Arbor Day in North Korea

Friday 3rd April, 2015
North Koreans brave the cold at a tree-planting exercise/Yonhap News DB

North Koreans brave the cold at a tree-planting exercise/Yonhap News DB

North Korea, with its many mountains and high altitude, is comparatively colder than South Korea. Interestingly, however, its tree-planting activities begin one month earlier than its warmer southern counterpart. Arbor Day in North Korea as announced by the government was officially March 2nd, and media outlets recently have displayed Kim Jong Un himself participating in the activities.

In earlier years, however, North Korea’s National Arbor Day was actually on April 6th. This date is an appropriate time for trees to be planted nationally. The springtime atmosphere and pleasant weather also made the tree-planting activities easier, according to defectors.

However, at the insistence of the North Korean government, a change of date occurred. From 1999, Arbor Day for all regions of North Korea was no longer on April 6th, but March 2nd. The reason for this was to commemorate the revolutionary work of the Kim family – on March the 2nd, 1946, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il climbed Moran Hill to propose a framework for forest development in country.

Jang Chul-Jin, an escapee, said, “Every year on the second day of March, all factory employees must turn up to work where they are instructed plant trees. The entire population is mobilized. And early in the mornings, party secretaries come to make lengthy speeches about the Kim family’s teachings and achievements.”

He continued, “Then, trees are fitted into holes that were dug prior to the day, especially around monuments of the leaders or engraved headstones displaying their teachings. Even though it is a special day where everybody in the entire nation moves at once to plant trees in mountains and fields, it can get very cold. Because of this, trees are planted in and around factories in designated areas, as a symbolic gesture. In short, North Korea’s Arbor Day is not about improving the environment and beautifying the mountains and fields. It’s an event that forms another part of government propaganda, revolving around the revolution efforts of the Kim family’s.

Jang can still remember the days when he had to participate in the tree-planting process. “The first thing you need to do when you plant a tree is to dig the hole. During this time, the weather is still cold, and the soil still frozen. It is simply impossible to dig through with a shovel – a tool like a pickaxe must be used to penetrate the ground at least thirty centimeters in. After that, you place the tree in the centre and pour water into the hole, where the frozen dirt melts. It is so cold that the vessel that holds the water starts freezing over while we work. Planting them in this way, would the young trees be able to extend their roots below and survive in this cold? As citizens work, they complain that planting trees in the early spring warmth of April would be much better.”

Another escapee from Hyesan, Kim Ok-Kyung, testified, “Rural Yanggang Province, which is close to Mt. Baekdu, receives heavy snowfall even in March. When we arrive at the mountains and fields there, piles of white snow await us. Still, the North Korean people are mass mobilized and made to plant trees around roads. Trees planted in this way will find it hard to survive. These trees remain bare until even May, not able to produce even one green leaf. In these cases, the party secretary or campaign manager instructs the leaders of the People’s Committees to replant them. They all know that those young trees wouldn’t be able to withstand the cold of March, yet they must obey the orders from above.”

Kim continued, “On one occasion, before I defected, there was a huge snowfall the day before Arbor Day. There was so much snow that people couldn’t even walk around or through it without difficulty. In the end, we were unable to plant any trees on Arbor Day. Since then, people began secretly wishing that snow would fall heavily before the day of tree-planting. Besides, it is much better to wait for an appropriate time, like April or May, to plant these valuable young trees, instead of planting them early and leaving them to freeze to death. That’s the opinion of the North Korean people.”

However, anyone who expresses an opinion about tree planting or Arbor Day would be regarded by the North Korean government as an outsider rejecting party policy. The orders given by the government are absolute, even though everyone knows those young trees will die. When snow falls heavily prior to Arbor Day, it’s as if even the sky understands the hearts and minds of the North Korean people.

“If you love the Motherland, you must also love the trees that take root here” is the government propaganda song that bespeaks what is expected of the citizens of North Korea. It is hoped, as written in the lyrics, if one does truly love the trees planted by the government, a practical, not symbolic approach to tree-planting can be planned to make North Korea’s naked mountain slopes and bare fields greener.

 

Reporting by Park, Ju-Hee

 

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