Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Green Mountains, Green Fields (푸른산, 푸른들): Regrowing North Korea's Forests at Mashik Speed!

"Green Mountains, Green Fields" is a short story by Chŏng Yŏng Jo that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in November 2016.

KJU touring the Pyongyang Central Zoo in 2014.
Src: VOA
The story highlights the leadership's efforts to solve the country's serious deforestation problem, while simultaneously promoting the newly refurbished Pyongyang Central Zoo as a magical fun place to spend an afternoon - a place where, if you're lucky, you might even catch sight of Kim Jong Un!

Also in this story, we get more glimpses of Kim Jong Un missing his late mother and having flashbacks of working alongside his father. It is implied that Kim Jong Un has been involved behind the scenes in fixing the country's environmental problems for a very long time. We learn of two more fields in which Kim Jong Un is unexpectedly more knowledgable than the so-called experts: zoo-keeping and botany.


KJU is in his office when he gets word that the dolphins he ordered for Rungna Park are en route by air (from wherever you get dolphins, presumably). Unthinkingly he picks up phone to tell KJI the good news. Then with a pang he remembers: his father has been dead for half a year. He calls a KWP CC official instead, orders the Central Zoo people to the airport to take charge of dolphins, then sets up a meeting with Dr. Cha Ho Gyŏng. The official reluctantly agrees, knowing it means the leader will have to skip lunch - again.
   The General (KJI)'s great task of building a strong and prosperous country had fallen on His shoulders. His will was firm. At the parade grounds on the Great Leader's 100th birthday parade, He had declared to the world: Our people, the greatest people in the world, have triumphed over countless adversities and faithfully upheld the Party. No longer will they need to tighten their belts; at last they will enjoy the blessings of socialism!
   This is why, despite America applying new sanctions in response to our satellite launch and growing ever more vicious in its threats to invade, He daringly pulled troops away from the front lines to work on construction Changjŏn Street and the amusement parks. In the same way, a little while ago when the food problem was bad, He put the troops to work helping farmers in a nationwide mass mobilization.
   But would that be enough to achieve the people's happiness?
   His thoughts turned to the dolphins being loaded onto the planes. Animals gave people joy; might there be some way to get all the animals of the country to help bring the people happiness? What sort of environment might they require?
Dr. Cha Ho Gyŏng is waiting in his office when he returns from his many site visits. A gaunt, tall, stern old man who never tolerated a whiff of injustice, Dr. Cha has dedicated his life to studying forestry. KJU first met him years ago when he came to discuss the deforestation problem with his father. 

KJU visits the Central Tree Nursery, May 2015
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo
Not pausing to rest, KJU links arms with the old man and they walk together into the garden. Dr. Cha talks about article he was just reading in the Rodong Shinmun highlighting the recent Land Management Mobilization Event (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회).

As they stroll and talk of the reforestation efforts, Dr. Cha suddenly stops before a particular tree and gasps. It is a rare kind of pine (스트로브스소나무) that he recalls KJI had been particularly impressed by on his last visit to the Central Tree Nursery (중앙양묘장), the October before he died. It seems that, to honor his father's memory, KJU had the seedling shipped to his private garden and raised it himself.

   "What do you think?" He asks. "If we cover our bald hillsides with splendid trees like this, won't we really get a phoenix from the ashes (화를 복으로 만들다)?"
   Dr. Cha is momentarily speechless; his expression darkens. After a moment he mutters, "I know how You have suffered over the deforestation problem. I saw it all on TV last March. Planting trees at some random army post, You dismissed the idea of pretending to work in some pre-dug hole as 'formalism' and insisted on sweating for hours doing all the spadework Yourself. And here, Your labors have achieved such abundant growth, while the Central Nursery still hasn't paid off as the General had intended."
KJU indulging in a little formalism with his South Korean
counterpart. When in Rome?
Src: Reuters

KJU waves off his concerns. He recalls how, on guidance tours together, whenever they saw a particularly lush forest his father would always exclaim, "Green mountains, green fields!" He talks of the famed Russian botanist Timiryazev's theory on the relationship between sun, earth, and plants. Dr. Cha is suitably impressed that the Leader has mastered this very thick, high-level botanical text.

"But if a growing tree needs sunlight most," KJU continues, "then what is the most important thing for a full-grown forest?" 

Dr. Cha is stumped. The answer, which KJU keeps to himself, is animals. Just as the sea needs teeming schools of fish, a mature forest needs biodiversity to thrive. It's a big problem for the country, because when the forests were chopped down all the animals disappeared.

