Enduring Legacies: Economic Dimensions Of Restoring North Korea’s Environment

Enduring Legacies: Economic Dimensions Of Restoring North Korea’s Environment

Peter Hayes, Fourth Annual International Symposium on the North Korean Economy Center for North Korean Economic Studies, Korean Development Institute and Korea Economic Daily, Seoul, October 18, 1994


In this paper, I discuss the linkage between environmental and economic problems in North Korea. In Section I, I provide basic environmental data for the DPRK, followed by a brief outline of the North Korean polity. I finish this introduction section by summarizing my main thesis in the paper.

In Section II, I examine four of the most pressing environmental problems in North Korea (namely, in the agricultural, water, mining, and forestry sectors). In Section III, I review the DPRK’s philosophy of environmental chuche, its basic environmental law, and its environmental administrative system.

In Section IV, I conclude by reviewing initiatives which could be taken to improve environmental management in the DPRK, as well as innovative approaches that could alleviate some of its most pressing environmental management problems. I hope to show that in many respects, the environmental crisis in North Korea is coterminous with its economic predicament.

In short, environmental restoration is the key to a successful structural adjustment and economic transition in the North. A peaceful, “as-fast-as-possible” will provide the best way to achieve sustainable development in Korea, at a much lesser environmental cost than a fast, violent reunification or the long-run, continued division of the Peninsula.

Enduring Legacies: Economic Dimensions of Restoring North Korea’s Environment

I. Introduction

In this paper, I discuss the linkage between environmental and economic problems in North Korea. In Section I, I provide basic environmental data for the DPRK, followed by a brief outline of the North Korean polity. I finish this introduction section by summarizing my main thesis in the paper.

In Section II, I examine four of the most pressing environmental problems in North Korea (namely, in the agricultural, water, mining, and forestry sectors). In Section III, I review the DPRK’s philosophy of environmental chuche, its basic environmental law, and its environmental administrative system.

In Section IV, I conclude by reviewing initiatives which could be taken to improve environmental management in the DPRK, as well as innovative approaches that could alleviate some of its most pressing environmental management problems. I hope to show that in many respects, the environmental crisis in North Korea is coterminous with its economic predicament. In short, environmental restoration is the key to a successful structural adjustment and economic transition in the North.

1.1 Environmental Characteristics

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea occupies the northern parts of the Korean Peninsula which is situated between the latitudes of 43o 00′ N and 33o 06′ N and between longitude 124o 10′ E and 131o 52′ E. The land area of the total Korean Peninsula together with its over 4,000 islands, is about 222,210 kilometres2, and the islands constitute nearly 6,000 km2 of this. The land area of North Korea is 122,762 km2.

The Korean Peninsula is very mountainous with an average elevation of 440m above mean sea level. There are over 100 mountain peaks above 2,000m. The highest peak is Mt Paekdu which is 2,750m high. Mt Paekdu is an extinct volcano with a crater lake called Lake Chon. Most of the flat terrain in Korea is found on the western side with large plains such as the Pyongyang, Ryongchon, Unjon, Yoldusamcholli, Onchon, Chaeryong, Yonbaek and Honam Plains. On the other hand, the eastern side of the peninsula is quite steep and the few plains lie along the lower reaches of rivers such as at Hamhung and Kumya.

The Korean Peninsula joins the Asian mainland in the north. Its borders with China and the Russian Federation are delineated by the Amnok and the Tumen Rivers. The Peninsula is therefore ‘surrounded’ by water – freshwater to the north and marine waters to the west, south and east. The coastline of the Korean Peninsula is long and varied with a total length of 8,640 kilometres (excluding islands). Of this, 2,495 kilometres belong to the DPRK. In addition to many islands, the coast includes numerous inlets, coves and embayments. Along the west and south coasts, there are enormous intertidal flats covering some 700,000 hectares. The tidal range on the western aspect of the Korean Peninsula is some 11.0m. Reclamation on a vast scale has taken place already along this coast and further reclamations are planned. A branch of the Northern Pacific Equatorial Current flows into Korean waters and raises their temperature considerably. The meeting of this warm water mass with the cold currents flowing from the north creates a highly productive front with a wide variety of fish, many of which are commercial species.

Korea has a typically temperate climate with distinct seasons. The average annual temperature is between 8 and 12oC. Average annual rainfall is 1,120mm and most of this falls in summer. The range in latitude and in altitude provides the Korean Peninsula with a diversity of climatic conditions and this in turn has created a diverse flora and fauna. There are a number of indigenous species of plants and animals which are also endemic to Korea. Many of these species have survived in the north of the peninsula.

The country has an abundance of mineral resources including bituminous and anthracite coal, magnetite, limonite and other iron ore deposits, graphite, magnesite, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, etc.

The land area falls into four major categories: the high mountain area of the northeast which are mostly forests with little or no agriculture; the hilly areas around the high northern mountains and the central chain of mountains; the eastern coastal region of low mountains and hilly areas and some lowlands; and the western plains.

1.2 Socio-economic Characteristics

The population of the DPRK is about 22 million with a growth rate of about 1.8% annually. Over 60% of the population lives in cities and urban areas and literacy is practically 100%.

The Government states that the country is self-sufficient in food; enjoys full employment; full, free and compulsory education; universal and free (or, heavily subsidised) housing; comprehensive, free health services; and, access to food and basic material needs such as fuel for all the population at prices subsidised by the Government.

The per capita income for the DPRK has been estimated by the United Nations at around US$1,000; the DPRK Government has asserted that the correct figure is $2,000. The DPRK has a centrally planned economy. All industry is nationalised and land is either owned by the State or by agricultural cooperatives. Since the first two year plan (1949- 50), there have been a series of national plans of varying periods. The most recent was the Third Seven Year Plan promulgated in 1987. The Government admitted in 1994 that many of the sectoral goals contained in the 1987 Plan had not been achieved.

