Environmentalism in One Country

Micha Brändli/Military parade, Pyongyang

The work of Japanese imperial administrators, planners, and architects had been so thorough that, by the time Viscount Sonoike Saneyasu stepped out of the Seoul railway station in the October of 1925, he would have never had the impression of arriving in a foreign capital. Like many of the buildings constructed by the Japanese in Korea, it was a replica of something from the homeland—in this case, Tokyo’s red brick central station. A mission of local officials enthusiastically welcomed him not to Seoul, but to a city they called Keijo.

The officials greeting the Emperor’s envoy might not have known much about the Viscount himself; he was a mere escort. But traveling alongside him were ceremonial objects—swords, mirrors, and tablets—borne in a palanquin of fragrant Japanese cypress, embodying the soul of the venerated Meiji emperor and the spirit of the sun goddess Amaterasu, mythical progenitor of the imperial line.

After arriving in Seoul, the Viscount transferred his passengers to the head priest of the Chōsen Shrine. Korean youth dressed in white robes bore the palanquin down the curved road from the station to the foot of Mount Nanzan—though they would have pronounced it as Namsan—and then up five flights of stone stairs. Shrine attendants carried the sacred objects into the hall of worship, an austere hut of unvarnished cedar, floored with rush mats.

Once installed, Amaterasu and the spirit of the departed Emperor looked out over Keijo from the highest point in the city. Beforehand, the colonial authorities had made sure the shamanistic shrine that formerly sat further up the hill, Guksadang, had been dragged down and deposited at the base of a different mountain.

Some sympathetic or theologically adventurous Shinto scholars had advocated enshrining indigenous deities alongside Amaterasu and the Meiji Emperor, but they were missing the point. Chōsen Shrine cemented Korea into a shared cultural, religious, and political system with its colonial master. The name itself said as much: Chōsen was the Japanese name for Korea—and the one imposed on it under Japanese rule.

The gods of the conquered were no longer worthy of devotion. The colonial lands now belonged to Amaterasu and her children. It was their duty to civilize it.

The Pines of Nanzan

The Japanese found many failings in their Korean subjects. One of the most glaring was the fact that there were no trees.

Japan and Korea had both gone through periods of intense deforestation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As their populations and their cities grew, feudal lords, lumber merchants, and farmers felled more trees for land clearance, building materials, and charcoal. The hills of Japan and Korea had both been stripped bare.

When the Japanese set about trying to figure out why their civilization had fallen behind the West, they learned that this had been an error. Japanese scholars returning from Europe brought back the ideas of silviculturists and foresters like John Evelyn, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who had proposed links between national strength, racial vitality, and the health of forests.

The sustainable management of forests meant resources to build mighty ships and fortresses, but they also meant spiritual sustenance and places of retreat. The preservation of forests and wild spaces, these European silviculturists had argued, was a necessity for civilization.

These modern ideas resonated with a more traditional attitude in both Japanese and Korean culture. Already in the eras of Tokugawa Japan and Joseon Korea, both countries were loath to see their ancient forests disappear. In part, this attitude stemmed from economic concerns: their loss represented a depletion of firewood, lumber, charcoal, and other forest products that spurred growth. But beyond the pain of lost resources, there was an important spiritual dimension to the forests.

The animist traditions of Japanese Shinto had not required shrines to be built at first, because the hidden kami spirits made their homes in trees. When built shrines began to appear, they were set in sacred groves. The trees for their construction had to be felled with consecrated tools. The Japanese were spiritually omnivorous in their veneration of trees, locating kami in zelkova, camphor, cedar, and cypress; the Koreans, meanwhile, were focused on the pine tree.

The poet Jeong Dongju went so far as to identify Koreans as the people of the pine. He describes the tree as a companion race, inhabiting the Korean peninsula alongside its human population. The Koreans and the pine existed symbiotically. The pine was there at each stage of life: pine boughs were hung over a child to protect them in the first days of their life, and offerings of rice cakes steamed on pine needles came on the hundredth day of life. The pine tree provided heat, shelter, and medicine; the bodies of the dead were laid in pine coffins.

As the early modern era dawned in Joseon Korea and Tokugawa Japan, deforestation seemed terminal. But the fragmented political systems of the two countries made it impossible to carry out any universal policy to correct things. Until the injection of dendrological and silvicultural knowledge from the West, there was little awareness of what those policies could even be. There were examples of sustainable forestry, like daisugi, or pollarding—a method of pruning cedars to produce multiple straight, narrow poles from the trunk—and restricting logging, but these were not solutions that could be practiced widely.

