A closer look at Kim Jong-un’s forestry speech

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Vice-premier Choe Yong-gon was reportedly executed because he criticized Kim Jong-un’s reforestation policy initiative. It is interesting to look in more depth at what these policies actually are.

The forestry issue is tightly connected and reinforced both to the lack of food and energy, and to flooding damage. (I have laid out some of these connections in an earlier post.) There can be little doubt that Kim Jong-un is justified in focusing attention to the forestry issue.

The best (and only?) official guide I have seen so far to the policies underlying the reforestation drive of the past few months – which, again, Choe was reportedly executing for criticizing – is a speech delivered by Kim Jong-un to “senior officials of the party, the army and the state economic organs on February 26, Juche 104 (2015).” To understand the reforestation policies and their pitfalls, this speech is an interesting piece of information. Here are a few interesting things to note from the speech:

First, Kim is quite frank about describing the core problem. In the beginning of the speech, he talks openly about how the “arduous march” (the famine of the 1990s) has led people to cut down trees on a large scale across the country. He also mentions the reasons: to “obtain cereals and firewood”, and talks about how this causes landslides and flooding. Perhaps this is part of an overall pattern in recent years where North Korean authorities are less prone to deny the extent of problems and sometimes even exaggerate them, as may have been the case with the drought impact warnings of the early summer.

But it is also interesting to speculate about whether this says something about the way that information is treated in the uppermost echelons of North Korea. Some have claimed that Kim Il-sung might not have been informed of the extent of the country’s economic problems in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that this might have been the case for Kim Jong-il as well. In this context, the frank way in which Kim Jong-un describes the results of the lack of food and fuel is striking.

Earlier official narratives of the impacts of natural disasters, like those in the mid-1990s, have often blamed the impacts on nature rather than on politics. Kim Jong-un seems to see it the other way around (which of course makes all the sense in the world).

Second, Kim seems to criticize politicized forestry management. In one sentence, he says that trees shouldn’t just be planted on official days and ceremonial “tree-planting days” (my emphasis):

Forest planting should not be done in such a way as planting some trees ceremoniously on tree­-planting days or transplanting fully­ grown trees, as was done in the past. It should be done in the way of raising young trees in large numbers and enlisting all the people in transplanting and cultivating them.

Maybe I am reading too much into this, but this can be read as a criticism of the North Korean practice of honoring various occasions by economic measures, like doling out extra rations on the leader’s birthdays et cetera. At least in forestry, Kim seems to be advocating pragmatism at the expense of ideological rigour. He also gives an anti-formalism shoutout later on, saying that

The plan for forest restoration should not remain in figures or charts on a piece of paper.

Third, Kim indicates that tree-felling will become more severely punished. He calls unauthorized felling of trees an act of “treachery” (my emphasis):

Random felling of trees in mountains must be prohibited. Now some people climb mountains and cut down trees to obtain firewood or timber without permission as they do not care a bit about the country’s forests. Unauthorized felling of trees is tantamount to treachery. All the people on this land should treasure and protect even a blade of grass and a tree of their country.

Later on, he says that

Random felling should be made a serious issue of whatever the unit concerned is and whoever the person concerned is.

This might speak against the sense of pragmatism mentioned above. Of course, people aren’t cutting down trees for fun or to ruin things for the state. It’s part of the coping-behavior that has been developed since the famine, where people do what they can to get by.

The state has expanded the scope for what is allowed in other areas, such as private market trade, in order to better align with the reality on the ground. Here, in contrast, Kim seems to suggest that cutting down trees must be punished more harshly, even though the core reasons why people cut down trees to begin with – lack of fuel and food – remain. Implementing harsher punishments would probably be a difficult task for local authorities.

Kim does mention that the fuel problem needs to be solved that that trees should be planted specifically for firewood. But almost in passing: he basically says that the fuel problem should be solved and moves on (I don’t imagine that most North Korean localities have the resources necessary to replace firewood with biogas at the moment):

In order to conserve forest resources, we should solve the people’s problem of fuel. Positive measures should be taken to solve this problem, including creating forests for firewood in every place and increasing the production and supply of coal for the people’s living. There are several units which have solved the fuel problem with biogas, fly ash or ultraanthracite. By actively popularizing their experience, we should ensure that all regions solve the fuel problem on any account by their own effort.

The strategy outlined isn’t all that impressive, and the forestry issue highlights politics as a battle for scarce resources: on the one hand, the state needs to prevent the floods and landslides that keep coming back every summer. On the other hand, people on the ground need a way to access firewood and space to grow food as the state isn’t providing these things. The problem won’t be solved by just saying that everyone should have access to fuel and all will be well. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to follow how this all plays out, and how the policies that Kim has outlined will be implemented (or not implemented) on the ground.