The DPRK Agenda 21 National Action Plan states that the sectoral output goals for 2000 are: electricity 100 billion kWhe; coal, 120 million tonnes; steel, 10 million tonnes; cement, 22 million tonnes; fertiliser, 7.2 million tonnes; grain, 15 million tonnes. The output objectives for 2000 appear to be largely the same as those promulgated in 1987. The GNP of the DPRK cannot be estimated accurately due to lack of data, accounting difficulties, and exchange rate uncertainties. It appears, however, that GNP growth is either stagnant or declining (some estimates put this at -5 percent per year, which is a halving time of 14 years). The economy is dominated by heavy industry which accounts for over 50 percent of total production, led by iron, steel, chemicals, food processing, and a stress of machine tool manufacture. According to reviews such as Economist Intelligence Unit, machinery manufacture and metal processing account for about 30 percent of industrial production; and textiles and food for about 18 and 9 percent respectively.

The development of the DPRK since 1953 has been remarkable with an impressive rate of industrialisation and a very intensive agricultural system. However, these developments have threatened environmental quality due atmospheric, liquid and solid waste discharges from industrial complexes using obsolete and uncontrolled technology as well as from fertilisers and pesticides which support the intensive agricultural production of the DPRK.

1.3 Main Thesis

The five main factors contributing to environmental degradation in the DPRK are individual geography, the legacy of colonialism and war, heavy industrialisation, and the ideological and institutional structures.

Industrial Geography: Most people and agriculture, industry and infrastructure are concentrated in 20 percent of the total land area, primarily in the western plains. Although Kim Il Sung directed early that industry be dispersed for strategic reasons (so it couldn’t be bombed easily), in practice, the DPRK emulated the Eastern European practice of organising industry around energy infrastructure, and colocating industrial complexes with urban workforces, including residential areas. This pattern of development stresses enormously the resource base and exceeds the ability of the environment to deliver services such as waste removal, dilution, biodegradation and disposal. Increasing amounts of chemicals must be applied to sustain agricultural productivity; industrial pollution affects human health and agriculture; and conflicting uses compete for precious land.

Legacy of Colonialism and War: Japanese colonialism degraded Korean natural resources, due to carelessly exploited mines and mineral development, and from heavy industry in coastal areas without any environmental concerns. Some of these impacts were exacerbated by the affects of the Korean War campaign of aerial bombing which devastated waterworks, city environments, and many rural settlements and infrastructure.

Heavy Industrialisation: The DPRK has continued to develop mining and heavy industry as the backbone of the economy since the end of the Japanese occupation with associated environmental impacts.

Technological Gaps: The DPRK has limited access to modern technology and training in industrial processes as well as in environmental management and pollution control, as well as in environmental economics, partly due to self-imposed constraints such as its trading patterns, efforts to maximize import substitution, and partly due to the US-led de facto international embargo.

Institutional Framework: The DPRK’s institutional framework for environmental management which are vertically structured to conform to the basic political structure of party-led command and control militate against lateral coordination and decentralized responsibility, both of which are integral to effective environmental management.

The DPRK’s environmental situation is not yet quantifiable, I argue in this paper that the accumulated and current environmental problems of North Korea directly affect the productivity of its population and industries in ways that threaten its medium-term survival. The antagonistic linkages that contribute to a vicious circle of economic decline exacerbated by environmental degradation in North Korea include:

  • severe industrial pollution, including occupational hazards and uncontrolled, environmentally damaging toxic emissions to waterways;
  • soil erosion and runoff due to problems with reforestation, resulting in loss of soil, siltation of waterways, and shortening of the useful lifetime of hydroelectric dams;
  • inefficient use of energy resulting in local energy shortages on the one hand, and one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world;
  • very high levels of fertilizer and pesticide use, resulting in nitrate pollution of groundwater and runoff, in turn threatening irrigation and drinking water supplies; and soil acidification and declining food crop productivity.
  • lack of institutional capacities to regulate or monitor environmental performance by domestic or foreign productive entities, combined with failure to enforce the rules that exist; in turn, providing incentives to environmental malefactors, and disincentives to potential foreign investors in the DPRK Free Trade Zone such as soft drink manufacturers.

Many of these problems are analogous to those experienced by Japan and South Korea at the end of the period of heavy industrialization. But the problems differ in the DPRK with respect to the institutional dynamics and the degree to which land use patterns have led to extraordinarily high local pollution levels.

A strategy for economic recovery in the DPRK – and for the peaceful reunification of Korean society – will fail if it treats environmental concerns as secondary to economic objectives. Indeed, environmental restoration is key to renovating many ailing sectors of the DPRK economy and to easing into a gradual reunification with the Republic of Korea. Steps which could integrate environmental and economic objectives include:

  • Institutional reforms aimed at internalizing currently ignored environmental costs into domestic prices used in the DPRK to allocate goods and services, and to remove intersectoral and grossly deforming subsidies from productive inputs such as coal- fired electricity used by heavy industry or households;
  • Adopting new technology based on best international practice in sectors such as forestry, mining, transportation. This step would minimize resource use in processing industry, and reduce bottlenecks in the economy;
  • Structural Adjustment, that is, the wholesale junking for economic reasons of sectors based on obsolete technology and designed to avoid dependency on imports at any cost. A structural adjustment of the DPRK’s economy is inevitable if it is to successfully transit out of its economic crisis. It makes little sense to clean up industries that are economically moribund – especially when they are often the most polluting industries.
  • Pragmatic economic reforms such as opening North Korea to foreign investment and the introduction of market-based pricing is essential to achieve resource use efficiency in material and energetic terms, and rational allocation of economic and ecological resources in the DPRK’s economy.
  • Building institutional capacities to monitor and enforce environmental regulations and to integrate environmental objectives with economic strategy is critical to achieving sustainable development in North Korea.

