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Charisma in a watery frame: North Korean narrative topographies and the Tumen River.

I AM CONCERNED WITH THE ECHOES OF POLITICAL NARRATIVES IN NORTH Korea that focus on the landscapes of the Tumen River. These narratives are used to support the authority of the current government. While nations and their politics are, in a sense, in a constant process of becoming, North Korea in the late 1920s and 1930s was an inadvertent nation. Those who made up its later institutional elite and bureaucracy probably did not consider that they were struggling for anything other than a unified Korea. Kim Il-sung and his guerrilla forces were fighting for the independence of a nation that in their perception spanned the entirety of the peninsula, from Mt. Baekdu and the rivers in the north to Jejudo off the southern coast. When we now examine their accounts of this time, which generally hold to that perception as part of the prehistory of North Korea, we see an act of post facto narrative construction.

Later reconstructed into the political mythologies of the Pyongyang we know today, the narratives of struggle expand across geographic boundaries familiar to those with a keen ear and eye for the prehistory of Korea itself. These are stories of concrete landscapes but diffuse forms of politics and nationhood, from Balhae and the northern Han Commanderies to Manchuria and colonial Manchukuo. In North Korea's case, the landscapes of its northern border became particularly important as the places of struggle of Kim Il-sung's guerrilla forces and other members of the political elite who would later rule the nation. While these guerrillas are often described in North Korea's narrative as the Baekdusan generals, privileging the mountainous topography of the region, other places are vital to these stories, including crossings of the northern rivers and moments of combat. Years later they would be commemorated and become key parts of North Korean political culture.

The Tumen River in particular plays a key role in these histories. Political persecution during the Japanese colonial period meant that forming political or ideological groupings in Choson (Korea) was notoriously difficult. This was particularly true in the case of communist or left-wing groups. (1) Many politically minded individuals were forced into exile elsewhere in East Asia and Russia. For many, and especially for those who would later assume authority in North Korea, their escape route was across the Amnok River. However, such periods of exile are not resolved without the processes and spaces of return. For Kim Il-sung and his followers, a crossing of the Tumen River to fight and harass the forces of Japanese colonialism and imperialism would be their moments of return, moments that would later be mythologized and from which much political authority would be derived.

Thus, the Tumen River in current North Korean historiography and commemorative practice is a bridge between a mythic past of resistance and the institutional political present. As a bridge, the river supports the diffusion of political authority derived from that past throughout its contemporary culture and politics.

Charismatic Landscapes

I have utilized two major works in my analysis. One is the landmark study by Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (2012), on the theatricality of current North Korean political forms and the mythologies that accompany it. Kwon and Chung reconsider North Korean politics and political narrative through the lens of Weberian notions of political charisma. With Clifford Geertz's work on Balinese kingship and the performing elements of statecraft in mind, Kwon and Chung suggest that North Korean governance is similarly theatrical. We thus have North Korea transmitting charismatic authority through commemoratives and memorial--both forms of political theater. I contend that when it comes to the topographies of North Korea, Kwon and Chung allow for the conception of a physical extension to the theatrical stage.

The other major work is that of social geographers Denis Cosgrove and Noel Castree and Bruce Braun. They argue that landscapes and nature itself are constructed by the societies and political forms that inhabit them (Castree and Braun 2001; Cosgrove 1984). Together with Kwon and Chung, we have theoretical frameworks that suggest that in North Korea there is not only a charismatic politics but also perhaps a landscape marked by that charisma. I then examine how these constructions in North Korea's case might impact and transform this landscape, particularly as this transformation occurs across and around the Tumen River and other rivers and terrains around North Korea's northern borders.

If landscape is to be conceived of as charismatic and theatrical, understanding the activation of that charisma at the behest of politics will be enormously important. Not surprisingly, activation will take different forms, reflecting the topography of the landscape. I have identified three core forms that I have talked about in past work as typologies (Winstanley-Chesters 2013). One is a landscape type I categorize as monolithic, but that type is not yet possible in the pre-Kim, pre-North Korea time frame I engage with here. My primary category is spaces of struggle. I also identify a category I call participant that could well be twinned with spaces in this era.

