North Korea’s 2016 50-won commemorative stamp, released on January 15, includes some classic socialist or communist developmental tropes. Ears of wheat and sweetcorn cobs are found on any number of stamps from utopia-minded nations from the last century or so, but they are not commonly joined by goats or sheep, and certainly very rarely by fish. Fish and aquaculture, as the reader may be aware, were mentioned almost in passing in Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address for 2016, demanding that “fishing sectors … should ramp up production as soon as possible and see to it that the fish farms … built across the country pay off …” A far cry from the 2015 address’ call to create “seas of gold,” but nevertheless a reminder of the sector’s place within the wider political ecosystem of North Korea.
In fact, the North’s latest philatelic release on January 15 serves as a determined assertion of Pyongyang’s priorities for 2016. Ostensibly focused on reminding stamp collectors everywhere of North Korea’s latest developmental campaign – the “golden age in building a thriving nation this year when the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea is to be held” – images of what is truly important surround the important textual content.
Thus core developmental themes of electricity production and supply, increasing resource capacity and infrastructural capability are denoted by a collection of pylons, steel rods, dams and speeding trains. Of course those aspects of North Korea’s development designed to unsettle external observers and assert nationalist narratives are present, so in the margins (but not in the main body of the stamp) are images of missiles, fighter jets and atomic symbols. However, also present in the margins of this stamp, and therefore in its intended narratives, is another set of much less disturbing, militaristic images.
Of course those aspects of North Korea’s development designed to unsettle external observers and assert nationalist narratives are present
The demands of Kim Jong Un’s address last year on North Korea’s aquacultural and maritime industry to “land a huge haul” at first seemed less important than its call to restore forest stock and create “mountains of gold.” March 2’s National Tree Planting Day was even greeted by an apparently Kim Jong Un-authored work on the theory of forest management (snappily titled “Let the Entire Party, the Whole Army and all the People Conduct a Vigorous Forest Restoration Campaign to Cover the Mountains of the Country with Green Woods”). Kim Jong Un’s words and the commemorative moment of tree-planting day (a twin of South Korea’s Arbor Day, with roots in both the colonial era and the United States), further drove institutional focus and led to a huge disparity in output between forest and fishing matters.
A GREAT CATCH
Kim Jong Un’s series of visits to fish-processing and equipment-production facilities attempted to correct this imbalance in favor of aquacultural development. The younger Kim also made a visit on March 14 to the construction site of the new May 27th Fishing Station, which asserted not only connections to past intentions and the desires of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, but reiterated the notion of a drive to obtain “big fish hauls.”
The mid-March visit’s connections to historical political narrative, the Korean People’s Army’s place within North Korea’s developmental infrastructure and other themes of Pyongyang’s assertive nationalism were rearticulated on May 9 by another moment of on-the spot guidance. Kim Jong Un’s appearance at Sinpho Pelagic Fishery Complex brought to mind not only the general frames of political charisma the authority of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is built around, but specific moments of developmental focus. The visit recrystallizes North Korea’s efforts in the late 1960s and 1970s to underpin the sector’s capacity by building larger, more efficient fishing boats and factory ships at Ryukdae and Chongjin shipyards as part of the era of the “Six Goals” prior to the 1980 Sixth Party Congress. It’s impossible to verify whether the “processing mothership” Samcholli 1 was built as part of this development drive, or ever traveled the distance its name implies, but May 9’s impetus would drive institutional and presentational focus further into the second half of 2015.
Aside from two brief forays to inland fish farms in May, North Korea’s drive for big or “unprecedented” fish hauls would lay dormant throughout the summer of 2015, perhaps secondary in interest to 70th anniversaries. Little was heard about big fish throughout August 15’s commemoration of Korea’s Liberation from Japanese colonial rule or October 15’s celebrations of the Workers’ Party Foundation. Kim Jong Un’s visit on October 31 to Pyongyang’s Catfish Farm opened the narrative floodgates, however, and before long tales of scientific development and great fish hauls flooded North Korea’s mediascape.
Aside from the esoterically positioned Taedong River “Movable Net Fishing Ground,” ensconced mid-flow in downtown Pyongyang which NK News has already reported, Kim Jong Un visited a plethora of fish farms (again mainly those focused on catfish production), but it was his November 23 and 25 visits which are of greatest interest.
