New Year…New (Table)Land? A Televized Address and the Curious Case of Sepho

By | March 31, 2013 | No Comments

It is no simple task to extract meaning from the mass of data served up by the North Korean state media. Even in those rare cases when a narrative proves to be of critical importance, it is not always possible to say so until after the fact. But, as luck would have it, Robert Winstanley-Chesters is always with us. Here, he parses the deluge, acting as our environmental guide to a new narrative for a new leader. — Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

'Reclaiming' the Sepho Tableland at Christmas 2012 | ©Rodong Sinmun

‘Reclaiming’ the Sepho Tableland at Christmas 2012 | ©Rodong Sinmun

New Year…New (Table)Land? A Televized Address and the Curious Case of Sepho

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Having submitted a doctoral dissertation focused on both forestry in Kangyye and coastal reclamation projects on the West Sea coast, this author was recently rifling through DPRK environmental narratives in search of a new developmental sector or locale upon which to direct his analytical gaze.  In this regard at least, the DPRK is often the gift that keeps on (determinedly) giving, even in today’s tense, heightened times.

Sepho County, which lies in mountainous central North Korean Gangwon Province | image via Naver

Sepho County, which lies in mountainous central (North Korean) Gangwon Province | image via Naver

What I found was hidden in the depths of the 2013 New Year’s Address. These annual messages are of course pored over by all manner of interested parties for glimpses of the ambitions of the DPRK leadership and its institutions in the year to come. While I think it fair to say that reading and/or analysing such extensive, effusive missives can be tiresome, distracting and ultimately frugal in its investigative value, the messages themselves are nevertheless capable of offering general insights into the wider institutional and developmental agenda of the DPRK at a given point in time. At the very least they indicate areas in which the leadership, institutions and bureaucracy feel that their plans have either been successful (thus of course requiring further success), or have stalled (thus requiring revision or restatement).

A few past addresses have even contained absolutely vital clues to changes and revisions of developmental approach, occasionally in completely unexpected directions. 1982’s message, for example, served as both the final word on the previous year’s revision of the “Five Great Nature Remaking Tasks” (down to only four), and the reappearance of the tidal reclamation sector as a key development area in the guise of the Taegyedo Tideland Reclamation Project. The text of that particular message was then continually repeated throughout the 1980s, forming the textual and narratological foundation stone for the presentational treatment of the reclamation sector.

However, this year I’m not sure what I was expecting; perhaps references to Kwangmyongsong and its contribution to the scientific framework that underpins Juche-Songun revolutionary thinking?

Kims 1 and 2 tamed the rhetorical tides. Wherefore art though, Kim 3? The uplands? | image via TML Daily

Kims 1 and 2 tamed the rhetorical tides. Wherefore art thou, Kim 3? The uplands? | Image, a Rodong Sinmun original, via TML Daily

What I certainly did not anticipate was a whole new environmental project involving a stream of presentational and institutional narrative focused on cementing its importance and embedding its institutional role in the developmental agenda. But that is what I got, in the guise of the following:

The soldiers of the People’s Army and the shock-brigade members who volunteered to work at the reclamation site of Sepho tableland in response to the Party’s call should achieve miraculous successes and perform heroic feats in this year’s campaign to open a bright prospect for carrying the Party’s grand nature-remaking plan to completion at an earlier date.

At first I presumed that I had uncovered a misprint in the English translation of the text. ‘Tableland’ must surely refer to ‘tideland,’ I thought: after all, this had to be about a reclamation project, for narratives connected to the environmental and developmental sector ordinarily address reclamation from the sea, as opposed to less dramatic (and presentationally far more challenging) reclamation from degraded land or wilderness. However, documents and databases of DPRK publications and reportage soon made it apparent that this text did in fact refer not to coastal reclamation, but to the rehabilitation of an upland plateau in North Korean Gangwon Province. Not only that: This brief mention in the 2013 Join New Year’s Editorial was found to be simply the narratological tip of an immense iceberg. Sepho is to be a key feature of the DPRK and Kim Jong-un’s developmental strategy.

The framing of the narratalogical strategy appears to have begun on November 9th, 2012 with KCNA recounting a visit by Cabinet premier Choe Yong-rim to a KPA agricultural unit within the project. Here the outline of the narrative was given for the first time, combining supposedly historical examples of ‘on the spot guidance’ given by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to the authorities in Sepho County with Kim Jong-un’s own recent revisioning of the project. (“The dear respected Marshal Kim Jong-un unfolded a plan for the transformation of Sepho tableland, true to the intentions of the great Generalissimos and brightly indicated the orientation and ways for realizing it,” it proclaimed).

November 10th saw the more practical elements of the project revealed, then later in the month Sepho was revealed as the destination for various “Shock Brigades” of soldiers from Pyongyang and elsewhere. Finally, the more practical details of direction and completion, especially the role of the military and the project’s role in supporting the development of both Songun politics and agricultural capacity (in the guise of stockbreeding), were revealed on December 4th. There were supplementary editorials in Rodong Sinmun and the English-language Naenara website to underline its importance and relevance, before all of the narratological development was crystallised in the form of the January 1st statement.

The presence of Sepho within these presentational set pieces (perhaps in order to buttress its appearance in the January 1st address), serves to illustrate its overall relevance within the web of DPRK narratives. It is necessary, in a transfigurative sense, for Kim Jong-un to assert his connection to the intellectual legacy of his father and grandfather and his continuation of the Kim dynasty’s inspirational guidance-based approach, but it is also important in presentational terms for Kim and those institutions under his control to assert some independence. Perhaps the Sepho project is to serve in this capacity.

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