In order to support this participant form of landscape and its connection with North Korea's charismatic politics, I have also considered another theoretical frame derived from political and human geography, namely, scale or scaling (Winstanley-Chesters 2015). Scaling originally derived from geography's interaction with cartography and its graphical representations of spatiality and physical relation. Scholars have built on Henri Lefebvre's assertion that space and spatiality are social or political productions (Lefebvre 1991). Erik Swyngedouw, for example, suggests that places represented or experienced through scales are "the embodiment of social relations of empowerment and disempowerment and the arena through and in which they operate" (1997, 167). Sallie Marston (2000, 221) has asserted that "scale making is not only a rhetorical practice; its consequences are inscribed in and are the outcome of, both everyday life and macro-level social structures."

Given the charismatic politics of North Korea, and my research identifying a physical engagement in the terrains and spaces within historical memory as one of the core elements of its authority and legitimacy, it surely stands to reason that social and politically constructed space could be iterated and transmitted by the processes of scaling. Accordingly, I consider the notion that such useful political spaces might be rescaled across time, in a process that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (1988) call "deterritorialization" and "reterritorialization." Readers will, I hope, follow these processes within North Korea's political history, both far to the north of Pyongyang and prior to its foundation (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988).

Spaces of Struggle, Spaces of Participation

With this theoretical frame in mind, I now move to North Korea's political and historical narrative. Key to that narrative are spaces of struggle where the nationalist guerrilla campaigns of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army took place (Armstrong 1995). This period has become a nationalistic lens through which later political developments in North Korea are required to be viewed, as a number of scholars have pointed out (Buzo 1999).

What has been subject to little research is the place of the terrain itself within this struggle, and the landscape's contribution to the wider nationalist narrative. Much of the fighting occurred in wilderness and unpopulated space on the edges of the Korean peninsula, at and along the borders with Manchuria. This area abutting the Tumen River and its catchment has been transformed by this struggle in North Korean historiography into a political landscape.

Perhaps the vast majority of examples of how landscapes are used within North Korea's political culture are not directly about struggle; but while they may not be ubiquitous, they are part of the everyday, part of the cultural "furniture." In North Korea such moments of quiet politics are carefully utilized to suggest popular participation and consent--for instance, where citizens plant trees in their own courtyards (Rodong Sinmun 2013a), where scientists in an agricultural institute go about the business of experimentation and development (Rodong Sinmun 2014), and where traffic ladies become national heroines (KCNA 2013).

In North Korea, moments and periods of struggle support the incorporation of landscapes into the process of commemorating past conflicts, empowered by the vectors of political performance suggested by Kwon and Chung. An example is a group of silver birch trees by Lake Samji, which the official newspaper depicted as being the setting for the "undying revolutionary exploits of the great persons of Mt. Paektu" (Rodong Sinmun 2013b)--presumably referring to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk. Such landscapes are deeply impacted--both built and rebuilt--by the struggles in which these leaders participated. In a sense the landscapes are reconfigured in memory according to the prevailing political needs and rationales of North Korea's leaders.

While the topography of North Korea and specifically its northern border with China is not in the least bit diffuse, since both the Amnok and Tumen Rivers and the Mt. Baekdu massif form a distinct border space, the historical narratives of the political entity they bound has been diffuse at times. Accordingly, North Korea's political narrative has sought to embed itself within this landscape, to draw strength from it, and to use it to more firmly assert its legitimacy. This is particularly the case when it comes to the Tumen River and other rivers on North Korea's northern border.