These same intangible, managerial resources are also mobile and can be transferred across many sectors where they are badly needed for a range of purposes, not just environmental management. A flexible institutional framework that fosters central coordination and creative cooperation within and between public and private agencies is also essential for effective environmental management. This lateral coordination cannot be achieved in isolation from the basic structures of North Korean economic decision-making. Environmental performance, therefore, requires institutional reform away from absolutist, centralized and personalized decision making to more flexible, decentralized, and bureaucratic processes in economic decision making. Luckily, this change is also a prerequisite for improved economic performance in North Korea.

II. Environmental Problems in North Korea

In this section, I review four of the most pressing environmental problems in North Korea (namely, in the agricultural, water, mining, and forestry sectors). However, the importance of the other environmental problems for the North Korean economy noted in the previous section should not be underestimated. I have merely shelved them for later consideration. Here – and insofar as is possible, I note the economic implications of these four problems. I stress that this survey is not complete and due to data limitations, is anecdotal in some respects.

The basic contours of the DPRK’s environmental problems are relatively obvious, however. The DPRK’s four most serious and urgent environmental challenges in order of suggested priority are:

  1. sustainable food production;
  2. water pollution and treatment; restoration;
  3. restoration of past mining sites and industrial waste dumps; and
  4. reforestation and afforestation.

I reiterate that this section attempts merely to sketch the problems. It does not describe systematically the various measures that the DPRK government has adopted to address these environmental imperative. But numerous obstacles frustrate its ability in each case to solve these problems. Indeed, the DPRK Government has not been complacent in responding to these challenges, the scale and complexity of which have often surpassed its capabilities to respond.

2.1 Agricultural Sustainability

This priority entails shifting from current, unsustainable to sustainable agricultural practices, including reducing pesticides, introducing integrated pest management, reducing fertilizer import dependency, restoring acidified soils, avoiding water pollution, and overcoming landuse conflicts arising from coastal reclamation schemes;

Only about 20 percent or 2.5 million hectares of the DPRK’s total land area is suitable for agriculture. This area is found both on the flat plains and lower slopes of the mountains. About 85 percent of the arable land is found on the plains in which paddy rice predominates although maize and millet is produced in strip cropping with vegetables. Paddy field ridges are usually planted with soybeans. Some cotton is also grown in southern areas. The low mountains and slopes are used for growing maize either on rainfed or irrigated land. Pigs and poultry are also produced as well as millet, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tobacco. Stone terraces are common, both for orchards and cultivated plots. In the mountainous, mostly forested areas, some sheep and goats are kept; and some vegetables are grown on terraced slopes.

The North has both intensified agricultural inputs and developed marginal tidal and hilly lands to counter falling food productivity. Fertilizer application reached about 2 tonnes/ha on rice paddies by the early nineties, with the goal of 2.5 tonnes/ha by 1993. In maize, the application is about 0.5 tonnes/ha. In addition to urea, phosphate, and potassium sulphate or nitrate, about 20-30 tonnes of compost/ha are spread. To counter soil acidification, urea has been substituted for ammonium sulphate, and about 0.5 tonnes/ha of lime is spread.

This approach has resulted in declining soil fertility, lower soil organic matter content, soil salinity, acidification, pesticide contamination, and erosion (especially during the summer rains on steep slopes planted with maize). Urea and lime increasingly have replaced ammonium sulphate to offset drops in soil fertility, but the DPRK appears to have hit a wall of diminishing returns. With the possible exception of tidal reclamation areas, the paddy rice sector may be less afflicted with these problems due to the inherent nature of the cultural system (except for possible accumulation of recycled heavy metals, salinization due to rising groundwater, and pesticide contamination). The problem of soil erosion in hilly areas led to the deployment of large numbers of the population to transport soil from higher slopes to maize fields in an attempt to raise soil fertility, even as 200,000 ha of hilly land is proposed for conversion to cultivation.

In the agricultural sector, a tradeoff exists between expanding production of resource intensive and non-sustainable food crops in search of self sufficiency versus increasing the efficiency and sustainability of domestic production, but supplemented by increased food imports. Current practices entail soil erosion, soil acidification, salinity, and loss of fertility, all of which make it harder and harder to achieve self-sufficiency anyway.

The current campaign of massive tidal reclamation also poses an intractable dilemma in that the reclaimed areas are obtained at the cost of coastal habitats which support productive fisheries and aquaculture resources, in turn, important sources of scarce foreign exchange for the DPRK.

Yet another critical quandary relates to the deteriorating quality of inland waters due to agricultural runoff. This problem directly threatens human health via drinking water and the bioaccumulation of toxic materials from irrigation into food crops and marine foods; and via food tainted by untreated sewage released into rivers and coastal areas.

2.2 Water Treatment and Protection

This priority refers to the introduction of waste water treatment facilities and reduction of the pollution of inland and international waters by sewage and industrial wastes.

Effluent standards have been set for all industries, for industrial wastewater discharged into sewerage systems, for treated sewage discharged into rivers, and for industrial wastewater discharged directly into rivers. These standards are applied uniformly (in principle) everywhere in the country, whatever the absorptive capacity or uses of the recipient waters. At about 66 waste water monitoring sites, monthly monitoring is conducted of pH, biological oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, suspended solids, free ammonia, nitrates, phenol, arsenic, and other parameters.

Most major urban areas have sewage treatment plants, but only a few have biological treatment effective enough to minimize ultimate dried sludge volume, and some merely settle out major solids and release the untreated effluent into waterways in violation of standards. Moreover, modern plants such as that in Pyongyang have been rendered inoperable for long periods due to faulty equipment or inappropriate operating practices. Treated effluents are not disinfected with chlorine; and sludges may contain toxic heavy metals or hazardous chemicals due to the discharge of industrial effluents into sewers. Although sewage sludges are only permitted to be used in orchards and not on vegetable or cereal crops, in practice these materials are often supplied to farmers for composting, soil conditioning, or fertilizer.

