North Korea’s Climate & Food Crises
Written by Ryu Kyunga for the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Translated by NKR Intern Samuel Dodge. Original Korean article can be found at https://www.yinks.or.kr/.
‘The Environment’ has secured a place as one of the key points of discourse of the modern era. Climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation are no longer simply abstract global issues, but are recognized as personal issues that have direct effects on the lives of individuals. Increased public interest in the environment manifested in the emergence of grass roots efforts such as the ‘No Plastic Challenge,’ the ‘Zero Plastic Movement,’ and the ‘Zero Waste Movement,’ alongside companies also beginning to adapt their market strategies to changing consumer selection criteria.
In this global state of raised environmental awareness, how does North Korea perceive the climate change crisis? From the mid-nineties through the aughts, articles in North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun that addressed climate change or global warming did so from the position of conveying the international community’s stance towards the issues. Mentions tended to be brief introductions of the issue, along the lines of “Efforts are underway in the international community to respond to global warming, and several places around the world are facing food crises and environmental degradation as a result of climate change.” There was an overall tone that the international community, and Western powers in particular, should make efforts to combat the climate crisis, but there is little indication that this was considered a central issue of concern.
Coming on the tail end of North Korean sanction strengthened in 2017, North Korea elected to further isolate itself in response to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019. In 2021, North Korea is highlighting the climate crisis as an issue of chief concern amid renewed concern that North Korea’s economic crisis has once again taken a turn for the worse. At the third expanded session of the political bureau of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, held on 2 September 2021, Kim Jong-un stated, “The catastrophic climate phenomenon is increasing in severity around the world and that danger looms over our nation as well,” further adding, “at least during the drafting stages of the 5-year plan, we must develop a comprehensive plan that unites the aspects of waterway management and seasonal flood prevention, as well as embankment, levee, and seawall construction efforts such that we can move into the stage of regular management.” It can be seen that the recent upsurge in reports of atypical weather phenomena is not taken lightly in North Korea, and that the party and government are working to create climate disaster countermeasures.
In early 2019 the Korean Central News Agency reported on unusual winter climate phenomena, and according to a report released on 4 June 2021, seeking to actively pursue environmental protection projects, North Korea strengthened the legal foundations for environmental protection and climate change response through the revision and expansion of laws such as the Environmental Protection Act and the Sea Pollution Prevention Act, and the adoption of the Air Pollution Prevention Act. Also in 2021, a 28 May KNCA report that North Korea’s State Committee on Emergency and Disaster Management had elected to pursue a project on climate disaster prevention was followed by reports such as river reclamation, coastal seawall construction, and repair works in the agricultural sector (1 June report), industry efforts to designate ship evacuation zones in case of maritime warnings as well as reinforcement of coastal structures in the fisheries sector (3 July report), and efforts to prevent mine shafts flooding in the materials extraction sector (7 August report). Furthermore, KCNA reported the undertaking of measures such as [agricultural use] computer image networking systems, waterway management, and irrigation structure repair projects (7 June report), and the full implementation of the rapid notification system to scientifically analyze and judge forecasts as well as the formation and movement routes of heavy winds, rain, and hail before delivering regional reports (13 June report). The Rodong Sinmun reported that all sectors of the people’s economy were establishing preemptive countermeasures to cope with catastrophic abnormal climate patterns with a particular focus on the concerted efforts to further agricultural sector restoration projects.
North Korea, having previously viewed the climate change crisis as a matter of concern for nations other than itself and only recognizing the issue from the perspective of international cooperation, has now come to view climate change as a direct problem for itself, with intimate ties to the lives of its people. The reason North Korean authorities have come to underscore the issue of climate change is that it plays into North Korea’s agricultural output. As a result, the prevention of damage resulting from catastrophic abnormal climate patterns has come to be recognized as a problem that must be solved in pursuit of the implementation of the new 5-year plan.
There are two primary reasons why, unlike the past, North Korea has come to connect climate change to practical domestic issues. The first is agricultural production, and food shortages. In fielding a ‘people first’ policy based in Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-Il-ism, Kim Jong-un opted for a path that prioritized solving the people’s clothing, food, and shelter issues and improving overall quality of life. However, Kim Jong-un’s statement at the 3rd plenary session of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK on 15 June 2021, “damage from last year’s typhoon led to grain production falling short of expectations. . . the people’s food situation is currently growing tense,” is an indication that speculation over worsening food shortages in North Korea has become reality. North Korea has been designated as a food-poor nation by UN organs by a margin of 1.1 million tons and 860,000 tons of foodstuffs, according to Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme criteria, respectively. The decline in agricultural productivity due to the past two years’ (2021 & 2020) floods is interpreted as the impact of disasters caused by abnormal climate patterns, and efforts are underway to combat said impact.
The second reason is that the root causes of the food shortages are being attributed to abnormal climate patterns and climate change rather than a failure of Kim Jong-un’s management of state affairs. Raising the food crises of the nineties as a point of comparison, in the Arduous March period of the mid-nineties, a series of floods and droughts led to severe economic crises and food shortages following reduced trade and the suspension of direct support from Russia and China. Through this period the regime’s survival was maintained through ‘military first’ politics, while leaning on the rhetoric of ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘self-reliance.’ In the current crisis, pressure from intense international sanctions, COVID-19, and abnormal climate patterns are put forth as the root causes of the foot shortage, and the responsibility for damage from repeated natural disasters is past off onto the laborers. Whether the 1990’s or today, this passing of the buck is an attempt to push the narrative that the responsibility for food shortages lies in causes other that the Supreme Leader’s failure to responsibly manage state affairs.
There is an opinion divide between those who believe we are seeing the start to a new Arduous March, and those who do not think the situation is, as of yet, quite so severe. Considering that the seeds of economic reformation in the socialist nations of China and Vietnam grew from improvement of agricultural productivity, it can be seen that food security of the people is a fundamental element in economic reform and stability of authoritarian power. Even if things do not escalate to the level of food shortages seen during the Arduous March of the 1990’s, the status quo of North Korea tightening social regulations, including those over young people, indicates preparations for a renewed North Korean social withdrawal. Kim Jong-un, having cultivated an image of improving the people’s economy and quality of life, recognizing the food shortage as an issue of grave national concern, and mobilizing national assets in response can be interpreted as North Korean leadership making the connection between the food crisis and the stability of the regime.
*** Ryu Kyunga is a Research Fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. 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.