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Landscape and Nation in North Korea  

Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In 2023, images emerged of Kim Jong Un hand in hand with his young daughter Kim Ju Ae. As they walked over concrete launchpads, away from an intercontinental ballistic missile readied for launch, the leader and his child not only made a statement about succession and military power but also became a new addition to the visual vocabulary of North Korean landscapes. North Korean landscapes and geographies have held both an energetic, vibrant piquancy and a curious, opaque mysteriousness for the outsider almost since the nation’s foundation in 1948. Observers are confronted with a commonality of visual and semiotic tropes focused on the materiality of North Korean spaces; these include barren hills and fields, missiles spewing fire as they launch out of their silos or from their transporters, massed ranks of soldiers marching in steps of uncanny synchrony, starving children, mass hysteria at the death of an autocrat, and the infrastructure of illicit nuclear capacity. North Korean landscapes are real and unreal; known, unknown, and unknowable; constructed and mythographic; a mélange and intersection of fears, history, threat, and ambition. Thongchai Winichakul in his articulation of the geo-body, explored the active and engaged roles that landscape, space, and topography play in the formation of a nation and a national body. Seen in such a frame, North Korea seems to possess a mirrored double: landscapes that play key roles in the nation’s prehistory and foundation are central to its emergent period and are reflective of and enmeshed in the state’s ideological projections. At the same time, for the outsider, the geo-body of North Korea reflects the bodies of its people as they are seen—as stunted, denuded, oppressed, and incarcerated. A holistic overview of North Korean landscapes must move between the mythic and the material, the imagined and the encountered, dualistic in essence and dependent on a viewer’s predictions and presumptions, placing two very different terrains in energetic tension.