The Koreas

North Korea’s Impending Perfect Storm

Recent Features

The Koreas

North Korea’s Impending Perfect Storm

Severe drought and deforestation puts the country a few major downpours away from devastation.

North Korea’s Impending Perfect Storm
Credit: Flickr / uwebrodrecht

According to a 2017 report by the UN Food Agriculture Organization (FAO), North Korea is experiencing its most severe drought since 2001. While the more obvious consequences of this include food shortages, there is another major impact to consider – severe flooding. Major flooding impacted the country every year from 2010 to 2016 and will continue into the foreseeable future.

During a drought, soil becomes dry and compact without moisture over extended periods of time making it more difficult for the ground to absorb rainfall. If an area impacted by drought is suddenly hit with large amounts of precipitation, major flooding will soon follow. California, for example, experienced an extended drought from 2011-2017. When the rain picked up in 2017, California witnessed large amounts of flooding throughout the state. The same thing will continue to happen in North Korea. The difference being, California is able to handle strain on its flood network, whereas North Korea does not have the comparable infrastructure to support such natural disasters. For instance, when Typhoon Lionrock passed over North Hamgyong Province in August 2016 the area was devastated, including the loss of at least 133 lives, damage to 30,000 homes, and displacement of almost 70,000 people.

To make matters worse, North Korea’s geography is extremely mountainous, increasing the possibilities of mudslides and landslides. This is especially likely in agricultural areas – often located on uneven, barren mountain slopes – where loose soil is vulnerable during heavy rain, resulting in agricultural resource destruction and, thus, even further decreased access to critical domestic food sources. North Korea’s Pyongan Province witnessed a potential foreshadowing of larger destruction via Typhoon Lionrock in July 2016 when, in the midst of an extended drought, heavy monsoon rains caused landslides in Uiju County resulting in ten dead, four missing, 55 injured, and destruction of agricultural infrastructure. Perhaps more telling, a series of droughts and subsequent floods in the mid to late-1990s led the Kim Jong-il regime to make a rare appeal for international help as malnourishment and poor emergency management led to the deaths of more than one million citizens.

North Korea is even more susceptible to flooding now than in the 1990s because of persistent deforestation. Trees reduce surface water runoff by decreasing the rate at which rainfall reaches the ground. This allows more time for natural and manmade drainage systems to reduce the severity of flooding by preventing a sudden rise in the floodplain. However, large areas of North Korean land are bare after decades of cutting down trees in wooded areas for firewood and clearing room for farmland, particularly in more impoverished areas where flooding can be the most destructive. Deforestation has become such an issue that Kim Jong-Uu reportedly mentioned in a March 2015 speech, “Unauthorized felling of trees is tantamount to treachery. All the people on this land should treasure and protect even a blade of grass and a tree of their country.”

Recognizing the need for flood mitigation, the North Korean government launched a series of nationwide tree-planting campaigns in recent years but has seen little return on its investments. A report suggests that the country’s newly planted trees are unable to survive due to poor soil conditions, health problems with the saplings, and absence of proper care. The recent severe drought conditions will place even more stress on existing vegetation, and make reforestation initiatives that much more difficult.

The Kim regime surprisingly sought international help in recent years to stifle the country’s deforestation problems – another indication of the severity of flood risk. Neighboring South Korea sent forestry experts to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang Tourist Region in response to an unusual request from Pyongyang in July 2015 to examine a spreading pine tree disease. With recent sanctions and international condemnation of North Korea’s provocative nuclear weapons program, further emergency management assistance is no longer guaranteed and foreign aid will be even sparser than years past.

Continued development of advanced nuclear weapon capabilities is not going to help stem domestic issues facing the regime. According to a March 2017 UN report, 41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished and one in five do not have access to clean water or adequate sanitation. Reduced access to international aid coupled with recurrent natural hazards will only make conditions direr and will exacerbate new humanitarian needs. Consistently mismanaging natural disasters could prove devastating to a regime that continues to isolate itself from the international community.

While it is clear that Kim views his nuclear weapons program as crucial to the survival of the regime, other personnel within North Korea’s circle of influence may feel emboldened to take action after prolonged negligence of the nation’s people. This could be onset by further mismanagement of natural disasters and famine. As North Koreans continue to gain increased access to outside news through black markets, it is possible that feelings toward the regime will change. Thae Yong Ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat, defected to South Korea last August and said, “I’m sure that Kim Jong-un’s regime one day will collapse by a people’s uprising,” also claiming that “the traditional structures of North Korean systems are crumbling.” If this is true, the United States and its allies might find themselves in a position of strength on nuclear weapons negotiations as drought, flooding, and famine continue to impact North Korea. Destruction of nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for disaster assistance is unlikely, but foreign aid could be enough to bring North Korea to the table for serious talks if the regime believes it is in serious danger of a potential uprising.

Considering North Korea’s current drought, prolonged deforestation, food shortages, flood risks, recent sanctions, and the deterioration of the country’s international relationships, the regime seems to have created its own potentially perfect storm – the likes of which could be a few major downpours away from causing a collapse. Without a clear path forward on addressing these realities, negotiations with the international community on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may be the only rational option Kim will have. The results of the neglect of his people and the natural resources of North Korea can be contained for only so long.

Martin Seitz is a returned David L. Boren Fellow (South Korea 2015-2016) and is currently an Emergency Management Specialist at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of FEMA, DHS, or the United States government.