Raising a Fierce Wind: Back to the Future in the New Year’s Message
What follows is an adapted version of the introductory preface to “Landscape as Political Project: Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea,” the debut monograph by Sino-NK’s Director of Research, Robert Winstanley-Chesters. The text, forthcoming in April 2014 via Rowman and Littlefield’s Lexington Press, reveals in detail how the DPRK government has long employed landscape as a means of articulating and enforcing the charismatic rule of the Kim family. Here, Winstanley-Chesters takes a look at the coherence of the articulation process, focusing on the 2014 incarnation of the North Korean leader’s annual New Year’s Address, the most recent addition to the canon.- Christopher Green, Co-editor.
Raising a Fierce Wind: Back to the Future in the New Year’s Message
by Robert Winstanley-Chesters
Let us raise a fierce wind of making a fresh leap forward on all fronts of building a thriving country filled with confidence in victory!
These words from the 2014 New Year’s Address are the fulcrum of a text that offers a masterclass in narrative connectivity. This author spent much of the final months of 2013 anticipating the new directions in developmental approach and environmental construction that North Korea might adopt in the coming year. 2013 had been a grand year in environmental terms; two grand projects, Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project and Masik Pass Ski Resort, produced voluminous reportage and extensive review in the North Korean media. Both connected deeply with extant environmental narratives.
Although portrayed as determinedly modernist and technologically focused (indeed, Masik Pass could prove to be North Korea’s riposte to South Korea’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics), there was something intriguingly old fashioned about the imagery and texts surrounding both. Flooding at Masik Pass had destroyed much of the early work, and it was the Korean People’s Army, already intricately involved, that was called in to mitigate the setbacks and bring the project to completion by the end of the year.
Fill it in with Your Bare Hands: Struggle at Dian Lake | Images of military and martial power deployed to literally carve a project from a mountainous and forested space were reminiscent of scenes of struggle at Dian Lake near Kunming in the early 1960’s, when a population enthused by revolutionary, fervent Maoism were “encouraged” to fill in the lake with their bare hands. Indeed, Masik Pass even lent its name to a new “revolutionary” speed at which the soldiers were to work, “Masikryeong Speed,” and as such echoed those efforts at the behest of “Dazhai Speed.” Coverage of the project at Sepho in North Korea’s Gangwon Province was also replete with images of fully occupied agricultural workers deeply ensconced in productive work, grassy fronds and ideological “shock brigades.”
In 2013, under the rule of Kim Jong-un, the modern has looked decidedly pre-modern, a case of “back to the future” in revolutionary terms. But what would 2014 bring? It was hard to foresee, given the preponderance in the last few weeks of 2013 on issues addressing construction, not to mention the tumultuous crisis incited by Jang Song-taek, not merely Kim Jong-un’s uncle but also someone intricately connected with the Kim family and partly responsible for the successful transfer of power from Kim Jong-il, getting purged and executed for apparently forming a counter-revolutionary faction, not clapping sufficiently vigorously during the process of Kim Jong-un’s accession and being both “a traitor for all ages” and “despicable human scum.” Jang’s death created a narrative rupture, one that would need navigating through or around. Something both dramatic and encapsulating would be necessary in the New Year’s Address.
A Forgotten Anniversary: 1964’s Rural Theses | However, in the end the most intriguing thing about the New Year’s Address and its developmental focus was, in a sense, its sheer predictability. It had slipped this author’s mind that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the developmental, environmental and agricultural sectors of a particularly foundational document, Kim Il-sung’s “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question,” which has become known as the “Rural Theses.”
It is often possible to assert a lack of cohesion and coherence to North Korean literature and narrative, but the “Rural Theses” is actually that rare thing among North Korean texts, a piece of acutely coherent, cogent and systematic writing and thinking. The tenets of the “Theses” have been referred to extensively in North Korean narratives since their initial publication, and the institutional foundation stones in other sectors frequently seek authority from or make common cause with them. Accordingly, in the New Year’s Message for 2014 Kim Jong-un only not only mentions the anniversary of their publication, but uses it to both drive and color the developmental agenda for 2014.
The existence of the Theses and their anniversary in 2014 allow for the narratological combination of themes, whereby “agriculture, construction and science and technology hold the torch of innovations in the van and the flames of the torch flare up as flames of a leap forward on all the fronts of socialist construction.” Perhaps this combinational narrative will serve as a means to reconstruct ideas of authority and legitimacy in the lea of what must have been a dissipation of the same at the death of Jang. The Theses’ age-old focus on the “three revolutions,” for instance, could suture the wound of Jang’s alleged institutional and developmental crimes, connecting pure ideology and political impetus within sectors whose narratological waters have been muddied: “We should clearly prove the validity and vitality of the theses by waging the ideological, technological and cultural revolutions dynamically.” Above all, the focus on the Theses allows the political charismatic authority of Kimism to pass down through the ages, through the dynastic line and between the institutional cracks into those more esoteric sectors upon which North Korean scientific and institutional focus seems to have alighted of late; “The agricultural sector…should do greenhouse vegetable and mushroom farming on an extensive scale.”
Landscape as Political Project: Conclusion | Much about North Korea is subject to extensive, detailed and obsessive analysis; however, developmental narratives are an acutely under researched field of study. Of course, in “Landscape as a Political Project: Environment, Politics and Ideology and North Korea” I lay claim to extend and progress that investigation. However, quite separate to that claim, the circularity and cyclicality of these narratives is deeply intriguing. North Korea is often regarded as opaque, a confusing and unknowable space; however, many of the thematic elements in its present manifestation as a political and social polity, as well as a geographic space, are rooted in identifiable, discoverable and utilizable forms.
Not all of these narratives have every answer, neither can every theme be revelatory in every circumstance; however, their circularity makes them useful and expansive in so many other contexts than their own. If in 2014, the “Rural Theses on the Socialist Rural Question” of 1964 could potentially serve as an institutional lexicon or vocabulary for political, social or environmental approach, is it not important for us to use it as such?
Ultimately, therefore, while this author’s forthcoming book is ensconced within historical developmental narratives long since past; forestry projects of the 1950’s, flood mitigation endeavors in the mid 1940’s and such like, North Korean developmental and political narratives are essentially a place of eternal present as well as eternal presence. Themes and narrative elements recur throughout the historical existence of the state, feeding back upon and informing each other.