Fish, Forests and Fungus: Vibrant matter(s) in the Environmental and Political Histories of North Korea

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Event Details

18 October 2017 at 1:00 pm – 18 October 2017 at 2:15 pm
Main Auditorium, Japanese Studies Centre, 20 Anco Imparo Way
Monash University, Clayton Campus
Open to:
Students, staff, Alumni, guests and friends
Free to attend
Alumni; Seminars & Workshops; General


From Pyongyang’s urban landscape to sacred political architectures of Mt Paektu, North Korea’s topographies are harnessed in support of its politics. While the nation’s coastlines, mountains and forests are by their nature more liminal and diffuse than its monolithic urban/political terrains, North Korean natures and wildernesses have long served its politico-developmental narratives, forging new ‘socialist’ landscapes and geo-political connections. These terrains are also almost entirely human in focus with little consideration given to a wider ‘web of life.’ Even though the narratives which co-produce the terrain of North Korea’s politics make enormous use of topography and environmental features, they do not for the most part include non-human or non-sentient residents or participants on/on the peninsula.

In this presentation Robert Winstanley-Chesters considers North Korean physical and cultural topography as an assemblage of actors and participants, from what has been termed a ‘more than human perspective.’ With what Jane Bennett has termed ‘vibrant’ or ‘lively’ matter in mind he reviews North Korea’s environmental history and its intersection with the politics and ideology of Pyongyang. In particular Robert addresses the role of forests and timber resources in the formation of North Korean nationalism following the Japanese colonial period and the entwining of fungus and mycorrhizal matters with Pyongyang’s diplomatic efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s. Finally Robert considers fish and fishing infrastructure in North Korea, specifically focusing on communities on Sindo Island at the mouth of the Amnok/Yalu River. In conventional, common discourse North Korea’s relationship with environmental and natural resources has, since the early 1990s become fractious and difficult, beset and characterised by lack, degradation and denudation. However an alternative reading might indicate that in these absences and declines North Korea’s environment has become ‘lively’, ‘vibrant’ and active in the present. Robert within this presentation suggests that such a reading might indeed contribute to a deeper sense of how North Korea citizens, both human and non-human engaged in developmental and environmental processes, conceive of and negotiate their places at geo-political, regional and local scales, (re)constructing new forms of ‘informal life politics’ and ‘vibrant matter’ in a North Korea of transitions. 

Speaker: Robert Winstanley-Chesters is a geographer and Research Fellow at Australian National University. Previously Robert was a Post-Doctoral Fellow of Cambridge University (Beyond the Korean War). Robert obtained his doctorate from the University of Leeds with a thesis later published as “Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project” in 2014 by Lexington.

Andy Jackson
Monash University