Inside North Korea’s environmental collapse

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.

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McKenna, P. March 6, 2013.  Inside North Korea’s Environmental Collapse.  PBS.

North Korea has been hiding something beyond its prison camps, nuclear facilities, pervasive poverty, aching famine, and lack of energy…something more fundamental than all of these: an environmental collapse so severe it could destabilize the entire country.

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.”

Countryside near Wonsan

Farmers preparing a field for the planting season outside Wonsan, North Korea, in the shadow of a denuded hillside.

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.

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 over exploited and degraded landscape. It influences the entire microclimate when you remove all of the trees,” Madsen says.

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.

A 2004 study by the Korea Environment Institute 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.  “When it rains the soil washes into the river, landslides occur and rivers flood. It triggers a really serious disaster.”

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?

Barbara Demick, author of Nothing To Envy, a book about the lives of ordinary North Koreans who later defected says  “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.”

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.

“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.

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.”


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