“The Theatre of Farm Fields:” Kim Jong-un and the Subworkteam Leaders
Under the mantle of progress in the era of Kim Jong-un, North Korea looks back to its past. However, a recent speech Kim delivered to a meeting of farm subworkteam leaders suggests that the fiftieth anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s 1964 “Rural Theses” is not simply about historical narrative and political authority. Rather, the “Rural Theses” can also be used to provide authoritative impetus for institutional adjustments in the present day. Kim’s unusually explicit speech allows the reader to make connection between North Korean institutional aspirations, the “lived reality” of current piecemeal on-the-ground changes to agricultural practice, and the lofty metaphysical world of inherited charismatic authority and legacy. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
“The Theatre of Farm Fields:” Kim Jong-un on Subworkteam Leaders
by Robert Winstanley-Chesters
Having directed his very first publication towards the subject of land management early in 2012, Kim Jong-un has emerged as quite the unlikely agricultural theorist. With the impending April anniversary of his grandfather’s 1964 “Rural Theses” looming, Kim published an extensive new text on February 7 entitled, “Let Us Bring About Innovations in Agricultural Production under the Unfurled Banner of the Socialist Rural Theses.”
Kim Jong-un’s New Years Message (and extensive local reportage addressing it and meetings connected to it) vigorously asserted the historical importance of the 1964 Rural Theses, and their continued relevance under Kim Jong-un in 2014. However, this voluminous wave of material has not gone into much practical detail: What, if anything, do the lauds of the 1964 Rural Theses indicate about the new direction, if any, North Korean agriculture is taking in the near term?
Fortunately, the text of Kim’s recent publication, delivered at a national meeting of “Subworkteam Leaders,” offers this detail in spades.
The Rural Theses and the Three Revolutions | Echoing a similar meeting in 1965 addressing issues from the Rural Theses, Kim Jong-un eagerly follows in the frame of reference created by his grandfather. To wit: The key feature of the 1964 Rural Theses was their articulation of the “Three Revolutions” concept in terms of agriculture and rural development. Having essentially guided practice in this sector for very nearly fifty years, one might expect the “Ideological, Cultural and Technical Revolutions” in the countryside to have at least met, if not surpassed their aims.
However, as readers will already be aware, themes and assertions in North Korea exist only partly for their potential to manifest in reality; they are also possessed of an equally vital quality; namely, their value as repetitive tropes and theatrical elements upon which further development and ideological extrapolation can be hung. Kim Jong-un’s text fits neatly within this tradition of re-articulation.
According to Kim, it is not that that developments undertaken under the banner of the Three Revolutions since 1964 have been unsuccessful; in fact, quite the contrary:
The ideological and cultural revolutions have been promoted successfully in the countryside, with the result that the ideological and spiritual qualities of our agricultural working people have been transformed remarkably and a great development has also been achieved in the realm of cultural life in the countryside.
Furthermore, as a result of the undertakings of the Rural Theses, guided by the Three Revolutions strategy, the countryside and rural agriculture today represent “clear proof of the validity and vitality of the socialist rural theses advanced by President Kim Il Sung.” Kim Jong-un continues: “As they have the immortal programme for solving the rural question, our people have been able to create a brilliant example of socialist rural construction….”
Ideological Connectivity: From Three Revolutions to Kimilsungism | Elsewhere, Kim connects up the dots of the Three Revolutions concept, its strategic interplay with the Rural Theses, and the entire gamut of North Korean ideological development from Juche to Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism to Songun. These theoretical elements have long informed not only the Three Revolutions but also the wider structures of rural policy. Naturally, these involve some charismatic retrospection on the persons of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the transfigurative capture of authority by Kim Jong-un is also made explicit by the existence of the new text.
In the lee of these historical connections, what is it that the youngest Kim gifts to the cause of agricultural development in the twenty first century, especially in light of the Three Revolutions and the Rural Theses? The text is content heavy on this matter; content that is framed in the three themes of the original Three Revolutions, and, more specifically, within at least five current projects.
Three Revolutions and Culture | Firstly and perhaps least defined of all the areas in his work, Kim Jong-un asserts the necessity for a revival of the Three Revolutions concept itself, addressing its “cultural” aspects. Although not extensively articulated in the original Rural Theses and their outworkings, in fact very much the straggler in the race, Kim appears to see culture as key to their popular reception:
If we are to successfully build a socialist civilized country, which our people are desirous of, and ultimately solve the rural question, we should step up the cultural revolution in the countryside.
Kim does not lay out a detailed definition of what culture actually means, but we might assume that it is decidedly not a “culture” of consumption, leisure or individualism. It seems safe also to assume that it exists within the frame of reference of the effusive, diffuse yet all encompassing “culture” of politics in North Korea. Kim, outlining how the general population will interact with this cultural conception, does so in ways that might be understood conventionally:
[C]onditions should be created so that they can enjoy a cultural and emotional life to their heart’s content and, by laying out the rural villages in a more cultured way, it should turn them into a civilized and beautiful socialist fairyland.
