South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s renewed call for inter-Korean cooperation on forestry at last year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) is just one of many attempts at establishing a joint disaster risk management scheme with North Korea. The Korean Peninsula is highly vulnerable to increasingly severe natural disasters brought about by rapid climate change, particularly typhoons that cause widespread floods and landslides.
In the North, the high level of deforestation acts as an impact amplifier in the case of natural disasters, in turn deeply affecting the nation’s agricultural output, upon which it depends for national food security. Reforestation efforts are known to be one of the most effective ways of mitigating the brunt of natural disasters, as forests absorb floodwater and reduce the risk of landslides and topsoil depletion, with their root systems acting as an anchor.
Reforestation also happens to be the one area where direct inter-Korean cooperation on disaster risk management has seen any measure of sustained success – during the heyday of the Sunshine Policy. The two nations agreed anew to “achieve substantial results” on the matter in the 2018 Pyongyang Joint Agreement, although this was suspended following the subsequent breakdown in relations.
Moon is obviously in a rush to make any type of progress on inter-Korean relations and to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table before his term ends in May. By approaching Pyongyang with this type of green diplomacy featuring a tried-and-tested formula of cooperation, he hopes to initiate a dialogue that will eventually spill over into other aspects of the peace process. Indeed, at the time Moon proposed the forestry cooperation project, which followed the restoration of inter-Korean hotlines and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s repeated admission of the severity of the North’s food crisis, the timing appeared appropriate. So why has North Korea not responded?
North Korea is likely aware of the potential instrumentalization of such cooperation offers by both Seoul and Washington under the current stalemate. The nation has also rejected offers of COVID-19 vaccines and humanitarian aid shipments from Seoul, not to mention the offer of an end-of-war declaration. Pyongyang has repeatedly given Seoul the cold shoulder since the collapse of the Hanoi talks in 2019, blaming Seoul for its inability to convince Washington to ease sanctions. For Kim, engaging a lame-duck Moon with little power over U.S. decision makers is unlikely to be prioritized.
Instead, Pyongyang has been straightforward in its preconditions for the resumption of talks by requesting specific measures from the U.S., such as the lifting of sanctions and the ending of its “hostile policy.”
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has responded with dialogue diplomacy and openness for talks “anywhere, at any time,” but without offering specific conditions favorable to North Korea. The Kim regime views such offers as an empty trick, considering the United States retains its economic pressure and continues its military developments in the region. In response to this, North Korea’s most recent strategy appears to be one of strategic ignorance as the regime withdraws inwards to tighten domestic control and promote self-reliance. This feat is made easier by the COVID-19 pandemic-induced border closures, which have left the country in an unprecedented state of isolation and have seen the mass exodus of nearly all of its foreign population. Kim barely mentioned South Korea or the United States in his latest new year’s speech and seems content to focus on increasing agricultural productivity while developing military capabilities through frequent missile tests. Moon is facing an uphill battle in trying to convince his reclusive neighbor to engage in the current political climate.
Yet the situation in the North is becoming increasingly unstable, with Kim proclaiming a potential new “Arduous March” in April of last year. Heavy rains and typhoons, increasing in impact and frequency, led to massive floods that have killed hundreds of people, damaged crops, and washed away homes, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless in just the past five years. Coupled with periods of severe droughts that have negatively impacted the agricultural sector, which was already strained under the current sanctions regime, North Korea is facing a serious food crisis. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projected last year that North Korea would be short about two months’ worth of food in 2021, and the U.N. World Food Program estimates that about 40 percent of the population is undernourished. Undoubtedly, the country needs outside knowledge to combat the climate crisis, despite its preference for self-reliance and indigenous solutions.
There are, however, clear signs that disaster risk reduction has become a key policy for the regime, representing a focal shift from disaster response and recovery toward a more proactive approach aimed at resilience building and the mitigation of disaster impacts. North Korea has asserted its commitment to implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, and the subsequent establishment of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy 2019-2030 reflects a high degree of alignment with international guidelines.
There are also promising signs that the nation is indeed utilizing much-improved mitigation practices such as weather monitoring and forecasts, early-warning radio broadcasts, and decreased response time for evacuations, in addition to afforestation efforts and the reinforcement of waterways. Since March 2021, these improvements have continued without international in-country expertise. This provides hope that further action can be taken immediately in the midst of the current isolation through international cooperation based on knowledge-sharing.
Indeed, North Korea has been continuously engaging international society for decades, even when ignoring the South, showing a penchant for working with international organizations over Seoul. Even now in its current state of extreme isolation, North Korea continues to work with international organizations. Most notable is their provision of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) Voluntary National Review last year, at the height of the pandemic.
While independent verification of its contents is obviously difficult to achieve, and while it skims areas related to human rights development, the Voluntary National Review expresses a high level of interest toward international cooperation on disaster risk management. The report reveals practical measures in several areas: (1) establishing a comprehensive data collection and processing system for improved tracing, monitoring, and evaluation; (2) achieving a greenhouse gas emissions reduction of 50.34 percent through international assistance; (3) establishing systematic education on mitigation and adaptation to climate change; and (4) constructing sea dikes and breakwaters to reclaim tideland on a long-term basis.
North Korea’s proven openness to international cooperation on prevention and mitigation of disasters is a promising sign that ought to be picked up and expanded upon. While developments are being made, the country significantly lacks experience, technology, and information, which are critical in accelerating disaster risk reduction and implementing the action plan. Therefore, going forward, the UNSDG committee should seek knowledge-based support to strengthen the capacities of disaster prevention and reduction in North Korea through international cooperation. South Korea is in a unique position to contribute to this.
As the two Koreas share a similar climate zone and geographic environment to a certain extent, they have many common challenges in climate adaptation. South Korea has accumulated plenty of experience and technology related to disaster prevention and risk reduction that may be of use for the North, such as databases for collecting climate-related data, monitoring systems using satellite imagery, and strategies for evaluation. It has also advanced practical technical skills in sustainable construction related to areas such as sea dikes and breakwaters. South Korea has furthermore conducted numerous research projects on forestry to calculate carbon reduction through tree management with a particular focus on indigenous Korean species. In addition to having practical experience of forestry work inside North Korea, every administration since former President Lee Myung-bak’s era has also had a task force dedicated to researching and promoting North Korean reforestation.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government has recently promoted international cooperation to support developing countries by providing technology-related education programs on climate adaptation to government officials and international organizations. For example, the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) for Northeast Asia and the Global Education and Training Institute for Disaster Risk Reduction was established in South Korea in 2010 to develop a new cadre of professionals in disaster risk reduction. South Korea could build on these experiences of working with the U.N. missions to provide specific and targeted information on North Korea to the UNSDG committee, while also expanding it to include other U.N. agencies involved in North Korea.
Considering the current pandemic restrictions, two practical ways of immediate engagement could be to help the UNDRR create an online educational training program for North Korean officials and to establish an independent online platform for sharing data on climate change. On the other hand, North Korea could then further showcase its willingness to engage international society on climate risk-related issues by providing an additional report on its implementation of the SDGs and the Sendai framework.
While this type of indirect engagement may be very different from what Moon envisioned when reaching out with the offer of cooperation on forestry, it would showcase a genuine act of trust-building by removing the potential for the instrumentalization of cooperation offers and demonstrate a solid South Korean commitment to climate safety across the peninsula. It also holds the potential to institutionalize inter-Korean cooperation on disaster management in a manner that has the potential to overcome future fluctuations in the political climate.