Contemporary Spaces of Struggle

Before focusing on the Tumen, some further explanation may well be necessary in order to best understand how contemporary charismatic themes are embedded in North Korea's landscape. A key example is the mourning period following Kim Jong-il's death in 2011. Such events in North Korea are renowned for their theatricality. While other countries may have similar displays--for example, the outpouring of emotion in the United Kingdom following the death of Princess Diana in 1997--the response of North Korea's population was on a different scale and had a radically different tone. Huge crowds of people gathered and erupted in emotional outpouring, waves of grief and tears spreading throughout the nation. Commentators outside Korea noted the acute quality of the grieving, which appeared to illustrate a deep personal emotional connection between the general populace and its dead leader (Beck 2012).

Given the all-encompassing nature of North Korea's politics at such a time, would it be at all surprising if this grieving-related behavior were extensively deployed at such a moment? I would say, of course not. Pyongyang's extensive, thick interpretation of politics and the political suggests that just as it is necessary for the human population to participate, it is entirely expected and even necessary that other elements of North Korea's terrain and domain participate as well. During the mourning period and the subsequent accession of Kim Jong-un, environmental actors were deployed within the theater of North Korea's politics. One example is KCNA's reporting (2012a) of the inscription commemorating the place of Mt. Baekdu, a sacred mountain in North Korean revolutionary history. The words "Kim Jong-il's autographic writings" and "Mt. Paektu, holy mountain of revolution, Kim Jong-il" were carved on the mountain, and were said to be glowing red. The ice on the lake at the top of the mountain was cracking despite freezing temperatures, said KCNA, and from across Pyongyang there were also reports of cranes and other birds adopting postures of reverence or mourning.

While the mourning cranes of course are a fine example of nature and the environment participating in the grieving process, perhaps the most exemplary of all these instances were the mourning Asiatic black bears of Daeheung:

At around 12:00 December 23, 2011, workers of the Taehung Youth Hero Mine saw three bears on a road when they were coming back from a mourning site after expressing deep condolences over the demise of leader Kim Jong-il. The bears, believed to be a mother and cubs, were staying on the road, crying woefully. Bears usually have a deep sleep in caves or under fallen trees in thick forest in winter days. So it was unusual that they came out to a road in the daytime. Moreover, the road was what the leader had taken for his field guidance tour. The witnesses said it was as if the animals were wailing over his death. (KCNA 2012b)

Narrative Prehistory

If we step back from these more extraordinary moments to examine the political process and structures involved in the mourning period for Kim Jong-il, and in fact if we step back further within the political narratives of North Korea, we can find other examples of a conjunction of politics, historiography, and charisma. Beyond the Kim dynasty, what are the other key narrative strands from which legitimacy and authority are drawn in North Korea? I would suggest that those elements of North Korea's history and hagiography that place Pyongyang as an anticolonial, liberationist actor are key to contextualizing national self-perception as a space of overcoming.

Just as sadness and despair became overt and apparent in the commemorations following Kim Jong-il's death and were embedded by its political narrative within nonhuman and natural spaces, so was this true during the era of struggle at the political core of North Korea's history. Here, too, topography and physical features become participant elements with the conventional hagiographic narrative, such as the white birch grove serving as both participant and memorial for military campaigning during the Korean War. For a more fully developed and vital example, we must go further back in North Korea's history.

Ultimately, we must return to the period before North Korea existed, before the peninsula's liberation from Japan. Within this period, communists, leftists, and nationalists made common cause with the enemies of Japan to harass and frustrate its forces. There is much mythology surrounding Kim Il-sung deriving from this period. While those involved in the guerrilla struggle and much of the Korean diaspora were beyond the landscape of the peninsula itself, mentally and culturally they were bound to it in cultural memory. Thus, any articulation of a Korean national mythology of the time would have to directly refer to and perhaps include these spaces.

