Disasters and Disaster Management in North Korea in Practice– the Situation in Mid-2022

ouses built in Rason after a devastating flood in 2015 (© Seliger)
New houses built in Rason after a devastating flood in 2015 (© Seliger)

Reading about North Korea in foreign media, most articles deal with the nuclear and missile issue, then human rights and humanitarian issues, in particular food scarcity, the leader and ruling family and events like parades. At least once a year, and – unfortunately – sometimes more often, reports on North Korea deal with reports of disasters: wildfires, heat, draught, cold and most often flooding. Fairly regularly, photos or small video sequences of flooded villages appear in North Korean state media and for many years, these were followed by appeals to the international community to help with emergency aid. In the last years, these appeals virtually stopped; first, after slow responses and increasing scrutiny due to sanctions, they became less attractive to North Korea, and in the last two years, there are simply no more international observers and agencies left able and willing to give aid.

At the same time, disasters and disaster management in the last years got a lot of attention. In late 2019, North Korea adopted a disaster management strategy, which had been prepared for many years together with European NGO (the so-called EUPS), in particular the Swiss Development Corp., with UN organizations, with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation etc. Given that the first opening of North Korea after the famine since the early 1990s was in the name of disasters and governed by the “Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee” from 1995, it might be surprising that it took so long to develop such a strategy. But there is a reason for that. While originally, aid focused strongly on the nutritional sector and agriculture, and soon branched out from emergency aid to structural aid bordering on development aid, sanctions, in particular from the mid-2010s, made such activities less and less possible. Beside formal sanctions preventing many forms of cooperation, also donor fatigue and donor mistrust on these programs led to their end. Finally, disaster management, which had become more important worldwide and in Asia in the wake of disasters like the tsunami disasters and growing concern about the potential consequences of climate change, was something like the least common denominator between North Korea and the international community. Starting to state principles, goals and objectives of disaster management, then talking about specific objectives, the evaluation of policies and organizations involved in disaster management, the plan was quite detailed and commendable and obviously followed international advice on the content of such policies. Even more, 3 action plans detailed the policies to be enacted or implemented until 2022, 2026 and 2030, though from the beginning of that plan the Covid-pandemic and North Korea´s self-imposed complete isolation made progress on these action plans illusionary.

Among the notable sections in the strategy is the chapter on international cooperation, which promises a close cooperation with UN country teams and other actors, even vows to promote cooperation with international organizations to “fulfil disaster concerned international commitments”, and to boost international and bilateral cooperation and exchange, among others in disaster warning, forecast, education, training and technology transfer as well as sharing of information and experiences. This sounds very promising, none the least with respect to inter-Korean cooperation. For example, North Korea in the past had promised to notify the South when it discharged water from dams where the water flow reaches the Southern part of Korea, like in Imjin river. The detailed action plan in Annex 2 of the strategy is assigning duties to various agencies related to fighting disasters, like Ministries, local administration etc.

A part of the detailed action plan 2022 of the DPRK Disaster Management Strategy

Explicitly, international cooperation for disaster management should focus on land and environment protection, agriculture, urban management, public health, education, Science and technology, hydrometeorology, statistics, red cross cooperation and protection of the disabled with particular reference to the seven goals of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Relief and the goals of the Agenda 2030 (SDG). The Sendai Framework vows to reduce mortality, people affected by disasters, economic damages from disasters and damages on critical infrastructure while at the same time increasing successful implementation of disaster relief strategies, international cooperation, and availability and access to multi-hazard early warning systems. Given the usual unwillingness of North Korea to cooperate in many fields, the strong emphasis on international cooperation certainly is welcome. However, the problem is usually a question of implementation. Even simple warning possibilities – like warning South Korea about a water release from a dam – which could save lives have been constantly disregarded by North Korea.

Internally, in the Kim Jong-Un era, the fight against disasters got a lot of attention. In 2015, when a typhoon swept over the Korean Peninsula, there was strong damage to infrastructure in Rason Special city, and an adjacent village was completely destroyed, costing dozens and maybe hundreds of lives. That time, the fact that the Rason International Trade Fair was held and that visitors were kept from leaving the country due to destroyed infrastructure, made it impossible to simply ignore the disaster. The next year, similar flooding happened in North Hamgyeong and was again widely reported, though reportedly the slow response of international actors to the flooding dismayed the North Korean leadership and led to a stop of appeals to international aid in the following years. Among the important facts reported was the swift answer of the leadership by re-building destroyed infrastructure and in particular housing with the help of the army. In 2020, North Korean media widely reported about flooding and the subsequent drive by party members from Pyongyang to help not only by sending material goods, but also by themselves actively joining recovery works.

In the past, international organizations and NGO in Pyongyang had a relatively good overview over existing disasters – be it cold, heat and draught, rain and flooding or other things, like forest fires. The reason was that many projects existed in the countryside (with the exception of Chagang and Ryanggang provinces) and teams fairly often actually visited these projects, after obtaining a permit from their counterparts in Pyongyang. Periods, when visits were not granted, observation of damage to crops, and simple weather observations made it likely that most disaster events were eventually covered. Now, with all foreign staff of international agencies and NGO as well as almost all embassy staff out of the country for an extended period of time, this becomes much more difficult. Analysis has to rely on North Korean media reports as well as indirect observation, e.g. through satellites. While North Korean media reports obviously are biased by propaganda, it is very interesting to see how frequent they are reporting on disaster management, showing how important that efforts became. For the North Korean reader or audience, these reports are different insofar as they are used to read about this the year around, as part of their normal life cycle. Floodings, for example, are no unpredictable disaster, but a regular recurring event in autumn.

