Charismatic Environs: From Local Landscape to National Landschaft

By | September 05, 2013 | No Comments


“Two white birch trees stand high on the shore of Lake Samji conveying the
undying revolutionary exploits of the great persons of Mt. Paektu” | Image: Nodong Sinmun

Since the death of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean state has poured massive resources into the propagation, construction, and defence of statuary across the country to celebrate the legacy of the dead patriarch. These monuments, and their ubiquitous spread, are physical testimony to the state’s creation and ongoing maintenance of “Kimist charisma,” one of the few apparent arrows left in a dwindling quaver of themes and ideas upon which the DPRK’s domestic legitimacy is built.  Comfortable or not, Kim Jong-un has put this theme to use in his own personality cult.

Robert Winstanley-Chesters, however, is not content with seeing North Korean charisma and politics merely through this lens. Wrestling with a tide of new information released by the state since early 2012 on the subject of land reclamation, forestry, and the enigmatic “Byungjin line,” and further armed with fieldwork experiences in the DPRK, Sino-NK’s analyst for environmental matters here produces an essay flourishing with a new analytical framework for understanding the North Korean system.  – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Charismatic Environs : From Local Landscape to National Landschaft

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters


Shock Brigade Members to Create Second “Masikryong Speed” | Image: Nodong Sinmun

Revisiting the Charismatic | New scholarship by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chong has served to reconceptualize the vital notion of “charismatic politics” in the North Korean institutional realm. In a recent essay, I argued that the concept of “charismatic politics” can and should be brought into the environmental and geographic field, outlining what I categorize as the possibility of “Charismatic Landscape” in North Korea.

As Kwon and Chong analyze charisma’s function in North Korean politics through a manifest tendency to the ‘theatric,’ my approach saw the political and the ideological rooted and incorporated within a constructed and mediated environmental in the North Korean context. My  approach thus relies upon analysis and conceptions derived from the work of Denis Cosgrove and other academic Geographers such as Noel Castree and their visions of politically or socially constructed landscapes. Before introducing particular examples of such landscapes within the North Korean political context and national boundaries and offering a typology through which such examples might be better understood, the roots of Cosgrove and Castree’s approach  – their analytical story—merits our attention.


The Sepho tableland is taking on a new look every day. | Image: Nodong Sinmun

Geography as Landschaft | “Landscape,” as a word in the English language, comes to us somewhat denuded of both politics and content, a denudation that makes its connection to a rich and content-filled conception as “charisma” and the North Korean “charismatic” difficult to explain. Landscape comes to English through the medium of Dutch “landschap” paintings, the product of a fashion for attractive representations of topographic features or familiar places suitable for placing on the walls of grand houses of the newly wealthy mercantile capitalistic classes of the 17th century Netherlands. Denis Cosgrove himself asserts that these paintings and this concept are deeply connected with the denigration of more ancient forms of rights and relations between populace, politics and environment by “landowners in an emerging capitalist land market.

Landscape is not, therefore, the ideal word or conception to pair with charisma in any realm of “thick” politics, let alone in North Korea. Instead, I intend to use a more ancient piece of terminology, one which for some readers present elements of difficulty, for others a satisfactory connection with B.R. Myers and assertions that North Korea is a place of acute ethno-politics.

I believe that in order to incorporate charismatic content it is perhaps better to utilize the German word “landschaft.” The landschaft conception and its issues as a terminological element on the road to socially or political constructed “nature” has been grappled with that most famous of UCLA Geographers and I intend to alight on it in order to support its particularity and peculiarity in North Korean political use.

The usefulness of this word and its conceptual hinterland lies in its original usage to define spatial organization in political or social terms, or:

“Custom and culture defined a Land, not physical geographical characteristics—it was a social entity that found physical expression in the area under its law….”

I would claim that North Korea can be seen as such a social or political entity, a space in which particular customs, culture, and political manifestations interact with physical or topographical features within the remit and utilizability of its sovereignty and law. Cosgrove determines that landschaft “…points to a particular spatiality in which a geographical area and its material appearance are constituted through social practice….” In North Korea’s case I would claim that its landschaft is instead constituted through political practice and the mode of charismatic practice as outlined by Kwon and Chung.

Typologies of Charisma |Having connected the landschaft conception with the political stream from whence Weberian political charisma emerges, we must now embed the conception of a landscape possessed of charismatic features within the local geography, topography, and politics of the northern half of the Korean peninsula.

How does such a conception function on the ground and in the politics of North Korea? I do not intend the concept of charismatic landscape and its potential metamorphosis into a “national landschaft” to develop monolithic qualities; indeed it cannot if it to remain a useful tool for analysis. Just as landscapes and topographies by their very nature and reality have different qualities, textures, tones, and contents so to will their charismatic qualities when put to use in the service of politics and an institutional approach. I intend to identify three primary categories within this “typology,” three distinct manifestations of charismatic functionality and content within the field of the environmental, each serving and supporting different elements of ideological and institutional practice within North Korea, all in service of its charismatic politics.

Landscapes and Spaces of Struggle |The first category within this “typology” relates to one of the core elements to political manifestation within North Korea, and that is the import and impact of the pre-Liberation guerrilla struggle against the forces of colonial Japan within the structure of North Korean nationalism. Kim Il-sung and the other members of the United Northeast Anti Japanese Army during the years of activity in Manchuria did, there is little doubt, engage in combat, harassment, and struggle against Japanese forces. It may also of course be that at times they had some success in that struggle; however, this period has become a nationalistic prism through which later manifestations of politics and the political are required to look and to be examined through. This has been analyzed by scholars previously; and Sino-NK itself has touched upon this aspect before.

