Politics and Pollack: It Takes a Nation of Fishes
Any good North Korean propaganda narrative has a solid grounding in Korean tradition, and as a nation bounded by water on three sides, fishing is a great one. In this series, Robert Winstanley-Chesters has investigated the history of aquaculture in North Korea, and established the means by which it is swept up in the contemporary imperative of charismatic politics. Here, as he concludes the series, Robert considers temporal locations alongside spatial ones, and ends on North Korea’s (false, occasionally catastrophic) notion of “charismatic time.” — Christopher Green, Co-editor.
Politics and Pollack: It Take a Nation of Fishes
by Robert Winstanley-Chesters
It is hard to recall a year in North Korea’s presentational narrative (other than during the era of the Arduous March) that wasn’t somehow critical to developmental focus, important to resource strategy, vital to agendas of increasing productive capacity. Of course, this is because forward momentum is not only important in terms of approach; it is also primary to functionality. Without the perception of forward movement, Pyongyang’s developmental strategy might appear to degrade. Yet even by historical standards, 2013 and 2014 have been extraordinary in terms of commitment, focus, and the sectorial spread of projects and themes.
I have already offered extensive comment on this year’s New Year’s Address, in particular in terms of renewing the contract between practical focus and authoritative narrative. This is represented in particular by the anniversary of the “Rural Theses on the Socialist Rural Question.” By restating the goals and structures of the Rural Theses, as well as their integration into the agenda of the current Kim government, agricultural capacity and focus serve as carrier signals through which legitimacy, authority and charisma are transferred between the various eras of North Korean governmentality.
Here in this “Politics and Pollack” series I have focused on narratives of fishing and aquaculture in the history of North Korea. Fish, shellfish and other products of the sea are of traditional import for Korea, a nation bounded by water on three sides, and serve as important sources of protein. Their importance as a food resource is further extended by their availability irrespective of developmental successes or efficiency gains. Accordingly, fishing matters have been vital since North Korea’s creation as a sovereign entity. Extraction and utilization of piscine resources was of interest during the initial articulation of the Rural Theses, and nothing much changed thereafter: that interest continued in the developmental stasis of the 1980s and on into the institutional crisis of the 1990s.
In Vogue: Fishing Back on the Table | Although it diminished in importance during the Arduous March itself, fishing is now back in developmental vogue. This is perhaps connected to the revitalization of the agricultural narratives of the Rural Theses. The appearance of fishing in the New Year’s Address, along with a call for both memorialization and actualization of the Rural Theses, frames the development of the fisheries sector in a contemporary narrative mould. Kim Jong-un’s words that the state “should take measures to bolster up the fishing sector. The sector should follow the example of the fishing sector of the People’s Army that landed a huge haul of fishes by carrying out the order of the Supreme Commander unto death,” assert the relevance of military participation in the fishing industry, while the reference to carrying out the requirements of the “Supreme Commander” fold it into the close embrace of the Kim dynasty. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s conceptions of fishing issues are vital to its continued institutional importance, their revolutionary charisma a driving impetus for its development. This charisma is being harnessed by Kim Jong-un in the current era.
Kim Jong-un’s order to modernize fishing vessels and infrastructure and to “launch a dynamic fishing campaign by scientific methods…” while potentially deriving from any era of North Korean development, places the sector firmly in a framework of technical and institutional approach that is intrinsically modern, and very much “2014” in the North Korean sense. We have seen similar strategies deployed in fungal development, turf and grass production, and more recently toward meteorology. While the fishing industry is to have the KPA and its institutions with their “unusual resolve and stubborn practice” as a model, it is more important for it not to fall into the traps of institutional stasis assailed by Kim Il-sung in the 1950s.
Enter 2014: The January 8 Fisheries Station | Kim Jong-un’s first official moment of “on the spot guidance” in 2014 embedded this modernized, scientific approach to piscine resource management, but equally connected previous examples to the new paradigm, allowing them to serve as hooks upon which further development could accrue. Rodong Sinmun recounted his visit to KPA Unit 534’s “Aquatic Products Refrigeration Facility” on January 8 as having underscored the “need to make the flames of the innovation drive in the fisheries field of the People’s Army rage furiously in the fisheries across the country.” It is interesting to consider the institutional functionality of undertaking a developmental project in the midst of such a furious rage; Kim Jong-un demanded that the KPA unit undertake the building of a fishing port facility to supply the refrigeration facility, and ostensibly complete its construction “before the Day of the Sun and start the fish supply from coming autumn.”
