Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

Dozens of North Korean officials met last October in a seminar room at the country’s Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang to hold a Zoom training session on “green growth”.

The session, jointly organized by North Korea’s Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection and a German foundation with ties to Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, was part of a lecture series designed to educate officials on environmental issues.

“This is a new approach, and they are very interested,” said Bernhard Seliger, director of the Korea office of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

“We had a discussion on biological pest management and a discussion with a British expert on forest certification, but the session on green growth was at the North Koreans’ request.”

North Korea’s withdrawn regime, a serial offender of international law and human rights, usually avoids involvement with the international community in favor of bombing and undermining.

But has been devastated in recent decades by a series of extreme weather conditions, and almost entirely dependent on money and outside expertise, Pyongyang has proven its willingness to engage in a myriad of environmental issues, including the global fight against climate change.

“There is no other area in which North Korea desires and pursues international cooperation with such a proactive and open attitude as it does on environmental policy,” said Choi Hyeonjung, Director of the Center for Global Management at the Asan Institute for Policy. said. Studies in Seoul.

North Korea is a party to international conventions on environmental protection and global action against climate change, including the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Agreement.

As a UNFCCC signatory, Pyongyang has a delegation to last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

“Climate change is one of the few areas where we can talk to the North Koreans without violence, or without an ideological advantage,” said a senior Western diplomat.

“Of course there is a lot of money available for poorer countries, and they are interested in it – but they are also genuinely concerned about the impact that climate events have had on them.”

People cross a bridge near the town of Kimchaek on North Korea's northeast coast
Droughts worsen chronic food shortages in North Korea © Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

The regime’s interest in environmental policy can be traced back to the 1990s, when catastrophic floods and landslides, exacerbated by decades of deforestation and poor land and river management, caused a famine that killed millions.

Since then, the country has been plagued by increasingly frequent natural disasters, including four major typhoons in 2020. Droughts and floods often threaten crop yields and infrastructure, exacerbating chronic food shortages.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has waged a “war to improve nature”, including a series of land management reforms and a reforestation campaign.

Kim, who described Donald Trump’s decision in 2017 to withdraw US from the Paris Agreement as the “height of egotism”, last year called for “urgent action” against climate change, which he described as a “danger” that has “risen” in recent years.

Choi pointed out that “the destruction of North Korea’s land, nature and ecosystem is more a product of the regime’s policy failures than a direct result of climate change. But climate change and aberrational weather have made things worse, while the country’s inability to prevent, resist or rebuild after these events makes it extremely vulnerable. “

The poor state of the North Korean economy since the 1990s means that despite its dependence on coal, its contribution in absolute terms to global carbon dioxide emissions is modest.

North Korean CO2 emissions fell by 43.1 percent between 1990 and 2011, according to the International Energy Agency, a decline caused by a collapse in energy consumption.

Between 1997 and 2014, the country received millions of dollars in UN funding for projects ranging from small wind energy developments to improving seed production for sustainable agriculture.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, it registered a series of hydropower projects under the UN Clean Development Mechanism, a carbon offsetting scheme that allows developing countries to sell carbon credits to richer countries.

But observers said the regime faced almost insurmountable challenges, not least the impact of international sanctions in response to the country’s nuclear weapons program and an extreme restriction imposed by Kim to control the coronavirus pandemic.

“Environmental policy may be a priority of the North Korean government, but it is not a top priority,” said Gabriela Bernal, a researcher at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul.

“North Korea does not have the money or the equipment for the environmental investments it has to make. It finds it difficult to bring in foreign currency due to sanctions, and foreign diplomats, NGOs and aid workers have been forced to leave during the pandemic. ”

Peter Ward of the University of Vienna said the fight against climate change was likely to make the North Korean regime even poorer.

“One of North Korea’s main sources of foreign exchange is the export of coal, which is exactly what the international community is trying to phase out,” Ward said.

In a 2021 review of its contribution to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, North Korea said it plans to make a 15.63 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, rising to a 50.34 percent reduction should it receive international aid .

“In my experience, the environment is really important to the North Koreans and their national identity,” said David von Hippel, a senior associate at the Nautilus Institute in California who worked on renewable energy projects in North Korea.

“But as long as the security situation remains as it is, few of the measures the country needs to reduce its dependence on coal are likely to come about.”

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