N. Korea’s Countermeasures against Climate Change
A record-breaking cold snap and heavy snow hit South Korea around the Lunar New year holiday in late January. Media outlets such as CNN and BBC noted that a deadly cold snap gripping East Asia resulted from climate change, reporting the situation in South and North Korea, Japan and China in detail. As for North Korea, in particular, the media said the authorities issued an extreme cold weather alert. They added that North Korea’s northern provinces such as Ryanggang and Hamgyong, which are the poorest parts of the country, are expected to suffer great damage from climate shocks.
Climate experts analyze that such extreme weather events, as one of the signals of climate change, have become the “new norm.” Tackling climate change is indeed a grave task that the entire world must contend with in cooperation, and as their country currently struggles with the harsh effects of the issue, it is little wonder that North Korea also pays it close attention.
Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s strategies to cope with climate change from Dr. Oh Sam-eon, researcher at the National Institute of Forest Science.
In January, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television aired a special program about three major crises faced by the international community last year, including natural disasters and food shortages caused by an infectious disease and climate change. North Korea seems to be trying to show that the crises it is going through now are actually being experienced by the entire world.
In its Voluntary National Review on sustainable development, submitted to the U.N. in 2021, North Korea admitted that it is one of the countries where the frequency of extreme climate change is of a high level.
Global warming on the Korean Peninsula has progressed faster than the global average, with North Korea warming at a faster rate than South Korea. The Earth’s average surface temperature increased 0.85 degrees Celsius over the span of 133 years, while the temperature on the Korean Peninsula rose 1.2 degrees Celsius in just 30 years, from 1981 to 2010.
The annual average temperature in North Korea has increased 0.45 degrees Celsius every ten years, 1.3 times faster than South Korea’s 0.36 degrees Celsius. In North Korea, the annual amount of rainfall has increased, whereas the number of days of precipitation has decreased, meaning that heavy downpours hit the country with greater intensity.
Unfortunately, despite climate change’s fast progression in the country, North Korea is unable to deal with extreme weather events properly. In an October 2021 report released by the Office of Director of National Intelligence in the U.S., North Korea was among eleven countries indentified as being “highly vulnerable,” in terms of their ability to respond to climate change.
In its Voluntary National Review report, North Korea says that the country has suffered heavy damage caused by natural disasters such as flood and typhoons since the 1990s.
In North Korea, the heavy flooding they experienced in 1995 is called the worst flood in 100 years. The U.N’s World Meteorological Organization listed the 1995 flood in North Korea as one of the world’s worst natural disasters in the past 50 years.
According to the organization’s report, the flood caused 68 deaths and affected 5.2 million people or about one-fourth of North Korea’s total population, with 1.5 million tons of crops lost. After the devastating flood, North Korea went through the painful period of difficulties known as “Arduous March.” Countless people starved to death and the country had to rely on international aid. In the 2000s, North Korea continued to suffer from flood damage.
In 2020, North Korea recorded an average 852.3 millimeters of summer precipitation throughout the country; 146.1 percent greater than average. It seems North Korea has been hit hard by natural disasters.
In the report submitted to the U.N., North Korea shows that the number of victims of natural disasters in the country was about 100 in 2015, 523 in 2016, 151 in 2018 and 127 in 2020. North Korea claims that it was hit by its worst drought in a century in 2015. According to data by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium, 18 million people in North Korea were affected by the severe drought in 2015, while the number of victims of torrential downpours reached 3,540 in the same year. The following year, North Korea also suffered heavy flood damage. North Korea described the situation as the worst catastrophe since liberation from Japanese colonial rule. The flood killed 538 people and affected 600-thousand.
Based on the World Meteorological Organization’s weather observation data, we compared precipitation in 13 regions in North Korea between 2011 and 2020 to precipitation in 16 regions in South Korea. Although there was no great difference, North Korea suffered from extensive flood damage.
North Korea’s forest land stands at 9.06 million hectares, making up 73.6 percent of the nation’s entire land. According to the statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2020, five out of 38 OECD members have over 60 percent of their total land area covered with forests. North Korea’s share of forest land is just as high as the 73.74 percent of Finland, which is the most heavily forested country among OECD states.