Quantities of liquid effluents are not known, but it is likely that the major sources of surface water pollution are industrial effluent, sewage, leachate from uncontrolled land fill and solid wastes (from power station ash or smelting industry slagheaps), and agricultural runoff (from fertilizer and pesticides). The Taedong River which supplies drinking water for Pyongyang, industrial process water, and irrigation water for paddy rice fields, is a good example of the combined effects of these various sources of waterborne hazard. Not only does the 450 kilometre long river absorb the waste flows from all the cities, towns, industries, and agriculture upstream from the west sea barrage; but the new lake created by the barrage is surrounded by the industrial city of Nampo to the North with its industrial complexes. Water monitoring at Pyongyang indicates that pollution levels during the spring and summer months approach national standards. Downstream, the situation may be more dire, especially as wastes accumulate in sediments and bioaccumulate in food chains in the new lake, or via irrigation onto reclaimed tidal areas or canal-irrigated rice fields.

Old industries inherited from the Japanese colonial era are particularly problematic. The coke plants at the (eighty-two year old!) Hwanghae Iron Works at Songrim, for example, produce highly toxic wastes containing phenols, cyanides and naphthalene which are discharged into the Taedong. These wastes may already exceed current water quality standards, which in turn may need to be strengthened in any case to protect human health and ecosystems alike.

At the Sinuiju Chemical and Fibres Complex, for example, 100,000 tonnes are released daily into the Amnok/Yalu River in the course of producing viscose rayon, paper, cardboard from reed by treatment with caustic soda. This effluent probably contains lignite, sodium, zinc, etc, all of which are of concern to the Chinese as well as the North Korean authorities. The four decade-old system of primary sedimentation tanks are not working and expensive process chemicals are not recovered before effluents are released, resulting in inefficiency as well as a degraded river system. This loss of valuable raw materials in waste streams is a story repeated in many North Korean industrial complexes. In many cases, recovery and recycling systems could be self-financing in large part if front-end costs can be hurdled.

Other industrial plants such as the vinalon and fertilizer complexes at Hamhung on the eastern coast have basic waste water treatment facilities, but cannot recover trace metals and other dangerous chemicals that are contained in the waste water. These wastes are released into a drain and marine outfall, and thence into the coastal marine environment. This waste stream includes organic compounds, sulphides, various dissolved solids, urea, ammonia, cyanides, arsenic, etc. Such industrial complexes also lack second lines of defence such as guard ponds against equipment failure, or standby equipment against gaseous emissions. Not only are these plants deficient in terms of industrial health and safety (oil refineries, for example, routinely use asbestos as insulating cladding), but residential populations proximate to these plants are subject to accidental releases as well.

The large number of irrigation/hydroelectricity dams on North Korean rivers reduce the rate of flushing to sea of various pollutants, with unknown rates of benthic and subsequent bioaccumulation of toxic materials. Also, irrigation may be raising groundwater levels and thereby increasing salinity levels in agricultural areas. The erosion is also running off into dams, thereby reducing the economic life or utility of irrigation and hydroelectricity investments.

Although North Korea has signed the London Dumping Convention, it has not yet provided port discharge facilities to receive oily wastes, sewage, or garbage from visiting vessels, nor does the DPRK monitor and enforce its rules in this regard against foreign vessels. Similarly, the DPRK has basic oil spill control boats and equipment, these systems are old and inadequate, and contingency planning and practice is not implemented. Adequate water supply is a critical infrastructure for foreign investors. At the Rajin/Sonbong Free Free Trade Zone, investors with significant demand for water may find supplies already so badly polluted as to be unusable – especially if they rely on waters from the Tumen River or some of its tributaries. The Maoshan iron mine, for example, is adjacent to the Tumen River main channel. It is the DPRK’s largest mine. It has no tailings pond and discharges voluminous material directly to the river. The Awudi chemical plant in the DPRK also contributes severe water pllution to the lower Tumen River, reportedly giving fish a “kerosene” smell.

2.3 Restoration of past mining sites and industrial waste dumps

The rapid growth of mining since 1950 and the legacy of the industry as practiced under Japanese occupation has degraded large areas of land and riverine systems in many areas, especially where open pit mining is commonly combined with dumping of overburden, spoil, and tailings. Little restoration of afflicted areas has been achieved to date.

These areas are potential sources of water and air-borne environmental hazard with likely severe impacts on local soil, adjacent populations, and rivers downstream from these sites. A variety of response strategies are urgently needed including industrial pollution control, solid waste management, isolation of mine tailings and other solid wastes, and careful introduction of beneficiation techniques in the coal industry. Largely the same concerns apply to the waste streams of thermal power plants, the cement industry, the steel industry, and non-ferrous metal smelting plants. Coal ash, for example, contains heavy metals such as lead, cobalt, cadmium, chromium, nickel, zinc, etc which threaten surface and groundwater resources if not carefully managed.

In some industries, solid wastes are successfully recycled already. At the Pyongyang Textile Complex, for example, sludges are recycled after calcination into cement block production. Sludges from other industries, however, are disposed of in landfill. A case in point are the dewatered sludges from the Pyongyang lead battery plant which are buried in a former coal mine with possible impacts on groundwater and soils in the region.

2.4 Reforestation and afforestation

Korea’s forests were badly damaged in the past. In the 1940s, the tree cover had been reduced to about 12.5 m3/ha; in northern forests, about 15 m3/ha. Extensive reafforestation efforts have been undertaken, with about 0.55 billion trees planted annually between 1987-1990, which amounts to about 1 million hectares over that period (at a planting density of 2,000 trees/ha), and an annual afforestation rate of between 180- 200,000 ha per year. The Government conducts campaigns involving large numbers of people in tree planting efforts. Young people, for example, are organised into local “Green Pioneers” to plant trees.

Of this latter figure, plantation timber forests were about 120,000 ha per year, reportedly mostly coniferous plantations; protective forests for watershed protection and landscaping were about 50,000 ha per year; and other forest types, about 10-20,000 ha per year.