The struggle against the Japanese, however, did not take place in urban Korea, nor even suburban or rural Korea, but at its "edgelands" of wilderness and wild country (Farley and Roberts 2011). These were transient, fluid terrains through which a guerrilla band could easily range, but which could also be utilized to serve a mythic revolutionary purpose:

The warriors of the Korean people started to fight ... under the guidance of the great Leader Kim Il-sung.... They marched on and on in the biting wind, crossing over steep mountains and pushing their way through unbeaten forests. (Kim Il-sung 1992a, 8)

While much of the fighting is undertaken through, over, and between mountains, the rivers serving as the boundaries of the peninsula are equally important to these narratives.
River Crossings

   On the first of March in the 19th year
   I crossed the River Amnok
   The day will come round every year
   I'll return when my work is done.

   Blue waters of Amnok, my homeland
   When the day I return to you.
   I crossed to attain our dearest wish
   I'll return when we have won. (Kim Il-sung 1992a, 100)

In a narrative trope familiar to North Korea analysts, Kim Il-sung here connects multiple narrative strands to embed certain themes within national mythos. He incorporates a traditional Korean folk mythology surrounding these rivers, his own work, and the literary production of North Korea's supporters and allies to amplify the moment's importance and project it onto the spaces themselves. The moment thus becomes accessible to contemporary readers far from the time when these mythologies took place.

While the Amnok is not the river I am most concerned about, it serves as the narrative model for later events focused upon the Tumen River. The Amnok is North Korea's northwest national boundary, while the Tumen River is North Korea's current boundary with China and the Russian Federation. Similar to later uses of the Tumen, the crossing of the Amnok in these early days appears within the narrative both traumatic and fortifying to the young Kim Il-sung. Exiting the familiar space of Korea, crossing the river has the protagonists arriving in foreign landscapes, thereby amplifying the importance of Kim Il-sung's mission and purpose. Those engaged in the process of crossing become disconnected from the dominance of Japanese authority in their contemporary colonial landscapes.

Given the extensive Korean diaspora in both China and Russia during this period, Kim Il-sung's crossing is not an uncommon experience, but in the narrative it attains a semi-messianic character. The process of crossing and recrossing the river into a topography of potential freedom and liberation confirms that interpretation.

Crossing the Amnok

I crossed the Amnok-gang River when I was 13, firmly determined not to return until Korea became independent. Young as I was, I could not repress my sorrow as I sang the "Song of the Amnok-gang River" someone had written and I wondered when I would be able to tread this land again and when I would return to this land where I had grown up and which held our forefathers' graves. (Kim Il-sung 1992a, 50)

The Amnok River was the first important river crossed by Kim Il-sung and other Korean nationalists, and while that crossing is important, the Amnok is not the location for the stories that are most important to North Korea's later political narratives. On the opposite side of Mt. Baekdu lies the watercourse and catchment of the Tumen River. In the 1930s the Tumen divided colonial Choson from newly Soviet Russia and from the Imperial Japanese territory of Manchukuo/Manchuria. This newly colonized Japanese statelet, with a large population of Koreans, was the site of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army and future political elites of North Korea's guerrilla campaign from which much authority and perceived legitimacy derives.

Kim Il-sung's crossing of the Amnok and departure from his homeland, full of revolutionary fervor, is an important future element in North Korea's hagiography. It is, however, the crossing of the Tumen that signaled the emergence of the mature phase of Kim Il-sung's revolutionary activity and, in North Korea's narrative, is considered among the key moments in its national and institutional development. This return to the forefathers' land and to a colonial present supports the crystallization of nationalist narratives against Japanese rule. Obviously, at this moment of crossing by Kim Il-sung, contrary to his original hopes, Korea is not yet independent; but in the terms of the narrative, independence cannot be far away.

