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Inside North Korea's Environmental Collapse

Scientists who recently visited the hermit nation report the situation is dire.

ByPhil McKennaNOVA NextNOVA Next
Countryside near Wonsan
Farmers preparing a field for the planting season outside Wonsan, North Korea, in the shadow of a denuded hillside.

North Korea has been hiding something. Something beyond its prison camps, its nuclear facilities, its pervasive poverty, its aching famine, its lack of energy—electrical, fossil, or otherwise. What the hermit kingdom has been covering up is perhaps more fundamental than all of those: an environmental collapse so severe it could destabilize the entire country. Or at least, it was hiding it.

Before ecologist Margaret Palmer visited North Korea, she didn’t know what to expect, but what she saw was beyond belief. From river’s edge to the tops of hills, the entire landscape was lifeless and barren. Villages were little more than hastily constructed shantytowns where residents wore camouflage netting, presumably in preparation for a foreign invasion they feared to be imminent. Emaciated looking farmers tilled the earth with plows pulled by oxen and trudged through half-frozen streams to collect nutrient-rich sediments for their fields. “We went to a national park where we saw maybe one or two birds, but other than that you don’t see any wildlife,” Palmer says.

“The landscape is just basically dead,” adds Dutch soil scientist Joris van der Kamp. “It’s a difficult condition to live in, to survive.”

Palmer and Van der Kamp were part of an international delegation of scientists invited by the government of North Korea and funded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to attend a recent conference on ecological restoration in the long-isolated country. Through site visits and presentations by North Korean scientists they witnessed a barren landscape that is teetering on collapse, ravaged by decades of environmental degradation.

“There are no branches of trees on the ground,” Van der Kamp says. “Everything is collected for food or fuel or animal food, almost nothing is left for the soil. We saw people mining clay material from the rivers in areas that had been polished by ice and warming their hands along the roadside by small fires from the small amounts of organic bits they could find.”

Farmers carrying supplies in North Korea
Farmers carrying supplies on foot in North Korea.

The country’s ecological ruin is partially responsible for the disastrous famine in the 1990s, when massive flooding washed away crops and destroyed stored grain. Today, it continues to undermine the country’s economy and threaten national stability. Yet as dire as the current situation is, it’s neither unprecedented nor irreversible. And the sooner environmental conditions can be improved, the better things will be for either the current regime or whoever is left to pick up the pieces.

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A Broken Landscape

For Palle Madsen, visiting North Korea was a bit like going back in time 150 years. “At that time the forest was nearly completely gone here in Denmark,” says Madsen, a forester at the Danish Center for Forest Landscape and Planning at the University of Copenhagen. “There wasn’t a totalitarian regime, but we had a similarly overexploited and degraded landscape. It influences the entire microclimate when you remove all of the trees,” Madsen says.

During a three-day conference in Pyongyang, the nation’s capital, North Korean scientists spoke frankly to delegation members about problems related to deforestation and overexploitation of the soil. Mountains make up much of the country’s landscape leaving only 15 percent of land available for agriculture. Erosion, lack of nutrients, and acidification of the soil have had a devastating effect on crop yields, according to presentations by members of North Korea’s Academy of Sciences.

North Korea’s isolation means detailed data on environmental conditions are hard to come by. However, a 2004 study by the Korea Environment Institute based in Seoul, South Korea, reports that forest cover in North Korea dropped by 17 percent from the 1970s to the late 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which provided oil to its communist ally at a discounted “friendship price,” oil imports dropped by 60 percent. Unsurprisingly, the use of firewood for heating more than doubled.

North Korean soldiers hauling firewood
North Korean soldiers hauling firewood back to base. Fuel for heating is scarce, so many rely on what wood they can find, including, apparently, the normally well-supplied Korean People's Army.

What resulted was an increasingly barren landscape. Even saplings are felled for fuel, stripping forests of their ability to regenerate. “They don’t have trees to hold the soil,” says Jinsuk Byun of Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. Byun was not a part of the recent delegation but has closely followed environmental conditions in the country. “When it rains the soil washes into the river, landslides occur and rivers flood. It triggers a really serious disaster.”

Damage from a flash flood near South Hamgyong, North Korea
Damage from a July 2012 flash flood near South Hamgyong, North Korea.

Conditions in North Korea appear to be little better now than during the famine of the 1990s. In Pyongyang, generally considered to be the most well-off city in the country, delegation members saw bonfires burning on apartment balconies at night, presumably lit by residents to keep warm. Other basic utilities were lacking, too. “I saw a woman lifting a bucket of water with a rope up ten stories to her apartment,” Palmer says.

Looming Famine?

Such glimpses of reality in North Korea are seldom seen but often rumored. “Guided tours are designed not to show you poverty,” says Barbara Demick, author of Nothing To Envy , a book about the lives of ordinary North Koreans who later defected. She says living conditions for the vast majority of those living in the country are likely much worse than what the researchers saw on their tour. “Up to 10 percent of the country perished from starvation in the 1990s. It’s a cold mountainous country, and there is very little arable land. North Korea is highly dependent on artificial fertilization and irrigation and when they ran out of electricity, everything spiraled downhill.”