The Government estimates that about 9 million hectares are covered with natural forest of which only 3 million is classified as productive, and about 2.5 million hectares are covered with plantations. The figure of 9 million implies that three quarters of the land area is covered by forests. Increasing this coverage seems unlikely considering the demand for land from other sectors such as agriculture, making it likely that most reforestation is in already forested areas. In practice, more like only 7.8 million hectares are forested. A reasonable average standing volume for all North Korean forests based on cool temperate forests in neighbouring states is 40 m3/ha. The main forest types in North Korea are cool-temperate and frigid forests.

Of the 2.2 million ha of degraded forests, nearly 80 percent are on steep slopes, with rainfall between 30-1000 mm (rain shadows are a major problem in reforestation efforts). Degraded pine forests have a low productivity, with standing volume of about 10-30 m3/ha. The vertical structure is weak; pine forests have low commercial value due to twisting; they are susceptible to pests; and species diversity is low.

The southwestern and southeastern slopes reportedly present particular problems due to aridity and strong sun light. Oak forests suffer similar problems to pine forests.

Current reforestation efforts focus on converting low yielding mixed natural forests into high yielding conifer forests. Over 70 percent of the annually reforested areas are Larix species plantations. The objective is to create a forest resource capable of meeting national industrial wood needs. Another large fraction of plantations are Pinus korianus to produce pine nuts for oil extraction. The rate of coniferous reforestation may be reducing drastically the ecologically valuable mixed and broadleaved forests.

Productive natural coniferous forests were managed until 1983 under a selective logging system with a 20 year felling cycle and a 30 cm minimum allowed diameter. The DPRK now uses clearfelling and replanting to create even-aged compartments that are managed more intensively on longer (25-40 year) rotations to produce industrial roundwood.

Natural broadleaved forests which are not converted into coniferous forests are managed for fuelwood production. Shrubs, coppice shoots, small and dead timber are regularly removed in response to local demand.

No figures are available to indicate the source of wood supply by area; the type of forest; or whether the supply is obtained on a sustainable basis or by converting “natural low productivity forests” or “well created” and “young forests” into degraded forests. But if it is assumed that about 2 percent per year of sustainably managed forests are cut each year in a 50 year rotation cycle from the “well created artificial forests,” then 20,000 ha from these forests (at 160 m3/ha) would supply only 3.2 million m3 per year, or about 25 percent of current wood needs in the DPRK. The difference presumably comes from cutting “low productivity natural forests” and imports.

Most of the wood produced by the forestry sector is consumed in the mining sector, the pulp and paper processing sectors, for construction, and for woodfuel in domestic and industrial uses. FAO 1988 data indicates that fuelwood and charcoal production was about 4.0 m3; and roundwood production (which includes the latter) about 4.543 million m3, implying non-fuel usage as being about 0.55 million m3. However, FAO data may underestimate current DPRK fuel and non-fuel wood use by as much as two- thirds.

III. Environmental Philosophy, Legal, and Administrative Framework

The DPRK Government is well aware of the current and pending negative impacts of these environmental problems on its economy and the quality of life of North Korean society. As with most aspects of North Korean life, the starting point for its environmental laws and administrative guidance and regulations is found in the values and norms embodied in the syncretic chuche philosophy created by Kim Il Sung and expounded by Kim Jong Il, now leader of the DPRK.

3.1 Environmental Chuche

To understand North Korean-style environmental management, it is essential to enter the North Korean worldview. The basic precepts of chuche as applied to the environment are spelled out in the DPRK’s official report to the UN Conference on Environment and Development, its post-Rio response to the Agenda 21 action plan adopted at Rio, and in various official speeches and declarations on environmental issues.

North Korean officials believe that the basic principles of chuche were confirmed by the Rio Declaration which asserted that humans are at the center of sustainable development due to their entitlement to a healthy and productive life. They argue that the environmental management capabilities of a country are directly attributable to its political system. As North Korean-style socialism is held to be the most advanced, human- centered social system suitable for their circumstances, so it follows (they argue) that preserving the environment conforms with what they call the “juche-oriented environment protecting ideology.” As evidence of their long-standing commitment to environmental protection, they cite the fact that Kim Il Sung early halted the digging of gold at an important mountain site on the grounds that its cultural values outweighed the economic benefits of exploiting this resource.

The North Koreans emphasize the notion of environmental improvement by human intervention, pointing to development of flood control waterworks, reforestation, and tidal reclamation as examples of these human environmental artifacts. This notion is not only consistent with chuche, but also with the idea that environment is not just a technical or practical task, but a political task that entails indoctrination and mobilization as in all spheres of North Korean life. It also corresponds with the gigantism which is a specialty of ministries such as the DPRK State Construction Commission; and with mass mobilization of labor, especially in the military, in massive (re)construction projects that entail “speed campaigns” and “battles” against the environment. In short, environmental protection is a means to the primary end of all state activities in North Korea; the demonstration of the superiority of the North Korean-style political system, to defend it, and to accomplish its revolutionary cause.

This perspective has at least two important implications for the North Korean “style” of environmental management. First, North Koreans find it difficult to employ the concept of natural biodiversity, or the need to preserve it. Thus, they can suggest that means the introduction of productive species in reclaimed tidal areas, irrespective of the natural marine ecosystems and species diversity threatened or lost by such projects.

And second, North Koreans have adopted the rhetoric but not yet the practice of sustainable development. Rather than viewing sustainable development as the integration of economic and environmental objectives, and as the exploitation of environmental and economic complementarities, they inhabit mostly the orthodox paradigm wherein environment and development conflict and must be balanced and traded off against each other. Consistent with this outlook, the North Koreans view incessant technological innovation as the major solution to environmental afflictions. Consequently, they seek strong scientific and technical means with which to monitor and manage environmental problems. Finally, they put their faith in accelerated economic production and construction as providing the necessary resources to realize the first two objectives, whatever the environmental costs of doing so.

