02 September 2009

Peter Hayes on the politics of environmental degradation in North Korea

Peter Hayes, Director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability (www.nautilus.org), has just published a paper on the state of the North Korean environment, a subject on which he first put pen to paper almost fifteen years ago.

Professor Hayes is a very experienced commentator on North Korean issues, with deep first-hand knowledge. In 1994, he led a UN mission charged with helping North Korea to compile its first greenhouse gas emissions inventory for its national report under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which North Korea had signed.

This latest paper is a timely reminder that North Korea is a real place, an important part of this planet that we all inhabit, that its problems have impacts beyond its borders, and the longer they are left unattended the harder they will be to fix. He reports that one of the most acute environmental problems in North Korea is deforestation, a problem with a long history. It has been compounded in recent times by poor land use decisions.

He concludes:

There are many other critical environmental issues in North Korea. The country, it turns out, is still producing globally significant amounts of persistent organic pollutants such as DDT (about 230 tonnes per year) and similar pesticides that accumulate in food chains and ecosystems thousands of miles downwind. Disposal of toxic wastes, work-place occupational health and safety, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions and many other environmental issues must be solved in North Korea.

The results of these efforts will be a long term legacy that will be inherited by a future generation of Koreans. They will have to preserve what’s left of wild North Korea; conserve what’s in use; and restore what has been abused. The continued isolation of North Korea has led to a rapid degradation of the ecological assets that existed at the end of the Cold War, and it is certain that the fastest way to destroy what’s left of North Korea’s ecology would be war.

Many of these ecological issues are technical and apolitical, and even at the height of the political tensions due to the nuclear issue, North Korea’s leadership has kept them separate and accepted external engagement and assistance. Should a way forward emerge at the geopolitical level to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, many environmental issues will become channels for cooperative engagement between North Korea and external agencies.


There is no shortage of options, and an infinity of needs. And ways exist to work around the barriers that divide North Korea from the rest of the world. There’s no time to wait, or these enduring legacies will become unbearable, and feed into a vortex of chaos and collapse in North Korea, with unimaginable consequences for humans and nature alike.

The full paper is available here.

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