Yongusil 68: Divided Visions, United Vistas: Afforestation and the Visual Production of Politics in the Yushin Era

By | May 08, 2015 | No Comments

Leftist warriors once sought to draw anachronistic connections between the manifestations of Korean national sovereignty either side of the DMZ, and armchair Orientalists still seek to build the ground for equivalences between the neo-liberal social democracy of Seoul and Pyongyang’s effusive, slippery charismatic Kimism. Yet in empirical reality, comparing both Koreas and their politics in our current era generally results in fatuous and disingenuous academic fallacy. Political and ideological organization, process, and procedure have developed at the urgent, hyperbolic pace common to many national narratives since the advent of economic mercantilism as well as modern modes of economic extraction and accumulation; thus, the politics of the two Koreas are now radically and categorically different from one another.

However, politics more generally, in its more basic definitions within the frame of modern nation states based on the Westphalian model, tends to deploy structures and processes of articulation and inculcation that have a near-universal form and typology. Thus, with Max Weber and Heonik Kwon’s general conceptions of charismatic and theatric politics in mind, it may be that in spite of seemingly insurmountable differences between political spaces, the doing, enacting, and productions of politics within those spaces may share commonalities as much as differences. And in the practical form of photographic images, they may, indeed, appear to be very similar.

In the Korean case, these similarities of theatric and performative practice are what interested, Sino-NK’s director of research, Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters, and Sino-NK’s outreach coordinator, Sherri Ter Molen. Building on their respective work on the embedding and encountering of Pyongyang’s charismatic form within the topographic and environmental landscapes of North Korea and the articulation of Korean culture through and within the performative and informative landscapes of the modern media, the two scholars sought to uncover the shared processes of political theatrics and performance in specific developmental spaces of forestry and afforestation within the two Koreas during what became known as the Yushin era of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Having undertaken an extensive fieldwork exercise during which many archival images were obtained from South Korea’s Presidential Archives, the Archives of Saemaul Undong and the National Library’s Information Center on North Korea, Winstanley-Chesters and Ter Molen have spent the latter half of 2014 and early 2015 analysing and considering the visual productions of the governments of Park Chung-hee and Kim Il-sung , developing methodological strategies and building a working paper.

The authors work-shopped the first draft in the Idaho sunshine as part of the 2014 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association Convention in Boise, and they have recently delivered presentations addressing the projects’ Asian connectivities at the 2015 annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in Chicago, its relevance within the context of political ecology at the Association of American Geographers (AAG), Political Geography Speciality Group pre-conference event at De Paul University, and, more generally, to academic geography at the 2015 Association of American Geographers Conference (also in Chicago). Finally, and more locally to those interested readers of Sino-NK, Winstanley-Chesters and Ter Molen delivered a more robust draft as part of the Center of Korean Studies Seminar Programme at SOAS. With further visual rhetoric still to examine, no doubt this intriguing arboreal exploration will only grow in extent, cohesion, and authority, especially in its soon to appear working paper form. What is already clear is the intriguing similarities in political production and performance when the imperatives of forestry meet the apparent and perceived urgencies of building either a capitalist or a socialist modern.

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