The North Korean Climate Conundrum

Main Image Credit Desperate measures: local residents use a fire engine to pump water into parched fields during a drought in North Korea in 2012. Image: Newscom / Alamy

Given the threat posed to North Korea by climate change and Pyongyang’s willingness to cooperate on the issue, it could provide an opportunity to build bridges with the country.

In recent years, North Korea – the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’ – has been feeling the effects of a global problem. Climate change has been wreaking havoc, with severe flooding, droughts and extreme weather events like typhoons, all exacerbated by deforestation and desertification, damaging the country’s already struggling economy, infrastructure and agricultural systems.

These impacts are becoming a significant security threat that could lead to human suffering, instability and increased tensions, both within North Korea and internationally. Yet climate change could also present a unique avenue for strengthening diplomatic relations with the isolated country. North Korea has been surprisingly engaged with the international community’s work on climate change and has been willing to accept external support on climate-related issues. If carefully leveraged, strengthening links with North Korea through climate action may open doors to build stronger relationships and, by extension, further peacebuilding efforts – an opportunity which has previously been unavailable.

The Risks of Climate Inaction

North Korea’s food systems and economy are already weak and therefore vulnerable to the shocks that climate change will likely cause. Flooding and typhoons can damage civilian and military infrastructure, impact the North Korean agricultural system, and lead to loss of life. Droughts can also have a drastic impact on the country’s food supplies. In a country where 59% of citizens suffered from food insecurity in 2020, any damage to the country’s agricultural system could lead to famine and a significant loss of life. Currently, North Korea is heavily reliant on China for food, fertiliser and fuel, though the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted this trade. Nevertheless, if China and North Korea were to face a climate disaster simultaneously, the further diversion of Chinese resources would compound the impact of floods, droughts and famine on the North Korean populace.

The threat of climate change-related famine has far-reaching consequences. The Arduous March famine in the 1990s killed as many as 3.5 million people, traumatising a generation and loosening ties between state and citizens as ordinary people relied on each other or foreign aid for food. A famine of a similar scale could lead to mass death and internal and external migration, and erode loyalty to the state, causing regime instability.

Such instability would likely play out in one of three ways. In one scenario, the regime of Kim Jong-Un would be under stress but would muddle through, maintaining some level of stability. In another, there could be a rebellion or elite coup, which could either result in a stable transition of power or escalate into violent conflict. Perhaps the most concerning possibility is that famine and social upheaval of this scale could lead to the collapse of North Korea.

All of these possibilities could have huge geopolitical consequences. A regime under climate-related stress may change its risk calculation regarding the use of weapons against other states, raising tensions regionally and threatening to derail the current fragile peace. Mass migration out of North Korea may put additional stress on neighbouring countries coping with their own climate-related crises. Moreover, attempts to mitigate climate change impacts could be misinterpreted as a hostile move, for example if North Korea attempted to move its military infrastructure away from flood-prone areas. A weakened North Korea may also increase its weapons testing in order to appear stronger, potentially provoking a climate change-induced security dilemma.

North Korea has been surprisingly engaged with the international community’s work on climate change and has been willing to accept external support on climate-related issues

Furthermore, if North Korea collapses or is perceived to be particularly vulnerable, neighbouring states may wish to take advantage of this weakness. The remnants of North Korea would make for prime geopolitical real estate in the region and would risk sparking a great power conflict that has the potential to escalate far beyond the Korean peninsula. Tackling the impact of climate change in North Korea is therefore imperative.

Climate Diplomacy: A Route to Peace?

Climate change, by its very nature an existential issue, threatens the future interests of all states, a fact which North Korea appears to recognise. It is therefore a challenge that cannot be addressed at a national level alone and requires global involvement. This presents a unique opportunity for collaboration, including in the case of North Korea.

Due to its geopolitical and economic isolation, North Korea has a very small carbon footprint and has even reduced its carbon emissions by 70% since 1990, though this is largely due to its economic decline over the last three decades. It would therefore take minimal investment to help the country transition to a zero-carbon economy. North Korea seems to recognise the opportunity here and has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15.63% by 2030, rising to 50.34% if it receives international assistance.

Technology transfers for renewable energy projects would not violate the current UN Security Council sanctions regime, making such assistance possible. Moreover, a move towards renewable energy could help stabilise the country, reducing the risk of spiralling tensions by mitigating the country’s energy security issues. Collaborating with North Korea on renewable energy projects could therefore be a relatively simple and mutually beneficial way to build bridges.

North Korea has proven to be surprisingly open to collaboration in other climate-related areas. It has cooperated with the Swiss Agency for Development and Collaboration on reforestation, food security and access to drinking water, and also with the Hanns Seidel Foundation on sustainable forestry practices. Before the pandemic, a range of environmentally focused NGOs were active in the country, supporting Kim Jong-Un’s ‘war to improve nature’. Commentators stress the importance of these NGOs in maintaining a link with North Korea even in times of increased tension, and suggest that they can act as ‘non-state intermediaries’.

North Korea continues to engage with the UN, the EU and South Korea on these issues, and is also a party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. While North Korea’s level of commitment to these agreements remains to be seen, the country’s rhetoric suggests that it is ready to take action, with a statement in 2017 labelling global warming ‘one of the gravest challenges humankind is facing today’.

A Path Forward

Despite this, the coronavirus pandemic has put climate change mitigation efforts on the backburner. Most NGOs left North Korea as the country imposed some of the world’s strictest border closures, and in 2022, while many of us hope to move on from the pandemic, the situation in North Korea is thought to be deteriorating.

Working together to combat climate change could improve relations between the two Koreas, serving as a peacebuilding strategy and supporting the broader security agenda in the Indo-Pacific

Despite this, diplomatic efforts on climate cooperation should continue, or else the international community risks losing some of the momentum it has built over the last few years. South Korea is key in this work, as the two states’ proximity means that they are vulnerable to the same climate change-related threats. Working together to combat climate change could improve relations between the two Koreas, serving as a peacebuilding strategy and supporting the broader security agenda in the Indo-Pacific. Success in this area is not a given. South Korea previously proposed a plan for a Green Détente, including the construction of a World Eco-Peace Park in the Demilitarised Zone, which was quickly dismissed by North Korea. However, climate change provides an opportunity for soft-touch diplomacy that has the potential to be leveraged into broader collaboration and cooperation. If such activity can develop regional climate resilience while also building trust between the two neighbours, then it seems an obvious strategy to pursue.

Environmental NGOs are key to this work, so ensuring they can return to North Korea is vital. This is easier said than done given North Korea’s reluctance to accept international support, including vaccines, to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. However, the international community should resist the urge to close the door on pandemic-related support and should maintain an awareness that North Korea’s response to the pandemic is inevitably connected to its ability to act on climate change.

Finally, as food insecurity is one of the major climate-related threats to North Korean stability, the international focus should be on targeted interventions to reduce the likelihood of an acute food shock. This should include improving North Korea’s agricultural systems to increase yields and developing North Korea’s disaster response capacity. Given North Korea’s ongoing food insecurity, the international community also needs to identify a threshold for intervention with food aid, especially given that the delayed US response to the Arduous March famine is thought to have contributed to its scale.

Therefore, while climate change remains a key threat to North Korea in the coming years, all is not lost. Although climate change has the potential to push North Korea to extremes of instability, it also holds myriad opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. Under the right conditions and with careful handling, these opportunities could serve as a de-isolation strategy and reduce hostility in the Korean peninsula and beyond.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Genevieve Kotarska

Research Fellow

Organised Crime and Policing

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