With the fall of the Tokugawa and the advent of the Meiji Restoration, the modernized Japanese state was able to act on Western scientific knowledge through the centralization of power. It propagated legal measures to protect the forest across the expanding Japanese Empire. A simple fix, like avoiding insect-prone pine for replanting, could be sent out in clear and coherent policy from the Bureau of Forestry. The state gave Western-trained silviculturists a free hand to experiment with imported forestry techniques. The Bureau of Forestry planted and protected tracts of forest as plantations from which trees were harvested in a sustainable way—thinning the forest, rather than clearcutting.

The Japanese also brought trees back to the city. They built parks on land seized from the feudal lords. At the turn of the twentieth century, middle-class Tokyo families could stroll on scrubby lawns under the trees in Hibiya Park, a short walk from the Imperial Palace. The grove around the Meiji Shrine was planted around this time, creating an island of seemingly primeval forest in the center of the metropolis, where the red and black pines conceal the hazy sky above, and the cypresses shut out the sound of the city. Japan brought trees back to the countryside, replanting the hillsides with plantation forests, and enshrining sustainable silviculture in law.

Foreign visitors remarked upon the contrast between the two countries. Homer Hulbert, one of the most prominent foreign-born crusaders against Japanese imperialism, compared the “picturesque coziness of almost all Japanese scenery” with the “barren, treeless waste” of Korea. The British naturalist Isabella Bird compared the “bare and monotonous” landscapes she saw in Korea unfavorably with the wooded valleys of Japan. She noted that “except for the orchards and the spindly pines, there is no wood.”

In Japanese thinking, this state-led greening of its territories was taken as further proof of the superiority of Japanese civilization and the rightfulness of bringing modern ecological thinking to the colonies.

And so Korea got Chōsen Shrine. The project began at this central node, radiating outward from the sacred grove and across the slopes of Nanzan. Bishop, during her visit to Nanzan in 1897, noted that the hill was “mostly naked,” with only a few stands of pines. Photographs of the Chōsen Shrine from the time of Viscount Sonoike’s visit, which took place 28 years later in 1925, show that it was now surrounded by trees.

The dramatic changes around Chōsen were the work of a man named Honda Seiroku, who had received his silvicultural training in Germany. Apart from writing the foundational texts of Japanese silviculture, he had designed the grove around the Meiji Shrine and co-designed Hibiya Park, the first modern park in Tokyo. The Japanese government frequently deployed him abroad to plan projects in imperial territories like Qingdao and Taipei. After surveying the Nanzan site in 1916, he came up with a bold plan for a forest park to blanket its slopes. Like the forest around the Meiji Shrine, he intended for the groves on Nanzan to grow and change over the centuries with minimal intervention.

One of the keys to this plan was crowding out the pines. They wouldn’t be cleared out completely, but any trees that survived insect infestation would be choked out by acacia. This was perhaps as much an affront to the Koreans as the replacement of the shamanistic shrine with Chōsen Shrine itself.

The vision of Honda and the Japanese silviculturists was carried by colonial officials across the peninsula. They organized tree-planting drives on hillsides around the country, cracked down on slash-and-burn agriculture, and conserved forests for sustainable harvest.

The hillsides turned green again, but it wouldn’t last long. The financial crisis of 1927 led to a long depression. Japan threw its military into Manchuria and then deep into Northern China. Reforestation continued into the 1940s, but colonial administrators shifted from sustainability to production. The imperial war machine sucked up all the timber, charcoal, and pulp that it could take. Japanese timber firms were happy to oblige. Regular citizens went out and collected what was left over, taking anything off the land that would burn and then planting millet or sweet potatoes in its place.

It was the end of Japan’s greening project, which remained effectively suspended for the rest of the Empire’s life. The morning after the Shōwa Emperor spoke to the nation to announce the termination of the war, officials at Chōsen Shrine held a deconsecration ceremony. The sacred objects that Viscount Sonoike Saneyasu had carried to Keijo in 1925 were carried by plane back to Japan. The final act of the local Japanese officials before their repatriation was to torch the buildings.

The sacred sites that the Japanese left behind on Nanzan were torn down and replaced with nationalist monuments. One of the first acts of the newly-liberated Korea was to rip the Japanese acacia trees out of the ground, ridding itself of the last roots of the foreign empire.

Revolution From the Wilderness

Like the Japanese colonialists, Kim Il-sung built his legitimacy on the trees of the Korean landscape. But unlike those who planted alien forests, the founder of the North Korean state presented himself as the son of the last forested borderland regions.

