The Passing of Kim Jong-il (2): A Trans-Peninsular Environmental Meditation

By | December 17, 2012 | No Comments


Kwaksan tideland reclamation project in North Pyongan Province

Kwaksan tideland reclamation project in North Pyongan Province

A Trans-Peninsular Environmental Meditation

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Pushing Back the Tide: Researching the Environment in the DPRK | So far as it is possible given the difficulties presented by the context, this author researches the policy, projects and practice of the DPRK in the field of hydrological engineering, specifically those engaged in the reclamation of coastal and tidal lands. (Particularly persistent and dedicated readers of SinoNK may remember such blockbusters as “Hydrological Engineering, Coastal Land Reclamation and the Multifunctional Paradigm in the DPRK”). Much of what I have researched to date has involved large scale transfers (in a political-ecological sense), of geographic space from one spatial and relational form to another. Such transformations permanently exclude the utilization of these spaces for particular forms of human/environmental encounter, and therefore inevitably alienate populations reliant on said encounters/utilizations for their livelihoods.

However, to date, I have encountered no response from those economically active populations which must surely exist in such spatial areas marked for transfer and development within the DPRK, such as fishermen or those extracting a living from the harvesting of molluscs. It is not apparent to this author that any fisherman or fishing community has ever suggested that the transfer of their sea/estuary access or fishing/extractive grounds into the hands of a reclamation project has disadvantaged them or run counter to their economic or social needs.

In fact, this author has never found commentary sourced from either a fishing or other coastal community, living or dead, as to the appropriateness, success or efficacy of any such project in the North. This is of course in-spite of fishing and fishing communities playing an important role in narratives of legitimation generated by the DPRK (see “Korean People, Strong in Faith,” KCNA, 2010 for a classic example), and despite the role that fishing and fishing rights clearly play within regional diplomatic interactions (dare I mention the Northern Limit Line, the demarcation of Japanese maritime boundaries or the fate of Chinese fishermen in the West Sea?).

The absence of visible or documented popular responses to developmental approaches and projects such as tidal reclamation within the DPRK should not be taken as evidence of their absence in toto, of course, for the observance and documentation of politically transgressive occurrences or materials within the North is difficult, to say the least.

But what such an overt absence can perhaps suggest is an absence of such relational approaches to the environmental world within popular societal consciousness north of the 38th parallel, and to extrapolate further, therefore perhaps the absence of such relations. Conversely, in the work of Professor Hahn Han-hee, who focuses in extraordinary detail on human relations and experiences relating to another massive reclamation project, that at Saemangeum on the West Sea coast of the ROK near the tidal port of Gunsan, we can see something akin to the opposite.

3steps1 bow-Korea.preview

Protesters fought back against the transformation of Saemangeum in North Jeolla Province in 2003 with a “three steps, one bow” march from Saemangeum to Seoul, a 65-day trek | image via Cultural Survival

Saemangeum and Taegyedo: Two Sides of What Coin? | Saemangeum is a project astoundingly similar in scale to that taking place at Taegyedo in the DPRK. Tens of thousands of hectares of tidal flats and shallow estuarial/coastal waters reclaimed by state institutions from the sea as part of a wider developmental policy targeting an increase in economic capacity on both the national and regional scale. Saemangeum, as is the case with the same coast further north, has long been home to populations of sea fishermen and shellfish extractors reliant on the transitory nature of that space, not quite land and not quite sea, for their livelihoods.

The difference in the case of Saemangeum is the relational response sparked by the challenge of potential and impending spatial developments and transfers. Noting that the relationship between environmental participants (the fishing communities) and the institutions of government was problematic from the beginning, for “…under the military dictatorship during the 1970’s and 1980s, the government campaign for the nation’s development…required the sacrifice of many citizens…” (Han Hee, 2012), Han-hee points out that this was acknowledged early on in the developmental process. Thus, it was decided that some form of compensation would have to be provided to those subject to it, and a relation was therefore established in which a developmental impact upon an environmental and its human participants was implicitly and explicitly regarded as detrimental or negative in its consequences.

This acknowledgement of negative relational potential – and the protests accompanying it- is but one of many aspects of the Saemangeum project and responses to it that stand in stark and informative contrast to the dialectical void that is the relational context of Taegyedo and projects like it in the DPRK.

The communities involved with and interested in the development and creation of the Saemangeum project engaged in outspoken, collaborative and inventive protest and contestation. This was widely documented by Han-hee and many others at the time (see for example this perhaps overstated piece on Saemanguem by the NGO “Cultural Survival”). Such protests engaged government institutions in an attempt to influence the dialectic which would govern the practical and relational outcome of the project and sustain their own interests and relations with the natural environment on which they depend. It is doubtful whether any such response could ever be forthcoming within a DPRK context; this, in fact, being the nub of the matter on a great many levels.

An Overwhelming Absence: Conclusion | Thus, it appears that projects focused on environmental development either side of the DMZ bear some degree of external comparison. Saemangeum and Taegyedo resemble each other physically and have been constructed in very similar ways. Perhaps there exist cultural or topographical reasons for this, but the absence of responses derived from human/environmental relations and interchange cannot so simply be explained. Ultimately, the exception of the DPRK when it comes to dialectical approaches to the environment reveals not some great developmental possibility or solution to problems of exchange and resource relations between the human and non-human worlds; rather, does it not reveal an overwhelming absence?

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