Dr. John Lee, Kingdom of Pines: State Forestry and the Making of Chosŏn Korea, 1392-1910


  • Abstract:
For almost every society before the twentieth century, the forest ecosystem was the main source of fuel, construction material, and raw chemical matter. In this presentation, I examine the longest continuous state forestry system in world history, that of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910). For five hundred years, the Chosŏn government managed forests across the Korean peninsula with focus on one type of conifer, the pine. I argue that state forestry was fundamental to the expansion of the Chosŏn state and its military, political, and cultural priorities from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. Moreover, the government’s prioritization of pine profoundly transformed Korea’s environment. Over time however, Chosŏn forests also became contested zones as government policies clashed with administrative corruption, commercial operations, and the workaday sylvan needs of a growing populace. Overall, I offer a new, environmental-historical approach to Korean history that interweaves the making of state, society, and ecology on the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, this presentation inserts Chosŏn Korea into a broader world-historical conversation regarding pre-industrial forms of forest conservation and invites scholars to consider the diversity of conservationist states outside of modern environmentalist ethos or European zones of knowledge production.