Kim Il-sung’s familial roots are hard to track. In the version of his biography promulgated by North Korea, Kim and his descendants are associated with Mount Paektu, the highest point in the volcanic mountain ranges on the border of Korea and Manchuria. Paektu is a place of not only historic, but spiritual value for both Koreans and Manchus. Even in state propaganda, the mythology of the Kim dynasty is inseparable from the animist traditions of Korea and incorporates much of this pre-existing ethos. In Korean mythology, Paektu was also the birthplace of Dangun, the divine founder of the first kingdom in Korea, called Gojoseon. Today, North Korea claims that Dangun’s tomb lies in Pyongyang.

According to the same sources, Kim Il-sung himself was eight years old when his family took to the hills along the Manchurian border to fight a war of resistance against the Japanese Empire. Before he was out of his teens, he was spreading political awareness as part of Marxist youth groups. When Japanese troops invaded Manchuria, he joined up with the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army.

The stories told about this era always identify Kim with the land, the forests, and the pine trees. In his sylvan redoubt atop the Manchurian borderlands, Kim was protected by the trees. He called the forests of Mount Paektu his natural fortress. If the partisans rode into the forest, the Japanese and their collaborators could not strike them. North Korea claims that his son, Kim Jong-il, was born on Paektu during the war. Western sources claim he was born in Soviet territory, near the Chinese border.

Even here, Kim could see the work of the Japanese. “The Japanese imperialist villains have stretched their grim predatory hands as far as the remote mountain villages here,” Kim Il-sung warned in a speech in 1937 to the people of Pochonbo, a county hundreds of miles north of the capital, “plundering all our precious forest resources.”

Though it used utilitarian language to appeal to the pragmatism of the common man, Kim’s speech to save the trees also played on something deeper and animistic in the culture he had set out to save. Kim was determined to build a new independent Korea, and that meant embodying its ancient traditions.

In Kim’s own accounts, the pine was what kept the resistance going. His memoirs are replete with imagery invoking the symbiosis of the Korean people and the pine. In With the Century, Kim recounted falling ill at a guerrilla base in Jilin, ending up in the care of a devoted partisan fighter and seamstress named Han Song-hui. Han nursed Kim back to health with pine-nut porridge. When food ran out on a later expedition, Kim told his men to eat pine bark boiled with ​​oak ash. It was with pine boughs that the fighters camouflaged their hideouts and concealed the bodies of dead comrades that they did not have time to bury. Hideouts festooned with pine arches and needle-branch camouflage welcomed the fighters back from battles.

In the memoir, Kim recalls his comrades telling him that the Japanese were circulating tall tales about him—a man fighting from Mount Paektu, surviving on pine needles, and able to turn pine cones into bullets with a touch of his index finger. The pine trees themselves protected Kim Il-sung so that he could save them in turn—along with all of Korea.

The mythology was combined with a utilitarian outlook. As early as the 1930s, Kim Il-sung presented his own basic thinking on forestry. He advised the residents of the liberated zones of Manchuria to be cautious in taking lumber and to be good stewards of the forest. Less straightforwardly than von Carlowitz or Honda, and perhaps borrowing from Soviet ecology, he came to some of the same conclusions: a nation’s strength is found in its trees. His promised liberation of the peninsula would be rooted in saving the pines that gave Korea material bounty and spiritual strength.

Shortly after the Japanese retreated and the Soviet Union put Kim in charge of a provisional government in the north, he addressed tree planters on Munsu Hill—likely, ones who had been planting for the Japanese just years before: “The sight of these naked mountains rends my heart.”

The Korean War intervened before Kim could carry out his nascent forestry policy. Aerial bombardment flattened the country. Scorched earth policies left new scars on the landscape. By the time Kim had won full power over his half of the divided peninsula, things were worse than they had ever been before. He was faced with ecological devastation on a massive scale.

Through the 1950s, as the country recovered from the Korean War, forestry was folded into the Stalinist mode of autarkic development that Kim called Juche. This is how he described it in 1955: “We are not engaged in any other country’s revolution, but precisely in the Korean revolution.”

Forestry, like all aspects of the economy, had to be turned to a totalizing project of self-reliance. Kim laid out his “great project for transforming nature” in a 1961 speech, “On Planting Orchards Through an All-People Movement.”

The first goal was to reduce the pressure on the limited amount of arable land. Too many people relied on subsistence agriculture for their calories. The solution was three-fold: taking people off the land through urbanization and industrialization, concentrating those who remained on collective farms, and making agriculture more efficient through irrigation, fertilization, and mechanization.

Making limited arable land more productive was a hedge against farmers reclaiming hillsides—cutting down the trees to grow grain or sweet potatoes. Even though only 20 percent of arable land was flat, Kim argued that it was better, in the long run, to protect existing farmland from erosion than attempt to terrace steep hillsides.