Many in the West agree with this North Korean outlook wherein nature is a subordinated means to human ends, even if they would diverge with respect to the political and ideological spin that North Koreans place on environmental concerns. Many western environmentalists object to such ideas as the original sin from which lead to many types of environmental abuse. Wherever one stands in this dichotomy, it must be admitted that the chuche philosophy of environmental management has some progressive components – however difficult it is to realize these in practice. The philosophy, for example, emphasizes that the DPRK has international duties to preserve the environment (although North Koreans are quick to blame the rich industrial countries for occupying the global ecological commons, and former colonial powers such as Japan for leaving behind debilitating environmental messes). Scenting the possibility of external support (and seeking international legitimacy), it quickly signed the major agreements at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit on climate change, forestry, biodiversity, and action plan, and has also signed a variety of other global and regional environmental treaties (see Table 1).

Table 1: DPRK/ROK Treaty Commitments or international participation as of mid-1992 in the environmental area
Climate Change Convention _ _
Biodiversity Convention _ _
Forestry Principles ? ?
Agenda 21 _ _
Rio Declaration _ _
Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol
World Heritage/MAB
Ramsar Convention on Intern. Wetlands
Conv. Intern. Trade of Endangered Species
Bonn Convention on Migratory Species Conservation
International Tropical Timber Agreement _
International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources _ _
Convention on Prohibition of Military etc Environmental Modification _ _
Annex 16, Environmental Protection, Intern. Civil Aviation _
Treaty on Exploration/Use of Outer Space etc _
International Whaling Commission _
Indo-Pacific Fisheries Commission _
Prohibition of Biological Weapons _ _
Chemical Weapons Convention? ? ?
Code of Conduct on Pesticide Use; UNEP Chemicals Information Exchange; Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste Transboundary Movements
Protection of Victims in Internat. Armed Conflicts _ _
Internat Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships _ _
Internat. Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response, Cooperation
International Convention for Pollution from Maritime Transport of Oil _
Conventions on Early Notification, Assistance, and Liability, Nuclear Accidents
Treaty Banning Atmospheric Nuclear Testing _ _
Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty _ _
Northeast Asia Environmental Consultations _
Northwest Pacific Action Plan (UNEP) _ _
Antarctic Treaty _ _
Agreement on Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia Pacific _
Tumen River Development Project Environmental Guidelines _ _
UNDP/GEF/ADB Greenhouse Gas Inventories project _ _
UNDP/GEF East Asian Marine Pollution project _ _
UNDP/GEF investment strategy _ ?
UNDP subregional energy-environment, clean coal technology, new and renewable sources of energy, and agriculture projects _ _
Source: P. Sand, ed, The Effectiveness of International Environmental Agreements, Grotius Publications, Cambridge UK, 1992; and P. Hayes and L. Zarsky, Regional Cooperation and Environmental Issues in Northeast Asia, Nautilus report to IGCC, San Diego, September 1993.

The DPRK also stresses that environmental concerns are a social, collective matter which cannot be reduced to individual interests, or to merely the interests of the current generation.

3.2 The Environmental Law

In 1986, the DPRK enacted its basic Environmental Protection Law (see Appendix 1). This law requires all industries to comply with environmental standards, accords basic environmental rights to all citizens, and commits all organs of the North Korean state to preserve environmental qualities for the enjoyment of its citizenry. It lays out the basic framework for environmental administration, and places the onus for environmental liability squarely on the polluter or abuser, including provision for liability, compensation, and criminal negligence. The DPRK has no formal environmental impact assessment procedure, but the Environmental Protection Law requires major constructions and developments to be thoroughly examined for any environmental impacts.

Although the law provides a legal version of the DPRK’s philosophical approach to environmental problems, it is framed so generally that it provides little concrete guidance as to administrative arrangements, regulatory requirements, or enforcement procedures.

3.3 Environmental Administration

According to North Koreans, former President Kim Il Sung, “set forth the principle that the problem of environmental protection should be taken first into account ahead of socio- economic development and that every possible measure should be taken for environmental protection ahead of production and he has seen to it that the principle be kept with credit”.

After a series of permutations, early in 1993 the DPRK Government restructured environmental administration to better reflect its commitment to the implementation of the undertakings following the UN Conference on Environment and Development. This new administrative structure, in the form of the State Environment Commission (see Figure 2.1) is still in the process of defining its operational procedures and other mechanisms for environmental management. In Figure 1, I show the organisational chart of the State Environment Commission.

Although the DPRK has promulgated water classification standards, emission standards and maximum permissible levels, procedures for applying to set up an industrial enterprise, and permits for discharges, land development, and reclamations, little is known about how these procedures actually work, or if they work at all in most cases. It appears that these regulatory instruments are still being developed, a process hampered by two weaknesses in the environmental administration of the DPRK. These are 1) the lack of suitably trained manpower; and, 2) the lack of adequate facilities and instrumentation to back up legal enforcement of regulations that exist.

Overall, the State Environment Commission is inadequately equipped and poorly structured to successfully execute its broad mandate. There appears to be little lateral cooperation between the different divisions of the Commission, as well overlap and competition between different components. Consequently, existing laws are not enforced, and many environmental regulations are simply unavailable to productive enterprises – including to potential foreign investors. Also, the DPRK environmental authorities tend to use Chinese legal and regulatory frameworks as models for their own. Given the limited achievements of China’s environmental institutions – not to mention its different cultural and political characteristics to the DPRK – it can be argued that the North would do better to seek models elsewhere in Asia.

The most urgent institutional requirement is to create an effective middle layer of management capability in the DPRK’s environmental administration. North Korean environmental officials assert that they must establish a strong planning system for environmental protection and have called for environmental concerns to be integrated into the economic planning activities of all productive units, at all levels from the central planning commission down to local factories, productive enterprises, and cooperative farms. And indeed, environmental committees are now found in most productive organisations, although their implementation record is uneven.

The paucity of management resources at this intermediate level in terms of trained environmental policy analysts, economists, administrators, planners and managers is largely responsible for the gap between laudable environmental philosophies, principles, and policies, and the everyday reality of lackluster environmental performance. It should be noted that the environmental authorities have acted on occasion to shut down industrial complexes that have committed egregious violations of pollution controls, but the impression is that such events are the exception rather than the rule, and likely short-lived to boot.