The emphasis on physical structures and development approach is familiar, but matters of a cultural nature for those in the rural environment are to be understood in frames connected to this emphasis and to wider historical narratives of industry:
[T]he countryside, upholding the slogan of making all the people well versed in science and technology, should actively propagate scientific and technological knowledge, so that all the agricultural working people can learn advanced farming techniques and operate modern technical means skillfully….
Perhaps “culture” can only be understood within a North Korean context from a perspective of its contribution to industry and production. After all, this is a section of writing in which the only concrete piece of policy present refers to what is termed “the study-while-you-work system,” which combines everyday political inculcation and articulation with more conventional strategies of re-training..
Subworkteams and the Agricultural Moderne | Moving from the first theme of the text to the technical revolution in the second, an area that is more familiar, Kim restates aspirations that have been present since the dawn of time in North Korea:
In line with the demands of the era of science and technology, the informatics era, it should promote the rural technological revolution, thus making the material and technological foundations of the rural economy firmer and steadily putting agriculture on a higher scientific and modern footing….
One is here tempted to make the obvious clichéd critique that, considering the fifty year history of the Rural Theses and the more general degree of focus on both science and technological development, how is it that the rural economy and agriculture aren’t already both highly scientific and modern in outlook? However, Kim’s text is a great deal more strategic in this respect.
Firstly, it problematizes the issue within a framework of productivity and resource generation, connecting rural work to the wider problems of North Korea’s geopolitical position:
[T]he most important task facing the agricultural sector at present is to do farm work well so as to radically increase agricultural production. The agricultural front is an outpost in the battle of defending socialism and a major thrust of the effort in building our country into a socialist economic giant….
Kim undiplomatically asserts that it is North Korea’s enemies who are attempting to undermine socialism and Songun by intervening in the country’s productive ability. While this is doubtful in the agricultural sector, economic sanctions and restrictions placed on North Korean trade do both undermine its economic performance and contribute to worse economic and social metrics overall. In this regard, North Korea’s woeful interactions with sanctions politics are not so different from those elsewhere in the world (Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran currently and Cuba, to name but three).
But most importantly here, Kim identifies a number of key areas vis the re-envisioning of the Technical Revolution, areas through which these threats to North Korean productivity are to be combatted.
Paying Attention to Seeds | Through the lens of the “Juche Farming Method,” which all of these strategies apparently form constituent parts, the agricultural sector is to consider firstly the successes and productivity of plant and seed husbandry:
[T]he main thing in farming is seed. The agricultural sector should hold the seed as the main thing and pay primary attention to solving the seed problem…
Long-term analysts of the DPRK agricultural sector acknowledge an ongoing North Korean commitment to research in this area. The plethora of research institutions addressing various agricultural sectors has been covered extensively by Sino-NK in the past. Kim’s focus on the bureaucratic background to the solution to this problem is therefore not entirely surprising:
[M]odern seed processing factories should be built as required by the age of scientific farming, and a system established whereby all the seeds are screened, sorted out and coated in a comprehensive manner and supplied to cooperative farms….
A commitment to radically improve the nature of agricultural production and to more properly site and locate different crop species or farming methods is also not new to North Korean agricultural narratives (“… crops and varieties should be distributed on the principle of sowing the right crop on the right soil and at the right time… they should be distributed in line with the regional characteristics and natural and climatic conditions…”). Following in the footsteps of Judith Shapiro on agricultural practices under Maoism I, too, have recounted many similar calls in North Korean developmental narratology. Kim Il-sung often articulated the need for rural provinces or local party organisations to engage in more suitable agricultural development. So Kim Jong-un’s presence in the agricultural debate is hardly new, and might even have been expected. But what is new in the 2014 text–or at least moderately new- is the commitment to what might be termed “low impact” or “sustainable” modes of development:
At present, the agricultural sector is researching and introducing a variety of farming methods that boost the yield drastically with less seeds, work force and farming materials, and they should widely be popularized… organic farming should be encouraged proactively… the world’s agricultural development is tending towards farming with bio-fertilizer, not chemical fertilizer…
Subworkteams, Three Revolutions and Sepho | No doubt Pyongyang’s ‘Organic Agricultural Development Association’ will have a key part to play in any practical strategy emerging from Kim’s call, but in truth the focus on organic and low-input agricultural practice has a history, following the intervention of both Kim Jong-il and development agencies of the United Nations in the late 1990s. Production is seen as key to state aims whose focus is food supply. Equally, productivity underpins those projects that generate volume growth in cattle and other forms of stock breeding. Sepho Grassland Reclamation Project is a perfect example of the practical implications of this.