While the percentage is high, North Korea’s forests are severely damaged. South Korea’s National Institute of Forest Science has been monitoring North Korean forests since 1999, based on a ten-year basis. An analysis of satellite imagery in 2018 showed that 2.62 million hectares or 28 percent of North Korea’s entire forests had been devastated.
North Korea’s forest degradation often aggravates the damage from natural disasters. The loss of trees on mountains and forests leads to floods and drought. Deforestation in upstream regions may inundate downstream areas, destroying farmland and roads. North Korean forests have been devastated because trees were cut randomly for earning foreign currency and securing food and firewood. The country has been trapped in a vicious cycle of economic difficulties, deforestation and natural disasters. The depressing situation has prompted North Korea to make efforts to cope with climate change, starting with reforestation.
After current leader Kim Jong-un came to power, North Korea began to restore its desolate forests in earnest as one of major state projects. It drew up a ten-year reforestation plan in 2012 and the leader mentioned a “battle” for forest restoration in his New Year’s speech in 2015.
The leader also announced a special statement to present tasks for forestation. In an unusual move, he pointed out the failure in the forestation policy in the previous Kim Jong-il era.
Kim Jong-un has constantly stressed the need to make the country’s forests green again.
Kim said that treeless mountains lead to heavy flood and landslides during the rainy season and dry up rivers and streams in other seasons to have a detrimental effect on economic construction and people’s lives. He stressed that the country should remedy the problem in a fundamental way by restoring the nation’s forests, rather than by simply recovering from natural disasters. Under the leader’s instruction, North Korea began to concentrate on forestation. In 2015, the North defined forestation as a war against nature and the reforestation campaign as a “battle” for forest restoration. A war against nature here could be interpreted as a war against natural disasters. The military expression, “battle,” shows that North Korea is so desperate and feels the urgent need for successful reforestation.
North Korea completed the first phase of the forest restoration battle in 2017, pushing for the second phase from 2018 to 2024.
The country is moving to connect reforestation with the issue of climate change. For instance, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper has reported climate change more often. In the paper, the use of the phrase “climate change” has nearly doubled since 2015, compared to the past.
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper has awakened the public to a sense of crisis on climate change. The paper frequently covers the stories about how other countries respond to climate change. In September 2021, the paper said that preventing abnormal climate conditions is the task of all mankind and it is necessary to understand such conditions correctly and implement the campaign of making the Earth healthy. In March 2022, the paper raised the need to actively tackle the climate crisis and urged the people to be more aware of the crisis that threatens human life and to step up efforts to prevent natural disasters including drought.
As important countermeasures against climate change, North Korea encourages the people to use renewable energy, such as solar power, wind power and geothermal heat. In fact, it is easy to find solar panels on the roofs of factories and houses in the North.
North Korea enacted the Renewable Energy Act in 2013. Renewable energy is defined as regenerative sources including solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and marine. The country encourages the development of renewable energy in order to resolve its chronic energy shortages and reduce carbon emissions at the same time. To provide electricity to homes, schools, public institutions and basic conveniences, the North uses sunlight. For example, it uses solar power for street lights in Wisong Scientists Residential Street in Pyongyang. As seen in new expressions like “energy-saving, green street” and “zero-carbon architecture,” North Korea claims that it has adopted a number of energy-related strategies and technologies.
North Korea has also been actively seeking to join the global drive to deal with climate change. The country has attended the U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties every year. In 2016, then-North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong visited New York to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change.
In this way, North Korea demonstrates to the international community that it is actively tackling climate change.
In 2016, North Korea promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eight percent by 2030 and it said it could raise the goal to 40 percent if international support is provided. In 2019, the North made an even more ambitious proposal, 11.4 percent and 52 percent, respectively.
During the 27th session of the U.N. climate change conference, known as COP27, in Egypt in November 2022, North Korea said it is actively carrying out a project of creating two million hectares of woodlands. In this way, the North demonstrated its own efforts and achievements related to forestation, responding to the international concern of climate change. North Korea will likely continue to maintain this stance.
North Korea explains its specific plan on how to deal with climate change and stresses the need for exchanges and cooperation with the international community. It remains to be seen how extensively North Korea will be able to fulfill its stated goal.