Among the infrastructure of the August 25 and August 15 Fishery Station North Korean piscicultural narrative reached peaks of both hyperbole and political connection. Both stations operated and under the control of the KPA, these fishery stations were, it seems, to serve as assertions of 2015’s fishing message. Not only were both institutions presented as deeply and directly connected to the past developmental agendas of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they were key parts of the web of ideological connectivity so common to North Korean infrastructural projects. Both looking back to the necessity of revolutionary militarism and forward through the lens of North Korea’s distinct sense of socialist modernity, Kim Jong Un finds the facilities representative of the positive outworking of both the Workers Party of Korea’s political and ideological policies and the patriotic activities of the Korean People’s Army.
PATRIOTIC FISHER FAMILIES
… the RodongSinmun asserts that ‘(the DPRK’s) fishermen and their wives are patriotic families as they have made a big haul even in unfavorable conditions’
While bestowing the credit for these apparent maritime achievements primarily on the party and military, the North Korean narrative also demonstrates a number of other capabilities and predilections. Demonstrating an ability to reconfigure political authority, its projections and emanations from one political scale to another, the narrative not only bestows that charisma on the Kims, the KPA and the WPK, but also on the fishermen and families of the stations. Accordingly, the RodongSinmunasserts that “its fishermen and their wives are patriotic families as they have made a big haul even in unfavorable conditions and all turned out in a drive for processing fishes.”
As analysts and readers we will never fully know whether North Korea’s claims to have entered an era of “big” or “unprecedented” fish hauls, not until its archives and databases, are opened up. In spite of the appearance of enormous volumes of fish in the photographic records provided by North Korea in 2015, some of it held and personally encountered by Kim Jong Un, we cannot hope to make an assessment of the real volumes of its fishing sectors catch. Perhaps as always, what is extraordinary about North Korea’s accounts of its maritime efforts in 2015 is its continued portrayal of a particular form of landscape and spatiality. While much of North Korean development leads a lot to be desired in terms of output, projects seeming neglected or half-finished, output lackluster or product amateur or mediocre in production, fishing and the focus on the sea allows Pyongyang’s institutions space to articulate continued utopic, ambitious claims.
This maritime landscape allows a North Korea in danger of severe sanction on account of its nuclear ambitions, and even more severe censure as a result of the activities of the UN Commission of Inquiry, a little space in which its institutions and imagination can extend despite of a myriad of land-based troubles. While North Korea’s revolutionary claims may reside in the charismatic, narrative past, 2015’s era of the big fish hauls allows just a little bit of that revolutionary possibility to leach out into the present. Just as the KPA’s dam builders in 1997 battled against the West Sea’s waves to rebuild the breakwaters at Taegyedo reclamation site, protecting hard-won new land for the revolution, so the fishing boats of North Koreas’ Fishing Stations are tasked with forging socialist promise from the water.
“… if we work in this spirit, all the units of the KPA and families of the whole country would be filled with the sea flavor of socialism …” However bitter or otherwise the taste or smell of the sea flavor of socialism, 2015’s year of “big fish hauls” has survived the shift in institutional agendas brought by the near year, whether 2016 will continue the connection between Songun (military-first) politics and North Korean developmental imperatives remains to be seen given the slight diminution of their role in this New Year’s Address. Given the impending Seventh Workers Party Congress in May and its no doubt important developmental focus, perhaps further “conspicuous fish scenery” will emerge from Pyongyang’s maritime ambitions.
All images: The Rodong Sinmun
North Korea’s 2016 50-won commemorative stamp, released on January 15, includes some classic socialist or communist developmental tropes. Ears of wheat and sweetcorn cobs are found on any number of stamps from utopia-minded nations from the last century or so, but they are not commonly joined by goats or sheep, and certainly very rarely by fish. Fish and aquaculture, as the reader may be aware,
Robert Winstanley-Chesters obtained his Ph.D from the University of Leeds' School of Geography. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and has been a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge's Beyond the Korean War Project. He is the author of "Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project" and an author of the forthcoming "New Goddesses on Paektu Mountain: Violence, Myth, Gender and Transformation in Korean Landscape."