Crossing the Tumen

We quietly crossed the River Tumen by boat at night. O Jung Song rowed the boat quickly and well. As I looked at the fields and mountains veiled in darkness, I could not repress my beating heart at my deep emotions at returning to my homeland after five years. (Kim Il-sung 1992b, 142)

With the liberation from Japanese colonial power some years away, Kim Il-sung and the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army used the topography of the Tumen and its mountainous catchment to harass and frustrate the enemy's gendarmerie and border forces. Kim's autobiography, Reminiscences with the Century, recounts a number of such moments of conflict against the Japanese. Many of these within the narrative are made possible by the landscape's position at the boundary of colonial control and sovereignty:

After crossing the River Tumen by boat from the Shijianping ferry we visited the beans selection ground of the Tonggwanjin Measuring Corporation.... We disguised ourselves as day laborers from Jiandao and talked to the workers there, while giving them a helping hand. (Kim Il-sung 1992b, 243)

As time moves on in the struggle narrative, however, the landscapes of the Tumen basin are presented as more than simply a disruptive element to colonial power in the region and instead become key to Kim Il-sung's military strategy: "The form of the liberated area, the area where the enemy's rule cannot reach, had to be the main form of the base and we had to establish that base without fail in the mountainous areas along the River Tumen which were convenient for us both in conducting our operations into the homeland and in getting support from the people there" (Kim Il-sung 1992b, 254). Political intent and desire become embedded within the narrative and are used to color descriptions of the topographic features of the landscape. In one key example, previous historical narratives are combined with the present and connected with other elements of Korean mythologies of mountain and riverscapes:

Grinding my sword wears down Mt. Baektu's rock. My horse gulps and dries the Tumen River. Should a man at twenty fail to subdue the land, Who will in later years call him a man of calibre? (Kim Il-sung 1992b, 44)

The geography and topography of the area in which Kim Il-sung's guerrillas fought and harassed the Japanese is also reviewed in song, for example "Comrade Kang's" articulation of revolutionary fervor and purpose through a reworking of the "Ten Point Song":
   What is first?

   Realizing the allied front
   Even though the heavens collapse
   This is the first.

   What is the second?
   Expanding our unique guerrilla zone, the citadel,
   To the Soviet-Manchurian border,
   This is the second.

   What is third?
   Clearing the passage to the Soviet Union
   Which is welcoming even in chilly weather,
   This is third.
   (Kim Il-sung 1992c, 189)

In a similar moment marked by political theater and also involving the singing of songs, the narrative deploys a developing sense of rivers and authentic geographic knowledge of the Korean landscape as a combat zone, while the landscape is symbolic of an individual's developing sense of Korean nationalism and revolutionary commitment:

Don't ask me where I come from. Don't think I'm putting on airs. I don't know where I was born. I only know that I was born in a coastal village in Korea. I arrived in Jindao, crossing the river on my parents' back. I don't know whether it was the Tumen River or the Amnok River. I am such a dunce. (Kim Il-sung, 1992c, 383)

Environmental Theaters of War

While all of these theatrical or performance elements of course are not conventional historical devices, they are deployed within North Korean political history to support Kim Il-sung's revolutionary legitimacy. The Tumen River, along with the general landscape of the area, contributes to the frustration and harassment of the Japanese.

They become landscapes of both struggle and overcoming. Such a space is useful both in the present, for campaigning and war fighting, and in the future, for the memorialization and commemoration of those campaigns. The Tumen and the mountains surrounding it are, for example, the perfect place for reconnaissance against the enemy and for conferring with fellow guerrillas:

We crossed the Tumen River, and then guided by the advance party, climbed Mt. Wangjae at about four or five o'clock one afternoon. The heads of the revolutionary organizations in the region of the six towns and political workers, who had been in hiding among the larches on the ridge, came out to meet us. (Kim Il-sung 1992c, 43)

Equally, though, the landscape is also good for fighting and defeating the enemy:

The fiercest of the battles was fought on Mt. Ppyojok and the outpost in the Ssukpatgol on Mt. Mopan.... The third company and the Anti-Japanese Self-Defense Corps manning these mountains mowed down the attackers with a surprise barrage of gunfire, grenades and rocks.... The defenders on Mt. Mopan destroyed the enemy's highly mobile cavalry that was outflanking the defense at a bend of the River Tumen. (Kim Il-sung 1992c, 243)

Reenacting the Past

The Crossing

For this landscape of political narrative theater to function elsewhere than simply in North Korea's hagiography and myth, and to make a connection with today's citizens, other strategies must be deployed. In this section I consider practices that support the use of the Tumen and Amnok River landscapes in contemporary North Korea, as well as other moments that are absent from the current narrative.

