North Korea holds a tree planting day every March. The question is whether it helps re-green a largely denuded nation whose residents face food shortages, deadly natural disasters and bitterly cold winters.
The holiday began in 1946 when North Korea was under direct Soviet rule. Today, the state-sanctioned media still pays homage to their leafy claims of success, sometimes with the participation of the “respected supreme leader.”
Even as new trees take root, subsistence logging and deforestation have an incalculable impact on the quality of the country’s soils and its ability to feed its people.
“People are cutting down trees on a large scale, both for fuel but also to make space for agriculture,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, who holds a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Pennsylvania studying social control and surveillance in the North from Seoul, South Korea.
“You can see it when you stand near the border with North Korea, whether in South Korea or China,” he continued. “The side you are on is just very lush. There are a lot of trees. But on the North Korean side, the hills are almost entirely bare.
The tree problem in North Korea is one aspect of a larger environmental crisis. The hermit state, known for its strident threats of nuclear war, suffers from crippling drought and violent floods. Some experts suggest that these conditions, exacerbated by climate change, are pushing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table to urge President Trump to ease economic sanctions (climate wireApril 11).
The North Korean government acknowledges that forest cover declined sharply during a famine in the 1990s, dropping from 8.3 million hectares to 7.6 million hectares in just a few years. And a 2014 study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Gyeonggi Research Institute used satellite data collected by South Korea’s Environment Ministry to show that northern forests are increasingly fragmented, with less contiguous tree cover.
This is bad for North Korean wildlife, and it leads to depleted topsoil that is unable to do the job of feeding the North Korean population.
The lack of ground cover means there are no roots to anchor the soil in place and prevent it from flowing into rivers and streams during extreme weather events. And while North Korea is tasked with growing its food rather than selling it, its geography makes that complicated. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that only 17% of its territory is suitable for agriculture.
“The country is mountainous with steep slopes, which are deforested in many places,” wrote Bir Mandal, FAO’s deputy representative in North Korea, in an email to E&E News. “So when a natural disaster occurs, it has the potential to cause a lot more [disproportional] shame.”
The past decade has brought a succession of floods, droughts, storms and other extreme weather events to North Korea, damaging crops and killing livestock. This has led to landslides and land degradation, Mandal said. And also hunger. North Korea’s food supply fell 9% last year, according to estimates by the FAO and the World Food Programme.
Subsistence logging was once a problem for forests on the Korean Peninsula, and the Korean War of the early 1950s further damaged trees in both countries.
“It was a barren landscape,” recalled William Brown, a retired CIA officer who spent time in South Korea in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Very strange experience”
Southern forests rebounded in the decades following the war thanks to aggressive reforestation policies and a crackdown on illegal logging. The country now has more forest cover than it did in the 1920s.
The North Koreans, meanwhile, continued to exploit the forests for fuel and to make fields during a succession of famines. Among these was the “Arduous March” of the 1990s, when the state food distribution system collapsed. Some people have resorted to the bark.
The famine’s effect on the North Korean landscape appears to have been uneven. Woonsup Choi, a researcher at UW Milwaukee, co-authored a 2017 study using satellite data showing that “strenuous walking” had a small net effect on overall forest cover in North Korea, although it caused an amount substantial change in the soil. blanket. During the 1990s and early 2000s, he said, some areas appear to have lost their forests, while others have become overgrown, possibly as a result of mass death and destruction. the abandonment of formerly cultivated land.
Woonsup said any effort to interpret the land change results would be speculative.
“I think that’s a limitation of this dataset,” he told E&E News. “Obviously it’s almost impossible to go and see what’s going on.”
North Korea has occasionally allowed foreign researchers to view conditions inside the country, especially if it means gaining foreign expertise on an issue of concern to the regime.
Deforestation and soil health are priorities for the regime. Kim reportedly executed a deputy minister of construction and building materials after opposing his crackdown on deforestation.
In 2013, Norman Neureiter, then director of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, obtained permission to bring a small delegation of scientists to Pyongyang for a two-day conference. days on deforestation and soil health. It was followed by visits to sites outside the capital. He was allowed to bring 15 experts, and no more than five could be Americans.
“It was great,” said Neureiter, who is now a senior adviser at AAAS’s Center for Science Diplomacy. He remembered the place – a nice building in the heart of Pyongyang with a big sign outside announcing it was happening – and 70 or 80 of North Korea’s top scientists there. “It was truly an event well done.”
But Margaret Palmer, director of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center at the University of Maryland, called it a “very strange experience.”
“What we needed when we went there, and what we thought we could do, is talk to them informally and candidly,” Palmer said. “‘Tell us about your problems, tell us what you can do, and we can give you advice.'”
Instead, they were treated to a “show” of presentations, she said, often opening with praise for the Supreme Leader’s environmental vision. The level of science was low, Palmer said.
“Most of the time they just talked about planting trees,” she said.
Hand tools, not tractors
The visiting scientists were separated from the North Korean participants at each coffee break, and when Palmer – a river specialist consulting on soil issues – tried to offer the meeting organizer a USB drive loaded with scientific literature , she was taken away by security.
After the conference, the delegation was bused outside Pyongyang to visit the country’s central nursery, where special seed stocks have been developed, and a wildlife sanctuary.
The nursery was the source of seedlings for the national tree-planting program, and Neureiter said their hosts showed them what was touted as advanced materials that would allow small trees to travel long distances without drying out.
“You come away feeling like it’s a really good program,” he said. “You have no idea, however, how big it is, how many trees they actually plant per year, etc.”
Palmer said the lack of equipment and the fact that the seedlings appeared to be grown by hand with primitive tools led her to doubt that the trees were being produced in the numbers suggested by their hosts.
Walks outside Pyongyang proved more informative, she said. With the exception of a few vintage tractors from the mid-20th century, most work on North Korean farms seemed to be done manually.
“People were in the fields. Many of them were women, but there were also men planting seeds and pulling plows,” Palmer said. “There would be a woman in the front with a harness and a woman in the back.”
The workers were thin and many had brush, branches or leaves on their backs. She realized that the propaganda had convinced them that an American airstrike was imminent and that they were trying to camouflage themselves.
Palmer declined an invitation to return to North Korea. But Neureiter made the trip five times between 2006 and 2017, even planting a tree on one visit and returning to see him on another trip.
He criticized Trump’s 2017 travel ban, enacted after US student Otto Warmbier died of injuries sustained in a North Korean prison. Neureiter argued that scientific exchanges have an important geopolitical purpose.
“We would be ready to do any acceptable joint project, because we believe that cooperation lays the foundation for peace,” he said.
Neureiter participated in two years of seismic testing on Paektu Mountain, a volcano near the North Korea-China border that had shown signs of activity in the early 2000s. China and North Korea were both involved, he said, but did not share information until international researchers were involved.
“There was a bit of a plan to pursue education,” he said. “And the Chinese are also communicating for the first time with the North Koreans. But everything is stopped for the moment. We’re just waiting to see if there’s some kind of [nuclear] Okay, then we can move on.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E offers daily coverage of top energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.