Deforestation Has Caused an Environmental Crisis in North Korea
Tree Planting Day was reportedly established in North Korea on March 2, 1946, when North Korea was under direct Soviet rule. However, this well-intentioned holiday seems to have a negligible impact on a nation that is facing an environmental crisis due to widespread deforestation. By the end of the Korean War in 1953, the entire Korean peninsula had experienced massive deforestation. While South Korea implemented an intense reforestation campaign in the 1960s, North Korea’s environmental efforts were significantly more limited.
The contrast between the forests of North Korea and those of South Korea is well pronounced. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a PhD candidate from the University of Pennsylvania who studies social control and surveillance in the North from Seoul, South Korea, said that “You can see it when you’re standing by the border with North Korea, whether it’s in South Korea or in China… The side you’re on is just very lush. There are a lot of trees. But on the North Korean side, the hills are almost entirely bare.”
According to Silberstein, “People [in North Korea] cut down trees on a massive scale, both for fuel but also to clear room for farming.” While the government of North Korea has acknowledged that forest cover shrank sharply during a famine in the 1990s, going from 8.3 million hectares to 7.6 million hectares in just a few years, government action regarding the deforestation crisis has been limited.
Fewer forests means less tree cover, which poses harm to the wildlife in North Korea and leads to depleted topsoil that is unsuitable for farming, further contributing to the country’s food crisis. Without ground cover, there are no roots to hold the topsoil in place during extreme weather, which has been increasingly common in North Korea. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 17% of its territory is suitable for agriculture, which is especially concerning given that North Korea grows most of its food rather than trading for it.
Bir Mandal, the FAO deputy representative in North Korea, wrote in an email to E&E News that “the country is mountainous with steep hill slopes, which in many places are deforested... So, when a natural disaster occurs, it has the potential to cause much greater [disproportional] damage.”
According to the article published in E&E News, “the past decade has brought a succession of floods, droughts, storms and other extreme weather to North Korea, damaging crops and killing livestock… North Korea’s food supply fell by 9% last year, according to estimates by FAO and the World Food Programme.”
Without an international nuclear agreement, North Korea appears to be fairly isolated regarding its environmental crisis. While scientists have been conducting research, the high tensions surrounding nuclear development have made it difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend the magnitude of the environmental crisis in North Korea, much less begin to address it.