By Bailey Culp
As prominent international leaders gather this week for both the G20 summit and APEC meeting, stability on the Korean Peninsula will likely be a hot topic.
Traditional concerns of North Korean brinkmanship, precarious economic behavior, and steadfast nuclear intentions will remain topics of focus, but one equally concerning issue could remain chronically overlooked: the dramatic natural resource and environmental challenges the country faces and its implications amid the looming power transition.
In North Korea, the past is prologue: famine and drought in the mid-1990s precipitated rampant deforestation, land erosion, pillaging of forests, pollution, and water supply contamination, and these seemingly intractable problems still haunt the country today.
Undoubtedly, the poor condition of various ecosystems will significantly exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis and intensify pre-existing environmental issues, ultimately influencing stability in the post-Kim Jong-il era.
Accompanying the famine in the late 1990s was a debilitating energy crisis. At its worst, North Koreans had little or no electricity, resorting mostly to firewood to heat their homes and thus contributing to a sharp increase in deforestation. Fires, landslides, insect damage, and drought have further contributed to the degradation of forests since the 1990s.
Various analysts and journalists have chronicled the negative effect the acute lack of food had on plant and animal life during the famine. Some accounts indicate children would kill and eat rats, mice, frogs, and tadpoles to alleviate their hunger.
North Koreans also looked to a variety of other wild foods, such as grass, mushrooms, and tree bark for nourishment, leaving many forests barren of vegetation or animal life. The dietary dependency North Koreans have on the natural environment has significantly impacted the existing diversity (or lack thereof) of plant and animal life.
North Korea’s resource challenges extend well beyond biodiversity loss and perennial famine. About 80 percent of North Korea is mountainous, resulting in significant agricultural dependency on chemical fertilizers to help famers manage steep topography. This dependency in turn has led to acidification of arable land and lower crops yields that could otherwise help to feed the malnourished population.
The energy and water conditions are no more hopeful. The country relies on coal as the main source of energy, creating poor air quality in North Korea, particularly in cities such as Chongjin.
Although North Korea has a wealth of rivers and underground aquifers, contamination and water-borne diseases are still rampant. During the drought and famine in the mid-1990s, water-borne diseases led to 300,000 to 800,000 deaths annually.
While Pyongyang has sought to educate its population on environmental conservation practices, the degree of desperation rural North Koreans face severely undermines any government efforts.
Further, North Korea’s refusal to accept international norms reduces the prospects that foreign assistance will help to improve its resource management and environmental conditions. Therefore, it is exceedingly likely that biodiversity and overall ecosystem health in North Korea will continue down a path of loss and degradation.
North Korea’s severe environmental and resource woes beg important questions for U.S. security analysts and policymakers as conversations concerning what a post-Kim Jong-il North Korea will look like continue.
What ramifications will years of environmental destruction have on a post- Kim regime? Will a new regime be able to better manage the growing environmental challenges?
Given the range of reunification and collapse scenarios, how might the United States and the international community seek to mitigate problems arising from a decrepit environment while balancing an array of other issues such as “loose nukes” and potential economic collapse?
Perhaps the most important facet of this issue is that key participants in the East Asian regional security arena discuss their potential roles in helping North Korea to address these challenges should it ever choose ― directly or indirectly ― a path of abiding by international norms.
This work would complement more traditional contingency planning that focuses on how to secure North Korea’s unconventional weapons, denuclearize the peninsula, and salvage the nation’s ailing economy.
Indeed, as leaders convene in Seoul and Yokohama, weaving North Korea’s desperate environmental conditions into their discussion and analysis of the region’s challenges will be vital in promoting future stability on the Korean Peninsula and throughout the East Asian region.
Bailey Culp is a research with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan national security think tank in Washington, D.C.