Let us look how these events are covered in DPRK media. Already early in the year, reports on coping with disasters (Naenara 11.03.2022) and the meeting of disaster management bodies (Naenara 04.02.2022) can be found in the media. With the progressing year, these reports, which are rather general in the beginning, appear more often, calling for action on all kinds of disasters (DPRK Today 04.06.2022) and “mass campaigns” to prevent natural disasters (KCNA 29.06.2022). These mass campaigns are usually public work campaigns and again, for the ordinary North Korean nothing new. They are used to work every Friday on public work, being it tree planting, rice planting, weeding, harvesting, or disaster management, like fortifying dams. Rules for conduct during disasters are also detailed (KCNA 19.05.2022). Citizens of North Korea are also advised how to prevent personal damage from heat, like stroke (Daily NK 08.08.2022a). And reporting on new anti-disaster measures is constantly updated, making the field one of the many “battle fields” (like the “battle for rice planting”, “battle for harvesting” or “battle for afforestation”) in the country (KCNA 12.07.2022).

In the summer, the first challenge is the occurrence of heat and draught before the monsoon rain. Rice planting occurs in May, but the period until mid-July can be sometimes extremely dry and might lead to the withering of rice plants. Therefore, measures to protect crops from heat are very important (KCNA 01.08.2022a). These can include the building of protective roofs for shadowing of plants, e.g. by last year´s straw. This is used for example in tree nurseries. Other measures include a certain form of double cropping or agro-forestry, where trees allow a certain protection from heat. Also, early weeding of farms is promoted to protect the growing crops (KCNA 01.08.2022b). In some articles, this is called “urgent farming” (KCNA 07.08.2022). With the on-set of the monsoon, the battle shifts gear, becoming much more urgent and focusing on flood damage. Floods are – probably beside cold, though on cold there is no reliable data available) – the gravest disasters, often costing human lives. Therefore, anti-land-sliding projects are very important and often reported (KCNA 31.07.2022). Also, the swift reaction of the state to flooding is detailed, to show that the government as well acknowledges the damage as does everything it can to prevent damages from increasing (KCNA 15.07.2022). The response can be by the center, or it can be local one, as in an article focusing on the Eastern provinces (Pyongyang Times 03.07.2022). And, year-round this includes visits of the leadership to inspect important infrastructure like dams and important institutions, like the visit of the prime minister to the Hydro-meteorological Administration and Emergency Disaster Committee (KCNA 29.06.2022).

A dry riverbed in Kangwon province in 2014 (© Seliger)
A dry riverbed in Kangwon province in 2014 (© Seliger)

However, it is important that the center is always aware of the plight of the people and doing the utmost to prevent it from happening as well as to console the people. This leads to propaganda stories like the one of the girl which had lost its home but was full of gratitude for the leader to provide her soon with a new home, to the alleged astonishment of international observers, even “the world” (Naenara 07.06.2022). Often, like in the case of Unpha County in 2020, stories are told of leader Kim Jong-Un himself intervening to secure food, shelter and swift recovery for the people (Rodong Sinmun 06.08.2022).

Another recurring theme is the role of technology and science to overcome difficulties, including disasters. When a strong weather event was not foreseen by the meteorological service, the displeasure of Kim Jong-Un with the service was widely reported. Later, improvements in the service were duly noted. Similarly, this year according to Daily NK (08.08.2022b) a military unit commander and political commissar were punished for being negligent in preparing for storm damage. Among the newer developments in this field is the development of cell-phone apps on weather and weather advice for farmers. Also, according to Pyongyang Times (11.01.2022), a national integrated calamity management information system has been developed, though it is difficult to gauge exactly how effective it is and what it entails. In the field of agricultural science, a new model of crop estimate was developed “so that it can estimate the influence of the calamitous abnormal weather conditions on crop yield quantitatively” (Pyongyang Times 01.08.2022).

With all these improvements and countermeasures, disasters remain a challenge for North Korea. One coping mechanism for this is to put disasters into an international context. In recent years, there is frequent mentioning of the disastrous effects of climate change (Pyongyang Times 21.05.2022). This is actually a story which also many international organizations and NGO in the country share. However, a closer look at origins of disasters will find many home-made problems (this is not unique for North Korea, but particularly true here), like deforestation, regular use of flood-prone areas for agriculture etc.

Deforested mountains in Hwanghaebukdo in 2016 (© Seliger)
Deforested mountains in Hwanghaebukdo in 2016 (© Seliger)

Disaster management in North Korea in the last years did make some progress. In particular, the drive for afforestation since 2012/ 2014 (starting with the speech on land management by Kim Jong-Un and later the ten-year afforestation plan) are clear positive signs for a new focus on one of the most important related problems. This is also often stressed in North Korean media (among a multitude of others, see Naenara 06.08.2022 and Voice of Korea 06.08.2022). However, success in this field is still far from being guaranteed and the last years, when North Korea self-isolated due to Covid-19, have been very problematic. There is no more international cooperation on food security, increasing the likelihood that the success of afforestation (which depends on a mixture of prohibiting cutting trees, for reasons of making firewood, but also of using land slopes for private agriculture, and planting new ones) might be called into question. Also, the small but not insignificant international contribution to active reforestation stopped with the stop of all international programs. So, it remains to be seen in which shape North Korea is regarding disaster management after emerging from prolonged closure. The latest news of North Korean warning its population from eating food damaged by flooding might be an indicator for increasing food shortages (Yonhap News 21.08.2022). Hopefully, soon the international cooperation North Korea promised to follow in its Disaster Risk Reduction strategy will soon become reality.

*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Bernhard Seliger is the Book Review Editor of the North Korean Review, has been resident representative of the Hanns- Seidel Foundation in Korea since 2002, and has implemented capacity- building projects on economic change, agriculture and forestry in North Korea. ***



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