These basic institutional problems are compounded by the propensity of the DPRK’s economic agencies to indulge in what can be termed “gigantism” of every imaginable kind with little concern for environmental externalities, and often achieved by the mobilization of mass campaigns of unskilled workers which undercuts the very professionalism needed for both economic and environmental performance.

Indeed, the DPRK Agenda 21 Action Plan promulgated in 1992 spells out an amazing array of needs for consideration by the international donor community. This set of needs can be read backwards as admitting that problems pervade every aspect of environmental management in North Korea. If the list is taken as given, it is also evident that North Korea cannot hope to overcome all the obstacles that it faces without extensive international assistance.

Also, the lack of non governmental organisations hampers the ability of the formal apparatus to overcome the entrenched power of orthodox line agencies and the State Planning Commission itself, even though the State Environment Commission reports directly to a Deputy Prime Minister with senior status and authority in the DPRK political system.

IV. Conclusion

The implications of the two preceding sections on environmental problems and responses in the DPRK are rather dismal. In short, the DPRK has accumulated massive environmental costs, many of which are already undermining human and resource productivity, and many of which are environmental bills that will fall due in the future due to the time lag and threshold effects of environmental abuse and ecosystem stress.

It is easy to list initiatives which might ameliorate these problems from growing even bigger. These include:

  • Provision of technical assistance in the form of overseas study tours, in-country training and resident or visiting external experts, with particular emphasis on training of environmental managers in each and every sector with major environmental impacts, as well as upgrading the skills and capabilities of the existing environmental agencies such as the State Environment Commission, or the Research Centre for Nature Protection and Resource Management within the DPRK Academy of Sciences;
  • Supply of badly needed equipment for environmental purposes, bearing in mind that earlier generations of scientific equipment is generally more appropriate to basic needs as exist in the DPRK at this time and are less difficult to transfer given the existing de facto international embargo on transferring strategic technologies (or even low end computers for maintaining environmental data bases etc.);
  • Furnishing technical and economic data relating to environmental issues to DPRK environmental managers who often lack even the most basic manuals or information relating to local, regional, or global problems due to the DPRK’s international isolation. It is wise to bear in mind that continued isolation of North Korea in terms of information flows on such matters is equivalent to rendering their environmental controls virtually impotent. Although this isolation has been self-imposed for political reasons to a large extent in the past, a variety of conduits already exist to increase information availability. These opportunities should be exploited at every turn.
  • Transferring techniques such as remote sensing involves combining training, software, and hardware, and then infusing such information and its interpretation into national, sectoral, and line agency management. In many ways, inculcating a “lateral” ethic of information sharing and lateral coordination which is essential for effective environmental management will be a critical test of the flexibility and resilience of the North Korean polity in the post-Kim Il Sung era.
  • Institutional innovations should be pursued in addition to standard “technical assistance.” It is crucial to explore innovative approaches to environmental management, financing, and education of North Korea’s environmental institutions and personnel. Ensuring that they are invited and enabled to participate in sub-regional environmental fora such as the Tuman River Area Development Project environmental rules, and sub- regional environmental consultations such as UNEP’s Northwest Pacific Action Plan and ESCAP/UNDP’s Northeast Asia Environmental Coordination Program are all important learning opportunities for DPRK environmental officials.

Insofar as these processes introduce harmonized environmental standards, common environmental-scientific terminology, or collaborative research at a sub-regional level, these personnel will become more proficient in ensuring that the gradual process of economic reform in North Korea en route to structural adjustment and economic transition in North Korea are as environmentally sensitive as possible. Also, the DPRK shares a number of transboundary environmental resources and problems, including acid rain (as victim and polluter), waterways, migratory species (including birds and fish), and borders (such as the DMZ), and is also national steward for DPRK biosphere reserves under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program. The DPRK and the ROK also manage jointly the Demilitarized Zone, which by virtue of its militarisation, has become a wildlife refuge of some importance.

All these issue areas proffer opportunities to solicit DPRK participation and contributions on the basis of mutual equality, independence, and balanced interdependence – the cardinal principles of Korean foreign policy.

Undoubtedly, the biggest test of all will be to what extent the DPRK can introduce markets to overcome the structural rigidities of its command and control economic system, and to enlist markets to improve environmental performance. The DPRK can reap many lessons from the transitional experiences of Eastern Europe, China, the Former Soviet Union, Vietnam and (given its dirigiste past) even from South Korea. In areas of the economy such as food production, limited markets which operate without direct reference to Pyongyang have emerged because producers and hungry consumers had no alternative but to find each other and commence internal trade due to the breakdown of national food distribution systems. It is not enough that the ability be strengthened of the State Environment Commission to grapple with the major economic ministries. It is critical that provincial environmental authorities also be endowed with authority requisite with their responsibilities, to co-evolve with the local and provincial institutional developments in the productive system in ways that will foster environmental as well as economic efficiencies. Approaches such as large scale carbon offsets by “annex 2” countries under proposed protocols to the Climate Change Convention (which, if adopted, would enable them to fund carbon reduction or carbon fixing projects in states such as the DPRK and claim the credit against their own emissions account), or creative settlements of North Korea’s outstanding foreign debt (such as debt-for-nature or debt-for-equity swaps) might be explored with the new regime.

It is a mistake to underestimate the stamina and resilience of the North Korean polity, or the ability of the DPRK’s leadership to weather the storms and navigate the reefs that lie ahead of it. Environmental cooperation with the DPRK on a bilateral or multilateral basis can build confidence outside of the DPRK as to its ultimate intentions in coming to terms with the external world. It can also strengthen moves inside North Korea to engage the external world, and to commence the transitions which it must undertake if it is to survive without collapsing, not least due to the economic pressures of a deteriorating resource base.