The lack of birds and other small animals noted by the scientists on their recent visit are a direct result of the famine in the 1990s, Demick says. “The frogs disappeared because everyone caught the frogs,” Demick says. “You see many fewer birds and small animals in North Korea than other countries. People living near the sea ate seaweed but that also ran out.” Ongoing food scarcity continues to take its toll.. A United Nations report released in May 2012 estimated that two-thirds of North Korea’s 24 million people continue to suffer from chronic food shortages and malnutrition.

Similar famines occurred throughout Europe in the 1800s due to over-exploitation of the land, says Madsen, the Danish forestry expert. What turned things around in Europe was the development of artificial fertilizers, the capacity to breed better crops, emigration to North America, and above all, land reform. “The feudal system of old Europe was still in existence,” he says. “It’s a different system in North Korea, much worse than the feudal system of Europe, but allowing farmers to own their own land is what changed things here.”

Red soil in North Korea
The reddish hue of exposed soil in North Korea indicates a lack of organic matter, which is vital for farming.

Small-scale land reform has begun in North Korea, but such policy changes may be making matters worse instead of better. In recent years, the government has allowed individual households to cultivate their own private vegetable gardens. But that has lead to the cutting down and cultivation of forested hillsides.

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“They are farming every inch of the land,” says delegation member Keith Bowers, president of Biohabitats, an ecological restoration consultancy based in Baltimore, Maryland. “From the rivers to the hillsides, there is no vegetation on this landscape that provides any of the types of ecosystem services in terms of stabilizing soils, filtering air, attenuating flood flows, or controlling against erosion.” Flooding in North Korea left more than 212,000 people homeless last year according to recent news reports. “You have whole towns being buried in mud because they’ve terraced around the town,” Demick says.

Costs of Reunification

North Korean scientists told the delegates that they would like to reforest hillsides with trees, including the Japanese chestnut, black chokeberry, and Korean pine, that could both stabilize the soil and provide edible fruits and seeds. But funding for such reforestation appears tight. During their week-long visit the foreign scientists were taken to a tree nursery that is part of the country’s current reforestation effort. The automated potting machinery was inoperable either due to a lack of fuel or spare parts, delegates report, and its greenhouse stood empty. Even if the nurseries were running at full capacity, North Korea would still have a long road ahead of it. Bowers estimates that reforesting even half the country would cost around $46 billion, an amount that exceeds the nation’s annual gross domestic product by $6 billion.

Despite the bleak outlook, many in South Korea view reunification with the north and absorbing the costs of retooling the country as inevitable. Estimates for the cost of reunification run from the hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars. Byun, of Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, has studied the German reunification as a possible model for Korea. In the 1990s, Germany spent the equivalent of approximately $450 billion in today’s dollars to reduce air and water pollution from factories, waste treatment systems, and inefficient power plants, Byun says.

Fertilizer factory in North Korea
A woman operates a machine inside a fertilizer plant in North Korea.

But reunifying Korea would be a more daunting challenge, in part because of the heavily depleted soils. North Korean farmers are heavily reliant on nitrogen-based fertilizers, which in certain formulations can paradoxically drain the soil of nutrients. “It’s a very unbalanced fertilizer, lacking in magnesium, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus,” says Dutch soil scientist Van der Kamp of the fertilizer predominantly used in North Korea. “When you don’t replace those minerals you basically mine the soil for these other nutrients, so the soils in general are very acidic, with very low organic matter content and low microbial activity.”

In 2012 the United Nations planned to distribute 2,000 metric tons of fertilizer containing each of the above-mentioned minerals to 260 collective farms as part of a $14 million agricultural aid package. But that aid is likely a drop in the bucket in terms of what is needed.

Hope For Collaboration

Rather, delegation members would like to see ongoing collaborations with the scientists they met during their trip. The idea is that a more informed scientific community in North Korea could help the country recover from its environmental collapse in a more sustainable fashion, one not reliant on infusions of aid.

Bowers, of U.S. company Biohabitat, is working with the Society of Ecological Restoration to set up a chapter in China to exchange technological information with North Korean scientists. “If we are looking at any kind of regime change in next 25 to 40 years in North Korea, I think that doing whatever we can from an ecology restoration perspective will only enhance people’s ability to effect a positive regime change,” he says. Madsen, the Danish soil scientist, is currently looking for funding to host North Korean scientists to study in Europe.

“It was pretty hard to have good interactions with our colleagues there, but you could feel some of the people were both smart, and you felt they really wanted increased cooperation and interaction with us,” Madsen says. “It’s encouraging to proceed to try to raise some funding to do something for them. We can only hope changes will happen in that country, good changes in the near future, so we can have something to build on with these colleagues when it does.”

Photo of flood damage courtesy EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (CC-BY-SA).

All other photos courtesy Joseph A Ferris III (CC-BY-NC-ND).

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

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