December 19, 2011

This Weekend’s News: What’s Next for North Korea?

News broke late last night that longtime North
Korean leader Kim Jong-il died on Saturday
, leaving his son, Kim Jong-un,
as the chosen successor. This is a significant event and experts around the
world are still reacting to the news in order to try to determine how Kim Jong-il’s
death will shape North Korea moving forward. But as experts ask ‘What’s next
for North Korea?” they should be sure to incorporate the state’s perennial challenges
with natural resources into their assessment, which will likely play a role in
shaping the North Korean state in the years ahead.

Last year, Bailey Culp wrote a timely blog post here
describing the litany of resource challenges that the country is grappling with.
Her assessment is as relevant as ever:

Insecurity in the Hermit Kingdom

By Bailey Culp, former CNAS Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research

Just beyond the tranquil picturesque landscape of the
demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula lies modern day North Korea, a
bizarre and mysterious world unto itself. The country is shrouded in
uncertainty and most of what the outside world knows comes through accounts
from defectors, rumors printed by the South Korean press and North Korean
state-run media announcements. Case in point: at a recent U.S. Senate Hearing examining
the current security situation on the Korean Peninsula, Senator John McCain
asked Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific
Affairs (and CNAS co-founder), if Kim Jong-un was the “likely successor” to his
father Kim Jong-il, who has ruled since 1994. Secretary Campbell succinctly
replied, “Your
guess is as good as ours, sir.

The regime of Kim Jong-Il consistently draws the attention
of the international community due to its ominous chemical, biological, and
nuclear weapons capabilities and often erratic behavior. Furthermore, the
humanitarian situation is extremely dire, with 8.7
million people
 in need of food assistance, 1
in 3
 children under the age of 5 malnourished, and twenty-seven
percent of the population at or below the absolute poverty level, living on
less than 1
dollar a day

However, while North Korea’s humanitarian and military
challenges gain prominent attention by Western media and governments, the state
of North Korean’s ecosystem is rarely covered despite the vast implications
this issue will have for the Korean peninsula in the years ahead. In the case
of the DPRK, the past is prologue: famine and drought in the mid-1990s
precipitated rampant deforestation, land erosion, pillaging of forests,
pollution, and the contamination of water supplies, which all still negatively
affect the country today.

From 1994 to 1997, when the famine was at its worst, North
Koreans had little or no electricity, resorting mostly to firewood to heat
their homes. Undoubtedly, the use of firewood during the energy crisis led to a
sharp decline in forest resources. Fires, landslides,
insect damage, and drought
 have further contributed to the degradation
of forests since the 1990s. Journalistic accounts, such as Barbara Demick’s
novel, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary
Lives in North Korea
, articulate the desperation of North Koreans
during the famine, explaining that children would kill and eat rats, mice,
frogs, tadpoles, and grasshoppers just to have something to fill their
stomachs. Throughout the famine, North Koreans often resorted to a variety of
other wild foods, such as grass, mushrooms, and tree bark, to alleviate their
hunger, leaving many forests barren of vegetation or animal life. Indeed, the dietary
 North Koreans have on the natural environment has
significantly impacted the diversity (or lack thereof) of plant and animal life

But North Korea’s resource challenges extend well beyond
biodiversity loss and perennial famine. About 80 percent of North Korea
is mountainous, resulting in significant agricultural dependency on chemical
fertilizers to help famers manage steep topography. This dependency on
fertilizers has lead to the acidification of
arable land
 and a decline in soil humus content and crop output over
the years, resulting in lower crops yields that could otherwise help to feed a
starving population. Since the country relies on coal as the main source of
, the air quality in North Korea, particularly in cities such as
Pyongyang and Ch’ongjin, is extremely poor. Although North Korea has a wealth
of water resources, such as rivers and underground aquifers, contamination and
water-borne diseases are still rampant; during the drought and famine in the
mid-1990s, water borne diseases led to annual deaths ranging from 300,000 to
800,000 people

While Pyongyang has sought to educate its population on
environmental conservation practices, the daily degree of desperation and
starvation rural North Koreans face severely undermines any public efforts
towards preserving the environment. Therefore, it is likely the biodiversity
and overall ecosystem in North Korea will continue down a path of degradation
rather than improvement unless the regime takes a variety of drastic measures,
from implementing environmental conservation practices to providing basic
services to its citizens, such as clean water and consistent food rations.

North Korea’s severe – and very apparent - natural
insecurity begs important questions U.S. policymakers need to consider as
discussions ensue concerning what a post-Kim Jong-il North Korea will look
like. These questions include: what ramifications will years of environmental
destruction have on a post- Kim Jong-il regime; will a new regime be able to
better manage the growing environmental challenges; and given the range of
reunification and collapse scenarios, how might the United States and, more
broadly, the international community seek to mitigate problems arising from a
decrepit environment while balancing an array of other issues such as ‘loose
nukes’ and economic collapse? Contingency planning should consider North
Korea’s natural security issues along with the more traditional concerns of how
to secure DPRK’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and salvage the
nation’s ailing economy.  Striking the right balance will be key for the
Unites States and the international community in forecasting if and how the
Hermit Kingdom will survive in the near term, while simultaneously seeking to
preserve long-term stability on the Korean peninsula. 

This Week’s Events

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