Armilliara and Sunshine: From Kim Jong-il’s Fungal Diplomacy to the Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang

By | November 22, 2013 | No Comments

Close encounters of the Fungal variety: Kim Jong-un at Posong Mushroom Farm. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Close encounters of the Fungal variety: Kim Jong-un at Posong Mushroom Farm. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The past efforts of North Korean leaders to solve the food problem are legendary, and are as persistent as the possibility of scarcity.  As previously reported at Sino-NK, the arduous work toward agricultural self-sufficiency continues, and that labor absorbs much of the attention of the state apparatus even as it gets far less popular attention than the country’s nuclear program.  North Korean leaders frequently dip into its discussion. Considering the matter at various times, Kim Il-song and his successors have called for local rabbit breeding, the production of turf, and land reclamation of awesome scope. These central calls mean that centrally-generated institutions are often replicated at the provincial level; an on-site inspection by the leader leads to multiplication, and so the provincial is a strata which needs deeper investigation.  

Robert Winstanley-Chesters, newly appointed Postdoctoral Fellow at the Beyond the Korean War Project (University of Cambridge), has done Ph.D. fieldwork in the North Korean hinterlands and engaged with institutions responsible for environmental management at the provincial level. 

As Winstanley-Chesters writes, beyond the faces of the Kims, it is their institutional emphasis that continues to push North Koreans into constructing, re-constructing, and re-configuring institutions grounded in the fertile and generative soil of the 1960s, and which today Kim Jong-un seeks to revivive and to thrust into the international eye. Winstanley-Chesters’ contribution to this discourse is to render it historical, and to place it into a growing framework which readers will be able to further access here at Sino-NK and via his forthcoming book. — Adam Cathcart, Editor in Chief

Armilliara and Sunshine: From Kim Jong-il’s Fungal Diplomacy to the Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Intriguingly for a nation earlier concerned on the one hand with breaking the bounds of the stratosphere,, and on the other with Dennis Rodman, North Korea’s developmental priorities in 2013 have revolved around the twin poles of  “old fashioned” notions of revolutionary urgency and developmental capacity increase. These have been exemplified by the grassland reclamation project at Sepho and an extraordinary project at Masik Pass, from which this year’s brand of “revolutionary speed” derives its name. These projects demonstrate that the “revolutionary” aspiration to the dynamic remains as incessant as ever in Pyongyang’s institutional “mind.”

However, there are always some quieter, less hectoring developmental themes. Some are long planned and theorised projects and approaches only now finding their feet, while others are conceptions perhaps long forgotten, belatedly rediscovered for their narrative value. Yet in spite of their quieter nature, no less “charismatic” in their potential than the ski-slopes of Masik Pass.

The Charisma of Fungal Science |There are of course a plethora of essays and analytical pieces with North Korea as their focus that begin with some variant on the generic observation that that “there cannot be many countries like North Korea.” However, in terms of charismatic and theatric political functionality, there may indeed be few countries like North Korea, places that have devoted quite so much attention to the humble mushroom.

Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel have long eaten mushrooms, so perhaps it is natural that fungal agriculture should play a role in the developmental agenda of Pyongyang institutions. The Rural Theses of 1964 laid out a framework through which such smaller, more peripheral elements of rural capacity might be harnessed within the greater whole. Unlike other areas of agricultural production; complex, cohesive, and inspiring statements from Kim Il-sung on incorporating the scientific, cultural or ideological revolutions within the realm of fungal husbandry are scarce in this eraEarly mentions of mushrooms are few; there is only  one that precedes the Rural Theses and it was made in 1959’s “Tasks of the Party Organizations of North Hamkyung Province” As Kim Il-sung wrote: “you should cultivate mushrooms and brackens, plant mulberry trees and create groves for tussah…” (Kim Il-sung, 1959). It would thus be left for later North Korean narratives to assert that both he and Kim Jong-il focused on or had any distinct or urgent concern for matters fungal at all.

From Kim Jong-suk’s “Devoted Effort” to Posong | Such reports that have addressed development in the mushroom/fungal sector in more recent years have asserted that both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il “worked heart and soul to provide the people with tasty nutritious mushroom.” In a presentational strategy akin to the best and most complex of North Korea’s narrative strategies, this historic focus on fungal development is connected to both the apparent awesome concern and demonstrative, incorporational charismatic “love” the Kim dynasty projects and inculcates on and in the North Korean people.

Even the narrative of foundational revolutionary authority bestowed on the Kim family and those connected with it during the Manchurian guerrilla period contains a fungal component. Thus, Kim Jong-suk is recounted as having demonstrated her revolutionary nature by expressing commitment, intent, maternal nature and efficiency in a health care setting through the use of mushrooms: “thanks to [Kim Jong-suk’s] devoted effort, the patient recovered from illness the day when she took off the 29th mushroom.”

