The Korean Peninsula has been hit by five typhoons during the 2020 storm season, three of which battered North Korea in rapid succession in late August and early September. These events highlight that environmental shocks are often overlooked in contributing to human insecurity in North Korea.
While cross-border migration from North Korea has resulted from the dynamic interaction between environmental shocks and other intersecting human insecurities, outbound migration is an individual adaptation strategy available only to some North Koreans, reflecting geographic and gender biases.
North Korea’s Vulnerability to Environmental Shocks
In late August, Typhoon Bavi battered the west coast of North Korea, with strong winds and flooding damaging buildings, roads, factories, electricity infrastructure, and water systems in cities including Pyongyang, Nampho, and Ongjin. In early September, Typhoon Maysak tracked up the east coast, with flooding destroying homes in Wonsan and other areas in South Hamgyong province, displacing residents from the flood-effected areas. Only days later, Typhoon Haishen followed a similar track up the east coast, from South Hamgyong all the way to the North Korea-Russia-China border in Rason, again causing widespread flooding and wind damage to buildings, roads, and infrastructure.
Like much of Northeast Asia, North Korea is annually vulnerable to typhoon activity during the East Asian monsoon season, from June to September. Between 1995 and 2020, there have been only four years – 2001, 2008, 2009, and 2017 – during which no major flood events were recorded in North Korea.
However, for North Korea to take direct hits from three major typhoons within a span of just three weeks is historically very rare and places extreme pressure on the country’s adaptive responses.
In North Korea, floods damage farmland and watersheds as silt from floodwaters destroy crops, rice paddies, and irrigation systems. Floods also impact critical infrastructure that connects farms with consumers in towns and cities by cutting off roads and railways. The impacts are stark for a country that is already perennially food insecure, highlighting the danger that environmental shocks such as typhoons can pose as “threat multipliers” to pre-existing political, economic, and social instabilities.
There is not a direct linear relationship between environmental shocks and migration out of North Korea, as there are a number of inter-related factors influencing the decisions of migrants to leave their homes. While population displacement is a common outcome of typhoon impacts, the ability of people to leave North Korea as an adaptive response depends on other factors. Regional variations in available data on outbound migration shows that more people in the provinces of North Hamgyong and Yanggang were able to use outbound migration as a survival option compared to people from other provinces.
Geography Influences Adaptation
The ability of individuals to leave their home provinces is constrained by geography in three primary ways. First, North Korea’s mountainous topography – consisting of the Nangnim Sanmaek (north-south range), Kaema-kowon (northeastern highlands) and Taebaek Sanmaek (southern highlands) – presents a formidable physical barrier to the movement of displaced persons from the southern part of the country.
The contours of this mountainous terrain also shape local infrastructure density. Compared to the high density of road and rail connections in the southern provinces, the northeast has relatively few major transportation corridors. This limited connectivity also makes it easier for the government to enforce travel restrictions limiting the movement of individuals. The physical barrier to mass human movement makes it easier for the government to impose social controls to limit internal migration. Physical and topographical factors, along with the government’s failure to develop transportation infrastructure, also makes the distribution of food and other vital humanitarian aid more difficult.
Although North Korea’s far northeastern provinces were not most severely hit by extreme weather conditions and the subsequent food and health insecurities, most North Korean defectors in South Korea came from these areas. Data from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) shows that North Korean arrivals overwhelmingly originate from North and South Hamgyong, Ryanggang, and South Hamgyong provinces, in that order.
These provinces of origin reflect geographical realities: their proximity to the Chinese border, making the logistics of escape a more viable adaptive strategy; the porosity of the Tumen River frontier with China, relative to the more dangerous Yalu River crossing in the northwest; and the proximity of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture on the Chinese side of the Tumen River frontier, which is a hub for the people smuggling networks funneling North Korean refugees out of China.
Adaptation, Migration, and Gender
Individual resilience to environmental shocks in North Korea also tends to be mediated by gender. The statistics from South Korea’s MoU on arrivals are instructive regarding the economic risk factors for food insecurity and outbound migration from North Korea. Before 1998, the female ratio among the North Korean defectors was only 12 percent. This has drastically changed since the turn of the century.
Since 2002, more than half of the annual proportion of North Korean defectors has been female (more than 70 percent each year since 2006), reflecting the increasing scale of marketization in North Korea’s economy and society. The North Korean economic crisis changed the pattern of women’s economic participation, “pulling women out of the formal labor market and driving them into the informal private economic sector,” where many have been able to build sufficient private wealth to finance bribes for border guards and payments to smuggling networks to facilitate their escape.
In addition, some North Korean women have voluntarily and strategically used migration and marriage abroad as vehicles through which to improve their lives and empower themselves. An age barrier on market traders also placed a severe restriction on the number of women able to trade in North Korea. Both push and pull factors have contributed to women’s decisions to leave North Korea and the ultimate gender imbalance toward women visible in North Korean arrivals to South Korea.
Government Responses to Environmental Vulnerabilities
Individual and community-level resilience in North Korea is also highly dependent on central and local government policies. The government has, to some degree, recognized the need to respond to environmental degradation and has cooperated in a limited way with the international community.
Kim Jong Un has paid unusually high attention to land management and disaster prevention since ascending to power in 2011, focusing on these issues in his first official public speech in May 2012. Kim emphasized a national interest in land management to improve natural disaster response and improve infrastructure, and called for mass mobilization for upcoming land management projects.
Nonetheless, government adaptation measures remain constrained by economic, ideological, and political concerns. New housing developments built to re-house people displaced by flooding during Typhoon Lionrock in 2016 were built in close proximity to the old destroyed buildings on the same flood plains. These new buildings were damaged in the latest floods. The rush to re-build in vulnerable locations, without accompanying flood protection infrastructure, betrays an ideological approach that eschews real expertise in flood mitigation in official planning.
In an open letter to the Workers’ Party Central Committee on September 5, Kim Jong Un called for the dispatch of party members from Pyongyang to North and South Hamgyong provinces to lead typhoon recovery and reconstruction. He specifically called for members “with high construction skills who had served in special construction units” to oversee the re-build of housing and public buildings, perhaps in response to the ineffective reconstruction efforts following Typhoon Lionrock.
While environmental shocks have been a recurring problem for North Korea, the rising threat posed by climate change will likely exacerbate the risk of more extreme weather events adding to human insecurity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, extreme weather events are predicted to increase in intensity and frequency across Northeast Asia, including on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean government faces a challenge to adapt, while the risk also needs to be factored into development and environmental capacity-building projects by agencies working in the country.
Dr. Jay Song is a Korea Foundation Senior Lecturer in Korean Studies at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Korea Editor for Asian Studies Review. Her research focuses on North Korea, migration and human security.
Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. His research interests include Korean Peninsula security, international climate change politics and environmental movements.
This article is a shorter-form version of a research paper published in The Pacific Review; a journal focused on the international interactions of the countries of the Asia-Pacific. It covers transnational political, security, military, economic and cultural exchanges in seeking to understand the region.