What has been little researched and subject to little commentary, however, is the place of the environment itself within this struggle and the contribution made by landscape to this narrative of national rebirth and overcoming.

As the site of much of this struggle was necessarily wilderness or partially wild spaces, such natural space has become endowed with the charismatic nationalist content of that struggle. As previously written on the subject of forests as spaces of revolution and resistance at Sino-NK, there is a great deal of painted and imagistic output from North Korea in which trees and forest environments serve as the backdrop for moments in the guerrilla struggle, particularly featuring Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk, later subject to processes of glorification and constructed into events generative of political charisma. Some of this charisma can be seen to have been secondarily bestowed upon this environmental backdrop and this is itself incorporated within the important narrative acts of resistive overcoming and national formation.


The great Leader Kim Il-sung commands the battle in the innermost recesses of Tashaho | Image: Foreign Languages Publishing House

Monolithic Charismas | The process of struggle and resistance from which emerged the narrative nationalisms and political cliques around which institutions and governmental approach formed in North Korea for many years birthed one element of this typology. Would it be surprising therefore if the solidification of power, the normalization of institutional structures around these guerrilla cliques (and their offspring) and the process of coagulation into a “thick” form of politics and the political might beget another?

Later political output and approach in North Korea is nothing if not all encapsulating—politics and the political are everywhere, as are their charismatic manifestations.

There is much research and writing on the variety, frequency, and sheer ubiquity of monuments and markers replete with charisma and authority representative of the regime and its pinnacles (the Kim family), as well as politics and political structures in general. Passing comments are sometimes made to some of the seeming peculiarities of instances of monumentality apparently forced on natural landmarks (while neglecting the body of research addressing similar political/landscape hybridization in Enver Hoxha’s Albania). Instances such as the engraved quotation from Kim Jong-il on Mt Baekdu’s peak (evidence abounds in narratives at the time of his death and commemoration), commemorative elements in the breakwaters at the Taegyedo Reclamation project and the permanent state of Narnian perfection that the Manpok valley in which the International Friendship Exhibition is situation represent the intersection between the “thick” politics replete with charismatic narrative and active content and a landscape forcibly conjoined into its purposes.

The Participant Charismatic | As monolithic and dramatic as some elements of political manifestation are in North Korea, just as elsewhere in the world, the overwhelming majority of political instances, actions, and approaches are not like this. They are not overwhelming or tumultuous, but instead, while they may be ubiquitous or all encompassing, they are generally quiet and not overt; they are part of the everyday, “part of the furniture.”

In North Korea such moments of quiet politics are carefully utilized to construct narratives of supportive participation where citizens beautify or clean up their city in the morning, full of apparent quiet pride, where scientists in the agricultural institute go about the uncelebrated business of experiment and development, and where traffic ladies become national heroines for unspoken action involving traffic management. Landscape is also involved in these quieter, more sedate political instances, in these participant charismas.

The image which opens this essay, for instance, is a perfect representation of this element of my typology; silver birch trees by Lake Samji quietly representative of and participating in one of the more diffuse elements of national and commemorative narrative characterised by Nodong Sinmun as “undying revolutionary exploits of the great persons of Mt Baektu” (presumably Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk).

There are innumerable examples of other instances of this type, but perhaps the most contemporary and for this author the most relevant connect with the material which my earlier Treasured Swords addressed.

The decidedly prosaic landscape of Sepho in Gangwon province has seen enormous levels of focus recently, almost as the Yin to the dramatic developments at Masik Pass’s Yang. Here landscape and the environment have been presented as a passive participant made active by the action of political impetus. Initially dramatic winter-set images of shock brigade workers ripping up the frozen ground with hand axes have given way to more sedate representation of the site beset by careful agriculturalists managing seed dispersal, of a collectivity of shock brigade members, educators, and even entertainers in which the now grassy fields are themselves participant in the enterprise, offering up potential rural bounties and plenty, promising a fine home for incoming cattle stock. At Sepho, charisma and the charismatic are laid low and flat on its grassy plains incorporated in developmentalism and harnessed to the construction of useful and utilizable landscapes.


The soldier-builders of the Ri Song Chol-led sub-unit of the KPA are performing
great labor feats in the spirit of the “Masikryong Speed”| Image: Rodong Sinmun

Conclusion | This and my previous essay, “Political and Environmental Organisation in North Korea: From Charismatic Politics to Landscapes of Charisma,” have sought to outline the connectivity between political and environmental forms in terms of the pliability of their respective charismas. Kwon and Chung have achieved a fine thing in their outlining of the charismatic element within political formation manifest in North Korea in an externalized tendency to the theatric. I hazard a guess that further examination of the issue on their part would likewise reveal a typology of charisma and charismas, and there would be quieter political elements within the wide, extensive, and all encompassing framework of the political in North Korea. There might be participant politics or quieter embedded political forms (all those representations of Kim Il-sung relaxing with children or those of Kim Jong-il studiously at work for instance), but that is not the field of this particular author. I hope I have made the case, or at least made an outline of the case, for asserting the application of Kwon and Chung’s conception of charismatic politics within other analytical and investigative fields within North Korea, particularly the environmental. Further, I hope I have made a claim regarding the existence of a typology of charismatic forms in institutional and narrative practice of some veracity. There may well be other elements to this typology, other facets of charisma within the field of the environmental and within constructed landscapes. Indeed that would seem a logical analytic outcome, for just as landscapes are not comprised of simply one topographic or geographic element, landschafts cannot be comprised of simply one active or embedded element. For the development of a true “Charismatic Landschaft” in the North Korean case, it will require a complexity and variety as “thick” as its manifest political forms.

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