Pyongyang’s growing concern with environmental degradation

picture via Rodong Sinmun

picture via Rodong Sinmun

We noted in a recent post that the North Korean state was taking active measures to decisively control the rural sector. One of the signs that led us to this conclusion was the state’s active enforcement of the de jure law limiting private plots to 30 pyeong (99 sq meters or 1065.6 square feet) per household, resulting in confiscation of cultivated lands in North Hamgyeong Province.

The policy’s timing is terrible. June is still early in the lean season and many people in rural areas were undoubtedly relying on the produce from the extra land to keep their families nourished (through direct consumption or the income acquired from sale of the crops) while waiting for the corn harvest in late August (and rice harvest in late September).

The state justified its sudden dedication to the rule of law by underscoring two key issues:

  • The private lots encroach on forests and cooperative farms, causing either environmental degradation or diminished output on cooperative farms
  • People with large private gardens are not spending enough time on the cooperative farms, which should be the people’s primary obligation

The consequences of this policy has already been felt in North Hamgyeong Province. There is one case in particular which captured the difficulties facing both the people and the state.

According to a Daily NK report from June 26, heavy rainfall in the region caused a rockslide which killed two people who were weeding on the slopes. There are several key factors that are worth noting from this tragedy:

  • Inside sources admit that this accident could have been prevented had there been trees on the hillside, revealing that deforestation is not simply a problem fabricated by the state to justify stricter control
  • The accident happened at night and the victims were unaware of their perilous situation. They were working in such dangerous conditions was because of their obligations on the cooperative farms during the day

While this is the most recent news of such an accident, the Daily NK noted that “anecdotal evidence from defectors over a number of years implies that the number [of victims from similar accidents] is considerable.”

What this tells us is that forcing people to work more hours on the cooperative farms does not effectively discourage work on private plots. Instead, people simply opt to increase manhours to extend their labor input on their chief source of income/consumption (see Chayanov). Furthermore, the farmers are still well within their rights to cultivate hillsides and exacerbate erosion as long as his or her property is under the allotted 30 pyeong limit. Therefore, without an active and coordinated effort by the state to engage in reforestation, the environmental impact of the last 20+ years cannot be reversed.

Rice & Iron would recommend the following measures to Pyongyang:

  • The state should invest in reforestation efforts.
  • At the same time, rural communities should be allowed to privately cultivate more land and be allotted portions of state-owned farmland away from areas like hillsides which are more vulnerable to soil erosion. This might mean shrinking the size of the cooperative farms.
  • Extend legal protection for private ownership (and sale) of the agricultural output from these plots. This should incentivize greater output and diminish the need for people to extend their plots into environmentally sensitive areas.

Luckily for North Korea, one recent development has given the country a boost in pursuing the first step. Despite the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by Seoul since 2010 (May 24 Measure), which prohibited South Korean NGOs from operating in North Korea, the Ministry of Unification has allowed the environment organization “Nation’s Forest” (겨레의숲) to assist the North Korean state in combatting tree pests in Taesong (where the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery is located) and Yongak Mountains in Pyongyang, Kumgang Mountain in Kangwon Province, and Myohyang Mountain in North Pyongan Province.

Hopefully, this cooperation between the Koreas on the environmental front will develop into more extensive projects like reforestation. Meanwhile, it would be nice to see some efforts by the state on the economic front to secure not only a more prosperous future for farmers, but also a safer one.

On that note, we leave you with a recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money about the birth of market capitalism in North Hamgyeong Province, featuring commentary by Andrei Lankov. Although its analysis of the famine is very rudimentary, leaving out critical details that we take great care in exploring, Planet Money weaves a wonderfully informative narrative on this critical time period. You can find the program here

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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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