They move on to talk about Dr. Cha's grandson, named Forest (수림), who has just joined the Youth League. Dr. Cha complains that young Forest is disobedient. KJU replies: 
   "It's good to misbehave (벌찬거야 좋은 일이지요). The new generation must be bold and gutsy enough in their hopes and ideals to conquer and rule the world. That's why we must host a grand spectacle at the upcoming 66th Anniversary of the Korean Youth League (조선소년단 66돐) - so they can proclaim to the whole world, 'Look at us, we're the generation that has inherited the most magnificent, strong and powerful socialist nation on earth!'"
66th Anniversary of the Korean Youth League, Pyongyang, June 2012
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo

The demands of his busy schedule intruding, he bids Dr. Cha farewell, saying "Think of my earlier question as a kind of riddle. If you think on it a bit, you'll figure it out." He added, "By the way, I think you'll find the 'Illustrated Guide to Animals' useful."


Two days later, Dr. Cha visits the Central Zoo to borrow the book KJU recommended. It really is just a simple picture book, with no real scientific details. What did the Dear Leader expect a botanist like him to do with such a book?

The zoo guide suggests he talk with "Mother Kim Soon Bok," an animal handler with 50 years of experience working at the Central Zoo, known not only to KJU but to his father and grandfather as well.

Just then, he sees a short but sturdy older woman approaching; it is Mother Kim. They are introduced; her manner is curt and impatient as she leads him into the park.

"Sorry I've no time to be polite. I've just been scolded by the party secretary..." She chatters as they walk. "Animals and trees are like in-laws. It's not like they don't talk to each other..."

Dr. Cha figures she's a bit rough-edged from working with animals all her life, but he likes her. She mentions that she tried to resign her post. Dr. Cha cautiously asks if it was because of health issues. But she grins like a schoolgirl and whispers conspiratorially:  

   "When the General came to visit last summer, our Comrade Kim Jong Un came along too. He called me 'Mother of Beasts' and looked at me so affectionately. But since this morning, I've felt those eyes - those same eyes on me again. You get a lively intuition, working with animals."
   "But then, isn't that all the more reason to stay on?" he asked in confusion.
   "I don't particularly need to meet Comrade Kim Jong Un again. There are plenty of capable handlers on the team. Young women and housewives. But they'll get no chance at the honor while I've parked my butt in the spot. I feel guilty. Plus, I'm old."
  The woman's brusque but friendly manner made him laugh. But he also felt impatient. What was this "intuition" she spoke of, and how would it help him solve the Dear Leader's riddle? For he felt certain the two were connected. Comrade Kim Jong Un had clearly taken a particular interest in this zoo, and wanted him to take interest too.
Children on a field trip to the Central Zoo in Pyongyang.
Src: RFA
   Suddenly, Mother Kim cursed aloud, excused herself and rushed over to an enclosure, yelling for her assistant. Looking around, Dr. Cha noticed that the afternoon crowds had begun to thin, the visitors losing interest after yelling and throwing food produced no reaction from the listless animals...
   Soon Mother Kim and her assistant were busily driving some bears out into an enclosure. She explained to a curious Dr. Cha: "We're putting the boars and bears together in the tiger cage. That'll give 'em something to look at."
   "But won't the tigers eat them?"
   Mother Kim smirked impishly. "Bears are pretty tough. Those buggers can cover 100 li of forest in a day."
   Dr. Cha's brow wrinkled. Such wisdom from a crazy old harridan! (이 늙다리멍청이!) Suddenly Comrade Kim Jong Un's words echoed in his mind: "What is the most important thing for a full-grown forest?"
   A bear needs 100 li of forest in every direction to live. A tiger covers far more than that in its ceaseless search for food. But since the forests were cut down, tigers have disappeared from all but the most remote parts of Mt. Paekdu's forests.
   He realized now that this was the conclusion Comrade Kim Jong Un had been leading him toward when he recommended that animal guidebook. The secret to lush, thriving forests. What was it the old woman said about forests and animals being like in-laws? It was so simple, and yet he'd been so walled off in his own narrow field that he hadn't seen it!
Just then Dr. Cha receives an urgent phone call. He's told that KJU is at the zoo entrance and wants to speak with him immediately.


Dr. Cha meets KJU by the main gate as the Leader and several officials are discussing dolphin storage problems with the elderly party secretary of the zoo. Together they tour the zoo, which is organized in order of evolution.
   As they passed through the aquarium, the seal playground, and the reptile house, Comrade Kim Jong Un felt a strange perfume pervade his heart. These were the familiar paths he had trod many times as a child with his mother. Maybe that was why he felt such a pang when, nodding off over his work desk in the wee hours, he sometimes dreamed of her.
   In the dream, his mother would fret over him working too hard, saying that's the same way his father worked his whole life away. She was speaking of the General, who never lost faith in the people and the ultimate success of his great mission... There are those who say that the greatest power given to mankind is love, but she knew that an even more powerful and important force was faith. This she had felt deeply over the decades she spent working at the General's side.
   Why would he dream about that, of all things?
Vehicle drawn by miniature horses at the Pyongyang
Central Zoo.
Src: dprktoday.com
As they watch electric-powered cars and horse-drawn carriages zoom by filled with chattering visitors, the  zoo manager notes that these were a gift from the late KJI. KJU reflects on how much his father invested in this zoo - donating his own favorite white horse, sending his specially-designed animal transport aircraft all over the world to collect animals, devising scientifically advanced methods for their care and feeding, etc.