Kim Il-sung's crossing in January 1925 of the frozen waters of the Amnok River, according to North Korean narratives, began the period of guerrilla exile and struggle. It is already very much a part of national processes of commemoration. The ninetieth anniversary of that crossing was an important moment for political and ideological reiteration. The national newspaper of North Korea, Rodong Sinmun, reported that on January 23, 2015 "a national meeting took place at the People's Palace of Culture ... to mark the 90th anniversary of the 250-mile journey for national liberation made by President Kim Il-sung," and asserted that

On January 22, Juche 14 (1925) Kim Il-sung started the 250-mile journey for national liberation from his native village Mangyongdae to the northeastern area of China. During the journey he developed the firm will to save the country and the nation deprived by Japanese imperialism. New history of modern Korea began to advance along the unchangeable orbit of independence, Songun [military-first politics], and socialism. (Rodong Sinmun 2015b)

Even Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un's father, made efforts to utilize this key moment of nationalist power in 1975, through a commemorative march on its fiftieth anniversary. This moment of commemoration is itself remembered today, as in the regime's 2015 New Year's message:

Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un is wisely leading the work to ensure that the sacred tradition of the Korean revolution started and victoriously advanced by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il is given steady continuity ... calling on the school youth and children to hold them in high esteem as the eternal sun of Juche and carry forward the march. (Rodong Sinmun 2015b)

But how would these school youth and children hold this sacred tradition in esteem? Through the singing of songs and poems dedicated to the nationalist moment of urgency? By appearing supportive of national narratives and priorities, standing next to Kim Jong-un during a moment of on-the-spot guidance? It would be none of these. Instead of abstraction, North Korea's state media would focus for a time on commemorating past events through reenactment on the streets and paths of South Pyeongan province. These reenactments were undertaken by a group of school children who would essentially follow Kim Il-sung's footsteps, tracing his journey up to the point of his river crossing into the space of the diaspora.

While the process for the schoolchildren's selection, the nature of the institutions from which they came, and their ages are elements that might support a really coherent, cogent, and convincing reenactment process, neither Rodong Sinmun nor any other text mentions them when recounting Kim's journey. The physicality in the present is what is vital to the narrative. This physicality, common to pilgrimages elsewhere, in which breaks, pauses, and stops must be taken as the children "crossed one steep pass after another," is obvious to the reader (Rodong Sinmun 2015a). These are presented as real children of North Korea in 2015, not semiotic symbols of a pre-liberation, nationalist, mythic past.

Conceiving of this journey or pilgrimage as yet another moment in the flow of North Korea's political narrative, however, does not do justice to its deeper meanings. The potential narrative power of the children's commemorative journey is clear: the children pass through a well-prepared and well-trodden list of places and spaces important to North Korean politics, a list that is no doubt impeccably ideologically sound. Having left Mangyeongdae, Kim Il-sung's home village according to North Korea's historiography, they passed Gaechon, Gujang, Hyangsan, Huicheon, and Ganggye, "along the historic road covered by the President with the lofty aim to save the destiny of the country and nation in the dark days when Korea was under the Japanese imperialists' colonial rule" (Rodong Sinmun 2015b).