Central authorities formed a Forestry Administration to replace the colonial organ. Any timber taken from the national forests, Kim ordered, had to be done at the direction of the Forestry Administration and then replanted.

With the shift to fossil fuels, North Korea did not need as much wood as Joseon or colonial Korea once did, so Kim called for a shift in replanting. There was less of a need for plantation forests for lumber. Instead of attempting to green the hillsides with only oak, ash, or elm, which grew slowly, or with pine or fir, which were susceptible to caterpillars, the best solution was fast-growing poplar, or fruit and oil trees like peach and walnut. Fruit and oil trees could directly feed the growing population or produce a commodity to trade to the Soviet Union for grain. Kim suggested, too, that tending the orchards could be a task given to the many disabled veterans.

Kim Il-sung’s policies were recognizably environmentalist. But this was not the environmentalism of global consciousness and multilateral collaboration. It required sacrifices in the short term, but they were acceptable because of the country’s particular eco-theology. The country was not engaged in any other country’s environmentalism, but precisely in Korean environmentalism. North Korea’s people did not restore the forests to meet global metrics, but to complete the mission of national liberation. Juche ideology demanded environmentalism in one country.

Like the Japanese project on the peninsula, Kim Il-sung’s legitimacy came from syncretically applying concepts from both animist mythology and the new modes of scientific and economic thinking. Kim’s pine-centric mythology of his own revolutionary activities was combined with a “man-centered” philosophy that conceived of the natural world as something that could only be shaped by humanity, for their own material benefit.

“Man is the master of everything,” he wrote. “It means he is the master of nature and society and of his own destiny.” This was the basis of Juche and of Kim Il-sung’s environmentalism in one country.

This was a successful model. In the years after the war, North Korean industrial development outpaced its neighbors’ and food production increased—but this time, the hillsides turned green again.

The Arduous March

As the elder Kim was shuffled out of power by his son and heir, Kim Jong-il, the ecological project went off the rails. Tree planting had formerly met or exceeded planned goals, but from 1979 to 1987 the country met only 72 percent of its reforestation goal. Environmental degradation reached an unprecedented scale. The leadership relaxed rules on logging and land clearance. Farmers began to terrace the hillsides to grow on again.

Kim Jong-il believed that North Korean economic troubles came down to bottlenecks in the planned economy that could be blown out by aggressive mobilization and maximizing production in connected sectors of the economy. If there was a problem moving food around, there would be a campaign to send manpower to logistics operations, as well as an order to crank up agricultural production. This new production and development idea was based on abandoning long-term strategy for short-term goals. If the quota for grain production went up and a hillside could be terraced without sanction, there was no reason to preserve the pines.

The collapse of the Soviet Union made everything far worse. North Korea had achieved agricultural self-sufficiency in terms of output, but not in terms of inputs. Fertilizer and agricultural chemical imports from the Soviets were key to squeezing the most out of limited arable land. Those inputs became crucial to hitting Kim Jong-il’s production targets. The light industry that Kim Jong-il prioritized was energy-intensive, especially when it was in constant production overdrive, so Soviet energy imports had taken the strain off hydroelectric and coal-powered plants.

Timber production increased to meet energy needs and more hillsides were cleared. Deep in debt after failing to find trade deals with OECD countries, smuggling wood across the border into China became, like arms deals with Iran, a source of hard currency.

The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) recognized the danger. The WPK introduced forest protection legislation in 1992 and ran a half-hearted publicity campaign. But there wasn’t much that could be done beyond that. The economy had been irrevocably damaged by Kim Jong-il running it to redline with no Soviet oil to grease the gears.

The situation worsened. Drought put more pressure on agriculture; the remaining hillsides were cleared. Power plants were knocked out by flash flooding, so more firewood was harvested. Official numbers for famine deaths disagree with those of outside observers, but they both paint a picture of widespread disaster.

The Arduous March—the name given to this disaster—did not discourage North Korea’s leadership from the Juche mode of environmentalism. It strengthened their resolve.

When Kim Jong-un took power in 2012, he faced an ecological disaster on a scale even larger than either that faced by Japanese colonial administrators at the turn of the previous century, or that faced by his grandfather at the close of the Korean War. Invoking the past, he chose to build his legitimacy on the forests.

He made sure that the 1992 Forest Law was amended and enforced; in response, bureaucrats formulated ten-year plans for reforestation and sloping land management. State media tagged along on Kim Jong-un’s visits to a new central nursery that now sits at the center of a national network of facilities for standardized and industrialized production of seedlings. He fostered a new generation of forestry bureaucrats and advisors that drew support from the management elite that rose after the slackening of control over the economy during the Arduous March. Central authorities established a department for forest science at Kim Il-sung University to train the next generation of silviculturists.

