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Inter-Korean Cooperation for Reforestation



South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered a keynote speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit 2021 on November 11. In the video message, Moon stressed that inducing North Korea to join forestry cooperation in Northeast Asia will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the Korean Peninsula and also contribute to peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. 

In a keynote speech at the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties or COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 1, Moon also said that South Korea would cut greenhouse gas emissions on the entire Korean Peninsula through inter-Korean cooperation on reforestation. 

Here is Cho Han-bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, to explain why the South Korean president has expressed commitment to forestry cooperation between the two Koreas lately. 

Climate change is one of the most urgent challenges facing the planet. South and North Korea may feel relatively less burdened by forestry cooperation, which has little to do with political ideology. That’s why South Korea is trying to push for cross-border cooperation in forestry and healthcare areas. The two Koreas share the same environment. Considering that humans, animals and the environment are all interlinked, the Korean Peninsula can be described as a “one life community,” for which inter-Korean cooperation is essential. 

Recently, North Korean media outlets have also underlined the need to restore forests and address the issues of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. On November 4, the country’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed interest in and expressed concerns about climate change. On November 10, the paper carried photos of the country’s reforestation projects, stressing the importance of forest protection. 

North Korea has shown great interest in environmental issues as of late to keep up with global trends. Socialist states have all suffered from the destruction of the environment, as they haven’t really invested in eco-friendly projects. North Korea is no exception. The Kim Jong-un regime has highlighted environmental issues and demanded that South Korea implement bilateral agreements on reforestation. In the 2018 Pyongyang Joint Declaration, the two sides agreed to strengthen cooperation in the areas of healthcare and forestry. When South and North Korea were in good relations in the past, they actually made joint efforts to prevent the spread of the pine needle gall midge, a type of fly considered a major forest pest. North Korea is in desperate need of forestry cooperation with the South, due to the lack of technology and equipment. 

Forests cover two-thirds of North Korea’s total land area. The country began to create more farmlands in the 1970s. During the harsh period of economic difficulties known as “Arduous March” in the 1990s, local residents suffering from a food shortage cut down trees on a massive scale for fuel and to clear room for farming. As a result, the country’s deforestation worsened. 

North Korea began to carry out a reforestation campaign in earnest in the 2000s, when then-leader Kim Jong-il announced an ambitious ten-year afforestation plan. But it was not easy to restore the devastated forests. Heavy rains during the summer often led to landslides and forest destruction, with farmlands lost and agricultural facilities collapsed. Under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea has pushed for reforestation as a more urgent state project. 

North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly has introduced a forestry law lately. The country has promoted forest protection and tree-planting projects as one of the leader’s political achievements. Even a new department of forest science was established at Kim Il-sung University. Since Kim Jong-un took power, the North has made a lot of efforts and investment in forestry projects, like setting up many tree nurseries in the country. Local governments have been in charge of forest restoration, while relevant laws and penalties have been strengthened. North Korea has also implemented a system that connects the central government, universities and local governments so they can work on reforestation in cooperation. 

Leader Kim Jong-un has accelerated the reforestation process, with the local media showing the scene of the leader planting a tree himself. During the seventh congress of the Workers’ Party in 2016, North Korea announced a five-year economic development strategy, which included the “forestation battle,” the establishment of tree nurseries and environment protection projects. At the eighth party congress in January this year, the North proudly said that about 1 million hectares of land were reforested. 

North Korea has constantly praised its achievements in forest restoration. But the numbers revealed at the eighth party congress were mostly untrue. Even if forests may have been recovered, they have not been managed properly and consistently. Therefore, it is hard to say the reforestation project has produced a positive result. There is a difference between what North Korea says and what is actually seen in satellite imagery. There are no clear signs of forest recovery in North Korea. The problem cannot be solved by simply planting trees. Without the solution to subsistence logging in farming areas, planting trees will only repeat a vicious circle. Locals cut down trees to make fields for farming. Given a conflict of interests between the state reforestation project and people’s efforts to survive, it is difficult to produce a result in the reforestation campaign. When mapping out a forestry policy, people’s livelihoods and food problem should also be taken into consideration. North Korea’s policy of simply planting trees is completely different from South Korea’s successful reforestation policy. 

In the Pyongyang Joint Declaration signed on September 19, 2018, South and North Korea agreed to actively promote inter-Korean environment cooperation to protect and restore the natural ecology, and as a first step to endeavor to achieve substantial results in the currently on-going forestry cooperation. Unfortunately, inter-Korean forestry cooperation has been at a standstill since the 2019 North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi. 

While many of the changes observed in the climate are rapid and unprecedented, forestry cooperation between South and North Korea will be essential to prevent climate change on the Korean Peninsula over the long term. 

Deforestation in North Korea is a lot more serious than we think. The loss of soil from deforested areas can cause riverbeds to rise, leading to frequent floods. Reforestation is a very urgent problem for North Korea. It will be relatively easy for South and North Korea to discuss this non-political issue, along with healthcare, in light of the creation of an inter-Korean life community. The two Koreas share mountains and forests, in particular, and they can develop a win-win relationship through cooperation in this area. That’s why North Korea has left the possibility open for cross-border cooperation for reforestation.  

Clearly, both South and North Korea are strongly committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We hope the two sides will respond jointly to forestry cooperation at an early date, regardless of the political situation. 

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