He asks Dr. Cha if he has solved the riddle yet. Dr. Cha replies that he figured it out with Mother Kim's help: a full-grown forest needs animals. KJU praises him for giving the correct answer, then takes his arm, saying "Come, let's go meet the king of this forest."


They meet up with Mother Kim, who is so thrilled to see the Leader that she is rendered speechless.

"Why, Mother of Beasts, we were just looking for you," KJU says, patting her familiarly on the back. "We must thank you for opening our dear doctor's eyes."

Overcome with emotion, she sobs noisily until he puts her at ease with a joke that the animals are losing respect for her. Then the whole group is distracted by the spectacle of a boar picking a fight with a bear in the tiger cage. They meet some cuddly baby bears, and KJU mansplains that Mother Kim should not be so careless around the dangerous animals, no matter how cute they are.

KJU asks Mother Kim if she needs anything. She says no, the General gave her warm winter clothes and furniture last year. He notes that she's a bit stiff and asks if her arthritis is bad, then harshly rebukes the zoo's party secretary for not getting her proper medicine. He wants her well enough to keep working for another ten years, "when everything will be much better."

Everyone is shocked the next moment when Mother Kim suddenly collapses, moaning she has "no right to such love." She confesses that earlier that same day she had talked of quitting.

Dr. Cha explains; once KJU understands that she was only thinking of her coworkers, he praises her motherly spirit:
   "Only a mother could be so generous. A team leader thinks of her team members as her children. She raises them well and supports them to the end. Carry on, I'm counting on you."
   Then Comrade Kim Jong Un turned to Dr. Cha. "You've seen for yourself: the tiger is listless. Because of that, our Mother of Beasts has to contrive these dangerous escapades to keep her visitors entertained. Can you think of a solution?"
   At a loss for words, Cha Ho Gyŏng just shifted nervously. Taking pity on him, Comrade Kim Jong Un jumped in: "A tiger that is taken out of the forest will lose its unique character and spirit. Instead of keeping him penned up like this, how about building a big tiger hill where he can hunt and run around to his heart's content?"
   Dr Cha could not lift his head. While he'd been laughing and having a good time, Comrade Kim Jong Un had been ceaselessly pondering on the nature and habits of beasts, all to help out one old woman. And not only that - within his plan was a hint of the very forest he was planning to create!
A scene at the Pyongyang Central Zoo.
Src: dprktoday.com   


The sun is setting by the time KJU finishes touring the zoo. In the aviary the birds sing of their lost forests.

It reminds KJU of one time when he was touring an army outpost with his father. The elder leader, hearing an owl's soft hoot from the woods behind the barracks, remarked "The birds fly here because our soldiers cared so well for this forest." The strain of a long day's work fell away as he listened, muttering "Green mountains, green fields!"

His mind made up, KJU announces a major zoo renovation. "We'll put together the necessary funding and materials. With a dedicated construction crew, the whole thing should be done in 3-4 months. Well, what should we build?"

KJU then explains how the global concept of zoos has evolved "from simply displaying animals, to keeping them in their natural habitat so they can be returned to the wild." Therefore, instead of arranged exhibits following the standard evolutionary order, they should build enormous habitats where the animals can roam freely through lush forests.

Everybody is awed by the epic scale and grandeur of the leader's vision, and they burst into ecstatic cheers. KJU cannot share in their joy, because he suddenly remembers how much his father would have loved to see this zoo rebuilt; working so hard on it was part of what caused his death.
   Dr. Cha stepped forward. "I see clearly at last. I'd been thinking if there's a forest, animals will just naturally appear. it hadn't occurred to me that it takes months for them to find a new habitat and adapt to it. Now I see a novel way to build a forest and breed animals at the same time."
   Kim Jong Un smiled to see the doctor's brimming enthusiasm. "I'm glad you finally figured it out. Of course, your most urgent task is to cover our bald hills with trees that grow quickly, like larches and pines. But if we're to create a proper habitat for animals, then conifers alone are not enough. We should also mix in leafy trees and shrubs with nutrient-rich leaves and buds. Remember this: a rich forest with abundant support for life."
Riding home from the zoo in the twilight, KJU sees a work unit of soldiers marching home through the rice paddies.  They're singing "With One Breath" (한숨에), one of his favorite songs. It's a song about finishing a big job all at once, the way they did with Huichŏn Dam, Changjŏn Street and the Rungra Amusement Park. The army is good at that sort of thing.