Kim Il-sung’s Juche-branded environmentalism was reborn for a new century. In a 2015 speech to the WPK and military leaders, Kim Jong-un directly referenced his grandfather’s nationalist ecology project and called for the country to get back on course. “Since the days of the Arduous March,” he said, trees had been felled for “obtaining cereals and firewood” without proper guidance from officials. Those same officials were rebuilding from flooding while not taking care to “eliminate the cause of the flood damage by planting large numbers of trees on the mountains.”

The chaos unleashed by myopic production targets was done, as was the rebuilding from the Arduous March. The hillsides could turn green again. These efforts have been effective. Satellite images showed forest cover slowly increasing.

Although North Korea is a signatory to a wide range of international conventions on the environment, much of the cooperation is symbolic or opportunistic, since the country has already been forced out of most international systems of finance and trade.

Its environmentalism also has very different assumptions. The Western-led approach of multilateral cooperation to achieve global environmental governance relies on the assumption that global humanity can unite to fight a planetary threat. The half-century since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm seems to show that this is not true, or at least that unipolar liberal globalization cannot be the unifying force. The oceans are still rising.

The North Korean model has a far narrower goal: the biological survival of Korea and the continued sovereignty of its socialist state. North Korea’s borrowing of Stalinist autarky and modern Chinese technocratic thinking provides the necessary governance software to conduct its modern national ecology program. Its strategy has grown out of isolationist conditions. Its government knows that it has very little clout over international events; therefore, it refuses to be dependent on their outcomes. If the liberal, multilateral model fails more globally, it may be better prepared psychologically and politically for a world of more extreme ecological crises.

The current food price crisis is an example of this forced preparation: while the rest of the world grapples with the soaring cost of grain, petroleum, and fertilizer, prices for these things remain somewhat stable in North Korea, where the connection between the country and global commodity markets has been severed. Securing a domestic supply of food, fertilizer, and fuel is directly connected to the maintenance of an autarkic ecological program. The Kim Jong-il years are a testament to what happens when the balance is lost.

Strict adherence to a national scope for ecological governance also means having a worldview that justifies and privileges that scope. North Korea’s use of an alternative eco-theology—one grounded in indigenous Korean traditions—serves this role in its broader ideology. Environmental ideology could not be successfully projected from Mount Nanzan or forestry bureaus in Tokyo. Korea resisted State Shinto even as that system greened its forests with foreign trees. Its ecological impulse was part of a larger ideology of national liberation: only the pine would do.

State media lectures on the spirit of the pine show how North Korea’s eco-theology is meant to be understood. Many environmental ideologies that draw on indigeneity, such as adherents of India’s communalist Eco-Swaraj philosophy or Mexico’s Futuros Indígenas movement, often frame themselves in opposition to industrial modernity. North Korea, meanwhile, has achieved a relatively stable ideological synthesis drawing on both elements.

Like all mythologies, environmentalism in the service of Juche helps to explain what cannot be easily explained—why the trees have to be saved, why the hillsides can’t be clearcut, and why there will sometimes be hungry years. This is what makes people care about planting trees. This is what makes its leaders willing to promise brutal punishments to farmers who strip the hillsides.

Western institutional environmentalism has generally demanded cooperation on the basis of shared incentives for the world at large. But the effects of climate and ecological crises are localized and uneven. Brazil does not have the same incentives as Canada or India when it comes to, say, governing the Amazon. If the ideological priors behind global cooperation falter, there is little reason for these countries to implement the same policies. What makes the North Korean approach distinct is that its environmentalism is endogenous—internal to its ruling ideology.

If ecological crisis events like rising temperatures, pandemics, and resource depletion continue, states around the world will face extreme pressure to abandon the agreements of our more stable era. Without an operative ideology to coordinate their societies, this is a recipe for opportunism and short-termist exploitation. Ecological programs, conversely, are intergenerational in scope. They require ruling elites that are willing to think on these terms and bear the costs in the meantime, which means that such commitments must come from within the worldview and beliefs of a local elite culture.

Under these assumptions, a world undergoing climate change and environmental disasters is one in which vastly different ecological values—or even different understandings of just what the ecological crisis is—compete with each other for power and resources. Instead of unity in the face of crisis, such pressures will create competing ideologies, made for countries with competing goals.

North Korea’s strategy has endured several crises and dynastic changes already. It has proven its resiliency, at least so far. In a world where other powers decide to limit the scope of their ecological goals, or prioritize adaptation over global collaboration, its model of environmentalism in one country may end up the first of many.

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.