Practices and Space

Returning to conceptions of scale as they interact with the narrative, it appears that for the framing of this journey in North Korean practices of commemoration, relational practices and space are as important to the narrative as the starting point of the walk itself (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988; Winstanley-Chesters 2015). Though these children walked a route in 2015 that memorialized North Korea's revolution and liberation, the practice of it is meant to suggest 1925. Whatever these children think in their quieter everyday moments--perhaps watching South Korean TV dramas on smuggled-in USB sticks or helping their parents engage in furtive transactions at semi-legal markets--the social and personal context of those "dark days" in the late 1920s is meant to be reactivated for the narrative by their every footstep. The political space of that past time thus becomes alive and discernible once more by this process, all the way from their departure from Pyongyang on January 22 to their arrival at Phophyong in Ryanggang province around February 4 (Rodong Sinmun 2015c). Phophyong, according to current North Korean historiography, is the site of Kim Il-sung's crossing of the Amnok River and his departure from colonial Chosen to the spaces of resistance, personal liberation, and struggle in the wild edges of Manchuria.

Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung's first wife, rather in contrast to her husband, made her first break with the spaces of colonial Choson along with her family by ferry across the Tumen River in the spring of 1922. While Kim Jong-suk settled in Beigou village in Yanji county, her family's less tumultuous journey across the Tumen is remembered in her autobiography in much the same way as Kim Il-sung's crossing of the Amnok in 1925: "I never lost the memory of the river or my hometown after I left it ... whenever I looked up at the moon shining on the camp, the trees, the forest, the grass, the riverbank, and the pebbles of Hoeryong swam before my very eyes" (Kim Jong-suk 2002, 9).

The landscape of the Tumen also features heavily in the narratives of her life and role in the struggles of Kim Il-sung's group of guerrillas. Winter 1938, for example, saw repeated crossings and recrossings of the Tumen by Kim Jong-suk and a number of different revolutionary groupings and sympathizers, with mixed levels of success (Kim Jong-suk 2002, 113). The Tumen's importance for the Kim Jong-suk narratives is brought to its peak by a number of different versions of her biography's chapter, "The New Theater of War on the Bank of the Tumen River." Set in 1939, the text recounts a series of battles on the banks of the Tumen, sometimes across it, always near the water. Echoing the later embedding of a distinctly North Korean charismatic sensibility on the personhood of Kim Jong-suk herself, when she is described as "becoming a human fortress and a shield," the Tumen's landscape at this point becomes an element in the architecture and infrastructure of the military campaign: "Let us build together a strong fortress of the revolution on the bank of the Tumen River, true to the idea of the Commander" (Kim Jong-suk 2002, 115).

Kim Jong-suk and "the strong fortress of the revolution" that incorporated the Tumen River in 1939 are certainly remembered by North Korea's politics and narrative. A number of developmental projects (such as the Kim Jong-suk Textile Factory in Pyongyang, for instance) are named in her memory. Kim Jongsuk's birthday and the anniversary of her death, September 22, are marked each year. The celebration in 2015 was a grand affair, prompting Rodong Sinmun's claim that some 40 million people had visited her memorial in the last thirty years and that "the visitors looked back on the revolutionary exploits performed by her, dedicating her all to the accomplishment of the Songun revolutionary cause of Juche" (Rodong Sinmun 2015d).

However, in spite of Kim Jong-suk's obvious utility to North Korea's political narratives and memory, it appears her important crossings and recrossings of the Tumen are not as easily reconstructed or rescaled into the present as Kim Il-sung's crossing of the Amnok. While both crossings are vital in the life narratives and later political projections of both, the rather violent, painful, and difficult moments by the banks of the Tumen (Winstanley-Chesters and Ten 2016), though transformative for Kim Jong-suk, are not so easily reproduced in North Korea's contemporary political narratives. While crossing either the Amnok or the Tumen may signify the political journeys of these North Koreans from imperial subject to revolutionary, North Korea's charismatic politics cannot always find a comfortable or functional route to bring these historical watery topographies into its contemporary politics.


