, where the legitimacy of leadership and nationhood is “forged” in guerrilla struggle are strong in the narrative process of the DPRK.

The key foundational text in the field of forestry in fact, 1947’s,“Let Us Launch a Vigorous Tree Planting Movement Involving All the Masses” contains within it both paeans to the place of the forest in the Korean mythos and resistive response to the Japanese colonisation “From ancient times our country has been widely known as a land embroidered in silk, a land with beautiful mountains and sparkling rivers. Its beauty, however, was long clouded over by Japanese Imperialist rule…”  (Kim Il Sung, 1947). During the planting of trees on Munsu recounted in the document, afforestative projects and the rehabilitative work surrounding forests is envisaged as part of the process of cleansing the DPRK after the colonial period:  “…We must plant trees well and remove quickly the after effects of Japanese imperialist rule” (Kim Il Sung, 1947). The guerrilla movement of anti-Japanese struggle on which the  mythology of Kim Il Sung as a revolutionary hero is also remembered and the forest considered the place of struggle “One autumn as we marched along the shore of the Amnok River…we saw the land of our forefathers in the evening glow and felt it really beautiful…Whenever we saw the landscape of the homeland, we anti-Japanese guerrillas renewed our determination to drive out the Japanese imperialist aggressors and to liberate our country come what may…”(Kim Il Sung, 1947).

It is almost as if the landscape and the trees here themselves are comrades in the struggle for anti-imperialism, the arboreal world as revolutionary comrade. Such a place of revolutionary struggle does not however exempt the realm of the forest from the wider and perhaps more commonly understood aspects of DPRK policy and approach. What is perhaps not surprising is given the comradely position of the trees and forest within the narrative and historical literature, their non-exemption from the more typical demands of incorporated participants in the functioning DPRK. Of course comrades must play their part in developing the nation’s resource base and economic possibilities, whether they are spaces of revolutionary struggle and mythic nationalistic creation myth or not…

“Forests are the wealth of the nation. Timber is widely used as raw material to feed industry and for many other economic purposes. Creating good forest resources through energetic tree planting, therefore, is of great importance in developing the national economy…” (Kim Il Sung,1947).

References :

Armstrong , C (1985) – Centering the Periphery: Manchurian Exile(s) and the North Korean State, Korean Studies, Vo, 19

Conroy,H. (1960) – The Japanese Seizure of Korea:1868 – 1910, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadephia

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

Lee, C. (1965) – The Politics of Korean Nationalism, University of California Press, Berkeley

Winstanley-Chesters R (2012) – “Trees and a Trinity : Environmental Narratives Revised at the Accession of Kim Jong Il,”, March 27.

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