In conclusion, I would like to address briefly the relationship between reunification and sustainable development in Korea. The continued division of Korea is incompatible with the achievement of sustainable development in the Peninsula, if only because of the on-going risk of war and the environmental and economic devastation that such a catastrophe would bring on both sides of the demilitarised zone. Broadly, three future scenarios with respect to Korean reunification can be envisaged at this time:

  1. gradual, peaceful reunification;
  2. fast, violent reunification; and
  3. continued division.

The second and third scenarios both entail enormous additional environmental costs that will undermine and frustrate economic performance of the DPRK, and would increase the cost of reunification. In the case of fast, violent reunification, there would be enormous environmental damage in many dimensions wrought by military action, although the environmental assault associated with many of the most moribund sectors in the DPRK would cease almost immediately. The ROK – likely to be victor in any military confrontation with the DPRK – would find itself saddled not only with the costs of the war and economic reconstruction, but of the cleanup as well.

In the case of continued division, the ability of the DPRK to avoid or to reduce chronic, accumulated and lagged environmental costs – let alone to restore the past damage – will be hampered greatly by the economic difficulties that will accompany continued division of Korea and isolation of the DPRK. Which would be greater – immediate environmental costs from war followed by reunification and eventual upgrading of environmental performance to that of the ROK in a forcefully reunified Korea, or the accumulated, incessant costs imposed by business-as-usual- -cannot be determined.

What does seem obvious is that the environmental costs associated with either of these two paths are likely to exceed greatly those that would be associated with gradual, peaceful reunification. And, the longer peaceful reunification takes to achieve, the greater the environmental bill that will accrue to be paid later, by this or the next generation. In this best case scenario, South Korea can make a big difference by providing technology and technical assistance in the hardest hit environmental areas mentioned earlier in this essay, and by transferring the best available environmental technology via direct investment in the North; and by striving to harmonize ROK and DPRK environmental standards. The ROK could also consider investing in carbon emission-reducing or carbon-fixing activities as an “offset” in North Korea’s energy and forestry sectors under the Climate Change Convention.

In short, peaceful and “fast-as-possible” reunification would appear to be the best way to achieve sustainable development in Korea.


[a] M. Feshbach and A. Friendly, ECOCIDE in the USSR, Health and Nature under Siege, Basic Books, New York, 1992, for an account of this situation.

[b] Secondary environmental problems in the DPRK not covered here include: Management and disposal of toxic and hazardous materials; reduction of emissions from thermal power stations and industry; environmental occupational health and safety; biodiversity protection, land use planning, and nature reserves; and tidal area reclamation-related environmental problems, including estuarine losses, fishing impacts, water quality problems, and long run viability of these coastal barriers and low-lying hinterlands in the face of possible climate-change induced sea level rise over the next century.

[c] See Hy-Sang Lee, Supply and Demand for Grains in North Korea: A Historical Movement Model for 1966-1993, (draft), Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin, 1994.

[d] Environment Protection Bureau, National Report of the D.P.R. of Korea, report to UN Conference on Environment and Development, Pyongyang, April 24, 1991, p. 17.

[e] Ma Jiang, Tumen River: Environmental and Tourism Guidelines for Development Planning, paper to workshop on Trade and Environment in Asia-Pacific: Prospects for Regional Cooperation, Honolulu, September 23-25, 1994. See also Chinese Research Academy for Environmental Sciences, Tuman River Area Development Project, Preliminary Environmental Study, draft, Beijing, May 1994.

[f] The estimate of non-energy industrial wood use in FAO statistics is a residual category derived by subtracting total energy-related uses from total production after adjusting the latter figure for starting balance and nett imports. It appears that the total production figure for the DPRK is greatly understated by an order of magnitude.

[g] Environment Protection Bureau, National Report of the D.P.R. of Korea, report to UN Conference on Environment and Development, Pyongyang, April 24, 1991, p. 3.

[h] National Action Plan for “Agenda 21” of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, DPRK State Environment Commission, 1993.

[i] See V. Smil, China’s Environmental Crisis, An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 1993; and J. Goldstone, Imminent Political Conflicts Arising From China’s Environmental Crises, Occasional Paper 2, Peace and Conflict Studies Program, University College, University of Toronto, December 1992.

[j] D. Fisher, Paradise Deferred: Environmental Policymaking in Central and Eastern Europe, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Energy and Environmental Programme, London, 1992; J. Russell, Energy and Environmental Conflicts in East/Central Europe: The Case of Power Generation, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Energy and Environmental Programme, London, 1991, Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe, document submitted to the Ministerial Conference, Lucerne, Switzerland, April 28-30, 1993; M. Simons, “West Offers Plan to Help Clean Up East Europe,” New York Times, May 4, 1993, p. A8.

Additional Data

DPRK Water Pollution

Fish in the rivers near major cities of the DPRK, such as Pyongyang and Wonsan, are dying in large numbers due to water pollution. Half of the human waste produced by the 3.3 million citizens of Pyongyang is not treated before being released into the Taedong River. No more fish or clams can be found in the sea off Wonsan. These conditions are revealed in a soon to be published report by Doctor Jung Hee-song of the Environmental Technology Development Institute. According to the report, the Bohtong River, a tributary of the Taedong River which flows into the center of Pyongyang, is so polluted that it is difficult to see even 20 or 30 cm deep into the river. It is difficult for the fish to live in the summer. The Tumen River is also heavily polluted. Ten to fifteen million tons of stone powder from the Munsan iron mine are dumped into the river, leaving only 106 km of the total 505 km course of the Tumen River still usable. There are 37 kinds of fish known to live in the river, but they now only exist 100 km upstream.

(Chosun Ilbo, “SERIOUS POLLUTION REPORTED IN THE DPRK,” Seoul, 01/10/97)

The Maoshan iron mine in the DPRK adjacent to the Tuman River main channel is the DPRK’s largest mine. It has no tailings pond and discharges voluminous material directly to the river. Even the lower figure would pollute the river badly as much of the tailings are deposited during the dry season, and carried away when water is running high.

The Awudi chemical plant in the DPRK also contributes water pllution to the lower Tuman giving fish a “kerosene” smell.