A typical North Korean town is visible in the distance in Sinwon county, South Hwanghae province, DPRK. Image credit Frühtau via Flickr.
Robert Winstanley-Chesters is a graduate student in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. You would think a British geographer would have little to do with the Korean peninsula, but Winstanley-Chesters has an uncommon geographic focus: North Korea. Recent articles he has written have titles like “Forests as Spaces of Revolution and Resistance: Thoughts on Arboreal Comradeship on a Divided Peninsula” and “‘Landscape as Political Project?’ – Pragmatic and Reflexive Policy Development in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Revealing a Multifunctional Approach to Forestry Strategy”. With titles like those, who could resist?
I came across his name in the program for Central European University’s early September conference on “Whither the Two Koreas?” in Budapest. Beyond impressing me with the bold use of the word “whither”, the conference has introduced me to several scholars on Korean affairs, and Winstanley-Chesters is one of the more interesting.
Further investigation on his profile at the University of Leeds reveals extensive writings about environmental themes in North Korea; you can read many of them on SinoNK.com, where he is a frequent contributor.
One of his articles from March 2012 deals with the death of Kim Jong Il the previous December. At the time, the state news reported that nature itself appeared to mourn the Dear Leader’s passing:
“Bears live in deep forest and sleeps in a burrow in winter. That day, however, the bears appeared on the road in the daytime, on which Kim Jong Il took his way, and roared for a long time. It was really mysterious…even beasts seemed to cry with sorrow for the demise of the heaven-born great man…” (Rodong Sinmun,2011)
It wasn’t only bears that day; Manchurian cranes adopted postures of grief and magpies mourned in massive flocks, while ice cracked thunderously in the caldera lake of Mount Baekdu. The state news reportage of these events, claims Winstanley-Chesters, is one small part of the DPRK’s attempt to engage the natural environment in the legitimization of the regime.
This bit of news about the environment is only one part of the picture. North Korea also uses environmental criticisms to denounce countries like the U.S. and Japan, implying its own virtue and legitimacy by comparison. The DPRK participates in regional environmental forums such as the Greater Tumen Initiative and the North East Asia Forest Forum; it is in the process of constructing massive hydroelectric dams, and even sells carbon credits to developed countries. In these ways and others, North Korea is paying a lot of attention to its environment, and I think that’s a good thing.
So, the KCNA may be wrong to use nature to justify the current political regime dynasty, as Winstanley-Chesters argues it is doing. But I’m more interested in what North Korean people might be thinking than what the regime is thinking.
I’m writing this article on my back deck. It’s a quiet day on our street, so there isn’t much noise from cars. The neighbor’s cats prowl through every now and again on missions of their own devising; birds rustle in the leaves behind the shed, and a bee just flew past and settled on the ashes of the fire pit, crawling over cinders. The sunlight has a peculiar strength through the bare branches of the trees, a quality it seems to have mostly in early morning or late afternoon when the angle of the sun is low and acorns or leaves on the ground cast sharp shadows. I’ve noticed that the more time I spend outdoors, the more I get an odd sense that there is life, agency, purpose, and connection between even inanimate things. The caps of acorns seem to hold a profound significance I can’t quite explain.
Most of the time, of course, I am still doing what most Americans do: I’m living in a big city; I’m looking at screens for far too many hours of the day; I’m getting around by car. Nature is effectively excluded from the routine of my life. So whatever it is I am experiencing about nature, I’m sure it’s nothing compared to what the average North Korean in the countryside knows and feels. Citizens of Pyongyang aside, most North Koreans get by with little electricity, little auto transport, and few electronic devices. With no screens or traffic to distract, they seem likely to be very connected to the natural environment; if I find meaning in the caps of acorns, it might not seem very ridiculous to North Koreans to suppose that a Manchurian crane’s posture or the cracking of ice on a lake are related to the death of their leader; they might see the whole country as bound up in one great purpose.
This is what Winstanley-Chesters glimpses; he, however, sees the pronouncements as evidence of a conscious, intentional narrative strategy on the part of the KCNA. Perhaps it is, but I think it might also be a more earnest or unconscious part of their national psyche.