Online news site The Conversation published an interesting piece on May 16, 2014, titled “Behind North Korea’s surprising compliance on climate change.” The article argues that North Korea, with its vulnerable agricultural system threatened by the impact of climate change, has complied with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in an effort to bolster the country’s depressed agricultural sector and consolidate Pyongyang’s ability to control the country.
Of course many have rightly commented that North Korea’s accumulation of carbon credit highlighted in the article is largely due to the country’s industrial degradation – indeed, we have examined before how key refineries, thermal plants, and other energy-generating infrastructures around the country have not been fully operational in recent years.
Nonetheless, Pyongyang is most likely legitimately concerned about the long-term consequences of climate change. After all, we have noted before how North Korea stands particularly susceptible to food price volatility elsewhere in the region. Therefore, it is in the country’s long-term economic and political interest to mitigate the negative impacts of global warming and see not only North Korea’s agricultural output increase, but also the rest of Asia’s rice productivity grow unimpeded.
Although we are critical of Professor Woo-Cumings’ assessment that the effects of climate change and aberrant weather patterns had a larger impact on North Korea’s famine in the 1990s than the country’s political system, her holistic observation that there were cases of declining food production throughout the world as a result of climate change is an important one.
This brings us around to the key question of how North Korea is dealing with the impact of ongoing climate change today.
According to a KBS report on May 19, farmers in South Korea are planting rice (모내기) earlier in the year than they had three decade ago. Farmer’s Day (권농일, 勸農日), which is the recommended day designated by the Korean state for farmers to plant rice seedlings in the wet paddies, used to be on June 5 in the 1980s. This year, the Rural Development Administration set May 25 as the ideal date for the planting. A farmer interviewed by KBS noted that he usually starts rice planting by May 10 and finishes by June 10 at the latest. The report also went on to observe that some farmers further south in South Jeolla Province begin planting as early as March to acquire two harvests during the growing season. These shifts in the farming schedule were attributed to global warming.
Granted North Korean farms are further north, but it is important to ask how North Korea’s rural administration will deal with such changes in the farming schedule if the shift becomes more dramatic. Given the centralized nature of the agricultural sector, we at Rice and Iron are forced to question Pyongyang’s ability to adequately support the changing needs of the farmers as individual regions will be affected differently.
As is, the country’s agricultural sector still remains highly reliant on the central distribution of fuel, fertilizers, and other inputs necessary for farming. Although increasing number of farmers are working on de facto privately operated farms and the urban markets are becoming a key source of inputs, we noted that the satellite images of fires in Kangwon Province may be evidence of how many areas continue to depend on scarce centrally-distributed resources.
Perhaps more importantly, North Korea’s agricultural sector relies on the state’s mobilization of manpower to substitute for its lack of mechanized farm vehicles like tractors. Aside from the general burden on the population at large, this raises concerns on how well the central government and the regional administrators will be able to assess mobilization in the future when many cadets sent from Pyongyang to oversee the rural sector do not have the localized knowledge to determine the needs of the farmers.
The key problem is still very much political. While tacitly tolerating the parallel existence of a nascent market economy in the country, the North Korean state has repeatedly failed to adopt policies that would facilitate and improve conditions for consumers and merchants. As a consequence, farmers are unable to transmit their demands effectively or efficiently, potentially disrupting the introduction of necessary changes for the agricultural sector.
In order for North Korea to overcome the foreseeable consequences of climate change, it is imperative that Pyongyang trust individual actors to optimize food production.
Of course, if you are reading this and simply questioning the validity of global climate change in of itself, then we leave you simply with this clip.