Further to these primary themes, mushroom and fungal production has also been connected to the necessity and value of the Workers Party of Korea as it is currently constituted. As KCNA put it, “the Posong Mushroom Farm would discharge their duty in a responsible manner true to the intention of the WPK and thus produce a large quantity of tasty and nutritive mushrooms for soldiers and people…,” Mushrooms are also linked to narratives of Korean (and especially northern Korean) sites of natural beauty such as Mt. Chilbo.

Fungal Diplomacy during the “Sunshine” Era | It is through just such a call to pan/trans-peninsula “deep Korean-ness,’ represented by an apparent love and longing for the displaced or lost landscapes of the north, such as Mt. Chilbo that Kim Jong-il hoped to utilise fungus within the North’s diplomatic strategy in the “Sunshine” period. It is astonishing in the current era to recount the extravagant fungal gift giving generated from the north by Kim Dae-jung’s diplomatic and political strategies.

It seems that on at least three occasions mushrooms were exchanged between the Kims. Some five tonnes of Armilliara were delivered to the ROK to commemorate the June 2000 summit meeting, as well as further gifts to mark Chuseok (추석; Korean traditional harvest festival) in the same year and mushrooms from Mt. Myohang to mark the arrival of the autumn mushroom harvest in 2002. The North’s statements covering these moments of fungal diplomacy are replete with geographic references focusing on the source of the mushrooms, on the general rural landscape of the north and particularly on Mt. Chilbo and Mt. Mhyohang. Mt. Chilbo and its mushrooms are described elsewhere in almost misty eyed terms, and their sending as gifts to the South as representing “his ardent love for the same nation and the same fellow countrymen and that Armilliara mushrooms have become the greatest speciality in the world under his care….”

Kim Jong-il also gave the gift of fungus in 2007 following the second inter-Korean summit with President Roh Moo-hyun. While not as extravagant or forthcoming in the narratives of gift giving, (the KCNA archive does not contain an English language mention of DPRK to ROK gifts, instead focusing on those given to Kim Jong-il by President Roh), nevertheless the actual volume of mushrooms had shot up to some four tones of Armilliara. President Roh, apparently not a fan of fungus, elaborately parceled and repackaged these earthy fruits of diplomacy for his people (as seen in the photo below).

Those Armilliara gifts from Kim Jong-Il to Roh Moo-hyun. Image: the Y

Those Armilliara gifts from Kim Jong-Il to Roh Moo-hyun. Image: the Y

Mushrooms in the later years of Kim Jong-il | There would of course be no more trans DMZ diplomacy, and the “Sunshine” went down across the Korean Peninsula with the death of Roh and Lee Myung-bak’s election to high office in Seoul. Fungus it seems would have no further place in diplomatic narratives deriving from the North. But that is not to say mushrooms and the cultivation have played no further part in North Korea’s narratives of development and capacity and their these narratives connection to the politically charismatic. Far from it; in the years since the collapse of the Sunshine policy, ostensibly an era of external isolation, nuclear threats and difficulties, North Korean mushroom production has developed in narrative and charismatic importance to match its early scientific heroes and the more cohesive developmental approach of Kim Il-sung in other rural economic sectors, as laid out in 1964’s Rural Theses.  In a future piece for Sino-NK I will analyze the roots and development of the technical and scientific institutions tasked with developing fungal science in North Korea, so the long and complicated story of their heritage and generation will not be recounted here, save to say that it is in these institutions that the impact of these narratives seems most keenly felt.

Fungal Pioneers | While the narratives of fungal development are replete with scientists and technicians whose focus on fungus is key to other texts focusing on the importance of science within North Korean economic development (such as Ri Son-a of Rungra Science and Technology Centre, a “pioneer in studying the science of mushroom cultivation in the DPRK” an investigator of many fungal treatments for cancer and ‘conqueror’ of mushroom related production issues), it would of course be Kim Jong -un who is the charismatic hero of this narrative in the current age. Kim’s visit to Posong Mushroom Farm on June 5, 2013 has unleashed a tidal wave of narratology addressing fungal issues this year, similar though not quite as extensive as the extraordinary level of focus on Masik Pass and Masikryeong Speed. Kim Jong-un’s underlining of mushroom policy’s focus on “the need to contribute to the diet of soldiers and people by building in various places such bases mass-producing mushrooms in an industrial method….” connects this sector with the industrialized and technicalized narratives of agricultural development from 1964, as well as contemporary Songun narratologies.