There are a number of other intriguing methodological devices embedded within the topography and landscape of North Korea as recounted in its political narratives and manifested in memorial or commemorative form. These may be found, for example, at Lake Samji, Kim Jong-il Peak at Mt. Baekdu, and within the mourning period following Kim Jong-il's death. However, my focus here is rather on the crossings and recrossings of the Tumen and other rivers on North Korea's northern border as they are expressed within the nation's cultural and political memory. North Korea's historical narrative is of course subject to intense debate and contestation, and the empirical reality of any elements of this period can certainly be disputed. The physical location of Kim Il-sung at various times is hard to establish beyond doubt, in spite of much excellent scholarship and research (Suh 1988). Thus the veracity of many of the later stories, especially those following his initial landing at Wonsan and arrival in Pyongyang to take up power, are curiously difficult to establish. However, what is not disputed is the fact of Kim Il-sung's participation within these guerrilla struggles of the 1920s and 1930s.

It may be that the historical outlines of Kim's campaigning are also difficult to determine, but in a sense the exact course of these campaigns and struggles is not important to North Korea's narrative, or to this article. What is important are the particularity of individual events and the representation of the landscape in which they occurred. I have sought to examine the impact of both narrative and its accompanying political framing on the landscape of the Tumen River basin, for that is where much of the military campaigning took place; on the representation of that basin and its river in particular; and on the place of these rivers within current North Korean political narrative articulation.

While Mt. Baekdu, in North Korean political narrative, is supreme in importance as the source of ultimate authority and national legitimacy, other topographies can be seen as vital to its politics. The Amnok and in particular the Tumen basins and the rivers within them serve key roles within these preliberation narratives and prerevolutionary charisma. In part, the rivers serve as mythic crossing points for individual narratives, such as Kim Ilsung's departure across the Amnok and his most important revolutionary return across the Tumen. Just as they are spaces of national bounding, they are also the place and moment of individual return. Crossing the rivers signals the beginning of an important period in an individual or group's life, a time of kairos when significant activity will take place, bestowing charismatic authority upon the leader as much as it does upon the landscape.

We have seen the Tumen deployed in theatrical and creative terms within the narrative, which is recounted in many linguistic and literary forms, from poetry to song. This theatrical approach, as described by Kwon and Chung, is the vector by which politics is transferred and translated across thematic categories, from the literary to the political and from the political to the environmental. This is the process by which charisma itself is embedded within landscapes and topographies. The stories and the landscape within them, through a process of reenactment, are then incorporated functionally into the present.

As much as the Tumen and other rivers may appear tenuous and diffuse in North Korea's complex and contested political history, they nevertheless geographically bound areas of sovereignty and accompanying political forms. The inclusion and use of such river forms within the North Korean narratives of political struggle here serve a dual purpose. They are a narrative space for combat in which an asymmetrically organized and equipped guerrilla force can overcome a more conventionally powerful foe, namely, the Japanese, and their inclusion as transformative spaces and participants in that political and military struggle diminishes to a degree their divisive qualities, crystallizing their form into something more distinct. Perhaps, therefore, it is at the most diffuse edges of North Korea's political narrative that politics and political advantage have the potential to be concretized and redirected into a more direct form of political authority, underpinning later vital themes of authority and legitimacy for Pyongyang.


Robert Winstanley-Chesters is a research fellow at Australian National University, College of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting research fellow at University of Leeds, School of Geography. He is author of Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project (2014) and New Goddesses on Mt Paektu: Gender, Myth, Violence and Transformation in Korean Landscape (forthcoming). His current research interests include historical geographies of Korean forestry and colonial mineralogical landscapes/inheritances. He can be reached at Research for this article was generously supported by the Australian Research Council (project FL120100155), "Informal Life Politics in the Remaking of Northeast Asia: From Cold War to Post-Cold War," and the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2010-DZZ-3104) during the author's postdoctoral fellowship with the Beyond the Korean War Project at the University of Cambridge. The author wishes to thank the anonymous and other reviewers who supported the author in making considerable changes and improvements to the text.

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Author:Winstanley-Chesters, Robert
Publication:Asian Perspective
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Date:Jul 1, 2016
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