The “January 8 Fisheries Station” is required to connect not only the charismatic threads of Kimist authority, military urgency and technological development; it is also to absorb previous rhetorical elements derived from the intent to create a “strong and prosperous state.” Rodong Sinmun’s January 30 editorial reviewing developments linked to the project asserts, for example, “Fishery plays an important role in improving the standards of people’s living,” and, “To shore up the fishing industry is not simply an economic task, it is a political task to carry out the behests of the great generalissimos and our Party’s intention to make our people live better off.” Doing so at such a pace does not (in theory, at least) militate a reduction in technical or research focus; however, for a project built at a revolutionary pace must not neglect research or technical competence, since “Fishing operation today is in a certain sense a brain’s warfare and technical warfare. Therefore, it requires of us to keep the fishing industry scientifically and technically update.”
A little over a month later, Kim Jong-un was again present on the grounds of the January 8 Fishing Station, visiting on or around February 24. This visit both reiterated the urgency of the project and the importance of the KPA as a trusted institution within the developmental remit; a point that it is interesting to note in light of previous speculation as to the place of developmental issues and their co-option by Jang Sung-taek and his supporters.
I thought of the service personnel of the KPA who had carried out any task assigned to them, when I was making up my mind to build a modern fishery station here, and so, I declared I would entrust to them the project to which the party attached importance…
Kim Jong-un’s statement about the importance of the KPA seems to reassert some level of hierarchical structure in the developmental agenda, with the KPA being the tool for the bidding of the Korean Workers’ Party, or at least part of the ecosystem of the project. This is reinforced by the presence of several important individuals from the KWP: one Central Committee department director and at least two vice-directors. Rodong Sinmun’s recounting of the visit concludes with a reminder of both its specific urgency and the future planning required for its successful utilization. Only two months in, and the institutional eye was looking towards the long term, officials being given instructions “to select captains and fishermen and prepare them as all-round fishermen in advance so that they may go out for a fishing operation right after the completion of the project.”
In the end it would only be five months between narrative initiation and completion of the January 8 Fisheries Station, its construction apparently achieved successfully on April 30. As was the case throughout the construction period, multiple narrative and developmental streams converge upon the project, reinforcing and supporting each other, as is the case in many such projects. Connecting the charismatic authority of Kim Jong-un, the political ideological framework provided by Kimism and the Korean Workers’ Party and the efficiency and brute strength of the Korean People’s Army, it is apparent that the impetus for the project is conceptualized within a wider framework of revolutionary and narrative urgency. Such projects are thus undertaken beyond the bounds of normal/non-revolutionary time: “This is another miracle and a model of creation of speed of Korea which can be created only by the Korean People’s Army possessed of indomitable fighting spirit and heroic fighting traits.” They operate in, as if it were possible, charismatic time. Yet in spite of their charismatic tone and content, they are also conceptualized within a more mundane, frame, one in which “it is aimed to supply fishes to baby homes, orphanages, orphans’ primary and secondary schools and old folks’ homes across the country.”
Multiple Scales: What Pollack Can Teach Us | Is this not the developmental lesson to be extracted from these three essays on fishing, fishery resources and the narratives that surround them? These projects and the developmental, environmental or agricultural sectors in which they are placed essentially function on multiple scales, as indeed do politics and ideology in North Korea. All ultimately connect with the narratological strands that serve to underpin, define and legitimate the charismatic political form; all strands lead to the Kims or their conceptual origination, and thus all are transformed by that charisma and those narratives into something not far off the miraculous. This narrative of the mythic and the miraculous sees these projects and those participating in them as existing in a revolutionary charismatic time, in which projects such as the January 8 Fisheries Station and other fishing projects can be achieved at infeasible yet “realistic” speeds. At the same moment there exists a more mundane chronological plane, a timescale of everyday commitment, toil and dedication. This is the domain of the (soldier) builders and the shock brigaders, of the provincial party members, the institutional apparatchiks, all those that are charged with bringing narrative, assertion and aspiration to practical reality.
In a sense neither of these chronologies and categories of spatial relationship or engagement are disconnected from the carrier signal of charismatic politics, both being vectors by which Kimist narratives must be embedded or developed. Herein lies the interplay between Kim Il-sung’s post-colonial assertions from 1948, his call for ship development at Ryukdae and Chongjin shipyards in 1969, and Kim Jong-un’s desire for a “miracle” of institutional construction in 2014; a liminality, slipperiness and transferability across institutional scales, developmental epochs and politico-narratological forms that provides for the connectivity between politics and Pollack.