Armilliara under Kim Jong-un | Following the Marshal’s visit to Posong and apparent keen interest in fungus, a plethora of institutional and governmental figures were seen to make important visits to mushroom related sites across the country. Less than two weeks after Kim Jong-un’s visit to Posong, Choe Ryong-hae made a visit to the Mushroom Research Institute of the State Academy of Sciences (of which more later), further connecting fungal science within the Songun paradigm (Choe Ryong-hae serves as director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA). Premier Pak Pong-ju also visited the Institute on July 4 to support Party connections to the industry, apparently underscoring:

[T]he need for the officials and researchers of the institute to intensify the research into mushrooms of various species, positively introduce advanced technology into the cultivation of mushroom and thus contribute to the improvement of people’s diet, true to the Workers’ Party of Korea’s idea of attaching importance to science and technology….

To underscore this multiplicity of connections and the tripartite nature of North Korean political and institutional structure (dynasty, Party, Army), Kim Jong-un again made a mushroom-related “on the spot guidance” visit on July 15. The narrative presentation of this particular visit made sure to comment on his triple status as supreme commander of the KPA, “first secretary” of the WPK and “first secretary” of the National Defense Commission, before again underpinning the importance of Mushrooms to previous developmental narratives asserting that:

[I]t is necessary to thoroughly implement the behest of President Kim Il-sung who called for turning the country into a world famous mushroom producer by building such mushroom farms in different parts of the country….

Pak Pong-ju visits some mushroom growing factories. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Pak Pong-ju visits some mushroom growing factories. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang | As in other sectors however, in-spite of the asserted importance of regional projects and institutions it would be this central element of this productive sector that would gain the most from narrative focus. The Mushroom Institute of the State Academy of Sciences has been the subject of radical redevelopment and investment following these visits. Following a construction period apparently as short as three months (“Masik Speed” in action), the Central Institute reopened on October 18 with an extraordinary new external look and resolutely “modern” facilities. However it is not simply an institutional space replete with e-library, geo-thermal heating and dust free working spaces (KCNA, 2013), but a coagulation of institutional priorities and political narratives. According to KCNA, the institute is a “modern research base,” which will “stand proud in the eyes of the world….”  Further, it is intended “to put the production of mushroom on an industrial and scientific basis is a plan unfolded by the Workers’ Party of Korea for improving the diet of the Korean people” and importantly “Marshal Kim Jong Un let the People’s Army take charge of the construction and took necessary measures….”  Rodong Sinmun’s report takes the narrative a little further insisting that the completion of the institute as well as all these other elements “a fruition of the respected Marshal Kim Jong Un’s noble love for the people….”

Perhaps a conventional way to end such an essay as this would be to assert that such an extraordinary coming together of institutional and political tropes as the Central Mushroom Institute although radical in its embedding of institutional, ideological and dynastic themes within a frankly peripheral element of developmental approach or production is so extraordinary that we cannot know where it will lead. Yet this, in the case of fungal production in the North Korea of 2013, is simply not true to say. Whereas we can speculate as to the institutional driver for the refocus on mushrooms (perhaps to remind or replay the narratives of fungal importance during the reign of Kim Jong-il, especially in the realm of “sunshine diplomacy”) in 2013, just as we can for any seemingly any slightly bizarre visit by Kim Jong-un, the output of the theme is glaringly apparent in this case.

The Central Mushroom Institute, Pyongyang | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The Central Mushroom Institute, Pyongyang | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Kim’s visit to Posong and the redevelopment of the Central Mushroom Institute in Pyongyang has driven projects elsewhere in North Korea (KCNA reporting multiple mushroom focuses developments in Jagang, South Phyongan, South Hamgyong, and Ryanggang provinces, Hamhung, Hyesan, Kaesong and Tanchon cities and a number of other places) and generated further visits by Pak Pong-ju. These serve only to amplify further the connectivity between the sector and these institutional and political themes, Pak for instance is recounted as having said at a project in South Hwanghae that construction of the mushroom farm was both “a patriotic work to implement the behests of President Kim Il Sung and General Secretary Kim Jong Il…” and an example of the “noble intention of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”

In light of the analysis of normalcy within the period of the immediate “revolution” in North Korea in Suzy Kim’s forthcoming book, a more useful way to end is to conclude that such utilizations of politics, narratology, and charisma within such apparently peripheral or slight sectors as the farming of fungus serve only to further deepen the evidential base for asserting the holistic nature of political and narrative normalcy in North Korea. Its charismatic politics and institutional development can form and coagulate around and through any vector or foci, even the humble Armilliara.

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  1. Just out of curiousity, what does one do with a gift of four tonnes of mushrooms? Send it to the kitchen of the Blue House? Letting them go bad or selling them would probably no go down well in the North.

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