Yes, the road ahead will be tough. But with capable scientists like Dr. Cha and motherly, self-sacrificing team leaders like Mother Kim, he's confident they'll find a way to make lush, vibrant forests a reality in the near future.

Once again, he catches himself reaching for a phone to call his late father.  But why not? Isn't his father always with him in his heart?

Holding the receiver to his ear, he thinks a silent message: "General, today I took on another big task. It's a heavy burden. But our people take after You, with your selfless love of country and ceaseless forced march of extreme labor [초강도강행군길]. With the help of such people, I can solve anything. I shall define this selfless love of country as 'Kim Jong Il Patriotism'! [김정일애국주의]" 

And with that, he had the seed of the idea for the great treatise that he would soon write.

Reforestation Efforts

One of things that most surprised me, in my graduate comparative communism courses, was learning just how devastating communist systems are to the environment. One might expect capitalist systems to be worse, with their greedy corporations chasing profits. But empirically, the damage done in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the USSR during the Cold War period and in China today dwarf anything seen in the capitalist world. Pollution and land overuse are the most common culprits in such systems.
A denuded hillside near Wonsan. Src: PBS Nova

North Korea is no exception. The causes of its ecological disaster have been variously pinned on excessive tree-cutting for firewood, overuse of fertilizer, terrace farming and pollution. It's been well-reported that deforestation is behind the increasingly devastating flood damage the country suffers every year during the rainy season.

Several years ago Nova did a good report on North Korea's environmental problems. The report does a fabulous job of explaining how famine conditions lead to environmental destruction, using late medieval Europe as a comparison. It quotes foreign researchers who have noted the striking absence of animals, including frogs and birds, in the country since the famine.

Stories like this one show that North Korea has begun to take its deforestation problems seriously. Chosŏn Shinbo reported extensively on a visit KJU made to the Central Tree Nursery in May 2015, and Uriminzokkiri has posted numerous photos and reports on the project in the last four years. The Nursery was created in 1998 and is run by the Ministry of the Environment (국토환경보호성), but it got little attention until it was expanded and modernized in 2009. The first National Land Management Mobilization Conference (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회) was held in Pyongyang in 2012. At the Conference, KJU announced a mass mobilization plan for improving the country's environment. A report released two years later trumpeted progress in reforestation, road improvements, and river and stream ecology management.

The Central Tree Nursery. Src: Uriminzokkiri
This story does briefly acknowledge that North Korea's deforestation problems originated in excessive tree-cutting during the famine period after soviet fuel supplies were cut off, although in the story this is attributed to venal citizens selling wood for food, rather than using it to heat their homes.

In the scene where KJU is remembering how he first met Dr. Cha, he recalls the ecologist complaining bitterly to his father about people cutting down trees: "No matter how hard their lives are, selling off our nation's forests to fill their bellies - it feels like a piece of my own flesh is being carved off." This is the only time that a cause is mentioned; the solution Dr. Cha offers later in the story talks only of what sort of trees they will plant and makes no mention of how they will stop the same thing from happening again.

Kim Jong Il Patriotism

In addition to the usual "Strong and Prosperous" and "cutting-edge" motifs, this story emphasizes two other new catchphrases. The Forced March of Extreme Labor [초강도강행군길] is North Korea's euphemism for how Kim Jong Il died. It carries echoes of the "Arduous March" [고난의행군], the euphemism for the famine of the 1990s that killed so many of his people. The story as North Koreans heard it is that the Leader collapsed on a train while traveling the country doing his endless sequence of on-site guidance visits, and that the strain of overwork killed him.
Let's arm ourselves firmly with Kim Jong Il Patriotism!
"What have I done for my homeland?"
Src: Alamy photos

"Kim Jong Il Patriotism" [김정일애국주의] is another important new slogan of the Kim Jong Un era. South Korean scholars have spilled much ink already trying to interpret what this is supposed to mean. It seems to be tied to ideas of self-sacrifice and feats of extremely fast-paced labor. By attaching the name Kim Jong Il, the regime reminds people that their last leader allegedly killed himself by working too hard, setting that up as the ultimate example of patriotism. Thus, performing superhuman feats of labor is the best way to carry on the late Leader's legacy.

KJU did indeed write (or at least, was credited with) a treatise on the subject of "Kim Jong Il Patriotism" which he presented to the KPA Central Committee in July 2012. The full text can be downloaded by clicking this link. It seems that this story was intended in part to promote this treatise as Kim the Third's first great philosophical treatise, carrying on the tradition of his father's works on Juche film and literature and his grandfather's many works of political philosophy.

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