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Geographies of Soil and Earth in the Japanese Empire and Korean Peninsula

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Political Grounds: exploring the meaning of soil, earth and humus in North Korea, and Pyongyang’s efforts to make new earth(s)

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“It is my plan and determination to clothe the mountains and fields of the whole country with a green mantle not only in Pyongyang but also in other cities and rural areas” Kim Jong Un’s words from 2020 will have a familiarity to analysts of North Korean and East Asian. environmental/agricultural history. Calls from North Korea’s leadership since 1945 to make its national terrains verdant are matched in frequency by analysis which asserts their barren and degraded nature. Japanese colonial horror at the unproductive red soils of Korea’s uplands recounted by Fedman (2020), are joined by remote sensing analysis recording the impact of ecological near collapse in North Korea in the 1990s. Similarly they are familiar to interactions between Geographers of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and colonial Korea as they sought to make soils of terrains newly captured by the Japanese Empire knowable and productive in the 1930s and 40s.

However hard the task of its maintenance, soil, earth and humus, have always been vital and vibrant matters to East Asian developmental politics. The transformation of Manchuria/Manchukuo and Mengjiang/Inner Mongolia and their soils from barren wastes to productive terrains in a modern ambitious Empire was vital for the academic communities of Japan, its colonies and allies. Deep, rich, productive, energetic earth has long been seen by Pyongyang as a necessary marker of developmental legitimacy in North Korea, and soil and its reclamation/enrichment are frequent topics of research and state media output.

This talk considers the political geographies of soil in East Asia, with the speaker's past writing on East Asian and Korea environmental/ecological history in mind, as well as groundbreaking work from Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro (2014) on soil’s place in leftist, revolutionary and de-colonial politics. Having traced the research journeys of colonial era academics in the 1930s and 1940s, it examines the unmaking of colonial soils in the early years of Korean statehoods, the chemicalisation of North Korea’s earth in the 1960s-1970s. Finally, I explore the contemporary terrains of humus in North Korea and Pyongyang’s efforts to make new earth(s).

Online: livestream, accessed through link shared on booking

In-person: if you are coming to Bath Spa University but are not a current member of staff or a student, please get in touch with the organiser to confirm (details shared after booking)

About the speaker

Robert Winstanley-Chesters is a geographer, Lecturer at York St John University, Visiting Fellow at Bath Spa University, and at the University of Leeds and a Member of Wolfson College, Oxford, as well as the Managing Editor of the European Journal of Korean Studies. He is author of “Environment, Politics and Ideology in North Korea” (Lexington, 2014), “Vibrant Matters(s): Fish, Fishing and Community in North Korea and Neighbours” (Springer, 2019) and "New Goddess of Mount Paektu: Myth and Transformation in North Korean Landscape” (Black Halo/Amazon KDP 2020). Robert is currently researching North Korean necro-mobilities and other difficult or unwelcome bodies and materials in Korean/East Asian historical geography.

This talk is organised by Bath Spa University's Research Centre for Environmental Humanities. Find out more about the RCEH.

Image below: farmers of North Korea, documented by North Korean state media


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