South Korea launches reforestation campaign in North

Anyone who has spent time visiting North Korea on Google Earth will have noticed the acute shortage of trees.  I am not alone in this observation.  Dr. Lankov recently reported that South Korean tourists to Kaesong also sense this.

Donating trees to the North might sound like a particularly harmless form of aid–all the symbolism of inter-Korean cooperation without the messy politics of monitoring food aid or investment.  But the reality is far more pragmatic:

[H]elping North Korea to plant more trees is one of President Lee’s campaign pledges.

He said the South will send seedlings to the North but no details were given as to whether or when the two Koreas will meet for the forestry project.

The spokesman said when the Kyoto Protocol takes effect, the South can buy the right to emit CO2 from North Korea.(Korea Times)

The South Korean government is not alone in hoping to make money off increasing North Korea’s stock of trees.   Singaporean entrepreneur Richard Savage started a tree farm in the DPRK back in 2002:

Richard Savage kneels in the rich brown earth of a field on the outskirts of Pyongyang and reverentially spreads out the broad, green leaf of a young paulownia tree. The saplings have been in the ground for only a month but already they are a meter high; the first harvest could take place in just five years. Eyes shaded by his black cowboy hat, the Singaporean native gazes down the rows of juvenile trees, each worth thousands of dollars at maturity, with a satisfied grin. The experimental lumber crop has survived the harsh North Korean winter and is flourishing in the loamy soil. “The paulownia loves this,” he says. Glancing at another leafy plant, a new hybrid, he confides, “We’re going to let the Dear Leader name it.” (Time)

UPDATE 2002 (Via Werner Koidl):

The IHT wrote on Oct. 27th, 2006:
“Richard Savage, executive director of Maxgro, a company based in Singapore, is probably one of the most ambitious foreigners in North Korea. He is developing a hardwood plantation on 1,500 hectares, or 3,700 acres, manufactures Snow Pine cigarettes for the local market and is building an eight-story financial center in Pyongyang in a joint venture with the government and other investors.”

Even the North Korean government, though, has noticed that the forests are not as dense as they used to be.  Bradley Martin reported in Bloomberg that Kim Jong il has been pushing a reforestation program for some time:

North Korea’s deforestation program dates back to a 1961 speech by Kim Il Sung. In a mostly mountainous country, he proclaimed, “it is necessary to obtain more land through the remaking of nature.” Not only tidelands but “hills throughout the country and plateaus” should be “brought under the plough,” he said.

“The hills and mountains still had trees, and I never heard of floods,” said Hiroko Saito, a Japanese woman who moved with her Korean husband to North Korea in 1961. Her husband joined one of Kim’s vast mountain work teams in the early 1970s, said Saito, now 66 and back in Japan.

Following Kim’s death in 1994 — just before a flood-linked famine gripped the nation — his son and successor Kim Jong Il continued the sacrifice of forest cover until 2000, when he began encouraging reforestation. But the shift hasn’t reversed the damage, and some analysts warn that another famine, close to the scale of the 1990s disaster that may have killed millions of people, might occur as soon as next year.

The government’s agricultural policies launched a cycle of events that lead to greater and greater numbers of trees being culled.  Clearing the forests contributed to seasonal flooding.  The floods exacerbated the food shortage, and pushed people to adopt coping mechanisms to meet their minimum caloric intake for survival.  These coping mechanisms take a toll on what remains of the forests–which exacerbates the flooding.  Repeat annually. This  cycle of destruction has seemingly frustrated Mr. Kim’s plans to bring back the forests:

“For the past few years, I have been telling you to work hard afforestation and have encouraged you at every opportunity.”

“However, an forestation has not met the criteria of authorities and is not going according to plan.”

What Kim Jong Il is trying to say is that, “The reason afforestation is not working is because of the people’s reckless slash-and-burn cultivation, as well as the inefficiency of officers unable to block it.”

After the food crisis in ’95, people uprooted vines and trees to suffice their underfed diets, as well as cultivating illegal farms for food. Further, to save themselves from freezing to death, people used trees as firewood.(Daily NK)

Spontaneous coping mechanisms aside, efforts at increasing forrest cover might prove more difficult than the government expects.  Even if it resolves the food shortage (which does not seem likely in the near term), it has seemingly lost control of its technocrats who have no problem selling DPRK lumber overseas:

…Oh Moon-hyuk, branch manager of the Ruengra 888 trading company in Yunsa, North Hamkyung Province, was executed after being implicated in the smuggling of timber. The trading company was responsible for the export of timber, and operates under the control of the Party’s accounting bureau. The inside contact stated that because of this incident, North Korean authorities carried out further inspections, leading in October of last year to the dismissal of one official receiving vice-minister pay, and the broadening of the inspections nationwide. (Institute for Far Eastern Studies)

The full articles can be found here:
S. Korea to Help N. Korea Plant More Trees
Korea Times
Kim Yon-se
3/5/2008

Kims’ Clear-Cutting of Korean Forests Risks Triggering Famine
Bloomberg
Bradley Martin
Hideko Takayama
11/21/2007

Cause of Barren Mountains: Imperialism-Natural Disaster-Officers
Daily NK
Han Young Jin
3/16/2007

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Bfrief No. 08-2-5-2
2/5/2008

Light from the North?
Time
Donald MacIntyre
8/11/2002

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  • Werner Koidl

    You asked: … Does anyone know how that turned out ?

    The IHT wrote on Oct. 27th, 2006:
    “Richard Savage, executive director of Maxgro, a company based in Singapore, is probably one of the most ambitious foreigners in North Korea. He is developing a hardwood plantation on 1,500 hectares, or 3,700 acres, manufactures Snow Pine cigarettes for the local market and is building an eight-story financial center in Pyongyang in a joint venture with the government and other investors.”


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