The focus on Sepho in 2013/2014 is at odds with agricultural approaches of recent years; namely, those ascribing importance to singularly intensive of resource strategies of food production. This conception addressing and supporting crop diversity presents seemingly an element of developmental and strategic contradiction :
[T]he agricultural sector should improve the structure of agricultural production to be a grain-oriented one in order to boost food production to the maximum… we should reduce the area of cultivation of non-cereal crops as much as possible and expand the area of rice and maize cultivation….
This momentary confusion precedes the third key theme of the Three Revolutions, and, presumably given the audience, the one that Kim Jong-un is most concerned to articulate. North Korean developmental narratives and reality are of course littered with references to past ideological agendas and institutional structures, the Three Revolutions movement being a case in point: at one time it was surrounded by a plethora of organisations and theoretic frameworks (from the Taean Work Method to the Three Revolution Teams). This text was apparently delivered to what is termed the “National Conference of Subworkteam Leaders”. While Subworkteam Leaders have been discussed and mentioned a number of times before in North Korean literature and were even included in texts from Kim Il-sung addressing the Rural Theses in 1965, this text features an extensive re-articulation of their role in the agricultural bureaucracy.
Subworkteam is the grass-roots unit in the countryside which occupies an important position in the development of the rural economy and agricultural production.
Only when subworkteams enhance their role is it possible to develop the socialist rural economy and bring about innovations in agricultural production.
Socialist Principles of Distribution | This frankly quite dramatic statement is followed by delving into the minutiae of what appears to be the structural impetus behind this new enhanced role, which involves the introduction of smaller teams. Much has been made of the possibility for economic improvement in North Korea during the Kim Jong-un era. Interested parties instantly grasp any glimpse of a reformist trend or strategy, and extensive wishful thinking often follows. However, North Korea’s agricultural sector has proven to run counter to general economic themes in the past; following Liberation, Pyongyang presided over a virtually mixed system of rural landownership until the late 1950s. At the time, collectivity, co-operatism and small private land plots existed together (although the Three Revolutions Movement’s original intention was the eradication of much of this).
The text of Kim’s letter appears to outline a compensation and food distribution system which deconstructs the common perception of North Korea’s equalizing system (though of course it has long been acknowledged that, when it comes to Public Distribution System rations, those deemed to be doing work of a more authentic or useful type receive greater quantities):
[W]hat is important in operating the Subworkteam management system is to strictly abide by the socialist principle of distribution… equalitarianism in distribution has nothing to do with the socialist principle of distribution…
Incentivization and the “Rural Hardcore” | What is outlined is essentially a compensatory system for the agricultural sector for Subworkteam Leaders, one that includes variability dependent on need, effort, and government agenda, and which aims to generate the potential for fiduciary and value-led incentives to form part of those worker’s lives:
Subworkteams should assess the daily work-points of their members… according to the quantity and quality of the work they have done… they should, as required by the socialist principle of distribution, share out their grain yields to their members mainly in kind according to their work-points after counting out the amounts set by the state….
Beyond this surprising, potentially counter-productive element in such a controlled and resource scarce economic environment as North Korea and its agricultural sector, Subworkteams and the Subworkteam leaders are to contribute extensively to the theatre of rural development and party connection in their locales. They are to be ideological and practical exemplars:
Subworkteam leaders… are the rural hardcore on whom our Party relies in solidifying its socialist rural position…. How they perform their duties decides whether the Party’s agricultural policies are implemented or not….
Just as family and home environments were inculcated into the theatrics of development during the “Patriotism Begins with Love of Courtyard” last year, Subworkteam leaders are to adopt similar filial approaches and make deeply familial and personal connections:
Subworkteam leaders should become “elder brothers” or “elder sisters” of their subworkteam members who love and look after them as they would do their own blood relations….
Ultimately, it seems the importance and value of Subworkteam Leaders and their Subworkteams as revolutionary models and exemplary participants within the rural, developmental and agricultural field lies beyond their simple ability to engage and connect bureaucratic themes. This value is not measured in the efficiency gains that the Subworkteams might engender, even if it does lead to better land usage, increased grain yields or greater over-all productivity. Instead we again see the tendency of politics and the ideological to manifest at the bureaucratic and structural level in North Korea as a sort of theatrical charisma. While Subworkteams have a name that would set no stage alight, they appear key to North Korea’s charismatic strategies of development, Kim Jong-un himself asserting that Subworkteam leaders:
Should move the theatre of their political work to the farm fields and, through intensive motivational work, inspire the farmers there with zeal and vigour and make all farm fields seethe with the struggle for increased grain production….
 See, for example, Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002),
 All direct quotations in this essay are taken from the folowing: Kim Jong-un, “Letter to Participants in National Conference of Subworkteam Leaders in Agricultural Sector,” Rodong Sinmun, February 7, 2014.